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Online job sites

Where unusability leads to unemployment

Updated 2000.02.06; see also responses

Online job sites are all the rage. News reports list claim some online agencies receive as many as 80,000 résumés a month. Online job searching does offer advantages, namely searchability and automatically letting you know when the system finds a reasonable match for your goals and qualifications.

Online job-searching makes sense. Online job sites, however, are sometimes so badly designed and so hard to use that the end result can be unemployment. In two leading job sites – Aquent Partners and JobShark – corporate branding and elaborate programming incompetence stand in the way of the most basic function of a job site, applying for employment.

As in my other usability analyses, my approach is to simply enter the site and attempt to perform common actions. Here, the goal is to search and apply for jobs. You'd think that would be pretty easy at a job site, wouldn't you?


Formerly MacTemps, Aquent likes to think of itself as the crème-de-la-crème of "talent" agencies. Why? While other sites are content to funnel your application directly to a potential employer – usually after a cursory vetting by a recruiter – Aquent pre-pre qualifies you. If you seem genuinely qualified for the position you're interested in, Aquent pre-interviews you. Only if you make the cut is your existence even mentioned to the client. An interview with the client, then, is a distant proposition for most applicants, rather like digging yourself out of nested Ukrainian dolls.

Where to go?

The Web site makes it hard to figure out where to go. It's something of a common mistake: Online job sites are so keen to sound even-handed, and to "balance" the needs of job-seekers and employers, that they ignore the obvious reality that most visitors to the site will want to search for jobs. Employers are the ones who should have to hunt around a little to post their listings; job-hunters should be presented with a search field right at the outset.

Not, however, in the land of Aquent.

In the following menubar (abridged for compactness), which option do you pick to search jobs – Talent Agency or Talent Finder? You're trying to find a job, right?

Figure 1. Aquent Partners menubar
[Aquent menubar]D.

The prize lies behind Door Nº 1: Talent Agency. Better terminology: Search Jobs and Post a Job.

An interesting usability note here. The Aquent menubar is a miniapplication that causes further menubars to appear as you pass your mouse over each rectangle. (Terms used for this phenomenon include popout or flyout menus or, more theoretically, hidden information spaces.) You need Java enabled in your browser to see these submenus. A really with-it designer makes all the regions of the submenu selectable, and, to Aquent's credit, that's what they did. You can actually select those links right then and there.

So choose the Looking for Work link on the submenu, then Search our job database. Here's where I end up.

Figure 2. Aquent Partners search screen
[Aquent search screen]D.

(In the last two months, Aquent has reduced the size of this search screen and rendered it in monochrome. The latter is of questionable benefit to usability, and I'm not exactly wild about the largely-monochrome palette of the Aquent site, but using less screen real estate ensures better compatibility with smaller monitors, like laptops or crappy public-library terminals.)

I select Toronto and leave all options checked: I want to see every job. (Since Aquent is not exactly replete with job listings, focusing, as it does, on the crème-de-la-crème, calling up the whole list never overwhelms you with a flood of results.) Shortly a hitlist appears.

Figure 3. Aquent Partners search results
[Aquent search results]D.

Problems here:

I select New Media Content Coordinator. The requirements suit me, so I attempt to apply for this job. Now the trouble begins.

Logging in is forever

To apply for an Aquent job, you must register. Fair enough. Many job sites require registration. It's a way to track the talent pool (and inflate the numbers in said talent pools – "Now over 3,000 registered!"), and offers the significant benefit of tracking user sessions, giving relatively precise metrics on use of the site as a whole.

Other job sites ask you for standard personal information – name, addresses, phone numbers, userID, password – and let you upload multiple résumés (sometimes stored for you at the site). Every job site save for Aquent lets you submit custom cover letters, too. But wait! I'm spoiling the surprise!

Here's the login screen you see when you attempt to apply for a job:

Figure 4. Aquent Partners login screen
[Aquent login screen]D.

Note that the fonts don't match in the two paragraphs, that text in the monochrome buttons is as hard to read as ever, and résumé is written the tedious American way, without accents. (It could be worse: resumé and résume are more wrong.) For the sake of argument, I'll attempt to create a new account.

Figure 5. Aquent Partners-- submit a resume and cover letter
[Aquent-- submit a resume and cover letter]D.

I am asked to paste in a cover letter and résumé. I am under the impression that those items refer solely to the job I'm interested in. Not!

It turns out that, once you register, Aquent's bot mails you a userID. You can't even select your own. Mine looks like joe#####, where ##### is five digits. Nice and easy-to-remember, unlike the tediously complex joeclark I use on every other site, a userID that's been with me on every system I've used in the last nine years.

Once the registration process is completed, Aquent software completes the application for you. Voilà: I've applied.

