The Show Will Go On(line): The Edinburgh Festival

With the festival season fast approaching in Edinburgh, User Vision had a look at two of the festival websites, the Edinburgh International Festival The Edinburgh International Festival Link opens in an external window and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival Link opens in an external window to see what experience festival goers can expect if they purchase their tickets online.

On each site we looked at generally browsing events, searching for a specific event and purchasing tickets. Whilst several usability issues were uncovered on each site, the most notable one was common to both sites: neither site makes parting with your cash as painless as it could be.


The Fringe homepage both captures the flavour of the Fringe and gives the user an idea of what is on the site. The design follows closely the branding of its well publicised brochure and the primary navigation along the left hand side is clearly labeled and easy to scan. Short, punchy features give tasters of content deeper in the site in an attempt to draw the user in.

The online booking facility is promoted in the content, as well a clearly labeled “shows and tickets” link at the top of the primary navigation. In previous years this important navigation link was entitled ‘What’s on’, which is not as intuitive a label, especially for foreign users.

This homepage caters for the task orientated and the browsing user with the search and booking facility easy to find. More general articles and content are also well showcased.

The homepage of the International Festival site is simpler than the Fringe, with more white space and no features. Like the Fringe site, the primary navigation is on the left, but the labeling is less clear (what is ‘The Hub’?). Also the links are images of text, whereas the Fringe site had HTML text.

Using images of text is to be discouraged for several reasons including that it prevents the users being able to enlarge the text with their browser if they find reading small text difficult and it adds unnecessary weight to the page, increasing download time. In addition, the images are slightly blurry, reducing its readability.

The weakness of the navigation continues into the site with the slightly strange layout of the primary navigation at the top and the secondary navigation at the bottom, which makes it easy to miss.

Both these are in frames, so are visible at all times, but very disconnected by their distance. The link to the events search is labeled ‘What’s on’. As pointed out above, this label is not the most intuitive, especially for an international audience.

Search and Results

Both festivals have a diverse 3 week programme. A great variety of performances are held in multiple venues across the city. Thus the search facility has to take into consideration the different criteria by which the users will be searching. Both sites have tried to accommodate this by providing the user with a variety of search methods.

The show will go on edfringe search resultsThe Fringe festival site offers the user the chance to ‘Browse’ by selecting the date and category of event in drop downs, or do a keyword search on ‘group’, ‘venue’ or ‘show’. However, the ‘Browse’ drop downs do not have an option to ‘Choose all’ or select multiple dates or categories, which makes the search seem inflexible.

On the other hand, when the results are returned they are well laid out in a table and considerable effort is made to allow the user to change and refine them.

The user can sort the results by start time or show name, and change the day or category they have chosen. The drawback with this, though, is that all of the refinement options push the results down the page so that the listings themselves fall ‘below the fold’ for the two most common browser setting of 800×600 and 1020×768.

Frequently the results span several pages. However, the ‘page navigation’ is at the bottom of the search table and would be better repeated at the top also, to prevent repeatedly having to scroll down to move through the results.

The International Festival has two methods of search – an unlabelled series of three dropdowns that let you search by a combination of ‘Date’, ‘Links’ and the ‘Artform’ and a ‘Keyword search’. The ‘Links’ option is ambiguous and there is no explanation to enlighten the user to what it means. What are ‘Royal Bank Lates’?

The site assumes that the user has prior knowledge of the festival and understands this grouping so there is no clarification for the festival novice.

The scale of the search on the International Festival site is much smaller than the Fringe, so they do not have the same thorny issue of needing to let the user refine their search to make it more manageable. The search results are simple and easy to scan.
While the International Festival site does not have a general website search, the Fringe Festival site, which is much bigger, does.

When a site has multiple search facilities users can sometimes head toward the general site search, as it is visible from the homepage, to find information that is contained in a special search, like the show search.

We were pleased to see that the general search on the Fringe site had taken this into consideration. The results are split into articles, shows, groups and venues and the search results table has tabs to let you view all of these sets of results.

The show will go on search resultsThe Fringe Festival and, to a lesser extent, the International Festival are known for audiences using word of mouth recommendations when booking shows.

A user who is searching for a show that they have only heard of needs the search to cope with spelling mistakes and offer up logical alternatives (like Google does).

Users searching for Elisabeth Leonskaja on the International Festival site would find no results unless they are familiar with Georgian surnames and spell it exactly right. Similarly, on the Fringe site, searching for ‘Ed Burn’ rather than ‘Ed Bryne’ would return no results.

It would improve the searches significantly if the search engine logic incorporated patterns, especially to cater for the large international audience.


On both sites the most significant usability problems appear when it comes to purchasing tickets. Both sites insist that you register before purchasing. Our usability testing experience has shown us that users don’t like registering on websites – it is time consuming and frequently sites ask for too much information – but they are resigned to the fact that it is part of online purchasing life.

It is important that the registration is designed carefully to reduce the inconvenience to users. The experience will be much better if:

  • The process is short with only essential details asked for.
  • Data protection, privacy and security information is clearly visible.
  • Opting out for features like mailing lists is obvious.
  • The registration is seamlessly integrated into the wider process (e.g. purchasing)

On the International Festival site when users click the “Book now” link a new website opens in a new window. There is no warning that this will happen and no visual continuity.

This sudden change is confusing and will make the user unsure if they have clicked the correct link. The new window has no browser controls so if the user clicks on the logo they get to the homepage of the ‘The Hub’ website and there is no back button to allow them to return to where they were.

Another uncomfortable feature about this site is if the user clicks the ‘Continue shopping’, ‘Add to Basket’ or ‘Cancel’ links this window vanishes leaving them slightly unsure what has happened to the tickets they were trying to buy.

