During a recent spot of unavoidable eavesdropping in a slow-moving queue, I overheard two ladies expressing great frustration at their less than positive experiences on cinema websites.

We decided to investigate, and asked potential users to visit three sites and carry out some simple, typical tasks that cinema-goers would be likely to perform online.

The sites we tested were Cineworld, Empire Cinemas and Odeon.

The Saturday Saga

Great to see all three cinema groups following tradition, offering a Saturday morning kids’ programme under various guises.  We asked users from the WhatUsersDo panel, whilst thinking out loud, to find out what’s on offer at a local cinema and the start time, but it quickly became clear that it was far from child’s play!

Cineworld tucks Movies for Juniors under the ‘Films’ category which proved confusing to our users who expected this heading to display a list of film titles. One user who missed this actually left the site believing that Cineworld did not offer such a programme.  Another, in desperation, searched through ‘Ticket Information’ and confused a ‘Discount Policy’ with the Saturday children’s programme; watch this clip to follow her thoughts as she clicked:

Those users who did eventually find the ‘Movies for Juniors’ page were off to a good start with six kids’ films currently being screened at 67 selected cinemas every Saturday at 10am – all up-front information:


Fair enough, not all films are showing at all cinemas so users are invited to check the cinema page for full listings.  And here begins the heartache. To find out what’s on where, users were forced to follow one of two rather painful processes:

  1. Select a ‘Movies for Juniors’ film and see where it is showing, then click the back button, then select another film and see where it is showing and so on until they had worked throught the list, or
  2. Note down (or remember) the names of the fillms, then navigate to ‘Cinemas’ to find one near them before trawling through the entire list of films showing there looking for one they had noted down earlier!

I give up – as did the users we tested with.

Empire Jnrs is one of their two ‘Specials’ (the other being Empire seniors) and not very obvious to users. But “movies for all the family every weekend” is a great offering especially at ‘pocket money prices’ (whatever that means these days; when I frequented the playground, parents’ generosity varied greatly and I expect it still does). As it states “this truly is an offer that’s too good to miss”, so how frustrating for users to select a cinema and be presented with the following screen (note the unfinished sentence!):


Worse still, one of our users chose to visit Ealing and was sent home! This clip shows her struggling with the Empire Jnrs feature:

Odeon Kids, also categorised as ‘Film’, boasts numerous screenings also at ‘pocket money prices’, but finding out where and at what time proved fruitless for the users we tested with. Odeon Kids is allegedly available at 83 listed cinemas however having clicked all from Aylesbury to Coventry plus a few others at random bringing the total to 20, only two offered anything other than: “There are currently no performances scheduled.”


With each new cinema selection, the listings switch to ‘Monday to Sunday’ stating that “The full list of film times for the remainder of the week will appear on Wednesday”. Now I’m getting worried that someone has sneaked in another couple of days that I don’t know about! At least the Saturday tab reveals that “The full list of film times for Saturday will appear on Wednesday”.

“I don’t think I’m that thick!” – watch this clip to follow one of our testers searching for Odeon Kids information, and the suspicion that creeps in. Baffled as to why the ‘Streatham’ link is unavailable, our user is unaware that this previously selected location has been remembered and is oblivious to the rather discreet breadcrumb trail at the top left of the page:

One user said she was “worn out” and another simply “lost the will to live” in this short clip:

Perhaps it’s reasonable to expect one’s nerves to be a tad frayed after a cinema outing with some excitable youngsters, but before you even set off?!

To conclude, in this task none of the sites impressed the users we tested with, none of whom had anything good to say, and all experienced difficulty in even establishing that a Saturday children’s programme exists. Some looked for clues, others located a nearby cinema as their starting point, but all became increasingly annoyed and frustrated as they battled to get to the nitty-gritty and in most cases failed or gave up. With no search facility to fall back on, navigation and visibility of information are of course critical and must match typical users’ mental models, easily achieved through a card-sorting exercise and comprehensive task analysis.

Just the ticket

Conversely, the second part of our user experience test produced more positive results and comments all round, though not without some aggravation.

We asked our users to find a film they and two friends would genuinely want to see, and to book three tickets – seats together if possible – and to make some amendment to their booking along the way. 

In the test, most users decided on the film they wanted to see and appeared to make the assumption it would be showing at a cinema local to them, and began by using the ‘quick start panels’ on the right of each site’s homepage:


Both Cineworld and Empire insist that the first step is the choice of Cinema, whereas Odeon offers users ‘Select Film’ as a helpful and utilised alternative starting point, subsequently only offering cinemas showing the selected film.

Cineworld caused confusion with their apparently arbitrary order of films and in particular the 2D and 3D prefixes; one user decided Transformers was not showing at her chosen cinema despite it being available in both formats. At least Empire grouped formats effectively, and Odeon wisely added the format as a suffix, understanding that most users will initially search alphabetically, but let themselves down through inconsistency:


Some users commented on how they would want to plan a specific night out and would want the date to be the determining factor, then they would choose where to go and what to see; not an option on any of the sites.

If going on to book at this point, users found all three sites to be relatively easy, straightforward and obvious, but stumbled and hesitated if they accessed a specific film’s own page. 

On Cineworld, users found the contrasting orange ‘Choose Cinema’ panel jarring and looked for a ‘Book Tickets’ button:


Whilst Empire thoughtfully retained the ‘Book Now’ form, our users expected it to be “intelligent enough” to pre-populate with the film featured in the synopsis:

Empire - Bridesmaids

Users found Odeon dealt with this a whole lot better, providing helpful information, an opportunity to view the trailer and choose a cinema all in the same place, though a consistent ‘Book Now’ button would have been preferable:


Take your seats

Seat selection caused the most drama and whilst users liked Empire and Odeon’s seat plan idea, the difficulty they experienced and the amount of learning that was required to book specific seats made them question the benefits. Watch this clip to see one user face the challenge presented by Empire:

Clever vs. usable
Odeon works in a similar way, but they include some on-screen instructions and now, with some experience behind them, our users managed to the select the seats they wanted. However it did provoke the following response from one of them: “I’m sure somewhere there is a very very proud designer but it’s not necessarily the most easy thing”.

In this part of the test none of the three sites ran away with gold, but if forced to decide it appears to be a toss-up between Cineworld for its ease of booking, and Odeon for all the important information being available on the same page. Empire’s difficult seat selection setup definitely pushed users towards the other two.


Yet again, simply by observing users attempting to complete tasks on a website has revealed very significant usability issues that are causing frustration for the three cinemas’ customers, so much so that some users said they would find using the phone easier!

All in all, far from the pleasurable experience it should have been; perhaps some Harry Potter wizardry is required!