Friday, August 17, 2007

Searching the PLCB

Most people I know tend to think that the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) provides nothing but disservice to Pennsylvania wine drinkers, and that neighboring states like Ohio and New Jersey have it better with privately-run wine stores.

While I think there's a great deal of truth to that claim, I there is one way the PLCB gives us a clear benefit: The Product Search Page. Well, at least, it helps us in principle.

The idea is simple. Since all of your wine and spirits purchases have to be made through one company, it is feasible to search all the wine stores in the state for a product you want. If it's there, you can run out to the store and grab what you want.

Sounds like a great idea. Those states with hundreds of independent private retailers have no way to even begin address the technical and political complexities in hooking up all their inventories at a one stop shop. You'd need to search dozens of websites, or worse, visit actual stores to find a product you want.

Sadly, The Product Search Page has been clinically shown to cause users to purchase firearms, and shoot themselves in the head, repeatedly, in order to relieve the pain it causes.

I believe the central problem is that the developers had no idea, or didn't care what people want to do with that web page.

Historically, this used to be a huge problem in computer science. Early on, computer programmers wrote programs for themselves to use. They solved the programmers' problems, but were arcane and impossible for anybody else to use. Eventually, computer programmers were hired to write programs for other people to use. Since computer programmers (like me) are geeks who cannot interact with anybody else, and nobody knew better, they wrote programs that only computer programmers would understand, and then taught the users how to use them. "Want to copy some text? Sure. Just hit Control-F1-c! See how intuitive it is?!" Even worse, sometimes those programs didn't even solve the actual problems that users had. Eventually Apple came around and started designing their programs so they're actually intuitive and easier to use for normal people. It was the dawn of a new era.

To be clear, The Product Search Page is from before that era.

What went wrong with The Product Search Page is that the PLCB developed a program without understanding at all what people would use it for. It appears as if they knew they had a database of inventory, and decided "We should put this on the web! We'll be so kewl!" So they created a couple of database queries, put it on the web, and they were done. Instant profit!

In comparison, what should happen in the new era is this: Study (potential) users to understand what they need to do. Develop a user interface to meet users' needs. Go back and study how users use your system and their needs change. Repeat. All of these steps are clearly missing from or deficient in The Product Search Page development process.

The Product Search Page gives you two search queries. First, "Is a wine in any PLCB store or the PLCB special-order system?" Only after I have submitted this query, I can click on a wine and submit a second query, "Is this wine in a given store, or any store in my city?"

I believe that all users of The Product Search Page want to know exactly one thing: If a particular product is available in a local wine store, or a particular wine store. Fortunately, I believe out of sheer luck, I can answer my query using the arcane queries I am given:

  1. Type the product name

  2. Click Search

  3. Find the product in a big list

  4. Click on the product

  5. Type in "Pittsburgh"

  6. Click Submit

  7. Find that there are no bottles anywhere near me.

Things get even worse if I am just interested in "What Merlot are located at my store?" Then I have this contorted sequence of steps:

  1. Type in Merlot

  2. Click Search

  3. Find the product in a big list

  4. Click on the product

  5. Type in "Pittsburgh"

  6. Click Submit

  7. Find that there are no bottles anywhere near me.

  8. Click Back TWICE

  9. Repeat steps 4-8 ad infinitum

Sadly, I cannot even begin to imagine what questions the designers of the system thought users wanted to answer. Once I've done a search, and see that a wine is available somewhere in Pennsylvania, I cannot figure out where --- I can only search for my city and pray that I've guessed correctly. Furthermore, if I see that a wine can be special-ordered, there is absolutely no way to do so via the web.

For those of you who have been using computers anytime after 1984 knows that The Right Solution looks more like:

  1. Type in the product name/keyword

  2. Type in my store city or number

  3. Click Search

  4. See the wine available in my local store!

The most frustrating thing is that it would take 5 minutes of programming to make The Product Search Page do what I (the users) want. The second most frustrating thing is that although it takes a mind-numbing amount of effort for the users, the website can do what I want; Thanks to the PLCB monopoly there is no reason or incentive for the PLCB to even think about fixing this.

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