August Usability Newsletter is Live

Since this happened while I was traveling, I forgot to post a link here for anyone interested. The August edition of Usability Interface is live at http://www.stcsig.org/usability/newsletter/index.html.

Read my editorial to see how the Wreck This Journal book blogging experience helped me realize the importance of visual cues in web design. Who knew I’d get that out of fabulous, frivolous destruction!

There are also book reviews of Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior, Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction (5th Edition) and Card Sorting: Designing Usable Categories.

You can read about how to alleviate friction between software developers and users through user-friendly documentation and how to create strong navigation on a web site.

If usability or web design are your thing, check it out.

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

Caroline Jarrett Shares Her Knowledge About Usable Forms

Designing a usable form requires more than slapping together some fields and putting them in front of the user. Just ask Caroline Jarrett. She, along with Gerry Gaffney, has a new book coming out in November called Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Jarrett about her book and her work with forms.

Forms are more prevalent in web design than one may think: from simple login and newsletter subscription forms with only one or two fields to lengthier registrations or even tax forms. Jarrett became involved in the latter in 1992 when she got a job delivering OCR, short for optical character recognition, to the Inland Revenue, the UK tax authority. “Of course there are a lot of forms in taxes,” she says.

So, Jarrett began her work with the big stuff: tax forms. “People hate tax forms at the conceptual level,” Jarrett says. “Before the form comes out of the envelope, they hate it. It’s intrusive, it requires effort.”

Since then Jarrett has become an expert in the usability of forms, whether short or long, on paper or online. She sums up the problem with forms by referring to their “intrinsic ‘formness’.” She says that forms are generally ugly and they may ask questions that the user doesn’t know how to answer.

To make a form work, Jarrett sites three important elements:

  1. Relationship – Help the user achieve something. Jarrett provides an example, “if you’re ordering something, you expect to give a shipping address.”
  2. Conversation – Ask questions that users can answer easily.
  3. Appearance – “It’s better if the form looks tidy,” says Jarrett.

“Users don’t want forms to be fancy,” says Jarrett. “They just want them to be usable.”

Jarrett argues that forms change the relationship between a user and an organization. “When you ask someone to fill in a form, you change the way they are interacting with your web site. You’ve gone from sending out information to making the user divulge information.” This is especially difficult when, as Jarrett explains, “people are very sensitive to the amount of effort it takes, privacy issues, about looking after their identities.”

When it comes to keeping the user’s attention, Jarrett says you have to think about whether the effort you are asking someone to put in is worth it. She says, “at the very basic level, typing requires more effort than clicking.”

With all of this talk about relationships, I asked Jarrett how a company can establish trust with its users. She replied, “it’s a bit harsh to expect a poor little form to make your whole organization trustworthy.” Credibility, she says, has to be looked at in the overall context. What is the purpose of the site? What is the user’s purpose for visiting the site? Is there any connection in those two goals?

For someone tasked with creating a form, getting their organization’s buy-in to spend the proper time and effort to design a form properly can be tough. She says, “the first time you have to twist arms for usability testing, the second time they think ‘maybe if we’d done this the first time, it would be easier.'”

She explained that in addition to discussing the orderly process “where you work from beginning to end,” her and Gaffney’s book includes a “messy but typical” forms process. “Messy is what happens in real life,” says Jarrett. “You create your form in the margins of other work.”

Filling a void of references on forms, Jarrett and Gaffney wrote Forms That Work to provide some extra guidance. Their goal is to give people who work with forms ways of thinking about the problem.

“There are guidelines in form design, but so often guidelines end up being unsatisfactory because they aren’t applicable to your situation,” Jarrett says. “People think ‘you’ve talked about tax or business forms, but my form is about a game. How does this apply to me?'” Jarrett and Gaffney set out to give people a way to think through the situation, so they have ways to work through the design process and apply it to their specific problem.

The book is the companion to Ginny Redish’s Letting Go of the Words and uses the same way of illustrating examples with happy and sad faces, so that “when people open these books, they know what point an author is trying to make.”

An illustration from the book Forms That Work

An illustration from the book Forms That Work

At just under 200 pages, Forms That Work is a quick read, an effort made with usability in mind. “We tried to be conscious of how much time people really want to invest in this topic,” says Jarrett.

She adds, “Gerry and I would love to outsell Harry Potter.”

Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability has just been published and is available at Amazon.com.

Forms That Work

Forms That Work

Glance at Usability: DailyLit.com

Often good web usability goes unnoticed, as it probably should. At the basic level, a web site is considered good if users can quickly find what they need and easily accomplish their intended task. DailyLit.com does just that.

I just discovered DailyLit a few days ago and I have been impressed with its usability. The site gives users access to books, short stories, and poetry that has been chunked into brief passages which can be read in just a minute or two. These chunks can be read on the site or delivered in daily segments via email or RSS feed.

Immediately upon arrival, I knew what I could do on the site: find books to read online and subscribe to daily readings of my choice. The site design is minimalistic, giving exactly the information their audience needs without any extra distraction.

