I have often marveled at the bad design of Pratt’s “Academic Tools,” and now, thanks to Donald Norman and The Design of Everyday Things, I have some vocabulary to explain why the design is so bad. Academic Tools is a section of Pratt Institute’s website that allows students to do the following tasks: accept or reject student loans, add classes to a “worksheet” for the approval of their advisor, register for classes, drop classes, apply for graduation, view and pay their tuition, and view their unofficial transcript. There are others actions, but these are the ones I have experience with, and I think they provide a good picture of the design problems of the site overall.
Academic Tools is accessed through a Pratt student’s myPratt account. The student must be signed in. The screenshot to the right shows what I see when I am logged into myPratt. The menu on the left of the screen contains the first design problem: what is the difference between Academic Tools, Pratt Resources, and Teaching & Learning? (I know the answer, but only because I have clicked on them.) I think this terminological lack of clarity is a problem of visibility. What action to take to achieve the desired result is not obvious. Like a row of identical light switches, the choices are not differentiated enough.
Once a user discovers the correct option and clicks on Academic Tools, they are taken to a screen that prompts them to log in to either Academic Tools or something called “Verifications and Transcripts.” Though confusing, the inclusion of Verifications and Transcripts is helpful, because it explains that only unofficial transcripts can be obtained from Academic Tools. I have never used Verifications and Transcripts, so I will not dwell on it. Click on “Log In” under Academic Tools, and something surprising and confusing happens: a log in screen pops up, and before the user can enter her information, she is automatically logged in. I think this is a problem of visibility and affordances. It is difficult for a user to tell what state the website is in, and unclear what action (if any) should be taken.
Once logged in (automatically), there is a menu of things that different types of users (students, faculty, employees, and advisors) can do using Academic Tools. These lists are incomplete, meaning most possible tasks are invisible. Further, since Academic Tools grabbed my log in information from myPratt, shouldn’t it also know that I am a student and not display information that does not apply to me? This is a problem of constraints. To move to the screen that will allow a user to complete any actions at all, the user must pick between “Students” or “Continuing Education.” There are several problems with this design. It again seems that, because a user is logged in, the site should know what kind of user she is – the site doesn’t give options for me to do tasks for faculty or employees, so why should I, a graduate student, be able to click on “Continuing Education?” This screen also presents a problem of visibility and affordances. It is not immediately clear how a user can perform a desired action, and the affordance of clicking on “Students” in this case, is not apparent enough.
The design of the Academic Tools website creates a “gulf of expectation.” Users with tasks to accomplish (goals) cannot easily determine the correct sequence of actions or the appropriate actions to achieve their goal. It is often not visible what tasks are possible. I have always eventually been able to accomplish the tasks I need to, but the experience has never been seamless or particularly pleasant.