Website Design Case Study: IBM Passport Advantage Website

Every year at Lotusphere in the Ask the Developers session someone will ask IBM “When are you going to make the Passport Advantage website user-friendly?!”  And every year the response from IBM is “What are you talking about?  It’s fine!”  Apparently usability studies are unnecessary.  After all, this is IBM.  How could the world’s second or third largest software company NOT know how to build a website?  Who are we to give them advice, right?  We’re just customers, not experts on web development, right?  We are mere ersatz of IBM’s erudite web developers.

Well recently I have been refreshing my web development skills in a degree program at Bellevue College and I would like to think I have become more than just a dilettante of web design.  As part of my studies, I am using the Passport Advantage website as a case study in best (and worst) practices in web design.  I would like to bring you along for the lesson.  Please join me in this discussion of what does and doesn’t work in web design, particularly as it relates to the success of the IBM Passport Advantage website in achieving its goal.  Hopefully by this vetting, all of us can learn something from this world class international website representing the third most valuable brand in the world.

My classmates don’t have access to log into this website.  So I will include some screen shots.  Hopefully this does not infringe on any copyrights.  This is intended for review by my classmates in the web design class and web authoring program for educational purposes only.

First, let’s find the URL.  If I were to guess at it so I could go directly to it, I would expect something like .  But that doesn’t work.  So let’s go to the IBM home page, and look for a link.  You can find it on IBM’s home page, though with some effort.  You won’t find it in any of the menus at the top of the page, but if you scroll down, you can find it “below the fold” under the Popular Links list.  For that reason, I expect most people just use a search engine to find the site.  I searched for “Passport Advantage” on and it came up as the first link.  It was the second link listed on both and It was also the first link in the results list when searched directly on the IBM website.  Here is the landing page for all of these.  The URL is
IBM Passport Advantage initial page

(click image to enlarge)

Not exactly an intuitive URL.  Note in the screen shot that it already knows who I am.  Am I logged in?  Well, no.  I need to click on the Customer sign in link in the box on the right labeled “Fast Access”.
Note that it instructs to use my email address for the user name.  Not exactly.  Some accounts (like mine) require the username that was created, NOT the email address.

IBM Passport Advantage Login screen

(click image to enlarge)

By the way, if I click on the link that says “Not you?”  beside my name in the top right, I get this error page with no way back but to close the browser and start over:

IBM Passport Advantage error message switching users

(click image to enlarge)

After logging in, you get to what I will call the “homepage” of Passport Advantage.  Actually there is no home page for Passport Advantage and there is never an obvious path back to this page.  I could find no links that lead back to this page except by logging in.  The Home link on this page goes to the home page of and once you go there, good luck trying to get back to Passport Advantage.  Assuming you know about the link at the bottom of the page, you’ll get back fairly easily.  But most people just google it again.  (even if you call customer support, they will direct you to find it this way!)

IBM Passport Advantage homepage

(click image to enlarge)

Great now you’re on the “homepage”.  There are primarily 2 reasons most Lotus professionals visit this site: 1.  To open a PMR with technical support or 2. To download software.  Let’s start with getting technical support.  Look closely.  There are no less than 7 links to get some kind of help, not counting the phone number listed in the bottom right corner, which by the way, is NOT the number to call to reach technical support.  Each of these 7 links go to different pages.  The one to open a ticket with technical support (called a PMR) happens to be the last one in the left pane, labeled “Online technical support”.  This would seem obvious but for the 6 other links to support on the page.  By the way, if you visit a page and then hit the Back button, you will occasionally get an error instead and it will prompt you to log in again.

IBM Passport Advantage Support links on homepage

(click image to enlarge)

Once you get to the place to enter a PMR with technical support, you may want to get back to the “homepage”.  Which link on this page do you think you should select?

IBM Passport Advantage missing link to homepage

(click image to enlarge)

If you chose Home you would be wrong and once there you would not be able to use the back button to return here.
If you chose Return to the IBM Support Portal you would also be wrong. (See the next screen shot.)
The correct link is actually under related links.  Go figure.

No link back to homepage

(click image to enlarge)

Now let’s look at the second common reason to visit this site: downloading software.  For this function you “only” have 5 choices.  Again, they all go to different places.  Choose carefully.  You may navigate through several lengthy steps before realizing you’re in the wrong place to find what you’re looking for.

IBM Passport Advantage links to download software

(click image to enlarge)

The downloads process continues through several confusing steps including prompting TWICE that you accept the software agreement, before actually getting to download the software.  And you had better know exactly what you are looking for.  There are no useful descriptions of the purpose of each software and many have very similar names.

