Usable Web's blog

Information pollution

Write less is the key message from the August 11 Alertbox.

Jakob missed another key recommendation, however: throw away the crap that you have already written. Most web sites could get an immediate boost in usability if they just cleaned up the pollution they have already created.

Alertbox on PDF usability

Two Alertbox columns in July discussed the usability of PDF on the web.

Information Foraging

The June 30 Alertbox goes into a little bit of detail on information foraging. People act like hunting animals in their quest for online survival.

Besides the popular aspect of scent, it also talks about how people choose what to eat (select sites) and when they decide to hunt new patches (go to other sites).

It all boils down to a bunch of internal cost-benefit analyses. Your information architecture can steer people to deciding that your site is not worth the hassle. Or the IA can make it clear what to expect from the site and how to get it.

Diversity on the Web

The June 16 Alertbox reminds us that the web is about niches.

Even as a few of the big sites get bigger, the sum of all of the small sites is a lot more important.

Usability For $200

The June 2 Alertbox is about what usability techniques you can use for a very small site (7 pages) and limited budget.

Good advice overall, of course. Maybe it is just because I spent all weekend playing with the kids and hearing them repeat their latest TV jingle, but all I could think about while reading the article was:

Can we do usability? Yes we can!

Convincing Clients to Pay for Usability

The May 19 Alertbox is about how to do user-centered design in the client-agency model.

I have run into 2 basic types of clients -

For some, UCD is a new concept, and they do need some convincing that it is worthwhile. I recall one client meeting (intranet project) where the client was fascinated with our idea that we would talk to their employees about their information needs in general and not even talk about the technology. It woke me up - I had forgotten how new UCD is to some people.

For these cases, sometimes you have to do it behind-the-scenes and eat the costs yourself to make sure you do a good job. Do not lie to the client, but you also do not have to get them involved. Sometimes they are keen to learn (so include them), sometimes they just want the end result.

For other clients, UCD is a given, and if you do not do it, then you will not even be considered. In that case, put your user testing front-and-center in the project.

I am seeing much less behind-the-scenes UCD necessary as time goes on, but you still have to do whatever it takes to do a good job.

Making Web Advertisements Work

The May 5 Alertbox is more commentary about web advertising.

But what I find a lot more interesting is that it is co-authored by Jakob and Don Norman. I believe this is a first.

Of course, Jakob and Don share the name of the Nielsen Norman Group, but if you have ever seen them together in public, they usually fight like an old married couple.

I doubt we will see such behavior within the Alertbox column, but we will have to see if Tog joins next and if other NNG employees contribute too. Is Alertbox starting to evolve to something different? Would this be a good or a bad thing?

Will Plain-Text Ads Continue to Rule?

The April 21 Alertbox combines 2 old thoughts into one:

  1. Advertising in general does not work (September 97)- but Google has a winner with its contextual text ads
  2. People draw conclusions from atypical examples (June 97)- so expect other sites to try their own text ads even though they are nothing like Google

But any short-term gain from text-ads will vanish if they do not provide any value to users.

We saw this first with "banner blindness" - people visually ignoring rectangular images once they figured out most were useless ads.

I continue to see this across the board - not just with banners. If users regularly encounter a design element that is useless to them, then they quickly start to ignore it. Could be banners, or global navigation at the top, or related links on the left, or promotions on the right - does not matter.

I call this "feckless blindness" - as people discover that a part of the page is routinely useless, they become blind to it over time.

Alertbox: Low-End Media for User Empowerment

The April 21 Alertbox is about keeping it simple - not a simple user interface, but simple media for the content.

In short, the fancy audio and videos are not worth the effort.

This reminds me of the old-time Alertboxes - nothing too surprising, but good to keep this article handy so that I can reference it the next time someone gets gung-ho on the rich media.

Alertbox: Paper Prototyping

I pretty much agree with Jakob's April Alertbox Paper Prototyping: Getting User Data Before You Code: paper prototyping is not used as often as it should be.

I think the reasons center on fear factors -

  • People are afraid to talk directly with users, especially "naked" like this - it is much easier to have some technology between you and users
  • Some designers are afraid of the unpolished look - if the design is not 100% complete visually, they are afraid the results will be tainted.
  • Some are afraid of losing the online context, that you lose something without the user's hand on a mouse.

While losing context does happen with paper, it is generally OK to lose that for initial designs. With paper, people do see it as a more informal design and give better feedback overall.

And when you use the paper format to your advantage and let users really get creative, creating parts of the own designs on the fly, then you really get to see the benefits. You can do so many more things with paper designs - so much more than just measuring completion times and gathering opinions.

I have not read Carolyn's book yet - but I did scan it at CHI. I hope that one of her messages goes beyond Jakob's "earlier is better" article - for some design tasks, paper is just plain better than building anything with code.

This is a first in a new series for ia/ - "beat reporters" who watch an area and blog it. I volunteered to "beat Alertbox" so I will be adding my own comments to Jakob's articles.


PS I have very little association with Morgan Kaufmann - I have reviewed some proposals for them, and I eat their desserts at CHI every year, but that is all.

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