Make Sure Your Customers Can Pay You

If you're running an e-commerce site, chances are you want to extract money out of your visitors. Yet you wouldn't know it by looking at some sites like Best Western's reservation portal, which makes it incredibly difficult if not impossible to complete a paying transaction, as I recently discovered to my chagrin.

Invisible Form

Here's what happened: after selecting a date range, I pressed the big giant "Book it" button next to the room I was interested in (+1 for using big huge buttons for the primary action):

This led me to the following page, completely devoid of a form into which I could enter my credit card information:

After another failed attempt, I fired up Internet Explorer to see if the form was crucially incompatible with Firefox, and I got my answer: the credit card form is served in a popup window, which IE requested permission to open and Firefox quashed silently (I have the "be quiet about popups" setting turned on). Here's what it would have looked like with slightly more verbose Firefox settings:

Note that no one using a reasonably recent browser in its default settings gets to see the popup window unless they explicitly authorize it. In other words, one hundred percent of Best Western's juiciest, readiest-to-buy visitors are not shown the reservation form in the default use case.

I don't have to spell out how completely crazy this is.

To make matters worse, when you do complete the form and click the submit button, nothing happens in Explorer due to a javascript:void(0) issue in the form submit handler1; in Firefox, the window simply closes with no confirmation the transaction went through.

I had to call the hotel to find out how many of my three form submission attempts had gone through (one had, which was soon confirmed by an email from the site).

Money For Nothing And Tests For Free

What this tells me is that the designer(s) and developer(s) in charge of the Best Western portal never did so much as basic hallway usability testing before they shipped their product. Maybe they don't know about it; maybe the product team is in Connecticut and the developers are in a different country. Either way, a 30-minute investment would have caught what is potentially costing the company tens of thousands of dollars a day.

Another notable omission is that the credit card form itself (for those of you lucky enough to see it) doesn't exactly scream "GIVE ME ALL YOUR MONEY NOW!" I'd bet its conversion hasn't been tested or optimized either.

Testing form conversion is hardly a novel or esoteric branch of rocket science; it's a simple, mature field with well-known best practices and automated testing systems to help you get the most out of your site. But a company that can't be bothered to test the basic usability of their purchase flow can't be expected to look at bounce rates or A/B test their funnel.

Given the bang for the buck you get from real-world testing with a tiny number of users, I submit Best Western could have earned an ROI on the order of 100,000% if they had just watched a half dozen travelers go through the booking process using a fresh, default install of IE or Firefox.

Help Me Buy What You're Selling

I will never know how much money Best Western is losing from this; presumably a lot of travelers wind up calling the hotel (whose phone number is displayed at the top) and maybe even pay the (higher) non-internet rate you get when reserving by phone. So for all I know Best Western is actually coming out ahead (I have my doubts).

What's really sad about this grossly inefficient system is that Best Western didn't even have to earn my business: all they had to do is keep it. Given the way RevPAR is trending, that's a gimme they don't get very often. I always stay at that hotel when traveling down south, because it's convenient, well located, reasonably quiet and clean, and its wireless internet occasionally functions. But I don't know how patient I'm going to be next time around.


1. Don't use javascript:void(0) to block a page reload event in an a tag. This will work:

<a href="#" onclick="do_something();return false;">text</a>


  1. did you send this to best western?

  2. Yes, I did. We'll see if they notice.

  3. Excellent stuff, Roger. I especially appreciate the links to background; it makes me happy to forward it to people at all levels of practice.

  4. Thanks, William. Links are a lot like a bibliography in academic papers--gotta have 'em.

  5. Popups should die a death anyway. You don't need to usability test to know that they suck if you've ever used a website, or read any of the basic usability books.