Sometimes you just have to use a site to really evaluate it

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I've recently had occasion to try out a variety of different sports websites. During the process, I ran across a live game cast from Comcast SportsNet that I hated on first glance; after about 5 minutes of using it, however, it had turned in to one of the best game cast tools I've used. It's tempting to try and evaluate software from feature lists and "objective" analysis, but there really is no substitute for just trying things out.

So here's a screenshot of the page (I think the link will still work, but I'm not positive if they'll take it down eventually). On first glance, it really goes against a lot of what Tyler and I try to focus on when we're designing software. The page is absolutely stuffed with text and information, and there's no obvious region of the page to focus on. The page actually continues with a series of additional panes that take up about three times the vertical space of a typical laptop screen, including things like tweets from CSN, links to news, and plenty of other info. On top of that, from a graphic design perspective, I personally think this is just an ugly site. Granted a lot of that is due to the team- (and seasonaly-) appropriate orange/black color scheme which is probably in place to make it easy to skin for other teams. Regardless, all together, the site left me with a really bad first impression.

As I mentioned above, however, it didn't take long before I basically fell in love. To be honest, most of the content is the kind of stuff you can get anywhere, but the thing that I just hadn't seen before was the customizability. Every one of those panels can be minimized, closed, and rearranged letting you completely customize the page. The panels themselves are still a little crowded, and the page doesn't really look any better, but for following sports, it's outstanding. If you've ever used or to following live sports, you've probably been frustrated by having to constantly scroll and/or click to get the content you personally care about; it really is liberating to just have a single tailored page open in front of you during a sporting event.

Anyway, the point of this post isn't that Comcast SportsNet has made some awesome site that everyone should use. To be honest, there are still plenty of problems with this site, it just happens to be better than most other options that are available. The point I want to highlight is that if I had just looked a feature list for the site (in which it is lacking relative to other sites, aside from the customization piece) or had tried to evaluate the site from a design perspective rather than just using it directly, I would likely have reached a completely different conclusion. Ultimately, software is entirely about the user experience and if at all possible, the best software evaluation is to just test out that user experience directly.

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