When fun becomes a pain

I'm pretty sure there is an algorithm you could use to calculate how much free time I get. Something along the lines of 'F=T/(K*N)', where fun (F) is a function of time not at work or cleaning (T) divided by the number of kids (K) times their relative naughtiness (N). Whatever the true calculation is, that normally works out somewhere close to zero. But when my partner and I do finally get some time to ourselves, a favourite pastime of ours is to head off to the movies.

Now where we live there are three choices; a small independent cinema (which offers cheap seats, cheap popcorn but movies a touch behind the times), and a Hoyts and a Greater Union, both large multiplexes. Generally my experience starts on the web, as we look up what's on and when it's starting before making our choice of where to head. I rarely buy online, as I refuse to pay extra for the privilege.

Both the independent cinema and the Greater Union site offer simple and effective approaches. You can bookmark the page, and when you bring it up they list the movies that are on and the start times, with links to the previews/trailers for each. But Hoyts has taken a very different approach.

Recently, Hoyts revamped their site, and I was glad to see them do this. Their old site was painful to use, and refused to allow you to bookmark the cinema you wanted, since all pages used the same base URL - no matter what page you bookmarked, you always ended up at the home page when you came back. That meant selecting the state, then the theatre, then waiting to see what came up.

When the new site reappeared the same crime appeared to have been committed - as well as the more heinous crime of failing to support Firefox, which refused to load dropdown menus crucial to navigation, at least on my PC. Those faults do seem to have been corrected more recently though.

Let me talk you through the experience I had today, remembering that my simple task was to pick a movie that I could take my fiance to this evening, in the brief three hours of tranquility we will hopefully be allowed to enjoy.

First I click on my bookmark, and just as before, I arrive at the Hoyts home page. The home page offers me two core options - watch a trailer, or buy tickets. Now I don't necessarily want to do either, I'm trying to find out what's on and when, but since those are my primary options I choose Buy, since I rationalise this is the closest to my task.

Step 1 is to choose the cinema, so I click, and a dropdown appears (white against a white banner, although the options can be read okay). I choose NSW and another dropdown appears, with a long scroll-able list of cinemas - mine, as it happens, is right at the end. I scroll down and click it.

Next, it asks me to choose the movie, from another dropdown.

Now the problem I have is I don't know when any of them start. We'll be throwing our precious crew into the arms of grandma and burning rubber in the opposite direction around 6.30, which means anything starting before 7 is a rush, and anything starting after 7.30 will make it difficult to get back in time - so start time is crucial.

So showing me the list of movies with no start time doesn't overly help. I select a movie, but the start time is too early. I select another, and the start time is again too early. Again, with the same result.

By now I'm figuring this can't be the way to do this, especially since I entered the 'Buy' task, so I go back to the home page and take another look - there is no 'Home' option readily available, but luckily I guess that the logo will take me there.

At the top of the page, in a nice visible button (mid grey on light grey against mid grey background) is the word Cinemas, which I'd missed first visit, so I click. It's yet another dropdown menu, but cinema search is the first option, so I click again. Yet another dropdown, and I choose my state for the second time (why can't it remember???) and then see a long list of cinemas listed down the page - with mine again at the end. Several scrolls later I find it, with two buttons - More info, or Buy tickets.

Now since I've already found the Buy route isn't giving me what I want, I click on More info. Unfortunately it gives me exactly what I'd feared - a map of the cinema location, contact details and other descriptions of facilities - but no list of movies currently showing. That means there's zero point bookmarking this page.

I go back, and expecting to see exactly the same thing as before, click on the Buy tickets option. This takes me to a Session times page, which bizarrely asks me to select the state yet again, and then the cinema. I almost do, before I realise that actually the cinema is already selected, although this isn't shown in either controls. Finally though, I am seeing a list of the movies showing here on the page, rather than in a dropdown. That's the good news.

The bad news is, they still don't show start times....

So yet again it's a case of clicking on each movie, and waiting while the page reloads to see what time it is on. Eight clicks and eight page refreshes later, and I have the movie we're going to see.

Now, I know that as a usability guy, I have a tendency to gripe over design flaws more than the average customer, but still this experience is far from what I'd call ideal - Both competitors allow me to bookmark the cinema page and see all start times on a single page, with useful links to content from there. Hoyts on the other hand makes me load a new page for every movie, which is painful at best.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, yes I did write to them (nicely) and tell them what I'd found during my experience on the site - not today, but before Christmas when the new site first appeared.

I'm still waiting for my response....

Gary Bunker

the Fore