In our classroom discussion the class agreed when it comes to usability, this site fails miserably,  It is laden with many confusing links that are not organized in any obvious, meaningful grouping.  There are way too many links without any form of structure or organization to the navigation. One of the class exercises is to create a site map identifying the navigation, but this website proved too complex to create a site map at all.  The arrangement of the navigation did not help to identify the relevance of the links either.  And why does it have 2 places to select a language? (one at the extreme top of the page, the other in the right column beside the banner image)

Well, there you have it.  So far we have examined the pages leading up to the main page of the Passport Advantage site and the main page itself.  What do you think?  Is this analysis off the mark?  If you regularly navigate this site, what has your experience been with it?

Up next if I have the time and patience:  Stepping through the website  to download software – no trivial task.

Before you pass final judgement on this website, check out what truly BAD websites look like at WebPagesThatSuck

Footnote: After writing this article, I noticed there is now a tutorial for Passport advantage on the landing page (you do not need to log in to view it.)

After a few minutes of frustration I had to quit viewing it.  The wizard was     tiny.   The navigators to advance the slides are so small I had trouble getting my mouse in just the right spot to click it.  There are pages and pages of blah, blah, blah.  It isn’t a tutorial about USING the website.  It’s about 45 minutes of reading all about WHY you should BUY it.


Posted on August 9, 2011, in Lotusphere, Marketing, Software and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. Oh come on Dave, you are being pedantic… I guessed the URL on the first try. 🙂 I mean really, who doesn’t know to append the “-01” string to the first component of your URLs?

    Seriously though, you can add that on Firefox on Linux, you have to clear-out the IBM PPA cookies when the site refuses to authenticate properly your session. Really irksome until you figure out what is behind it.

    The only concern/question I direct messaged you for discretion.

    I do like the post and agree with all the Twitter comments on the post, it needs help. We’ve known it for years, IBM has heard us, let’s hope it get’s changed. They could hire any one of many BPs, to help design it better…they can do the implementation.

  2. For the next lesson: Try to find a Hotfix that was advertised over Twitter, and you really, really need it. Lesson will be: find the Fix with 30 minutes 😉

  3. “I gave up on Passport Advantage, just get me the software I bought from you” is by far (and orders of magnitude here) the most common question (or complaint) I get from new IBM customers.

    The words “confusing”, “insane” and “what the f*** are they thinking” is also up there too.

  4. Thomas Leriche

    Downloading software from IBM passport is the ultimate exercise in frustration. I just counted and you need to go through 8 pages just to get to the software download you’re looking for. Most of the links on the pages are not intuitive at all. After years of doing this I know what to click on, but it’s shamefully bad design. Lord forbid that you need to find something unusual like Sametime 7.0 as you’ll probably need to scroll through a list of software a mile long.

    As far as I’m concerned there should be a max of 3 pages to download software.

    1. Passport login
    2. Welcome page with software search bar (directly after login)
    3. Results page


  5. I hadn’t worried about this stuff in years — used the IBM support toolbar. But it doesn’t work in FF5! Now I’m back to bookmarking the obscure urls. Must be progress.

  6. Thomas, you’re right on the money. The process to find software to download is monumental enough that it will need a post of its own. Some might ask “Why are you doing this, David? We already know the site sucks.”

    The reason is to directly and specifically point out the issues to the right people at IBM to incite change. Representatives of IBM have repeatedly demonstrated they just don’t see the problem when they respond on this to the audience at Lotusphere. Saying “the website sucks” means nothing. Saying “there are 7 places on one web page labeled as support” or “the user must accept the software license agreement at least twice to download software” is meaningful.

    But perhaps most importantly, this will be judged by my professors.

  7. Jyotiprakash Mohanty

    I always go to this site

  8. Hi David,

    First, I want to apologize for the poor experience you had with IBM online. You’re right. IBM is one of the biggest software companies in the world. There is no excuse for delivering a frustrating experience to our customers and online visitors. We can do much better than that.

    I wanted to thank you for taking the time to detail your frustration and for pointing out all the places Passport Advantage is broken. I will be using your feedback as we begin to work on fixing our online software renewal and support experience. Clearly, we have a lot of work to do.

    I’d be happy to give you a call to further discuss how you think we could improve the IBM web experience for our customers.

    You can reach me via email at


    Maria Arbusto, Director, Digital Marketing and Online Commerce, IBM Software

  9. Hi David,

    A wonderful review. You covered the topics very well and stated the facts without making any personal attacks that would have been out of line. The only things I would have changed would be to have the screen shots open in new windows when clicked so I could read your descriptions and see what you were talking about on the screen shot at the same time, and I might have added that there are any number of students at Bellevue College doing class projects that navigate much better than this site (haha). Seriously, it looks to me like IBM should be hiring an outside firm to update this part of their site as they certainly can’t seem to figure it out from within.

