Archive for the ‘usability’ category

Web 2.D’0h! Roundup: Message Boards, Razume & Drew Carey, cont’d

8, August, 2008

The latest sweepings from the factory floor of Web 2.0. . .

The Roamin’ Forum

Not long ago I wrote about Twing, a search engine that plumbs message boards for what’s known as “deep content”–the stuff Brother Google and his ilk often miss or dismiss. Twing is a great way to find content you won’t find elsewhere. Some is valuable, some. . .not so much.

Which brings me to an excellent item this week on the Mashable blog, which surveys a group of message boards 2.0. My favorite of the bunch: Lefora, a hosted plug-and-play forum you can attach to just about any site to which you’d like to add talk-among-yourselves functionality. [I’ve kicked the tires on this one on behalf a client, but haven’t implemented it anywhere yet.]

There’s a simplicity to Lefora that I like. Many of the 2.0 message boards tack on features designed to make the board the center of a social community–live chat, blogs, etc. I’m skeptical that’s possible or wise. Still, most of the newcomers are a major upgrade in usability compared to the old-school forums we all knew in our callow youth.

Crowdsource Your Resume?

Speaking of callow youth, a D.C.-based incubator/very-early-stage funder of promising startups called Lauchbox Digital recently previewed an upcoming demo of nine companies in its portfolio. Of the bunch, my favorite is Razume, a service that essentially lets you use the wisdom-of-the-crowds to burnish your resume.

Here’s a snap of my comment on one of the resumes posted on the beta site:

Sure, I’m being tough on the kid, but I’m just trying to help. . . Speaking of professional, though, the site is a model of excellent usability. Should all startups come out of the gate so easy-on-the-brain and friction-free.

Are you sure there are no dumb questions?

I always get a kick out of seeing what keyword searches lead people to this blog. A recent one was “what dorm did drew carey live in at kent sState?”

Alas, the blog entry Brother Google sent the searcher to–the preposterously popular “Al Gore vs. Drew Carey: Another Nail-Biter”–doesn’t answer that question. The entry compares Al Gore’s Current TV left-leaning web video operation to comedian Drew Carey’s libertarian-cranky ReasonTV. [Gore wins by a nose.] Along the way, I confess to having been Drew Carey’s dormmate at Kent State.

But I try to answer all questions on this blog. So, for posterity: Leebrick Hall, 3rd floor.

And finally, our regular sighting of the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse ™:

BigThink, a site that presents brand-name thumbsuckers responding in four-minute videos to the kind of Big Questions that briefly entertain college freshman [at least on the 3rd floor of Leebrick Hall]. What is your personal philosophy? Is the American justice system fair?

Is there a more vivid illustration of medium-message mismatch anywhere online? Pull an all-nighter with a six-pack of Pabst and discuss.

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Revealed: Why So Many Web Sites Are Lousy

31, July, 2008

Spend a lot of time on the web, and you begin to wonder: Why are so many sites baffling, annoying, incoherent or in some other way just plain bad?

A new report from Idea, a non-profit group dedicated to using technology effectively in education, is based on a survey of designers, operators and users of websites. [The report, “Finding Information: Factors that improve online experiences,” focuses mainly on what it calls “information” sites, including those of non-profit groups, but not shopping or social networking sites.]

The results shine light on a lot of things. But for me, it blasts a particularly harsh kleig lamp on a big source of the bad-site problem: The gap between what web designers and web users think. To me, the results reinforce my suspicion that too many web designers think more about what they like than about what the user needs.

[The blogger here withdraws his head deep between his shoulders, turtle-like, to provide a smaller target for the stylish, colorful projectiles about to be hurled by members of the design profession.]

A few highlights from the Idea report: [I have selected data to expand my theme; the report is more wide-ranging and forgiving than my excerpts suggest.]

Over 80 percent of designers believe that good visual design is important. Only about 50 percent of visitors agree.

As with people, good looks are useful but not sufficient. And as with people, excessive good looks can actually become a liability.

Or as the report authors put it, from the website operator’s viewpoint. “…don’t be overly seduced by fancy graphics and multimedia. Invest in strong, clear design and simple methods to quickly deliver current information to your visitor.”

Basic usability theory? Yes. But much easier to say than do.

Designers don’t realize it, but people get lost in their sites all the time.

According to the survey, about 70 percent of designers believe that visitors are almost always able to maintain orientation, which is defined as knowing “where they are, where they can go next, and which pages are related.” But only about 10 percent of visitors report being able almost always to maintain their orientation.

I don’t know which part of this is more unsettling: The fact that only 10 percent of site users say they usually know where they are, or that 70 percent of designers don’t realize this.

People are so confused by web sites, they often believe a human guide would be helpful.

The report finds 60 percent of site users believe a personal guide would increase the effectiveness of a website. Or as the report states it gently, “Designers tend to overestimate the clarity of their designs.”

There’s a saying in the world of consumer product design: The perfect product does not need instructions. It simply explains itself.

The fact that over half of users think they’d get more from the site if they had someone at their elbow telling them what to do suggests to me what NASA might call “catastrophic system failure.”

