One thing most playwrights like to do, besides writing plays — if you are a playwright and you don’t like writing plays, please stop immediately! — is seeing plays. And in this Internet age, one thing many of us are happy to do is purchase our tickets online. Having done some of this myself, I have some opinionated ideas of what I like and don’t like about the usability of e-ticketing websites. Originally published Mar. 10, 2010 with several updates on Feb. 4, 2012
This article was prompted by my trying to purchase tickets for the 2nd price level in Orchestra. 2nd price level in Orchestra at the theater in question could be left, right or rear. I find rear the most comfortable, but the e-ticketing system kept assigning me to left or right, assuming I would prefer that to rear. (Similarly, I can understand that if someone’s hearing was better in their right ear, they might want to be on the side where their good ear is closer to the center and would not want the other side.) Obtaining this level of service necessitated a call to the box office.
[Ironically, I ultimately did not get to see the play, as it turned out there was to be extensive smoking during the performance, something that was disclosed to me neither by the website nor by the box office.]
At this point, having been subjected to annoyances by various ticketing Web sites, I was moved to make this blog post. I’ve been lucky that no theater’s Web site violates all of these principals, but many of them violate a few of them.
For any tickets:
1. If I am to select the performance date from a drop-down or radio button list:
- Include day of the week, date and time of the performance. Including the day of the week will reduce wrong-day errors.
- Don’t act until I click a “go” button or equivalent. (That’s an accessibility issue.)
2. If there is a difference in price by day of week or time or special event, make that available as a table of general information rather than making me click on a specific date first in order to get the price. For a recent site, I quickly realized it would take me seven — count them, seven — clicks per day/time and section selection to find out the price for each one; there went my subscription transaction. I hate to click; I’d rather scroll.
3. [Updated Feb. 4, 2012] When having me choose from a drop-down, include the price range in that drop-down. Better yet, don’t use a drop-down ever for choosing performance dates. I find I make a lot of mistakes with drop-down lists. A list of links to dates and times or from a calendar (that starts the week on Sunday) lets me make much more accurate choices.
3a. [Update: Added Feb. 4, 2012] Once I’ve chosen a day of the week, date and time, continue to show it at the top of every screen I navigate through, so that if I’ve made an error I have more chances to correct it. In particular, absolutely show it prominently on the page where I click to commit the charge to my credit card. For example, “Purchase 3 adult tickets at $60 for Friday, Feb. 3, at 8:00 p.m.” immediately above the submit button. For a multiple-item cart, use a list.
4. Disclose aspects of the performance that might cause a particular customer to choose not to attend: smoking (tobacco, herbal or otherwise), nudity, loud noises, gunshots, etc. Some theatres do this sort of thing at the entrance to the performance space, but it is rare on a Web site and even then not directly in the purchase pathway. It belongs in the purchase pathway, whether directly or through an obvious link to a Content Advisory in the play description.
The advisory could be as simple as the San Francisco Fringe Fest’s (for example, “Advisory: Strobe light”), as complex as Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s advisory for Sleuth (you’ll need to click the Content Advisory tab) or somewhere in between. Showing it in the trailer is not sufficient, as not everyone watches the trailers.
[Update, Feb. 27, 2014: Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park no longer gives such extensive advisories. I’m linking to an archive of their page, hosted by the Web Archive.]
While it is true the customer could contact the box office for this information, that creates an extra step that stands in the way of the customer seeing plays at your theatre. Actually, if I do call the box office — not everyone likes to do e-commerce — you need to disclose these things prior to ticket purchase without my asking.
It is most annoying to arrive at a performance and be faced with a disclosure that could have been done on the Web site but wasn’t. Even if you give me a refund — and I would expect you to do so — I’ve wasted my time getting to the theatre, had my anticipations of an enjoyable evening of theatre dashed and now have an unpleasant association with your theatre. It is so easy to disclose these things on the Web site. Please do so.
Actually, for that matter, if there is nothing to advise about, it’s probably good to say something like “Advisories: none” just so I don’t think you completely forgot about it.
