Miklos
« Je donne mon avis non comme bon mais comme mien. » — Michel de Montaigne

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22 janvier 2015

When web improvement turns into a death kiss

Classé dans : Actualité, Progrès, Sciences, techniques, Société — Miklos @ 13:15

People have always been on the move (as animals are). As transportation is becoming cheaper and faster, their number is probably on the increase, and thus many are looking for any kind of accommodations. Depending on their finances and their need for short- or long-term accommodations, the available shelters vary from the sidewalk, the bridges of Paris and slums to luxury suites in five-star hotels or hôtels particuliers in the best neighborhoods. Two affordable alternatives are available for those looking for a short-term and mid- to long-term roof: couch surfing and house share respectively.

Couch surfing denotes free hosting for a couple of days of a traveler by a host who provides at least a sleeping space – anything for a floor (preferably in a sleeping bag) to an individual couch or a shared one – and, optionally, one or more meals, socializing, etc. The closest (paying) alternative is bed-and-breakfast.

Houseshare denotes the rental of a flat by several independent people, each one usually occuping a separate room and sharing common space and utilities (bathroom, kitchen, living room…).

As expected, an increasing number of websites provide ways to find such hostings.

EasyRoomMate.com / Appartager.com

This international freemium site allows for advertising and searching for (usually) single rooms to rent in a flat. It has localized versions in a number of countries (and thus languages). There are two kinds of distinct profiles, one for people who offer a housesharing space, one for people who look for such a space. Either kind of user can search for the other kind (and only for them: a renter cannot look for, nor peruse, profiles of other renters, the same goes for owners) by a few criteria (such as neighborhood, age, gender and occupation – free keyword search is not available) and send personal messages to the person(s) he wishes to contact. Creating a profile is free of charge as well as posting a room and/or searching for one, but communication between two non-paying members is actually impossible: at least one of them needs to subscribe to the site.

This site has had unfixed bugs for years, most notably some related to the handling of cookies with specific widespread browsers, but it was overall usable. There has however been one major recent change, probably due to the wish to make it more usable on mobile devices and match new interface paradigms, which have removed important search feature to such an extent that it has become quite unusable for some heretofore available usages: people who have a room for rent in the future – say a couple of months from today – can’t filter anymore (this used to be possible) the potential roommates by their desired date of entrance, while this date is mentioned in the profiles. As a result, the list of responses they get is so long (especially in large cities where it can number many hundreds of profiles) and unwieldy as most of the responses are irrelevant to the request. Other search facets have been removed (such as amount of rent willing to pay, sexual orientation, for those who cared to mention it), and as there is no free search in the text of the profiles, there is no substitute for this loss.

This is a case where spiffy interfaces have taken over usefulness and efficiency, an all-too-common phenomenon in this world of appearances.

Couchsurfing.com

This more-than ten year old site is a free exchange platform for travelers and hosts, allowing for people who most likely would never have met to do so and thereby enrich their personal experience.

Anyone can create a profile (which he can use both as a host and traveler – there are no separate profiles for either contrarily to EasyRoomMate, and this is good: anyone can be, at any time, either a traveler or a host) providing as little or as much information about himself, on what he’s willing to share when traveling or hosting, and, if hosting, on the kind of provided space and conditions. Users can upload any number of photos to their profile (themselves, their hosts or guests, their house, their town…) and group them in thematic folders. Travelers can publish public travel requests which can be searched by potential hosts, while travelers can search by hosts. Groups – public thematic forums that any user can create – allow for public exchange on any topic. Users can send a personal request (host invitation or hosting request) to any other person and communicate via a personal messaging system until the “deal” is clinched. Once a traveler has stayed with a host, he can write a reference which will be displayed on the host profile (for future potential travelers to see) and conversely, the host can write a reference on the profile of the traveler he just hosted. References can be qualified as “positive”, “neutral”, “negative” in addition to the free text describing the hosting experience. Last, any two profiles can mark each other as friends (much like in Facebook), and this will show on both people’s profiles.

Late 2014, the site has undergone major technical restructuring, in an apparent attempt at making it “faster, more reliable, and easier to use across web and mobile”. But as an increasing number of users have noticed and publically complained, the new site suffers from many new problems, some of them bugs, other ones design problems (useful features having disappeared).

What adds to the frustration of users is the lack of information about the process of evolution of the site. There was a known site issues page but it was left empty, and it has now disappeared. There is no public buglist, there is no roadmap to speak of, other than a page listing intentions without implementation dates.

