Accidentally in Code

Archive for the ‘Usability’ Category

After I gave my presentation the other week, someone asked a question. It was:

So, basically what you’re doing is data-mining?

And I said, no, well yes, but that’s not how I think about it. I see it as creating something that will help people understand their use of Twitter. The fact that I achieve this by data mining is by-the-by.

Maybe when we speak to other programmers it’s OK to say something like, “I’m data-mining social graphs in Twitter and visualizing them” but when we speak to our users, that may not mean very much to them. What’s more, I don’t think I would have come up the idea to do that if I’d gone to Twitter with the intention of data-mining. This didn’t come from me as a programmer with an interest in data-mining, or an interest in visualization (as an aside, I took a course in visualization at Edinburgh and hated it. Mostly because we were coding in Tcl). It came from me as a Twitter user, wanting a better way to measure engagement than followers/following.

Yesterday, I wrote a little bit about the journey that brought me to Ottawa. I think I’ve finally realized what I’m passionate about. It’s people. It’s users. This is why I’m so fascinated about what I’m working on right now – what’s more people than social networking? It’s also why I’m so interested in Usability. I’ve read every article on Don Norman’s website, I find usability so interesting, so important.

I’m passionate about giving users what they want – that’s usability, better ways to display data, etc. That’s creating the things they say they want.

Even more so, though, I’m passionate about giving user what they want, that they don’t realize they want yet. In small ways, that’s telling people who are emailing spreadsheets about Google Docs, or explaining to someone frustrated by their web designer about the simplicity and ease of use of WordPress. In bigger ways, it’s been taking a mess of spreadsheets and turning it into a database that can answer questions that users hadn’t even thought to ask. It’s been creating something that’s can make you really aware of your conversational network, and encourage you to talk to new people (the most rewarding feedback I got was from someone who told me they were now making an effort to speak to more people after seeing their graph). I hope these things are just the beginning.

So, what do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be a programmer who speaks fluent human. How about you?

I was super excited this morning when I got an invite to Google Wave. I’ve read about it, but whilst there’s been a lot of hype around it no-one seems to describe it such that I’ve really got it. Note – don’t expect me to be any different, I tried to explain to my boyfriend why I was so excited just a moment ago and he doesn’t seem to have any idea what I’m talking about.

Anyway, I’m an early adopter. I was on i’m in like with you back when it was hot and invitation only (now it’s more of a games site, before it was about flirting). So I’ve been bugging my friend who works at Google since I heard about Wave, and after he got in yesterday he very kindly sent me an invitation. I logged on, expecting to see something that would blow my mind… but it actually looks quite plain. See below:

Google Wave: Empty

Abstractly I think I thought that Wave would just replace my email. But I can’t send messages to people who aren’t on Wave, and the only contact I have is Dig. I also think Dig is getting bored of the incessant messaging (he, obviously, has a real job). Perhaps the most useful thing I can use it for at the moment is keeping track of the conversations in my head. I.e. I can have a Wave for a project, and write my little notes in it. However when my friends are on it, it’ll be amazing. At the moment we organize events through my Facebook status, but Wave is going to be a so much better solution. Ditto for WISE, sending out mass emails to 10+ people is a nightmare. People need to know what’s going on, but it clogs up your inbox. In a wave, you’ll just be able to skim the stuff that you need to be aware of and it’ll all be part of one conversation.

Having conversations online is not always that “usable” of an experience; they can be hard to follow, too many threads or responses can overwhelm your inbox or ability to keep up with them. I really think that from what I’ve seen so far Wave will improve that. It’s like – email (longer messages) meets IM (instantaneous, see when they’re typing) meets Facebook (converse with multiple people, passively watch threads) meets real life (yes/no/maybe and map gadgets allow you to gauge interest, plan routes etc – more gadgets are coming. Also not only can you see that someone is typing – you can see what they’re typing as they’re typing it) and something more. The conversations we have online, and how we have them are different from the way we communicate in real life. I think Wave might bring is back to a more “natural” way of conversing.

One last really cool thing, you can “play back” your conversation, see the button next to reply? If you had a long, confusing conversation I can see that being really useful.

More screenshots below:

Google Wave: My First Wave

Google Wave: Building a Conversation

Google Wave: Continuing the Conversation

Google Wave: Multiple Waves

By the way – I can’t invite people (yet). Wish I could! Sorry to the people who’ve already asked for invitations and those who want to after reading this!

A blogger I read, wrote this post commenting on SEO. I suggest you read it, because it’s good, but in brief the question she’s asking is – what is SEO? Why isn’t blogging about content? I commented on her post, but I think my thoughts on SEO merit their own little forum. So here we go!

Blogging is all about creating content, it’s one of the many reasons having a “company blog” is so good. It provides an easy way of regularly updating your site, which determines how regularly Google crawls it. Even if you accept a niche for SEO, would it apply well to blogging? Do you try and optimize every post? Or just your homepage? How do you divide your time? Should you be spending as much time optimizing your post for search as you do writing? It doesn’t really make sense to me. I don’t think that blogging great content will necessarily get people to your site, but I’m pretty confident that blogging mediocre content but spending a lot of time ensuring it still ranks well in search won’t get you a lot of people subscribing to your RSS feed. Are you supposed to measure your worth in hits, or the number of people who engage with your content, comment, respond to stuff you’ve written, pass it along to their friends?