[Update: May 15, 2010. It happened again tonight. Showed up eagerly anticipating a night of theatre only to find there would be [herbal] smoking in the performance. Must be a new trend. *sigh* Really, this is turning play-going into work. Please don’t be like the waiters at restaurants who recite all the specials but if you want to know how much it costs you have to ask and then wait while they check. Transparency makes the difference between a fun experience and work.]
[Update: Sept. 20, 2011. Don’t be trendy and change the colors of links from the traditional blue for unvisited and purple for visited. I just chose the wrong purchase quantity drop-down at an e-commerce website because the “Enter discount code” link was orange and I overlooked it. Just so you know, I have trouble reading orange text and therefore tend not to notice it.
Actually, there was no reason to have an “Enter discount code” link at all. All the link did was un-hide the discount code field. I can understand hiding and un-hiding in a long form, but in a form with only a few choices, nothing is really gained by hiding a single field. In the case of a discount code, a customer unfamiliar with your site may just see the visible form controls and assume they are to enter the discount code later, which was, in fact, what I assumed. Just show the field, please.]
For assigned seating:
1. You probably don’t want to show which seats are taken until at least a certain percentage of seats are taken. I’ve been scared off from performances in out-of-the-way theatres (50+ miles) because I went to their Web site a week or two before the performance and saw that literally only a few of the seats had been taken. As an audience member, I prefer not to be the only audience member (although I did once see a dynamite performance of Sam Shepard’s True West as a member of an audience of four). However, if you are a subscription theatre, this generally does not apply to you.
2. That said, I do like to choose my seats, and like sites that let me choose a specific seat. (This is especially good for people who would rather have a seat near the aisle or the center even if it means sitting further back.) If you don’t offer this, and are not using general seating, please allow more granularity than the ticket class. For example:
___ 1st price level Orchestra (best available)
___ 1st price level Orchestra front
___ 1st price level Orchestra middle
___ 1st price level Orchestra rear
___ 2nd price level Orchestra (best available)
___ 2nd price level Orchestra Left
___ 2nd price level Orchestra Right
___ 2nd price level Orchestra Rear
3. Alternatively, you could assign Orchestra Left as the best available (if that is what your algorithm considers the best available, but provide a couple buttons for those who disagree:
- I would prefer Orchestra Right
- I would prefer Orchestra Rear.
- I want a seat near the aisle.
- I want a seat near the center.
or for the 1st price level, Orchestra Front if available, with buttons:
- I would prefer Orchestra Middle.
- I would prefer Orchestra Rear.
- I want a seat near the aisle.
- I want a seat near the center.
4. It would be really nice, although probably beyond the call of duty, if I could provide the general areas I would like to sit, and you would provide me the dates (with prices) that you could accommodate me.
5. Then again, for the alternatives when a theater permits only choice by price and general section, perhaps it is best to call the box office. But rather than having the customer get frustrated at your Web site — remember they are (I am) focused on the e-commerce task at this point — specifically call attention to an offer of assistance. Possible wording:
Orchestra Left (Need seat choice assistance? [begin link] Call our box office. [end link])
which would break them (me) out of e-commerce mode and feel supported.
6. On the other hand, other theaters offer the ability to choose specific seats, so why don’t you? It’s a competitive, customer service issue.
7. Provide a seating chart that, given the assigned seat number, allows the customer to estimate the location of their seat within a few seats, prior to committing the transaction.
8. As a side note, I did attend a theater which allowed specific seat choices, but had a production where the online seating chart became meaningless because they rearranged the seats around the stage. I can totally understand them not changing the seating chart online for one production, but it would have been nice for them to disclose that the online seating charts were not accurate so that I could make an informed decision about whether to contact the box office.
1. Allow the credit card address to be different from the mailing address. I suspect most tickets are held anyway, and the mailing address is used to send promotional material for the theatre.
2. For that matter, add a check box as to whether the ticket purchaser wants to receive promotional material from the theatre, and whether they want to receive it by print or by e-mail or both. I’ve only seen this once out of several dozen online purchases from different theatres.
3. For assigned seats, make sure the seat numbers are shown before the customer clicks the button that commits the purchase and charges their credit card.