As a consequence, the number of valid hosting requests, of group participation and of overall usefulness of the site has decreased, as far as I can see as a day-to-day user. Some have just given up and migrated to other sites. At the same time, “noise” has increased (cut-and-paste impersonal requests from empty profiles, etc.; see below).

Profiles have been so simplified, excluding HTML formatting and inline images which made them nicer and better structured. The only structuring in the new interface is through a fixed number of section titles which are much less visible than the text itself and thus harder to peruse. The date (day, month, year) of creation of the profile isn’t shown anymore, just the year: as a consequence, a profile could be a day or a year old, there is no way to know anymore. The types of, and reasons for, friendships aren’t displayed anymore. When one writes a reference without a return reference, it doesn’t show on one’s profile. It is now impossible to create new folders for photos in one’s profile: every newly uploaded photo has to go into an existing folder, even if none reflects (by its name) the type of that new photo.

The groups one belongs to aren’t shown on one’s profile, nor is there a way to find all one’s (or anyone else’s) posts to groups. When one posts a request for hosting in a group, the number of travellers, number of references and friends don’t show along the title of the request in the discussion list, one has to click more than once so as to see this info. Search for groups is missing such important functions that the returned list, sometimes quite long, is useless: e.g., searching for groups by the word “piano” returns dozens of groups, some which have 0 or 1 members (sic), some which have been inactive for years, and there is no way to filter them out or sort them by currency or number of members: they have to be perused one by one.

The use of the onsite mailbox has become totally inefficient: there is no way to search among the received mail by name of sender; there is no way to delete from the mailbox irrelevant mail; there is no way to see pending and past hostings; there is no way to see if one’s sent messages have been read. Additionally, the site has now (as of 1/18/15) randomly stopped notifying some users by email the reception of messages and requests: this was a very useful feature indeed, as it allowed for instant notification without the need to connect repeatedly to the site. While support didn’t reply to reports of this bug, the Couchsurfing head of product replied that this was happening to users whose email was hosted by Hotmail due to the fact “they [Hotmail] think couchsurfing email is spam”. These notifications started being distributed later, each with a 48 hour delay, which impacted negatively exchanges for emergency hosting.

For people about to travel, there was a way to create a so-called Public Trip, indicating the destination, dates, number of travelers and some free info from the travelers. Hosts could then search in the list of public trips to their city for people to host and invite those that they select (a.k.a. proactive hosting). But two things have happened to that feature. First, bugs have been introduced. Search by arbitrary keywords totally failed until a few days ago, regardless of the keyword even when it was patently present; when this was finally fixed, it turned out to be limited only to the public trip description (which can be quite short) and not to the whole profile of the traveler (contrarily to the search for hosts, where keyword search looks in the profiles). This is indeed very restrictive: one can’t search anymore for travelers sharing, say, similar tastes or characteristics (“music, “gay”…) as described in their profiles. The second change is that the link for creating a Public Trip isn’t that easily located. Additionally, the online documentation (FAQ), which describes Public Trips, says “Learn more about Public Trips here” – but “here” is a link to a forbidden page!

The hosting request form, allowing a traveler to send a personal request to a potential host has been simplified in such a way that surfers don’t feel they have to explain why they would like to stay with this specific host (in the previous version there was a specific section for this purpose), whence the cut-and-paste irrelevant requests abound now. More than 50% of the requests come now from people who haven’t bothered filling sometimes even one word in their profile: it would be so easy to prevent them from sending requests unless there is a certain number of words and at least one photo in their profile.

For hosts, the site has gone worse too: as mentioned above, the search by keyword was bugged and is now lacking. Moreover, there is no way to filter travelers by number of travelers in the party: so if one can host only one person, there is no way to select only single travellers. Filtering by country of residence requires one to know the precise form and spelling of the name of the country the site uses including capitalization: there is no list prompting for such names. As a consequence of all of these missing features, the returned list to a search is often so long – hundreds of profiles, some listed repeatedly, more than once, which makes the list even longer – that it is functionally useless.

Last but not least, support has ceased acknowledging bug reports. Also, patently obvious bugs which have been reported already a while ago are still in place.

It appears Couchsurfing has been trying for quite a while to find ways to monetize their site (beyond the optional identity validation which allows users to have their profile marked as validated, for a small one-time fee): advertisement, transaction fees, premium services, etc. But who in his right mind would like to advertise or pay for an increasingly disfunctional site, which failed in their stated goals to make the site “faster, more reliable, and easier to use across web and mobile”?

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