A Friend’s Crazy Idea and the Benefits of the Internet

I received an email yesterday from someone I haven’t spoken to in probably a year. In it she linked to a blog she just started where she will be writing about her upcoming dream trip.

Her first post mentions reaching out online with a particular question resulting in her communicating with people from all over the United States. Further she received helpful unsolicited suggestions and encouragement to make her adventure a little less stressful. With all of this support, she concluded the internet is “a wonderful tool to meet helpful, interesting people.”

I wholeheartedly agree. Between this blog, various online forums, Twitter, and the Wreck This Journal book blogging group I joined last week, I meet a lot of wonderful people. We discuss life, work, family, books, and even ask each other for help on occasion.

The internet truly is a great place to meet helpful, interesting people if you choose to use it that way. (And to all you wonderful people, thank you for being you!)

Have you met interesting people online? Share your stories in the comments if you’d like.

If you’re wondering about my friend’s adventure, she has decided to use her unemployment to do something she has long been in awe of: bicycling across the country. Coast to coast. Pacific to Atlantic on a bicycle. (Yes, the kind you pedal. I’m tired just talking about it.)

I wish her a fabulous and safe journey filled with joy! You can follow her progress on her new blog.

Oh, and if you see her maybe you could give her some water or a shady resting spot. She’s really nice.

Making Twitter Less Scary

Twitter is a hot topic. I have been a member since November 2007, when the hype had really begun picking up. As with most of my web endeavors, I signed up because as a web producer it’s important for me to know the popular platforms and I learn by doing.

For a while I didn’t do too much with it- check in periodically, stress about crafting the perfect witty remark, wonder how to find people you want to follow. Little by little my participation grew. I joined conversations and “met” some really wonderful people. (Still meeting great “tweeple” in fact.)

Now it’s a dialogue, a news source, a playground, a virtual café (see “Twitter demystified…” below).

Twitter is something you don’t really get until you have been doing it for a while. (See how I said “doing” rather than “using?” Twitter is ubiquitous enough to have become a verb.) Most Twitter users I have talked to agree. So don’t wait until you “get it” to jump in.

There are many (many, many, many) articles out there about Twitter. Here are a few recent ones that I think are particularly helpful:

Why Twitter shouldn’t scare you and why you should be there:
Havi explains it best in her post Twitter demystified and debunked. She refutes some myths and likens Twitter to your favorite local café. That’s not scary at all, right? (Havi is @havi on Twitter.)

How to get started in Twitter:
Hot off the press is Your Web Coaches’ The Cool Thing About Twitter, just published today. It is aimed at small business owners, but read it anyway because the information is comprehensive and written especially for beginners. Mynde explains how to set up a kick-butt profile, what to tweet, and who to follow. It is all very not scary. (Mynde is @MyndeMayfield on Twitter. Her fellow Web Coach Wendy is @WendiCholbi.)

Twitter’s hold on the world:
If you want to understand how Twitter affects the world at large, see the article TIME posted today on How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live. They even explain why knowing what your friend had for breakfast is interesting. (TIME magazine is @TIME on Twitter.)

So there you have it. Twitter isn’t as scary as you think it is. It’s easy to join in the conversation.

Browse these articles. Then join me at the café. You can follow me here: @lifeafterweb. Once you’re there, send me a tweet. You can paste this one right into Twitter if you’d like:

@lifeafterweb I’m here. Thanks for taking the scary out of Twitter!

I promise to reply.

See you on Twitter!

Why Cute is Cute

Do you ever wonder why people get so excited to watch videos of animals frolicking or babies laughing? YouTube has gained large audiences from “cute” videos.

Now, Popular Science has explained why cute gets us every time. Watch and learn. Yes, it’s okay to say, “awwww” during the lesson.

Onion Video Shows Why Usability is Important

My dad sent me a link to the following video from the Onion and I thought it was a great example of why usability is important. No, this is not a real product. But consider for a moment if you had to use it. How long would it take you to do your work? Would it help or hinder? This, folks, is why usability is important.

(Note: Since WordPress.com won’t let me embed the Onion video code, this is from YouTube. For better quality, watch the video on the Onion.)

Usability at a Glance: WhiteHouse.gov

The new WhiteHouse.gov

The new WhiteHouse.gov

President Barack Obama was sworn in to office at 12:04 p.m. this afternoon by my clock. His web staff has already been hard at work, however, launching a newly designed whitehouse.gov with posts published at 12:01 p.m.