I know a lot of this is essentially basic usability, which website operators ignore at their peril. But what’s interesting to me here is the gap between what designers think and what users think. How could this be fixed?

Usability testing is fun. It’s fascinating. It’s pretty cheap. It’s cool to watch people actually interact with a site, blundering around and finding stuff, exposing serious flaws and hidden victories and producing all sorts of insights that can improve the site. Watching users in real life immediately disabuses you of the conclusion that your site is as good as you think it is.

I wonder how often the designers themselves sit in?

[The blogger dons a motorcycle helmet. And hopes designers don’t start poking around the blogger’s own sites too much.]

p.s. The Idea site itself–as one might hope–is a model of usability. Love the drop-down navigation!

SEO good. User experience bad.

10, April, 2008

I have been accused of giving my former employer, The Washington Post, a big juicy kiss a couple days back. I looked at how well the Pulitzer Prize winners integrated digital journalism into their prize-winning work. The Post came out on top. Hey, I tried to be objective.

Anyhow, today’s topic gives me the opportunity not just to cast a weary eyebrow at washingtonpost.com, but to throw sand in its face and kick it in the nuts. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

The topic is how mainstream news sites–the Post is just one egregious example among many–sacrifice user experience as a matter of daily practice in order to trick Google into ranking its contents higher on its search results.

Delivering poor user experience in the name of building traffic is, we all know, built into the very DNA of web publishing. But one particular practice of mainstream web journalism is so deeply annoying, so persistent, so widespread, so pernicious and so baffling to outsiders that it’s worth pointing out.

I refer to the Inexplicable and Distracting Hyperlink.

Let’s look at the news story that’s currently in the lead position on the washingtonpost.com home page.

Bush to Cut Army Tours to 12 Months

President Supports Suspending Pullout Of Forces in Iraq

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 10, 2008; Page A01

President Bush plans to announce today that he will cut Army combat tours in Iraq from 15 months to 12 months, returning rotations to where they were before last year’s troop buildup in an effort to alleviate the tremendous stress on the military, administration officials said.

Note how the Post has kindly offered that hyperlink to “President Bush.” Who exactly is being served by this hyperlink? Let’s see. . .that would have to be someone reading Washington Post coverage of national affairs yet is wondering who this Bush feller is, anyway.

Same with Iraq. The audience for that hyperlink is probably that guy who’s been taking ice core samples in Antarctica since 1990 and is wondering what all the fuss is about.

But the Post doesn’t stop there. It offers handy hyperlinks to the following terms that demand explanation for the discriminating consumer of public affairs news: Capitol Hill. Afghanistan. Marines. White House. And my favorite of the day, U.S. military.

To be fair, the article also offers links of some potential value when it blue-fonts the names of prominent figures in the story.

But the stuff you might really want more background about? No links. If you want to know about the details of that Democrat proposal on a torture ban, troop relief-and-refresh and withdrawl timetable, for instance, sorry. You’ll need to visit with Brother Google.

You don’t have to be a search-engine optimization wizard to know what’s going on here. Google and other search engines read the language of hyperlinks as markers for story content. So if somebody is searching the term President Bush (and therefore likely to be looking for biographical information, not what he said yesterday about troop withdrawl) this story will bounce up higher on Google results.

But frankly, that’s SEO chump change.

The really big payoff is revealed if you click on one of those hyperlinks. Go ahead, click on the President Bush link above. You’ll be taken to what’s known in the trade as a “link farm” (or “index page”)–links to dozens of stories (and video, audio and blog entries) more or less related, in at least some tangential way, to President Bush. Torch relay to go on despite protests, IOC says (CNN). Bloomberg’s Zacharia Discusses NATO summit in Bucharest. And so on.

So why do these auto-generated pages exist? We return to the demands of Brother Google. If Google’s silent patient spiders see pages loaded with links about Bush–or Capitol Hill, or the Marines, etc.–they infer that the site is very content-rich about the topic. Up go the pages in search results. Even if the links are nonsensical, worthless or utterly baffling. (Say It Ain’t So, Colin (Balkinization)). Next time some Googler searches for President Bush, wham! Washingtonpost.com is right on top.

Except when it’s not.

Go ahead, Google President Bush. Of the mainstream media sites, the well-tended New York Times link farm (led by Campaign 2004 content!) rides highest. As does (twice!) the New York Sun. And the Bush index page of the Tribune Co.’s The Swamp political blog. I got tired of clicking through results to find a washingtonpost.com story. But I passed the bushisantichrist and bushorchimp sites along the way.

SEO is a darker and far more complex art than this, and let me state plainly that I am a rube. There are complex traffic-steering and -aggregating services (post.com uses Inform and Aggregate Knowledge, at least) that play into this. There are many things going on behind the scenes that I am clueless about. And the thing Google spiders reward the most is links to the content from other credible sites, which is at least an attempt to validate content value.

But my point is this: A reader of online news is constantly distracted by all this blue-spatter spiderbait. It degrades the user experience. It offers no user value. It adds an unsavory layer of trickery to serious-minded content. Like the worst of all journalism, it places the institution’s commercial interests above those of the reader.