So I return to the hitlist and select another job to apply for. Hitting the appropriate link in the full-text job posting, I am asked to supply my userID. No surprise there. (It's the same screen we saw before.) And now the big shock: The software uses your previous cover letter and résumé and applies them to this job.

In other words, Aquent uses one cover letter and résumé for every job you could apply for. But we know that each job has specific requirements, and the only way to get your foot in the door is to prove how you meet each specific requirement. How do we do that? By writing custom cover letters, and even tailoring résumés to emphasize certain skills and experience over others.

Aquent renders that impossible. Further, Aquent's software makes applicants look stupid. You send the wrong cover letter (and maybe the wrong résumé) to all possible employers after the first one. Now, since Aquent uses a pre-pre-selection system, the embarrassment is confined to Aquent's offices, but that's bad enough. The system makes it impossible to credibly apply for more than one job.

I complained to Aquent, who replied thus:

We don't actually submit your information to any employer until after we review it, and decide if you've got the skills and experiences are clients generally need.

If our agents decide you do have the skills that would allow us to supply you with opportunities, we'll contact you, invite you in for a complete interview and assess what sort of jobs and environments would be right for you. Then, and only then, would we even consider representing you to our clients, and in those cases we'd work with you to customize your information for that specific opportunity.

If our agents do not feel they'll be able to find work for you, they'll tell you that.

I apologize, since our site can do a much better job describing this process.

Remember I mentioned that the Aquent site was redesigned? Yes, cosmetically redesigned. This fundamental usability flaw remains. As such, I recommend avoiding completely. You simply won't get a job out of that site. Here, unusability leads to unemployability.


Things aren't quite so bad over at, a Canadian company that recently expanded into the U.K. and Ireland. You actually can apply for more than one job, and indeed JobShark stores multiple résumés for you. No problem there.

But: Just how do you get around in this site?


The homepage (shown in heavily abridged form below; it's a mess) seems to offer three different links to select if you wish to search for jobs.

Figure 6. JobShark homepage
[JobShark homepage]D.

Those three UI elements are:

Figure 7. Three ambiguous JobShark UI elements that could be used for searching jobs
[Three ambiguous JobShark UI elements that could be used for searching jobs]D.

In reality, you want to select Job Hunt and nothing else. The Job Seekers element looks like a clickable link because it is highlighted in blue; in reality, it is merely a header for the table. The Login element, which I'll discuss shortly, merely logs you in; you can't search with it. While most people wouldn't select that element erroneously, the other two are more readily confused.

Note also that, in the Job Seekers table, the plain text between shaded rectangles is confusing. Does it apply to the rectangle that follows or precedes it? You have to backtrack to the first line of text to figure out the answer. (It's the rectangle that precedes, except the first block of text. It's a disaster, as are the writing and copy-editing: "Build your online resume; Needed to apply to jobs.") I see this as a remnant of word processing, where no one ever bothers to tell writers that a header has to be closer to the text it heads up than preceding text. (The way to do that, by the way, is not to add lines above the header, but to decrease the space between header and following text. A half linespace is sufficient. Some lower-level heads need no intervening space. The same principles apply here, and could be readily applied with a better layout. You don't even need to use CSS; <BR> would suffice for leading control.)

So I head on over, via Job Hunt, to search for a job. (We love the overly verbose text with its copy errors.) Note that, unlike every other search function you are likely to use online, JobShark specifically demands that you refrain from using Boolean operators like or, and, not; the system makes you choose, in effect, between or and and. A well-formed, highly specific query like (web or internet or content) and (producer or manager or coordinator or co-ordinator), acceptable at other job sites, simply will not work here. Fortunately, like Aquent, there aren't enough postings in the JobShark database to worry about being overwhelmed.

I use the keyword macintosh. A hitlist emerges (shown with whitespace removed), and it's plain-Jane HTML, as God intended.

Figure 8. JobShark hitlist
[JobShark hitlist]D.

I select the Internet Administrator posting. JobShark asks me to log in; only registered members may view the details of a position. Fair enough.

Logging in is never

Unlike Aquent, JobShark lets you select your own userID and password, though the latter must be unmemorably lengthy. The login screen is uneventful, but guess what happens when you fill it out and hit Go to Job Center? It's truth in advertising: JobShark forgets your search entirely and sends you to the JobSeekers Career Center, where, in this example, I have never been before. (Wait a second. I was told I'd be going to the Job Center. What's with the JobSeekers Career Center? Consistency, please.)

Lots of problems here.

Ohh-kaaay. I redo my search, and eventually find a live link for the job I wanted. Now, how many potential applicants would have given up by this point?

Other sites, and conclusions

Online recruitment is a cutthroat business. It's considered so lucrative that even blood enemies, like the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail newspapers, are willing to hold their noses and combine forces on an online job site, (really the old site with a different banner). (See two perishable online articles: first, second.) is spending half its revenues on a single television commercial in the 2000 Super Bowl.