It looks like it has the potential to be a great communications portal.

For this high-level review I am going to start with a list of what this site does right.

  • It is timely. This site was delivered right on time, at the exact moment the President was inaugurated.
  • It is well-organized. The home page touts a few feature articles, the latest blog posts and video, direct links to hot topics, and a search field. The top menu items are intuitive and expand in to drop-down menus with easy to scan sub-topics. Just in case the user has trouble with drop-downs, the menus are repeated in long format at the bottom of every page.
  • The article pages have well-positioned links to other topics in the same category.
  • Placeholders. While perusing the site, you get a peak at things to come. The structure is there with oddly informative text. For example, the Executive Orders page currently says, “The President has not yet issued any Executive Orders.” At least you know where to look for this information next time. The structure is already in place. (Note: This doesn’t work for all sites. Beware “under construction” notices unless you know your visitor will care and needs to be trained.)

What I wish it did better:

  • Make links obvious. Links on the article page menus and along the bottom of the site in black (not-underlined) text just like all of the regular reading text. It makes it hard to see at a glance where you can click. Conversely, the section landing pages (such as the Briefing Room) display links in navy blue. The contrast between the black text and the navy blue links could be a bit more prominent, but it is still a step up from the black text and links on other pages.
  • Offer more navigation options on the blog pages. As it stands, once you are on a blog article page, the only way back to the blog list is via your back button or the house ad style block in the right sidebar. I would like to see Previous and Next buttons at the top and bottom of the post, as well as links to recent posts and related posts.

All in all, I think this site is getting the right information out there at the right time and, at the end of the day, people want to find the information they need quickly and easily. On WhiteHouse.gov, I think they will get just that.

Now for a few screenshots:

The feature tout on the home page

The feature tout on the home page

The Briefing Room drop down menu

The Briefing Room drop down menu

The footer links mimic the drop down menu options

The footer links mimic the drop down menu options

An article page from the Agenda section

An article page from the Agenda section

Disconnecting Changed The Way I Reconnect (For Now)

I recently returned from a two week vacation in Italy during which (most importantly) I got married and (relevant to this article) I spent about 20 minutes on the Internet. That’s right- two glorious weeks away from electronic information overload. No email, no surfing the Internet, no updating Twitter, Facebook, or this blog.

During those two weeks, I explored amazing cities in Italy, tried new food, made new friends, and spent much needed quality time with my fiancée-turned-husband. Another couple we met on the trip talked about finding an Internet café upon arrival in each new city. My husband and I wished them luck and went our own way. There just wasn’t anything I needed to check on or anyone I wanted to talk to rather than spend time with my husband and see everything I could in the one country I’ve wanted to visit since I was little.

On our second to last night, my husband purchased Internet access for 24-hours on his laptop. He spent about a half hour responding to a few business emails. I scanned my inbox and selected only two emails to read: one from my dad and one from my friend who was coordinating with vendors for my and hubby’s post-trip wedding celebration. I changed my Facebook status to say “Sherri was married in Rome, is sunning in Venice, and will be home soon.” Then I logged out of everything and went to dinner. That’s it.

What did I miss? Not a whole lot. Sure there were a couple hundred emails waiting between my personal and work email accounts. My RSS reader had collected a slew of articles and blog posts attempting to mock me in harsh black “unread” fonts. And when I finally ventured back online, they were all still there, waiting for whenever I was ready to get back to them. I leisurely worked through my personal emails at the pace of about a dozen a day, deleting liberally. I didn’t even begin reading the work emails until I returned to the office four days after my return.

Since coming home, I have radically reduced the amount of time I spend on my computer, opting instead to spend time cuddling with my husband and stepson on the couch, cooking new meals, and playing with the dog (who was probably the most excited to have me back home). After all, I work on Web sites all day. The last thing I really need to do at home is spend more time on the Internet.

There is a big world beyond my computer screen. Sometimes the Internet helps me connect to it. The key word is “sometimes.”

Why Usability Testing Should Never End

Many companies have realized the value of usability testing prior to a launch or redesign of a product or website, but what about as part of the post-launch maintenance? Continuing to test for usability can offer valuable insights that could improve overall customer satisfaction.

I recently wrote about this topic as my first editorial for Usability Interface, the quarterly newsletter for the Usability and User Experience special interest group of the STC (Society for Technical Communication). You can read it here.

To read more usability articles, go to the full newsletter.

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