The question for serious journalistic enterprises: How can you maximize traffic to great content while keeping the reader’s needs at the forefront?

And isn’t that the same question we’ve been asking as long as this profession has existed?

MSNBC: Bomb and Strafe the Flyovers, Please

13, November, 2007

The Bivings Report, a blog operated by the web consulting firm the Bivings Group, today has an excellent analysis of the redesign of MSNBC.com.

In short, there are plenty of things wrong with it, though I am not as sour as Todd Zeigler, author of the Bivings item. The tour of the new site is in some ways more effective than a lot of the site itself.

The MSNBC site adds the usual 2.obligitories:

  • Discussions [called “message boards” under the “participate” tab]
  • UGC solicitations branded “First Person”
  • mobile and IM news updates
  • more RSS feeds than I had the patience to count (four pages’ worth!)
  • widgets (horrifyingly self-promotional; check out the Matt-and-Meredith news widget)

Best new feature: A very simple customization feature that lets you move, collapse and expand content modules on landing pages (say, the Asian-Pacific module under World news). You do this by nudging the module up or down the page with up or down arrows and then clicking the number of stories you want displayed in that module, from 0 to 15. You can for instance push the “Terrorism” module to the top of your page, opening it wide to include 15 stories, and bury and collapse “Europe” completely. (I do not intend that in the Rumsfeldian sense of “bury and collapse Europe.”)

Worst old feature: That easy-to-hate, entirely inexplicable left-rail navigation that, when overmoused, launches flyover submenus across the page until all content on the incumbent page is hidden by prompts to content elsewhere. Some of these sub- or sub-submenus get “stuck” in the extended mode and require a click (or several) to make them recede.

But it gets worse! The items on the TV program-specific navigation across the top (Dateline, Meet the Press, MSNBC programs, etc.) when moused over also spawn flyovers that obscure vast chunks of content. This means it is possible to nudge your mouse absentmindedly across the top and left hand navigations in succession and mask over all MSNBC content.

All I can figure is someone in a corner office insisted on keeping the flyover navigation, which in my estimation is one of the biggest and most public usability errors on a major media site. Can someone please explain?

Video Usability, Cont’d: The Descent of the Starlings

3, October, 2007

We have starlings in our backyard.

Anybody who has experience with this pest bird knows what an invasion means: acidic bird crap that can kill or eat all it touches, including trees, plants and concrete; a chalky, particulate stench that fills the air; the unspoken threat of omnipresent virulence; a wall of flapping and shrieking that, if you were actually able to sit outside, would obscure conversation; fear of nests in the attic, eaves and dryer vents; and, each dusk, the descent into trees of the flock as thick as a fury of bees but as big as the Hindenberg.

So a woman in my neighborhood (who, to protect her privacy, I will describe simply as “my wife”) goes online to see what we can do to relocate, dispatch or if necessary outright terminate the things.

Beginning with the obligatory Google search, she finds, 2/3 of the way down the first page, a link to an amateur video by a guy named Scott Fraser. She clicks it first. It conveys in 2:14 far more about the vulgarity (his phrase) of these birds than I could manage in the labored paragraph above.

Digging into text links we’ve developed a stategy, which involves balloons with big eye shapes on them, shiny metallic tape, laser pointers and paintball guns. (Hey, this is war, and they started it.)

But I digress. My point is that this starling clip is another example of how video can be deployed on the web with great effect, regardless of production quality, monetization strategies or snazzy distribution technologies. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’d say an informative, on-point video like this is worth at least several hundred thousand. (That would be a lousy web experience, but you get the idea.)

I mention this because I am beginning to fear that my position on web video–that it has value and commercial potential only to the extent its content is strong enough to overcome the truly lousy experience of viewing video on the web–is doomed. I fear I’m becoming like that famous dolt at IBM turned away Bill Gates and his little DOS program because the IBM guy didn’t think anybody would really want a personal computer. I’m beginning to suspect I’m on the wrong side of history here.

That may not shut me up for a while. But it does obligate me in fairness to point out a recent report, this one by advertising.com, again demonstrating how quickly people are (or appear to be) adopting web video viewing habits.

From the press release:

Study results indicate that the majority of consumers are viewing video online, at 62 percent of survey respondents. Contrary to popular opinion, these viewers are not just young adults viewing user-generated videos; in fact, most (69 percent) are ages 35 and older with a preference for viewing news clips online.

Now this report, by an ad agency trying to puff up the video advertising business, is comically self-interested and its findings likely biased. Still, it adds another gram of weight to the possiblity that those who believe video will take over the web are right and I am fatally wrong.

This is unlikely to change my public stance on the future of web video for some time, of course. When facts begin to accumulate to one’s disfavor, the only reasonable response is to deny them, cling to whatever fragments of data support one’s thesis, and generally get more shrill and insistent. I apologize in advance for this behavior.

Or perhaps I can direct a flock of starlings in the opponents’ direction and hope for the best.