Aardvark Daily
Review: The Listener Web Site
Copyright © March 1998 to Bruce Simpson
Aardvark's Review Policies
Updates and corrections When the original review of this site was written, it was assumed that Glazier Systems was the company responsible for the technology implementation and Walker Advertising was responsible for the "creative" and graphic elements.

It has been suggested to me (although I've had no confirmation from Walker Advertising despite sending them email asking) that Walkers were in fact responsible for the entire site and that Glazier Systems only role has been to host the site. In this case I consider the Listener article dated 28 March to be misleading as it clearly includes Glazier Systems staff in the list of the "site development team" (photo on page 29).

Since I have neither confirmation nor denial at this stage as to who is responsible for this site, I have replaced references to Glazier Systems with "the Web Developers".

If Walkers are the the responsible party then I apologise to Glazier Systems for the original review.

Readers may note that some of the obvious errors on The Listener site which were highlighted in this review have since been fixed (where do I send the bill?).

With eager anticipation Updated Review
The Listener The Listener has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the country's very best publications so it was with great anticipation that I fired up my browser and keyed in the URL www.listener.co.nz.

After reading Russell Brown's advertorial article about the site in this week's pulp edition of The Listener I was expecting great things.

Unfortunately the reality does not quite match the hype.

Discussion Forums I'll start by focusing on what should be the strongest part of the site - the Discussion Forums, erroneously referred to by Brown in his article as "Newsgroups".

Now I'll say right from the start that it's very, very hard to produce even a half-good discussion forum using traditional HTML web pages. The compromise between ease of use and speed of operation is a difficult one to get right but I was hoping that the Web designers might have done a little better than they have.

For a start, once you get down to an individual message level, the screen consists of two frames. The top frame, containing The Listener banner and the list of links to individual messages within the thread. Unfortunately the top frame takes up 65% of the available screen space, leaving room for only 6 or 7 lines of the actual message in the frame below if you're running a standard VGA resolution of 640 x 480. Also, the two navigational buttons (Groups and Search) are hidden out of view at this resolution, requiring the user to scroll the top frame up to even be aware of their existence.

Also, perhaps as an unfortunate side-effect of Microsoft's ASP technology, it's not possible to tell which postings you've already read because the links don't change from blue to magenta once you've followed them as they do with conventional HTML techniques.

Where's the content? Most Web sites designed to promote and support a print-media publication do so by containing some full articles and a few teasers. A good example of this is the Web site for The Independent which contains "just enough" good, high quality content to make you want to subscribe to the printed edition.

I fully expected the Listener site would follow this model but again I was sadly disappointed. Clicking on the headline of what I hoped would be a full-length article produced nothing but a 1 paragraph summary and a sometimes strangely distorted graphic.

Hoping they would carry the full text of articles from previous issues in their archive section, I took a look.

Unfortunately this is not the case. Once again, only the same 1 paragraph summary is provided - hardly worth the effort.

They have missed the basics Time and time again I lament the way those with the most to spend end up with the worst results when it comes to creating a presence on the Web - and this site is a pretty good example of this.
  1. The Web designers should know better than to design a site that only works when a user has their browser maximised on an 800x600 screen. Even those of us using a 1024x768 display often like to run our browsers at around 640x480 so as not to consume all the available disk space.

  2. This site has zero content! Obviously they are relying on user-contributions to the discussion areas to provide the much needed content - but if that's the case, why have they used such a decidedly poor implementation of this feature? If any publisher has the opportunity to build a killer Web site through the leverage of high quality, topical content, The Listener is it - but they've failed to take advantage of their huge drawcard.

  3. They obviously have not bothered to spend the comparatively small amount of money required to employ an independent site review prior to launch. Many of these basics would have been quickly identified, along with the embarrassing programming error that produced this page

  4. It is absolutely stupid to build a site that mandates the use of JavaScript on the user's browser. Not only are there some browsers which do not support JavaScript, but many Net users prefer not to enable the JavaScript on their browsers for convenience and security reasons. There is nothing on The Listener site that could not be performed without the use of JavaScript so why does this important form not work unless JavaScript is enabled? And why is that form on the Glazier Systems server? Is someone too cheap to invest in a secure server certificate for the domain www.listener.co.nz?

  5. Who is responsible for the absolutely atrocious design of this form? Not only does the background make parts of the text almost illegible but I would certainly have expected the "Interests" selection to be a multiple-choice rather than a single-choice radio button type, otherwise it would have been called "Interest" wouldn't it?

  6. Sticking with the above form - don't bother submitting it or you'll more than likely get this error.

In this week's print-edition of The Listener they say of the site "I guess you'll either love it or you'll hate it". That's not quite true. I suspect the graphical design of the site is something that may polarise opinion one way or the other but the stupid implementation and design errors that abound throughout the site are clearly unacceptable by any measure.

I feel sorry for Microsoft who obviously thought they'd use this site as a promotional vehicle and showcase for their Internet technology (on which the site runs) however I feel that as it stands, this site may be more of a very public embarrassment rather than an asset.

A word of advice to the Web developers and Microsoft - employ some 3rd-party expertise in those areas which you obviously lack the necessary skills. Even the very best Web site designers and implementors MUST engage an external review of their sites before launch. Would either of these companies release a software program without a stringent regime of independent testing and quality checks? I don't think so. Why treat the Web as less deserving of this essential step?

The bottom line I fear that The Listener site is yet another case of a mainstream publisher getting it wrong on the Net.

Perhaps they've thought it was "safe" to go with Microsoft and a Microsoft-approved developer but that's obviously no guarantee of success in an industry where money spent does not always equate to results achieved.

Given the rather poor start that Wilson & Horton have made with their Net ventures (ie: the NZ Herald's myopic Microsoft-only site) I had hoped they'd learnt a few lessons by now.

So.. here's the bottom line:

PRO'S:

  • Graphics are relatively small
  • An awareness that the Net is an interactive environment

CON'S:

  • Forces users to use 800x600 display
  • Very poor use of frames
  • JavaScript is mandatory
  • Programming errors in form processing
  • No secure server certificate for www.listener.co.nz
  • Background graphics make some menus and text unreadable
  • An obvious lack of pre-launch testing

Aardvark says:
"Disappointing" is the only word that comes to mind when trying to use this site. It is a great shame to see a site with such potential being ruined by a combination of silly errors, basic design choices and what appears to be a complete lack of testing prior to launch.

Bottom Line:
"If you want to read good topical articles, buy the print edition. If you want to discuss the issues of the day - join the hundreds of others who have learnt how to use the *REAL* newsgroups and save yourself the frustration of working with a slow and poorly designed Web interface."

Aardvark relegates The Listener site to the "could have done much better" category and says to the Web developers and The Listener: "time to reload and aim for the other foot perhaps?".

Readers are invited to contribute their own opinions of The Listener's Web site through Aardvark's own "less than perfect" discussion forums.

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