It was fast. Anticlimactic, really. It took a few reloads to get the Comic-Con International home page up, but once I could click on the reservation link, everything went smoothly. I was done by 9:05.

The reservation page was actually optimized!

  • Just one image: a banner across the top.
  • Everything was on one page, including the list of hotels, the personal info, and the hotel choices.
  • Hotel selection was done by client-side scripting, so there was no wait for processing between selections (and no risk of typos confusing their processing system later today).

This is a huge deal, especially compared to Travel Planners’ horribly overdesigned 2008 forms — yes, forms, plural — that kept bogging down. (I never even saw last year’s, though I tried for an hour and a half to get in.)

On the downside, that one page does load a half-dozen script files, but that doesn’t seem to have slowed it down much.

In case none of your 12 choices were available, they asked for a maximum price you’d be willing to pay for another hotel that’s not on your list. I vaguely recall this being a feature of the old fax forms, but I don’t remember being asked this on the phone last year.

I was surprised to find that they didn’t want credit card info immediately, but that’s good from a streamlining perspective as well. The hotel choices, room type, and contact info are critical in order to make the reservation in the first place. Payment can be done later, so in a rushed situation like this, it’s better to handle it later. Plus, not asking for credit card information means that they could run the site without encryption, speeding things up a bit more.

I would have liked to have gotten a confirmation number for the request, or an email, just so that I could be sure that I was in their queue. And to be sure that I entered the right email address. And the right start and end dates. And…well, you get the idea. I’m a little paranoid about the process at the moment.

Here’s hoping that the back end of the process, and sending out confirmations, goes as smoothly as the front end did.

Update: Short answer: it didn’t. Long answer: I’ve written up what went wrong, at least from the guests’ point of view.

San Diego hotel rooms for Comic-Con International go on sale tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM Pacific Time. Because they’ve sold out in a matter of hours the last few years — or, more precisely, because they’ve overwhelmed the reservation system while doing so — Travel Planners is instituting some new policies and a new procedure.

Last December they announced that they would require a deposit at reservation time, and a cut-off point in May after which it would no longer be refundable. This should help cut down on some of the “just in case” speculating that always happens. (Previously you had to provide a credit card when making the reservation, but they didn’t charge it.)

As for the procedure, here’s what used to happen: You would search for hotels, get a list of those that have rooms available, enter your name and contact info, then enter your credit card and get immediate confirmation. At every step, the server would be slow, and there was a good chance that you would have to start over. Yes, it would even fail at the last step.

The new scheme is wildly different: Instead of searching for a hotel, you’ll be asked to enter a list of up to 12 choices, in order of preference, and submit it. A few hours later, they’ll send you an email to confirm what you’ve gotten.

My first thought: this is exactly how it worked for me last year, when I got through on the phone instead of online. It’s also how reservations by fax used to work.

It’s annoying not to have instant feedback of course, but I suspect one of the main reasons the system breaks down is that it’s trying to handle so many complete transactions simultaneously. This way, the only part running “live” is collecting requests. Once those are all in, they can process them at whatever speed the reservation system can actually handle.

Plus, if they really want to minimize the load on their website, they can put everything on one page and minimize the number of graphics and scripts. Every image you have to load slows the page down. Every new page you have to load is another chance for the process to break down completely. When designing a web application, there are times to emphasize looks, there are times to emphasize convenience for the user, and there are times to emphasize simplicity in the actual process. This is one of the latter.

I guess we’ll see how it goes tomorrow morning.

Update: The request process, at least, went surprisingly smoothly. ← I’ve got some thoughts here on the reservation form and how the process worked.

  • Project Honeypot: 1 Billion Spammers Served!
  • Wow. Without “activist judges” to blame, anti-gay-marriage *ahem* activists in DC are complaining about activist…legislators.
  • It’s almost 2010. Why do OK/Cancel boxes STILL pop up while I’m typing & accept my “input?” I’m not sure what I just confirmed. Or canceled. Or whatever it is that it thought I told it.

I use the Broken Link Checker plugin on this blog and on Speed Force to find broken or moved links. In addition to helping you manage them in the admin interface, it can also assign formatting (as a CSS class) to mark them in your posts.

Cool! Readers can see that the link is broken before clicking on it!

But what’s the best way to label the links?

The plugin uses strike-through by default. You are marking something that’s gone, but strike-through usually means the text is being crossed out. That’s fine for a link in a list, but something like “Catering was provided by MyNiftyFoodCo” implies that the name of the company is wrong, not that the website is gone.

Just making something italic or changing the color doesn’t work either, because it’s arbitrary. Nothing about an italic link (which could be a title), or a random other color, suggests that something might be missing.

What I’ve come up with is to reduce the contrast on broken links. It combines two familiar schemes:

  • High contrast for new links and low contrast for visited links.
  • “Graying out” inactive items in software.

So here, I’ve got bright blue for new links, darker blue for visited links, and broken links as black (well, very dark gray), the same color as surrounding text. I’m keeping the underline in place so there’s still some indication that it’s a link, but it’s not as strong as the label for one that’s still functional.

It’s still not ideal, since color is the only difference, but it should cause less confusion than the strike-through.