    Jeff Dils
    Graphic/Web Designer

  10. Thanks for the feedback Jeff. Spoken like an ‘A’ student from Sherri’s class.

    Thank you Maria. It is great to know that the right people at IBM are listening. No apology is needed. I am grateful to be able to have a positive influence that will benefit all of us. I appreciate you sharing your contact information. I will respond offline. I look forward to the opportunity to contribute more.

    This is a great example of the value and power of social media and how much anyone can make a positive difference. It also reinforces to me how giving specific, respectful feedback is more likely to get the results I want. Now if I could just have a similar impact on marketing…

  11. Very well done Dave. Beautifully done.

    @Maria, thanks for jumping in here and offering to look at this, we appreciate your attention on it. However, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise – IBM software partners and customers have been pointing out how complex and badly designed the Passport Advantage site (and the Software Access section of Partnerworld) is for years.

    Just simple things like easy to remember URLs are such a big deal when it comes to cutting down on frustration for valued customers who only need to access the site once or twice a year (but when they do, it had better work and deliver what they need fast). It’s a classic case of needing to make things easy for the humans involved instead of for the infrastructure/IT folks that manage it. Again, this should not come as a surprise, we have been asking for this for many years.

    Dave didn’t even get onto the issues with DownloadDirector which is the default option of downloading from PA, yet crashes badly on non-Windows platforms, nor the incomprehensible filenames that mean that even when a product has been downloaded it can’t be found again, nor the customer IDs used in PA that are almost never linked to real customer names so that a sensible choice can be made when opening a PMR. There are many more…

    We know that IBM is a big beast with thousands (even millions) of web pages and products. This must make designing the online experience very complex. However, many other organisations do this and do it well.

    Passport Advantage itself is a decent program – it offers value to the customers in so many ways. However, the web site does the program a massive disservice. Dave does a fantastic job of describing the frustrations involved. Let’s put a stake in the ground – 16th August 2011. Lets come back in 6 months to see how things have been improved?

  12. Thanks Stuart. As promised, Maria and I spoke last week. She has been on this issue internally already, but having this detailed analysis from a customer gives her the ammunition to make change. I look forward to giving more feedback in their new design. Meanwhile, please continue to post specific details like your challenge with the download director. That is the kind of feedback they need if you want to be sure it gets addressed.

  13. BTW, thanks for all your feedback. The website may have room for improvement, but I got an ‘A’ for my review of it.

  14. Good analysis. I agree with you that a person would only take time to figure out how to navigate this site if they were already sold on the product. In an age where technology companies are becoming more and more user-friendly, IBM is certainly doing themselves and their customers a disservice by making their products hard to find and their websites tricky to navigate. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, David.

    PS – I laughed that you included a link to “Web Pages that Suck”. Yes, there are pages out there worse than this one!

  15. Just when I was thinking of adding my torch and pitchfork to the cause, Maria Arbusto steps forth and calms the troubled masses. Passport Advantage has always been byzantine and balkanized–we will all owe you hours of free labor for the time recovered (maybe days).

  16. Doing ANYTHING on the IBM passport website is minimum 1 hour exercise. The page load times are all over the place, and more often than not, I get page load errors. I also agree that site navigation is anything but intuitive… and it is VERY simple to loop around for hours trying to somehow accidentally find what the he** you are looking for!

  17. The ENTIRE IBM SITE…every aspect of it, from this part to the partner portal to the software support, from finding relevant links to simply downloading a file (if you don’t use the HTTP option, be prepared for the worst), is a total clusterf*ck that they should be ashamed of. It’s incompetence, plain and simple. Sadly, telling their reps to their face that the site needs an overhaul generally results in a “what can ya do?” shrug.

    It’s been over a year since you wrote this now and the site is still tragic.

  18. I just went through the exercise in frustration tonight. Still not fixed. IBM should be ASHAMED. We’re probably switching away from Power (not for this reason) but what we replace it with will probably not be from IBM.

  19. Joel, I have to agree. When I first published this article over a year ago, It received lots of attention from many decision-makers at IBM. I thought I had made a positive impact and created waves that would set the gears into motion for a website overhaul. I anticipated changes that would prove beneficial to customers and therefore improve the reputation of IBM. After all, surely a technology company that prides itself on its achievements in the computer world and boasts of their technology that in general makes web development so nimble and specifically facilitates highly successful eCommerce sites, would have no problem revamping this high-profile, customer-facing website in less than a year and 2 months, right?

    Alas, I do appear to be the naive fool. But I do believe that persistence is a crucial part of success. Time to once again remind IBM of this huge gap in their business model.

  20. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Passport Advantage website has a new look. I have not yet had a chance to explore it in detail. It looks like some (but not all) of the old issues have been cleaned up. I will post a more detailed review later.

  1. Pingback: Breaking News: The Passport Advantage website has been updated! | The Notes Guy in Seattle

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