(This article first appeared on IBM developerWorks.)

Peter Seebach ([mailto:seebs@plethora.net] seebs@plethora.net)

Freelance contributor

January 2003

Web sites often try to categorize visitors, transactions, questions, and more. These categories can be unnatural or limiting to the user -- as well as annoying. How can online sites please their visitors, while extracting needed information from them?

Who am I to you?

I was recently pricing laptops. I had heard good things about one major company's laptops, so I thought I'd have a look through their online store. The first thing the store asked me was what type of customer I am. My options for answering included Home & Home Office, Small Business, and Medium & Large Business.

I froze.

What am I? Am I some guy who just wants a laptop (Home & Home Office), or am I an employee of a Medium & Large Business? Are the product lines and pricing the same? If I want to buy a laptop that's in the business list, but not in the home list, will the company try to sue me for committing fraud? Why, exactly, do they need to know this?

Being asked to categorize myself bugged me. I don't like being immediately pigeonholed. I want to see the whole product line -- every computer they sell -- and I don't like wondering whether there are products that would have shown up if I'd only picked the right category.

I couldn't even find definitions of these categories on their site! How many coworkers should I have before I jump from being small business to a medium and large business as they see it? If I set up an account and then hire people, do I need a new account?

I think it's pretty safe to guess that, in fact, no matter what I pick, I'll see the same product line. Mostly. Maybe the special offers are different... but there's no way to tell without navigating back and forth through two or three different branches of the site.

The amount of effort it took to look at even a couple of laptop models and rule them out was too much, and I was perpetually annoyed by the need to stay in a category.

Where am I?

Also offputting are the sites that request a geographical region before they'll let a visitor through. I have never been quite clear on why this is useful. Perhaps product lines vary by region, but so much information is likely to be constant, that I'm not sure regional identification is appropriate. If I have a problem with a product I bought in Europe, but I'm in the United States now, do I go to the company's European page, or their North American page, for support?

At least in the case of online shopping, there are reasonable justifications for wanting to know where someone is. Some products may not be for sale in some countries. On the other hand, some companies seem to do just fine letting you browse without picking a location.

What do I want?

I understand, having myself received vague problem reports, the desire to have incoming messages categorized. However, for some reason, when people set up technical support pages, they always seem to invent a set of categories into which no problem I may have will ever fit. I might as well be asked to choose between Clown is on fire and Chicken dried out in oven. For some reason, many sites are reluctant to provide a catch-all category of all other inquiries. I imagine they are worried that everyone would select it -- in which case, perhaps their other categories need to be rethought. Perhaps my clown is only smouldering.

Likewise, one is often asked which department a request is for, but the categories are narrow enough that there are too many questions which simply don't fit any of them. This is exacerbated when a help desk person simply ignores any request he or she can't handle, instead of forwarding it to someone who can; but this seems to be the norm, nowadays.

I don't know you; go away.

Related to this, and perhaps partially caused by it, is an underlying tendency to refuse any contact with people who are not adequately identified. Many sites refuse to allow any form of communication from anyone who is not a customer. Interested in finding out more about the product? Buy one, register, and then come fill out a customer service contact form.

This isn't limited to Web sites; one particularly annoying credit card company got my home number from some form, and thought it was a work number; they would call, ask for someone who does not live at my house, and then ask to speak to my human resources department. I finally got a number where I could call them back... and spent twenty minutes trying to get to a live human without entering my account number, since I didn't have an account number.

This particular variant of categorization is politely transparent most of the time -- but when you hit it, it's like a brick wall. There should generally be some way to bypass all the checks and balances, and just talk to someone.

Fixing the problems

One of the first things to do as a site owner is to admit that premature categorization is almost certainly a bad idea, and that some circumstances won't fit neatly into your set of categories. Always provide a category of other. You may not know who's in it, but you'll know that they didn't like the other choices, and that's a good starting point.


Try to make your categories flexible. If, as a result, you have people being asked questions they aren't qualified to answer, or people trying to buy products that you only wish to sell to middle-aged attorneys who live in counties established before 1962, then try to forward people to the right place; make an effort. Remember, no matter how inappropriate to one's job the request may be, it is the culmination of someone's best efforts at navigating your company tree. If the requests you receive are inappropriate, the navigation is too hard.


Every voicemail system should always have a way to connect to a human operator. Don't abandon the user, and don't trap them in a series of meaningless options. Above all, if the user presses "0", the user asked to speak to an operator. Never say "that is not a valid response"; you know perfectly well what the user wanted, so provide it. I've seen estimates that a voicemail system will, on the average, be used by about a third of incoming callers. That may not be much, but past that, you're seeing user frustrations with the interface.


A Web site should always have at least one obvious account to which people can send e-mail. Not just for some narrowly-defined type of inquiry, but a broad "if you aren't sure, send mail to..." category. The person who answers that mailbox will be busy, but will do wonders for user satisfaction.

This week's action item

Try to come up with a good set of categories for users, and write them down. Now, ask a few of the people you know into which of these categories they fall. Are they having trouble? It's harder than it looks. It's certainly worth the effort though, if you know what's good for you.


About the author

Photo of Peter Seebach Peter Seebach has been having trouble navigating through badly designed pages since before frames and JavaScript existed. He continues to believe that, some day, pages will be designed to be usable, rather than being designed to look impressive. You can reach him at [mailto:crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net] crankyuser@seebs.plethora.net.