The show will go on purchase

Ideally the International Festival would keep users on its site to purchase but if they have to go to a third party site to purchase tickets then this should be clearly stated before the user tried to initiate the transaction.

The Fringe Festival website does not send the user off somewhere else to purchase its tickets, but both sites are guilty of introducing the site registration rather abruptly. The user thinks that they are reaching the end of the process (by clicking ‘check out’ or ‘buy now’) and instead they are faced with the fact that they have to register before they can continue.

Both sites have made the mistake of forcing users unexpectedly down the registration path. In the case of the International Festival this is more uncomfortable because the users are being asked to register on a third party site whose relationship to the original site is unexplained.

Instead the sites should give the user warning that this was part of the process (e.g. ‘log in to buy now)’ or, preferably, discretely embedding it in the purchasing process.

Both sites ask for basic information when registering and it is clear what is mandatory. The Fringe site has a second page of questions that it makes clear are entirely optional, thus letting the impatient user quickly bypass them.

The benefits of registering and the security and data protection information are obvious on the Fringe site, but on the International Festival site it doesn’t state on the registration form why the site needs personal details or how confidentially data will be kept.

Users can get to this information by following the security link in the main navigation, but it would be reassuring for this to be flagged up in the main part of the page, especially since they are asking for personal contact information. A simple statement like “We need your phone number in case there is a problem with your booking” would help reassure a paranoid customer.

For the Fringe Festival website, the greatest failing of the registration (and log in) process is that after completing it the user finishes up back on the homepage.

If they have been trying to buy a ticket this is very frustrating because they then have to waste time searching again and selecting the tickets. It would be much better if on completing registration users were then brought back to the purchase process with the tickets they had selected in their basket.

The process of registering and purchasing need to be integrated with the user in mind rather than treating them as separate website functions.

If they want to improve registration (and thus purchasing), both festival websites should look at the good examples of e-commerce sites, like Amazon. Here you are not asked to register, but when you are entering your details during the transaction you are asked to create a password and told “When you come back to in the future, you can use your e-mail address and the password you chose here to access your account”.

Then when you return to the site you will not have to enter your details again and you can track your order progress online. It is clear what is happening, why and how the user will benefit. Importantly, registration is incorporated as a small step in the buying process and seems very little effort.


As noted above, for the Fringe site, if you are not already logged in you have to go through the registration/log in process and then search for your tickets again before you can purchase.

Once this is done, buying tickets is straightforward. Having a website account means that users can store tickets in their basket and come back to them at a later date to purchase or change their choice.

Another feature of this site account is that you can add fringe events to your diary. This is useful for helping you plan your festival schedule and storing shows that you are interested in seeing.

There is a progress bar using the shopping basket metaphor that has been adopted by other e commerce sites. They also have the increasingly standard feature of recommending other shows based on what you have chosen (‘people who bought these tickets also bought’).

This is below the form to buy the tickets and could easily be mistaken for a graphic promotion or an ad, so would benefit form being highlighted better.

When you finally get to purchasing on the International Festival site the form is straightforward, but like the registration part there is no security information to let you know that this is a safe online transaction.


A glance at the accessibility of both sites shows that, despite some notable efforts to consider disabled users, including providing clear information on the accessibility of the venues they use. However, both sites would fail the most basic level of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines standards (level ‘A’).

The Fringe site has a ‘larger’ and ‘smaller’ text function at the top of each page that lets the user change the text size according to their needs. It is possible to do this in most browsers if the text size has been specified relatively (in Internet Explorer you go to View > Text size) but not all users may be aware of this. Incorporating this feature on each webpage makes it very accessible for users.

On both sites all the pages have the same page title, denying users of screen readers the chance of identifying each page at the start and deciding if it is the correct page for their intended task.

Also, the forms on both sites are not optimised for browsing with access technologies. The form fields are not associated with their labels and some forms are not logical when linearised.

For example, on the Fringe site registration page the asterisks marking the fields as mandatory are only explained at the end of the form. It would be more useful if this was explained at the top so users could be aware of the significance when they subsequently come across it.

In the primary navigation of the International Festival site the link images have alternative text. Unfortunately the alternative text is not the text in the image, but long and explanatory text. ‘Take part’ becomes ‘Performers appear at the Edinburgh International Festival by invitation of the Festival Director only. Click here to find out about joining the Edinburgh Festival Chorus’.

For text only browsers or screen readers, this means that the links are long and cumbersome. This descriptive text should be put in the image tag. This means that it will provide the extra information about the link to sighted users, but won’t appear in screen readers set to only read the alternative text.


Our examination of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival websites uncovered a variety of positive and negative usability issues. Trying to purchase tickets threw up the most usability issues.

In their search functions, both sites had provided users with a variety of search methods to cover the different variables of searching by date, performer or genre. The Fringe festival site put considerable effort into letting the user refine their search results, but unfortunately their search results page is clunky to trawl through. The International Festival search was simpler and less flexible, but functioned solidly and consistently.

Disappointingly, neither site has flexible keyword searches that allow for users misspelling words.

Both sites spring registration unexpectedly on the user when they come to purchase the tickets. The International Festival brings this surprise one step further by depositing the user to on a new site and requiring them to register there, no explanation offered. The Fringe festival registration process is simpler to get to, but frustrates buying tickets by losing the user’s ticket selection and bringing them to the homepage after they have registered and logged in.

After a brief look at the accessibility of each site we could conclude that there are some basic errors that would render each site problematic for users of access technologies to use. Actually purchasing a ticket using assistive technology, like a screen reader, would be difficult, if not impossible.


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