Friday, September 25, 2009

A Review of ISRO Bhuvan's Website

Informal Disclaimer:
Well, all I can say is that I need to do what I am doing right here because this website really was (is) a disaster. I don't even care about Bhuvan's mapping tool. My review is only based on the website and nothing beyond the website. I think the website first needs a facelift and needs to adhere to better standards. And yes, the stuff you see below is for real. I haven't made up any of it. To make things clear, whatever errors I have noticed were doubled-checked on Firefox (3.5) as well as Internet Explorer (7 and 8)

Google Earth does not provide high-resolution, street-level images of the entire globe. Furthermore, many images and maps available through the software are obsolete (almost four years old) and are yet to be updated. The Indian subcontinent does not have access to Google Earth’s best imagery and data. Indian officials state that Google Earth’s resolution over India is 200 metres.

To take advantage of the poor quality of service provided by virtual globe software (like Google Earth) in India, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) had decided to launch its own IRS (Indian Remote Sensing) image portal. The ISRO announced the development of ‘Bhuvan’ (meaning Earth in Sanskrit) which is a satellite mapping tool, just like Google Earth. However, Bhuvan uses data collected only from Indian satellites and is currently focused only on producing high quality images of the Indian subcontinent. The table below presents a list of services provided by Bhuvan in comparison with Google Earth. Bhuvan is primarily a non-profit software tool developed by the ISRO and is expected to remain the same for all intent and purposes.

This review is focused on the website and not the satellite imagery related tools.

Before I begin my review of the website, I will provide you with a little appetizer. By now, I assume you are aware that Bhuvan is an ISRO project. One would imagine that there would be some information about Bhuvan on ISRO's website....right? Well, you'll be surprised. Here's what the search function looks like.

That's right, the only and best search result for 'Bhuvan' on ISRO's website has absolutely no connection with Bhuvan. This is but the beginning of my findings. Please read on...

Website Review

My attempt will be to critically analyse the website. Pardon me for being picky at times, but this is a government sponsored website and ISRO arguably hires some of the top brains in India. I am sure they are capable of hiring the right experts to create a website that can host the mapping tool that they might have spent years developing. 
In the course of navigating the website, I encountered several annoyances and I've made a note of as many as I could. I've provided as much detail as I possibly can. If, however, you have questions, please feel free to comment and I'll be sure to respond. I will reiterate that these errors were noticed in both Firefox as well as Internet Explorer.

Mistake - Top Banner

The logo of Bhuvan appears on the top left hand corner of the web page. The design f the logo, according to me, is fairly well done. Kudos to whoever created the logo! While the design of the logo is commendable, there is a flaw in the navigational design of the logo. In 2009, I can bet 8 out of 10 people are familiar with logo links and the absence of this feature is quite annoying to say the least. Similarly, there is no direct link to the ISRO homepage even though there is a logo on the banner!

Mistake - Body

The body of the home page is also mediocre in its design. Notice the images on either side of the Indian map with really interesting captions. I think the developers should have created links to give a more detailed explanation of what they’re trying to say. I was hoping to get a better understanding of the terms and terminology used as captions to the pictures. So, if ISRO says Bhuvan will provide “Seamless Fly Throughs”, it’s totally up to the user to interpret. And boy, I have some wild imaginations right now.

nother visible setback in the homepage is the placement of the very first written paragraph of the page. The paragraph under the heading ‘Welcome to Bhuvan’ seems to be buried towards the end of the page and is not even clearly demarcated. Moreover, the font size of the paragraph heading is actually lower than the captions of the images, which makes it even harder to catch notice opening the page. Being the introduction to Bhuvan, this paragraph should ideally be located above the fold. Similarly, the following paragraph stating the minimum system requirements are poorly written. It seems like there is more information about system requirements than Bhuvan itself! Unpleasant editing of the paragraph doesn’t add to already flawed homepage. These system requirements are best left on another page with a link provided from the home page. This will surely reduce the apparent clutter on the current homepage.

The idea of placing a counter at the bottom of the page is great. But from what corner of the earth (no pun intended) did the designers find that horrific looking counter? It reminds me of the computer cases of the early 90s with the stone age fluorescent coloured LED's glowing “333” or, wait, did it say “888” ;) I think we can all have a heated debate about what numbers are being displayed in the image below.

Does anyone else feel that the number of registered users seems awfully high for the website considering its age? Excuse me for being blunt, but this number is a blatant lie! If you don’t believe me, go ahead and open the web page, record the number and refresh your screen couple of times. Voila! 2 new registered users. What were the designers thinking?

