Web design

How’s your SEO?

SEO is high on any on-line marketeers agenda. There’s plenty of agencies about that can give advice on how to leapfrog up the google rankings, but before you do that, take a look at Website Grader. A neat tool that grades your site, gives you insight into the search engine world and tips on how you could improve your ranking.

Web as platform, your website an application

The web is changing. The words of the Cluetrain Manifesto are being realised – “Markets are Conversations”, driven by this thing called “Web 2.0” a mish-mash of ideas around digital strategy, experience and technology. For the mainstream the web is moving away from being solely a provider of content with primarily a “push” experience with crude journeys to purchase and fulfilment to being the platform. It is becoming an increasingly interactive experience; web sites are becoming applications, social in their nature.

There are the obvious candidates; Google docs and spreadsheets, these are web applications that challenge their desktop brethren. What they offer in addition is the ability to collaborate on documents – real time. Look at Kayak and the experience it offers for selecting flights. The experience is more like an application, entering and manipulating data in the same place (rather than the old web linear experience: enter data -> hit enter key -> wait -> “Result: Sorry, nothing suitable matches your criteria” -> start again). Social networking sites are also more akin to applications than websites – Facebook even calls its widgets “applications”. Wesabe is a social Microsoft money – it strives to replace an application.

Where does that leave you if you want to harness the new interactive potential and more fulfilling customer experience of ‘web as platform’, ‘your site an application’? In the old world (old world in this space being a couple of years ago), you would probably have engaged a technology firm to build / configure your content management system with a more creative “new media” firm building the on-line brand giving you the look and feel. Any interactive components (such as calculators, quotation engines) would probably be built and owned by IT, with minimal input from the creative agency. Take a look at many large institutional websites and you will see evidence of this. The static content managed brochureware side of the site will be polished; it will have been built by interface developers with experience of building excellent front ends. Yet the parts that were built by technology, by Java developers (for example) who are excellent in back end stuff but not so experienced in the front end stuff will usually be sloppy in their execution. (Sloppy to a pedantic UI guy’s eye – not to the customer!)

So, if the web is a platform and your site is to be an application, who do you turn to? I’d suggest take care. If you are going to engage a new media agency make sure they have the experience and can demonstrate delivery on time and on budget. Indeed, are they really the right people for the job – interestingly, the most successful new propositions on the web (YouTube, Facebook, MySpace etc) go easy on the creative design (if at all) focussing upon the customer interaction. Alternatively you could choose an organisation whose pedigree in application design and build (ahem, like ThoughtWorks for example) and insert some sort of measure of aesthetic quality as a non-functional requirement. Want an example of this in practice? Take a look at the new ThoughtWorks Studios product Mingle. To the uninitiated it is a website – hey! it is in a browser. But this is nothing short of an application. A rather good one at that. Has your New Media Agency built anything like that?

Rude users

Have you thought about what your users can call themselves when they register? Particulalry if you are building any social networking where users can identify themselves to one another user nicknames, do you have a restricted list of names that are inappropriate or offensive? Urban Dictionary provides a pretty exhustive list of words to consider…

Does content need a home?

We like to classify things, put them in homes. Information Architects design controlled vocabularies and taxonomies; ultimately labeling where things should go. Things may live in more than one place; we may use a faceted classification, but essentially that is a roadmap to the same unique, indivisible place. On the web this typically means an unintelligible URL with lots of random characters rather than something that is human readable. And that is just not nice. So you want a Robbie Williams CD (not that I’m sure why you’d want such a thing) – your journey may take you down any route:

Adult contemporary > Male Vocalists
Popular artists > Q-T
Pop > Dance Pop
British acts > Male Vocalists
Award winners > Brits > 2005

Whatever the route, chances are they’ll take you to the same page; “robbiewilliams.htm” with a unique URL (more likely than not it will be a dogs dinner of characters and symbols thrown up by the content management system).

The drawback of each journey terminating at the same place is that it lacks context. For example, a music store might have a campaign around specific artists. They may choose a different flavour to the branding in the campaign, a different look and feel. The “Brits” pages are different to the “Dance pop” pages. But as soon as the user is directed to a specific record they will served up the standard artist page. Any context of the journey in a breadcrumb will be lost (or in Amazon repeated to show where the product “lives” according to the different classification hierarchies).

Yet what if the product’s classification was truly faceted, was not indivisible, but lived wherever it was sought? Should the URL of “Robbie Williams” not be how the user has found it, the URL becoming the breadcrumb?

store.com/popular artists/Q-T/robbie.htm

The page may be (almost) the same, served up (mashed /meshed up) with the context in which it was sought. Related links would be specific to the URL rather than generic (other Brits awards winner in the Brits context, other male vocalists in that context). Yes, there maybe multiple versions of the same page on the site, but from a findability perspective this is little different to a conventional faceted classification system.

