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Cookies and the User Experience

Cookie Settings on MicrosoftCookies are big news (website cookies, not fattening but delicious biscuits).  The EU e-Privacy Directive comes into force soon and has major implications for websites which routinely place cookies on their users’ computers.

Privacy is an emotive subject so I was not surprised to see the results of a recent e-Consultancy digital marketing survey on the European cookies directive.  It showed that if cookies are made ‘opt-in’ instead of ‘opt-out’ only 23% of people would opt in.

Learning from Experience

I was reminded of the controversy which used to surround visual display units based on cathode ray tube (CRT) technology.  Many people were concerned about potentially harmful radiation, especially x rays which were indeed emitted from early CRTs before leaded glass was introduced (many years before CRTs were used for computer displays).

More recently concern shifted to other wavelengths and the rather uncertain impact of electromagnetic fields on biological systems.  As a result of this uncertainty and controversy, there were some rather strange arguments about the likelihood of creating displays which ‘emitted no radiation’  Such arguments forgot that light is electromagnetic radiation and the idea of a radiation free display is about as likely as ‘chemical free food’.  Now I am not suggesting that those 77% who will not accept any cookies have much in common with people who forget that everything is made from chemicals.  But in the same way, the cookie debate is being misunderstood by the general public and, as with the above examples, it is up to the industry to help people understand the technology and so fully appreciate the risk - or lack of risk - they are taking.

Damaging the User Experience

I am not an expert on cookies but my understanding is that they can be used and indeed are essential to provide a rich user experience which takes account of the individual requirements and history of the specific user.  Of course, they can also be used for many other purposes which are less attractive to the user and being able to reject these uses makes sense.  However, this may not be practical – a cookie is a cookie and selective use is probably much more tricky to control.  Obviously, some level of abuse may already be covered by existing data protection legislation but the misunderstandings surrounding cookies may make it harder for their appropriate use and this could have a damaging impact on the user experience.

There is a wide variety of opinion on how much website owners should do, and how the law will be enforced, but in my opinion losing cookies for three-quarters of the user population could be a significant loss to the cause of creating a great user experience.

By Tom Stewart

Usability

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