The Problem with Courses @ Brown

Everyone attending Brown naturally finds themselves searching and registering for courses quite often. This requires wrestling with the beast known as Courses @ Brown (cab.brown.edu). CAB is confusing to users both new and old, and here I’ll explore the major reasons why.

Fig 1 — Browsing CAB

It’s easy to find one’s self looking at recommended courses, viewing calendars, and generally opening new links to information. This is an quick way to get yourself lost. Links don’t open new tabs or new sites— they just add another column to the right. So, if you find yourself looking at even just a couple recommendations, your screen is full. Fig. 1 shows this: At normal zoom, you would only see one or two columns. This raises a few issues: It takes time to navigate columns, it’s impossible to compare courses or calendars, and going even two columns in prevents you from accessing your cart or the search bar.

Fig 2 — No more search bar

The reason the UI was designed in this fashion was to make sure students didn’t forget about classes they were looking at earlier. In the developers’ minds, students could easily click back to view a course they were interested in had they gotten too far off track; So, just make new columns rather than take the students away from what they had earlier.

An easy solution: bookmarks. The ability to bookmark a certain course and access it later would solve the designers’ problem while limiting the number of columns. Clicking on new classes would replace the already open columns rather than creating new ones, leaving the search bar on-screen and making getting to your cart from anywhere easily. And, though it may get complicated, a function letting you open courses in new tabs would allow for easy comparison.


Another issue that plagues CAB, especially for new users, is the search tab.

Fig 3 — CAB search bar

The search bar overwhelms while also using space inefficiently. There are three separate tabs based on browsing the course options. The top search bar lets you search with words and parameters. The second search bar — only parameters. Then, the search constraints at the bottom apply to the search bar two sections up.

The question is, why was it designed this way?

Recall from earlier that the website was based in the expanding-column style. Course-browsing takes up 90% of the page doing this, so the search bar was designed to take up only one thin column. This meant placing the advanced search settings in the column along with the regular search. However, because they were advanced, they were placed at the bottom. What about the 3rd search-based buttons? The only assumption one can make is that the creators assumed people didn’t want to enter in their concentration every time, and so made this section for people to use for browsing based on concentration.

There is one very quick fix that the UI could make to simplify things — get rid of the concentration search buttons, and make them criteria in the regular search. This makes it very clear how you search the site — search bar with criteria — so that users won’t have to spend an unreasonable amount of time figuring out how to operate the most basic of functions on Courses @ Brown.

Though Courses @ Brown is currently an unwieldy monstrosity, a few simple changes to the UI could make it easy to operate for users both new and old. Observing problematic interfaces such as this one can help anyone designing a UI realize that when it comes to websites, less is usually more.