OK, this is all well and good, but doesn’t it hinder search engine optimisation? Well no, Google handles duplicate content quite nicely thank you very much. So bring on the tidy URLs and content living nowhere and everywhere.

Accesibility is a distraction

A while ago Jeff Veen wrote that he “[didn’t] care about accessibility”.

It is exhilarating working with ThoughtWorkers who have a similar approach. It is not unusual for them to state blankly when the client starts talking about DDA. “Arrrrr” they will say when the acronym is explained. Disability discrimination Act- make it accessible? It is what we do. If what we build is not accessible we have not written good code – we have failed. Accesibility is a distraction – it should be a by-product of good development practices. They’ll wax lyrical about progressive enhancement and well structured mark-up and not only will it be inherently accessible but will work on mobile devices or any devices and off they go on a roll….

Is there anything wrong with my attachment to Saffron?

A funny thing happened today. We’ve had up on the wall our personas – boards showing the key users of the site we are developing; their photos and mood imagary visually describing them. These were stuck on top of earlier, crude descriptions of the personas with their names the same but different photographs and less detail.  A seperate workshop was held in another room and the boards were taken down for it, leaving the earlier versions behind.

Suddenly our key user who we are calling Saffron had gone. Her photograph had changed. Her “type” was the same, but her personification was different…

I was kinda attatched to the old Saffron. Who is this imposter?

In a while the boards will be put back up again and my Saffron will return…

Now whilst I am a keen advocate of personas to bring a user type to life, clearly there is a danger of getting overly attached to that persona, and that feels like a smell.

Meosphere. The Next Big Thing?

Michael Klynstra writes enthusiastically about Meosphere. My first impression is that I’m not so sure. It may be a cool and compelling proposition but it is not obvious to the visitor what it is all about. Needing a large call to action “Click here to see how it works” should set the alarm bells ringing. The target audience (I assume) are typically time poor and have limited patience or attention span. Why should they invest time into learning how to use the site, let alone actually interacting with it? This is where Facebook is so good. Blindingly simple home page:

Facebook is a social utility that connects
with the people around you.

Clearly expressing the site’s value proposition from the outset…

It’ll be interersting to see how Meosphere get on. Good luck to them, but I wonder if they could have made the home page slightly more compelling and inviting to an unitiated user… Having said that, once they’ve got a community and people are emailing links, is that so important after all? When I signed up to Facebook, it was on the basis of an invitation rather than a visit to the homepage. So maybe if Meosphere get critical mass of community then homepage design isn’t so important and indeed Michael’s words will come true; web 2.0 at its best.

(Oh, and I drove a 1967 Volkswagen Microbus at “highschool”).

Virgin sloppiness

Here is an example of sloppy execution of a simple process. Logging into Virgin Wines and (1) the user has forgotten their password. They click the forgotten password link and (2) are invited to enter their email. They hit the reset password button and (3) the login screen appears. there is no apparent feedback that anything has happened. So the user repeats the process. It is now that they read the instructions and see that an email has been sent. (4) multiple times. What is missing from the process is any feedback, feedback that the password has been reset and a new password has been sent to the user. Only it has – (5) as a pop-up window, that because the user was visiting the site for the first time had been blocked by the browser pop-up blocker.

forgotten password process as virgin wines

Clearly the requirements were correct, just the implementation was sloppy. Had the requirements been supported by wireframes, or even just a basic illustration of the screen progression (rather than just a process flow) such a usability blunder would have been avoided.

Compel me to continue

Web site registration is usually more stick than carrot. The worst sites are those that require you to register before providing any indication of the benefits that will be accrued from entering yet another username and another password. (Bring on OpenID and single sign-on).

Geni.com breaks that rule of not placing a registration barrier before customers can interact with your site, but they get away with it. How? Registration is hardly a barrier – it is only a request for an email. The first page you view visually articulates the proposition, compelling you to continue. To add an email is hardly an onerous task. There’s no request for password, no T’s and C’s. The password is covered by the email they send you, and do we really need the small print that no-one reads anyway… Besides, logging in is only relevant the next time you visit the site, by which time you will probably already be committed. Not only is proposition itself is really compelling, the execution is excellent. The guys behind this have obviously spent some time thinking about the design and the usability. They could easily have jumped on the community site bandwagon and built something to obtain VC investment. But they’ve gone one step further and built something that engages not only on content, but also on interaction.

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