DailyLit.com home page

DailyLit.com home page

The options for taking action are clear thanks to simple, well-organized navigation headings like Browse Books, Forum, Learn More, Log In, Register. Special emphasis is placed on browsing books with a portion of the navigation dedicated to browsing by Title, Author, Category, or performing a keyword search. So easy.

DailyLit.com navigation

DailyLit.com navigation

I browsed by category and found The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I have never read and which also happened to be free (right in my price range, though many of the titles are quite reasonably priced at $4-8 each). With my selection made, I was presented with the basic specs: number of installments, price, summary of the book, opening passage, and options to subscribe or add it to my “to read” list.

DailyLit.com book description page (<em>The Adventures of Tom Sawyer</em>)

DailyLit.com book description page (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)

Then came the part that always makes me wonder if I will want to forget all my work and leave the site: registration. You know how it can be. Some sites want every last detail and you have to weigh your desire for getting the information you want with how much personal information you are willing to divulge. I mean really, what do those companies need a fax number for anyway? DailyLit is spot on. They only ask for a username, a password, your email address, and a check in the box to indicate you accept their terms. That’s it. That’s all you have to tell DailyLit to get your free book. Obviously if you have selected a book that requires purchase, you will have to enter more thorough billing information. I haven’t tried that yet, so I don’t know what the process looks like.

DailyLit.com registration form

DailyLit.com registration form

After this painless registration process, you are able to add more information to your profile if you so desire. If not, carry on with subscribing to your book.

So far I have read a few short stories by Kate Chopin right on their site and now have The Adventures of Tom Sawyer delivered daily to my RSS reader in 91 installments. I can read an entry a day if my time is limited or at the end of an entry I can select an option to have the next installment delivered immediately. At worst, in 91 days I will have completed a classic.

DailyLit has really nailed usability. It has a clear purpose and has developed a streamlined, user-friendly (not to mention stylish) web site. Hats off to their design and development teams.

Updated 10/28/08: I want to add that in order to receive DailyLit readings, you don’t even have to enter a username and password as I mentioned in my original post. If you want to receive your installments by email, you can bypass registration altogether, opting instead to enter only your email address and agree to the Terms & Conditions. One less username and password to remember in this crazy online life. Who wouldn’t appreciate that?

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.

Good Advice in Google Design Principles

Google is a powerhouse basing its work on a neat list of 10 design principles. In reviewing these principles today, I was struck by how appropriate they are not just for technology design, but for life in general.

Take, for instance, number one: “Focus on people—their lives, their work, their dreams.” Life is made better through the relationships we have, but all too often our focus is on work or errands or worrying how you’ll accomplish all your errands when you work all the time. How would your relationship with your spouse, kids, friends, or colleagues change if you spent some time learning more about them? What is going on in their lives? What are they dreaming about? What is important to them at the moment? People love to talk about themselves, so give them an opportunity. You’ll become closer and get a respite from the stress of worrying about your to do list.

Number three on Google’s list is “Simplicity is powerful.” Simplicity can be added to almost every aspect of everyday life. Decluttering your home will not only simplify your cleaning, it will create a calmer atmosphere and perhaps wow your guests. In communication, a simple “please” and “thank you” can make another person feel appreciated. By taking a minute to make your bed in the morning, you will likely lessen your stress as you crawl into bed that night. Where can you simplify?

“Be worthy of people’s trust” (number nine) goes back to strengthening relationships. I remember years ago hearing a speaker who encouraged a group of sales people to “be light to lift.” By trusting people and being able to be trusted, you become someone who others like and are willing to help. If you want to move up in this world, it certainly helps to have people who will back you up or lift you up. Being worthy of people’s trust makes you lighter to lift.

Last on Google’s list is “Add a human touch.” Few things are as powerful as the encouraging touch of a fellow being. A hug may be just what someone needs to brighten their day. Taken less literally, focus on being emotionally connected to the present situation, rather than running around on auto-pilot. You are a human, not a machine. Act accordingly.

At the very least, these straightforward principles have helped Google become a household name. Try applying them to your projects and your life and see what results.

Is Web Design Becoming Less Important?

Design may be less important than you think. More and more users are reading content from locations other than that content’s Web site. More simply put, users are turning to RSS feeds and the like for catching up on information.

When I redesigned the old Life After Web blog earlier in the year, one reader acknowledged that the new look was better, though he read my blog through a feed and never really saw the design anyway. This comment made me realize I worried way too much whether visitors to my blog would be adversely affected (particularly when I’m not exactly CNN here- it’s just me writing a little about technology and a little about life).

Anita Campbell discusses this notion in her article, Do You Know Where Your Content Is?, where she argues that “most of the activity involving your site may be happening off your site.”

Users want to control what they read, when they read it, and how they access it. Personally, I use netvibes to follow technology news, my favorite blogs, and the local weather, all of which I hand selected by source. Beats visiting those 17 sites individually.

This shift means that site owners must think of content in a different way. Content should be chunked and it should be portable. Read Anita’s article for ideas on how to do that.

All that being said, don’t panic. Your Web site isn’t obsolete. People still visit it. And some people don’t. Hopefully those people will read your content through some other method.

Most importantly, remember that you can’t control how your user gets to your content. Just make sure they get to it.

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