4. If your site places a time limit on how long one has to purchase tickets:
- Disclose that this is going to happen before the customer takes the action that will start the countdown.
- If the customer is going to have to agree to any terms of service before completing the transaction, disclose this and provide access to those terms before the customer takes the action that will start the countdown. It is frustrating to be one of the few people who actually reads these things and being aware that the clock is counting down while I am trying to give this thing my due diligence.
- To my chagrin as a Web professional, I have never seen a ticket-purchasing site which does either of these.
5. For that matter, if there is a terms of service, put it on a single, full-sized Web page, not in a little window and not broken up by having to follow multiple links.
6. Make sure folks can print the receipt by clicking the Print menu item in their browser. (I once had the page come out blank.)
For ticket receipt pages and e-mail confirmation messages:
1. Make sure the following information about the performance appears on the receipt page and e-mail message:
- day of the week of the performance,
- date of the performance,
- time of the performance,
- street address of the performance.
- If your theater does not have a sign fronting the street, or the street address does not appear on the building, instructions on how to find your theater.
- These days, a link to the Google Street View of the entrance would be a kindness.
2. Make sure the theatre name appears in the subject line or sender name of the e-mail confirmation message.
3. Make sure the following does not appear on the receipt page or e-mail message:
- street address of any other performance venue. Yes, this means if your theatre has more than one performance venue with two different street addresses, you need a distinctive template for each venue. If you must share a single design template between the two venues, make sure that template itself does not refer to either venue, and that the venue address information is fed in as a variable.
4. [Updated Feb. 4, 2012] Allow for the occasional “oops” moment. For whatever reason, buying online is not as easy as I’d like it to be. Through several dozen ticket purchases, I have discovered a couple of times that what is staring at me on my e-mail receipt or the confirmation screen is not the date and time I thought I was purchasing the ticket for. Allow me a reasonable length of time, at least an hour, to correct the error. So far as I know, only Brown Paper Tickets does this, and they, I think, allow 12 hours provided the sales cutoff time has not been reached. BPT does it for free, but I would not be offended if you made a small charge provided you didn’t use a drop-down for date and time selection.
1. If you don’t require a log in and password, don’t make personal information retrievable only by an e-mail address or name. Yes, it’s work to re-type my information, but at least its private.
2. [Updated Feb. 4, 2012] If you do require a log in and password, never send the password via plain-text e-mail. The e-mail system is hackable; in addition, I’ve known lots of people that have had their e-mail accounts hacked. *** techie talk alert *** Actually, don’t store the password on your server, store a salted hash of the password. *** end techie talk alert *** There are regularly stories where an e-commerce website was hacked and lists of e-mail addresses and their associated passwords were posted to the web. Most people share passwords between websites, so you are putting them at more risk. The only thing you would properly be able to send a customer would be a temporary password that they would log in with to choose a new password.
3. If you have a secret question, allow it to be long and contain punctuation marks and spaces. Even better, let me write my own secret question. Anybody can look up my high school on the Internet or find a pet’s name from a blog post.
These things are so basic that I stop doing e-commerce with any site that I discover violates any of these. [Update: Feb. 4, 2012] Sigh, no I don’t. Some theatres I am dedicated to use a website which as of this date violates these restrictions despite my having complained about it at least a year ago. So what I do with them is enter my information each time, make the purchase, then go change my information to just a bunch of x’s. The things I’ll do out of loyalty lol. Most folks won’t go that far and you’ll just be at risk of exposing their information.]
4. [Update: Added Feb. 4, 2012] Do allow customers to change their password. Do e-mail them a notice that the account password has been changed. Do not include the new password in that e-mail.
[Update: added Feb. 4, 2012] Brown Paper Tickets and maybe one or two theatres e-mail a reminder the day before. I’ve spaced a performance or two over the years so this bit of after-care is greatly appreciated.
If I may get up on my soapbox for a moment, the ticket-purchasing process is the first experience a customer has with your theatre. Please make it a pleasant experience. The alternative is that the customer might decide it is too much trouble to attend your theatre, or at the very least would be annoyed at you.