Official Olympic Website: UI Silver - but UX DQ

by Jakob Nielsen on July 30, 2012

Summary: Page design itself scores 15% higher than the 2002 Olympics site. But a disjointed overall Internet presence leads to an intolerable overall user experience.


In 2002, I reviewed the official website for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and deemed it "Not Even Bronze" in terms of usability.

The official site for the 2012 London games has solved many of the 2002 site's problems, so the past decade has brought progress. Comparing site scores on compliance with the 113 guidelines for homepage usability makes this progress clear:

  • 2002 Salt Lake City: 70% of guidelines followed
  • 2012 London: 85% of guidelines followed

The 2012 design is certainly not perfect, however. For example, the homepage logo changes color every time you visit , making it a bit harder to recognize whether you're at the same place. Perceived stability is an old human interface guideline from way before the web — and it's even more important in today's massive navigational environment, where the ability to recognize locations visually is paramount.

The 2012 site has much better accessibility than the 2002 site had. It's particularly impressive that the London site caters to the typically overlooked low-literacy users who constitute 43% of the population. The site's special easy-read area offers content written mostly at a 7th grade reading level. Unfortunately, this material is in PDF files, which are unsuitable for online information. It would have been better to write the main site's content at a somewhat simpler level; most of the site's writing is between 11th and 14th grade reading levels, which is too difficult for sports fans and mainstream content. (There's no such thing as the "14th grade," but this reading level corresponds to having an associate degree: 2 years of formal education past high school.)

Overall, however, the website's actual user interface (UI) is much improved and gets a good score. So, let's say the official London 2012 site wins a silver in the discipline of UI design for individual web pages. (I want to see 90% compliance with usability guidelines before parting with a gold medal.)

Disjointed Internet Presence

But, as I've said many times, user experience (UX) goes beyond UI design, even though the onscreen UI certainly has a major impact on the UX.

Referring back to the official definition of UX , it includes all aspects of the end user's interactions and requires a seamless merging of services.

Sadly, "seamless" is exactly a word that does not describe the Olympics on the web. Searching for "Olympics" on Google a few days before the opening ceremony, the official site for the London games wasn't even on the first SERP (search engine results page) — and we all know that almost no one looks beyond that first page. The problem is a scattered and uncoordinated Internet presence.

A plethora of other Olympic sites vie for attention, including the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the national committees (Team USA, when searching from the U.S.), and the television networks. Having many sites makes it harder to find the relevant information because there's no " mega IA" to help users navigate at a level above individual sites.

(In general, any company with more than one website — including the popular but dangerous microsites — has a potential mega-IA problem.)

The many sites also interfere with the #1 goal of a sporting event website: ticket sales. The "official" site doesn't even directly sell tickets to its own events. Rather, users are told to proceed through a convoluted process to buy tickets from various national sites based on where they live.

If the site for American sports fans is any indication, these 3rd-party sites have pretty low usability. (For sure, the UK ticket site gets horrible reviews.) But my main complaint here is that you have to go offsite in the first place for something as basic as buying tickets to the events promoted on the London 2012 site.

Presumably, ticket sales are awkward due to internal IOC politics regarding how they allocate seats to various countries. In any case, the UX definitely suffers — as it usually does when design is dictated by company politics.

Cutout from the lower right of the homepage for the London 2012 Olympic Games' official website.
Excerpt from London 2012 Olympics homepage.
What do you think you'll get if you click the link for the featured product?

Another example is even more grotesque: The site's homepage features a promotion to buy the official souvenir program for £10. So if you click this link, what would you expect? A page about the souvenir program, with a button to add it to your cart. After all, the web's one fundamental rule is that when you click a link for something, you should get that thing. Anybody who has ever heard of information scent knows this.

Here? No such luck. Clicking the link brings up the homepage for Team USA souvenirs. At least if you click it in California; if you try it from a different country, who knows what you'll get.

The internal org chart strikes again: American users must be made to buy American souvenirs, not London souvenirs. After all, the American users are "owned" by the IOC's U.S. division.

To give the page designers credit, the homepage's souvenir program link has very strong and specific information scent. Which makes it all the more jarring that you're dumped in a completely unexpected destination when you click it.

Overall, UX is severely degraded by the Olympic movement's inability to present one face to the customer. Although the page design was nice and worthy of silver, the overall UX doesn't even place. In fact, the Olympics should be disqualified in the UX race for kicking the fans in the gut. Hijacking links is not sportsmanlike.

iPad Text Formatting Worst Yet

I know we have a lot of writing guidelines and guidelines for visual design for mobile & tablet. But anybody working in digital media ought to know the most basic of them all:

  • Avoid blocks of text (#5 on the list of design mistakes from as long ago as 2002)

And yet, the official Olympic iPad app presents text that looks like this:

Screenshot from the Olympic Results iPad app.
Screenshot of story page from the official Olympic Results iPad app

Simply the most terrible content formatting I have seen in ages. And I get to see a lot :-(

(To be fair to the app, some of the other stories are formatted better.)

It's a Tough Job: Should Someone Do It Anyway?

My complaints about the Olympic UX (as opposed to the website UI) relate to a fragmented Internet experience across multiple websites and to the organizations' business model which drives unacceptable complexity for common user tasks like buying tickets and souvenirs.

Is it fair to complain about such high-level issues that the web designer probably has no control over?

You will notice that I never complain about specific individuals or how they do their jobs. Any design team faces many constraints that go beyond their design skills and willingness to obey usability guidelines. Clueless management and customer-hostile organizations are two common ones, as are tight budgets and development schedules.

These excuses might be reason enough to go ahead and hire somebody with the official Olympic site on their resume, even though the overall user experience deserved to be disqualified. That individual might be competent enough despite the project outcome.

However, users don't care about excuses. They care about whether they can complete their desired goals quickly and pleasantly. Not why roadblocks were put in their way.

I know it's hard to change business models to work with the nature of the Internet instead of against it. In the long run, those companies that deliver a smooth overall UX will be more successful, but that change can be painful.

Should you push for such change, or should you focus on making a better mega menu?

Of course you should make better menus, because if the customer can't find the product, the customer can't buy the product. Internet success requires good design at all levels. Don't stop working on the details, because details matter for usability.

Equally much, don't abandon higher level issues, even if they are decided above your pay grade. You have the responsibility to educate executives about user experience because it wasn't taught back when they were in business school.


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