So one way to do “SEO” is to go around commenting on things related to what you’re doing and include a link to your site. This has a dual goal – one of getting people to click on the link (more hits) but from the SEO perspective each link out there is a “vote” for your site, and the more votes you have the better your search ranking. There’s a spammer equivalent of this, which writing a bot to post all over the place (WordPress does an excellent job of stopping that kind of thing). And there’s a smart way to do it, which is to join in the conversation on a few things and prove you’ve got something worthwhile to say. Then the fact that a lot of sites use a nofollow tag won’t matter as people will be looking at your site to see who the person with the insightful comments is, and perhaps linking to you in a future post. Twitter uses the nofollow tag, so including the URL of my blog in my profile makes no difference to my page rank. But it’s still a good idea to include it – I’m taking part in the conversation, and if people want to find out who I am or what I do – they can.

My degree is in Computer Science and I took a course on how search engines work. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I know enough that when I hear people talking about SEO it’s often apparent that they don’t know how search engines work. No-one outside of Google knows exactly how their search engine works, but there are a couple of things we do know – first is that content IS important, because the ranking is a combination of popularity and content. Having people link to you is good, but reciprocal links are ignored. The more popular something that links to you is, the more that boosts your ranking, etc.

Ultimately, I think SEO is not and cannot be a long term strategy. Firstly, because people find ways to make SEO tactics less effective – the no follow tag is an example of this, and a long time ago Google stopped considering “keywords”, and some time in between invisible text got left out too. And secondly because every year the search experience gets better and the current movement is to make it more personalized, but there’s also a lot of data about how everyone is using the web. So there are a lot of improvements we can reasonably expect to see, and soon.

I know! It’s harder! It’s a longer term strategy. And ohhh you went to so much effort to make your website. So what! Doesn’t mean you deserve a top ranking in Google right away. Looking at SEO this way, it’s apparent that SEO means trying to approximate the way people get a well respected site (with a good page rank), cheaply and quickly.

And, by the way, the only person I know who makes any money from Google works for them. Those ads about making money using Google? They’re a load of nonsense too. Great article on that here.

Finally, and most importantly, I think SEO misses the point of having a website. You don’t create one to interact with Google – you create one to interact with customers, potential customers, potential employees, partners, potential partners. So even if you can get these people to your site by artificially inflating your ranking, your content determines whether they’ll come back. There’s some new and cool ways to measure “engagement” with a site, such as seeing what people have highlighted, cut and paste etc. So as those kind of metrics become more mainstream the old metric of “hits” will seem like the blunt tool it is.

So here’s where I see SEO ending. I think that sometime soon Google’s algorithm will be smart enough to tell the difference between people trying to simulate respected content and people having respected content. And sometime around then, the effort people go to to simulate respected content will exceed the effort needed to have respected content. And after SEO, will come something that I’m describing “Web Strategizing”. This will mean thinking about the entirety of your presence on the web, what social media is appropriate and can best represent your brand. You probably should be blogging, but what should you be blogging about? How do you engage your community? Who is your community, anyway?

Here’s why I think “Web Strategy” is the way – it’s because when I talk to people, they might say they want to rank higher in Google but that’s not their only goal. And they have other questions about how the web works, too, that SEO doesn’t answer. There are a few conversations I’ve had relatively recently, and I’ll talk about them below.

  • Talking to a consultant  about Facebook. A company he advises is thinking about their Facebook strategy, and how best to use the platform to promote themselves. He asked my opinion, and amongst other things I talked about Privacy concerns on Facebook. Why? I don’t talk about Privacy concerns to everyone who asks me this, but because given the business model of the company concerned Privacy is a crucial thing to address.
  • Small business owner, also on Facebook. Wants to use it as a marketing tool. Has some good ideas, some distinctly half baked. I told him – Facebook complements your online strategy, it doesn’t replace it.
  • Small business owner, on his website in general. He’s fired a web designer because they were being flaky, but anyway isn’t convinced they were doing what he wanted. He’s computer literate, but not that technical and wants to be able to update it himself. Blogging is an obvious part of the solution here, but Twitter is also going to be part of the strategy – I’ll keep you posted.
  • Analyst asked me to look at a site for specialized search. The usability was really appalling. If you’re going to out-Google Google, you’re going to need to bring something new and more impressive to the table.
  • Conversation with director of a small multi-national. They’ve hired someone to do a much needed redesign of their website and also to improve their Google ranking. I talked to him about some of the more spam-like SEO strategies and what doesn’t actually work and he was keen to make sure that none of those tactics were used. Also, they’re not so interested in their search rank, it’s more about leveraging the contacts they have – so having more of a presence on LinkedIn would be a good thing for them.