Many of these fierce competitors have acceptable usability. workopolis/globecareers does, for example, though they're ugly as sin and do not work properly in Lynx. (Don't laugh. With so many IT jobs listed, what makes you think that Unix geeks won't prefer the quickness of a text-only search?) offers very few usability impediments (though searching within results is confusingly labeled) and looks great. (Love the onscreen type and the monster icons, of which I want a whole set for my own computer. Fridge magnets, anyone?)

I'd like to be able to glibly declare that Aquent and JobShark are not the only fish in the sea. It's technically true: We haven't witnessed a Time Warner Turner AOL EMI–style consolidation of job sites yet, so it is still necessary to search multiple sites to find the position you want. Currently, then, many of us have to put up with Aquent's and JobShark's usability flaws. That won't be true forever, and indeed, Aquent presents so many roadblocks, and is so full of itself generally, that reports of its imminent death may not be an exaggeration. While we're waiting for online job-searching to shake itself out, will these prime miscreants spend time and money redesigning and reprogramming their sites for usability?

Would you like fries with that?

Minor update

In a review of usabilty of E-recruiting pages at six U.S. corporations, Mark Hurst and Jakob Nielsen of GoodReports note the case of one employer's site that produced a Document Not Found error. The authors note:

We checked the... page over the space of a month, and the Document Not Found error was present the whole time. This suggests one or more of several problems [including that] applicants notice the problem, but they don't tell [the company], either because it's too hard to contact [them] or it's not worth their time.

I certainly know the feeling. It took me several E-mails with more than one Aquent apologist even to make them understand the coding problem at their site – and I was highly motivated to explain the problem. Imagine how unlikely it is for job applicants to stick their necks out and mention even small usability problems. Who wants to be cast as a troublemaker?


This article prompted a miniflurryette of responses. And to my great surprise, people seem to be agreeing with me – even people at Aquent and JobShark.

A JobShark potentate writes:

Almost all of the criticism you made on Jobshark I agree with 99.99%! [...F]or the last couple of months we have been spending significant amount of money and energy to re-design the site and soon (I anticipate in two months or so) we [will] put the new site live which we think and hope is going to address not only those issues we received as feedback from other users but also those of yours – both in terms of function and ease of navigation.

An Aquent potentate (aforequoted) writes:

In generally I agree with almost everything you say. Two places I'd disagree are these:

  1. We're not a job board, nor are we just a talent agency.... In fact, we have several services that have nothing at all to do with finding work for contractors.... I admitted that we could do a far better job clarifying the way our system works. We could also do a far better job distinguishing our various services. We're doing a from-the-ground-up redesign right now.
  2. Your statement "You simply won't get a job out of that site" is patently incorrect. Aquent's richest recruiting medium is our Web site, and our offices all over the world put new web recruits to work every day. In fact, unlike "real" job boards like Monster, we actually do find work for people. Monster – and boards like it – rely on recruiters and candidates to do all the work, and find each other after sifting through hundreds or thousands of jobs and resumes. Unlike those sites, we do the matching and the screening and make the placements. Then we continue working with the talent we recruit, and the companies that hire them for years, typically. I doubt if any of the other sites you mention could claim that.

Aquent's Webmaster wrote:

Two big things that we are working on are (1) resolving the confusion between Talent Agency and Talent Finder and (2) generally speeding up the Aquent Partners (talent agency) part of the site.

Where we don't see eye to eye on is the screening issue. We find that it makes people very unhappy when they register with Aquent Partners and we can't find them work. Spending more time screening up front has allowed us to place most people who register with us.

Imagine how unhappy people are when they find out that registering with Aquent Partners is a one-time process they can never, ever amend, and that they can apply for only one job at the Web site. (Or look like a fool by attaching the wrong CV and cover letter to subsequent jobs.)

The Aquentists seem convinced that iterating and reiterating the corporate mantra "We're not like other job sites. We're better than them. We do far more work for our clients" actually results in jobs for applicants. As I demonstrated, you can't even apply for more than one position at the job site.

The Aquent nabob wants us to believe that Aquent is more than a job board, but then states its Web site is its "richest recruiting medium." Here's the reality: Aquent lets you apply for only one job online, and, at every step of the process, engages in a ritualistic, almost cultish pattern of self-justification. After more than one to-and-fro with the Aquent Webmaster, I still could not eke out a concession that the programming of the site is fundamentally flawed. In every case, what I was told was that the pre-screening process sets Aquent apart from competitors.

Except most of us won't even get to the pre-screening stage because we can't apply for more than one job. It's Aquent's fault completely, not ours, but we bear the brunt.