Mistake - Toolbars

Announcement Toolbar
There was refreshing announcement on the homepage. The website is now viewable in Firefox. Great news for the IE haters. I don’t get why people still use IE anyway.

Now Bhuvan is viewable in Mozilla Firefox & Netscape too...Click here to know More

The Bhuvan team has taken an extra effort to optimize viewing of the website in...yes, you got that right...NETSCAPE! Ok, let’s count the number of Netscape users in India (let alone the world), just to get a feel of how well thought this was. I would be shocked if Netscape figures even in the “Other” section. A whopping, let’s say, 0.5% of internet users use “Other” browsers! What were they thinking? Apple is gaining popularity day after day in India, and the wise choice would have been Safari.

Navigational Toolbar
I’ve taken the pain to point out the toolbar as you would see it on every page of the website. Please take a look at how the buttons re-arrange on each page, ensuring the ‘Home’ button is on the left and the order is thereafter maintained. Believe it or not, this is the most impressive section of the entire website design.

Oh wait, this one shot at glory the website just threw away. What on earth (no pun intended) is “Feed Back”. Since when is feedback two words? Also, if you go to the Feedback page, the ‘Home’ button now appears on the right end of the toolbar! What sort of a freak design is this? Up until the FAQ page, the ‘Home’ button is correctly placed (on the far left hand side). This is fairly standard design. I don’t know if the placement of the ‘Home’ button has a written standard, but it surely is de facto standard. And if anything, the position of all buttons possible should remain constant! The buttons are not meant to play jigsaw with the user!
And what is with the ‘About Bhuvan’ button? Some pages list that button in sentence case and while others list it in upper case? Why? Why!!??

The bottom toolbar is like the little brother of the top toolbar. It has fewer mistakes, but mistakes nevertheless. Notice the first captured image with the toolbar buttons. The ethical user that I am, I want to check out the ‘Data Policy’ of Bhuvan’s images. I am reading the information, satisfied, I continue reading and once I scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, I discover another shocking mistake. A five year old could have avoided this mistake! I’ll let the image speak for itself.

Mistake - Random Code
The designers claim that the website is now viewable on other browsers, but I beg to differ. I think they should have paid some more attention to its construction by doing some tests, like say open the website in Firefox? You might observe that occasionally, there appears to be some code that is unable to be executed and instead appears on the header and footer of the screen simultaneously. This makes the website looks extremely unprofessional and shows high inefficiency in testing the website before its release. And, just to make it clear, I noticed the same error on both Mozilla Firefox (version 3.5) as well as Microsoft Internet Explorer (version 8).

Mistake - Hooray for Hindi!

The wise decision to make the website available in Hindi has been made. But the not so wise decision  was to do an incomplete job of it still enable it on the live website. The homepage loads in Hindi quite flawlessly when I click the link. But mind you, what you get is a mere dummy page in Hindi. More than half the links on the page are not activated and I am assuming that is because they haven't completed the translation work.

Mistake - Page Footer

I won’t deny that I am being a little picky here, but the footer was perfectly designed. The authors of the web page have chosen a poor colour combination to highlight the link in focus. Instead of choosing a distinctive difference in colour (different from the background as well as text), the highlighted links have a colour that is very similar to the footer background. When on low brightness monitors (example laptops), it would be hard to realize if a hyperlink is activated because the colour combination is poor.

Mistake - Registration and Login
If you want to use Bhuvan, you are forced to create an account. That is compulsory. Why it is compulsory, I don’t understand. They seem to be displaying a fake counter for the number of registered users on the homepage anyway! Let me tell you some more about logging in. There seems to be no consistency with logging in. I am yet to figure out what the relation between two varieties are. Do take a look at the videos to understand my confusion.

Now this is a true story. I had created an account with Bhuvan 2 days after its release. I wasn’t quite impressed with what I saw, and I didn’t bother revisiting for another ten days. At this stage I had no idea which password I had used for this website. I’ll let you watch a video clip which pretty much demonstrates this mistake.

If you saw that video, I am hoping you realized that the website does not give users the option of retrieving passwords. Where in the world (once again, no pun intended) “Forgot Password” link? All the website offers is. “Sorry... Username and/or the password is/are wrong”. Well, I don’t need Bhuvan’s and/or’s and is/are’s! What I need is further assistance to retrieve my password. They can’t force users to register, and then not provide assistance. This is simply terrible planning!

In Conclusion...

The sheer number of mistakes in the design of the website and the multitude of design issues that the website has drove me to write this post. I do understand that Bhuvan is not about a website, but is actually the satellite mapping tool, I am sure you will understand that most of these errors are easily avoidable and should have been avoided.

And comments or feedback will be appreciated.