Conclusion – none of these tools are magic. But they’re incredibly powerful, if you understand them. Being “on the internet” is not a business plan. What do you want to portray in your web presence? What do you hope to get from it? How do you plan to monetize that, and if you don’t plan to – how can you measure the value that you get? Facebook is the fourth largest site in the world, but isn’t profitable. Why? Because they didn’t start with a business model, although perhaps that’s part of the reason why they’ve been so successful. What they do have, is content which will eventually be incredibly valuable – once they work out how to monetize it without annoying their users too much. And they’re being patient.

The only site I saw making money out of SEO was one that charged $10 and redirected you to OpenOffice. But when I tried to find it just now, I couldn’t. Go figure! So SEO? Not a long term strategy.

Saw this video the other day – Google in New York asking people if they know what a browser is.

Most people didn’t.

Or rather – they essentially think the browser is Google.

Is the browser so pervasive that people don’t register that it’s a distinct “thing”? Or does the average user basically just not have any understanding of computers? Do we need to try and understand what they are doing, or educate them?

I think, it’s all and yet none of these things. The average user thinks in terms of the tasks they want to complete and sees the computer in terms of how it helps them with these tasks. As programmers, we think in terms of applications, operating systems, hardware. We’re speaking different languages. If we reformulate the question in terms of a task – for instance, “what do you use to access the web” and qualify it with “on your computer” (the obvious answer is “my computer/phone/ipod”) we’ll get a different set of answers… and a better understanding?

Update: Interesting article on the browser wars in the Guardian.

Recently, I tried to pay my Rogers (Canada) bill online. Considering that you’re trying to give them money they really make it very difficult for you. Eventually I managed to set up an e-billing account for my banking. Linking this to Rogers for some reason necessitated downloading Firefox, as it does not support Safari (this makes me hopping mad; I have Flock on my mini, but don’t see the need to have two browsers on my Air). Anyway, having set all this up I discovered it’s only helpful from next month. I could scream. The problem of what to do this month is on-going.

My modem (provided by Rogers), when properly secured, is also incompatible with my iTouch and Wii. I would call them, but I’ve already lost the will to live. Maybe tomorrow.

In classes on Usability and E-commerce, we learn about this principle that if people can’t find something they can’t buy it. Usability is not just good practise for E-commerce – it’s essential to support the business model.

However apparently it’s not essential for banks or bill payment. When they cut off your phone I doubt “but I couldn’t find my bill” will be considered a legitimate excuse. By this point, you’ve committed to the service and you can bank at a branch or an ATM, and pay your bill at the post office or by credit card (admittedly both these options are harder when the busses are on strike and your credit card is British). So it seems the usability of the site doesn’t matter so much.

I really disagree. I’ve banked online using 2 British banks, 1 Canadian, and 1 US. They are, with the exception of HSBC UK, some of the worst company sites I’ve had the misfortune to come across. HSBC is no paragon, mind. They have a slightly bizarre security system where attempting to log-on twice in the same browser (so without “quitting” Safari – closing the window and then, later opening another one is inadequate) locks you out. Fair enough, perhaps, but to discover this you have to phone them – which is just a pain.

And all this is so stupid. Encouraging your customers to pay their bills online and transfer money directly has got to be cheaper. Every time they have to call if costs the customer in time (and possibly money), the company, in money and also the intangible costs associated with annoying the hell out of your customer. We’re in the midst of a recession, if there was ever a time to try and reduce overhead it’s now. Ironically that might just be by shelling out the cash to conduct a thorough usability evaluation and redesign of these websites.

Will it happen though? I’m sceptical. It’s hard to switch banks, and I would be with an alternative phone company, only they had the even bigger drawback – despite two attempts and numerous phone calls they never got as far as connecting my phone.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “average user”. Who are they? What do they use their computer for? What do they know? And – I think this is the most interesting question: How much do they care about the things we [programmers] spend all our time on?

I recently wrote a paper about Microsoft’s latest Vista operating system. Why did people hate it so much? Why was take-up so low? How much of this was due to usability? I found there were usability issues, but there were also improvements in usability. By the end of the three months I spent intermittently reading and writing about this, I’d come to the conclusion that it wasn’t so much a usability issue; more of an absence of a great leap forward.

When I presented this paper in class, we talked a lot about the average user. Do they know what the operating system does? Crucially – do they care? We think of the operating system as many things, but the most important thing to us is probably the kernel. Our average user is probably more concerned with the graphical user interface and file organization. Our perception is so dramatically different… it will take a lot of work to bridge the gap.

During my undergraduate degree, a guy in my class once held up MySpace as a reason why regular people shouldn’t be allowed to design webpages. I disagree with this. No doubt there are horrendous looking web pages out there, but the internet is a meritocracy. Badly designed pages with poor content will get few hits. The most popular designed web pages are well designed and functional. Even Facebook. Isn’t this the power of web 2.0? The computer is now not just a communication tool but an interaction tool. Maybe that’s why our average user loves it.

I don’t think the computer revolution is over, but it will take progressively more to impress users. Their expectations are higher, but they are not programmers; they do not have any understanding of what goes into the applications they now spend an ever-increasing amount of their time using. If we are artists, they do not understand our artistic process. If we are engineers, we may need to accept that people expect a working system as a minimum, and are not tolerant of failure. Whatever, we need to know who our average user is. Perhaps that is where Microsoft went wrong with Vista.