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Ryan’s Rules for Website Navigation

22 Sep

It should be intuitive.’   ‘The user should not have to hunt for information.’ Focus on the user.’

Yes.   So, ‘yes’.    If everyone can agree on these things, why don’t we see it in practice?    As usual, the Devil is in the details.    Making a website (or any other kind of software) usable is harder than it seems.     While you’d think great designer can handle all usability problems, it takes more than just usability ‘chops’ to create a great website.    Even with testing, there are a variety of factors that can influence a website’s design – even when everyone has the user at heart.    So, here are a few tips I have to help a little.    For the sake, of brevity I am going to focus in on navigation.

Fewer Labels is Always Better

It works like this:   if you see a relevant path on a website, you will click on it.    If you do not, you will take your next best guess.    Every label does not have to be as explicit as you think it does.   Remember always the Pareto Principle / The 80-20 rule.    Of all the content that gets submitted to a library website, only 20% is vital to the user.    That 20% needs clear, concise & obvious navigation.

Do not let the other 80% get in the way of the vital 20%.    If someone has to make a guess, a navigation system of 4-5 elements is much, much better than a navigation of 25+ items (number taken from a website I am currently responsible for – ‘do as I say …’ ).   You can cheat a little by having different levels of navigation (eg. About, Contact, Jobs etc. in small at the top or bottom), but most website navigations I see out there go way beyond cheat.

Text, Text, Text

Over and over again, people think that promotion via images is important.    It is, if your user base is 10 years of age or younger.   Images get ignored by the user, and often by search engines as well.   A single word or two, explaining where the link will take you is fine.

In fact, I once took an image link off the front page of a website, gave it a logical name and put it in a less obvious place and the use *increased*.

End the Drop-Down Madness!

WordPress.com, I’m talking to you!     Updating my blog has become hell ever since you changed the navigation to include drop-downs.    I click on the wrong things all the time, then I struggle to get back where I was.    Fortunately, this is only for the back-end interface.    For a front-page interface, drop-downs are even more hellish.

Drop downs came into existence because someone came up with the stupid ’3 clicks or I’m gone’ axiom.     Everyone came to the conclusion that we needed to design sites to reduce clicks, and drop-downs reduced clicks.    However, the real problem was usability.    Drop-downs reduced clicks, but did not increase usability.    It was a zero-value trade-off.    Don’t use them.

Do Not Believe Everything You Read On the Internet

There’s alot of baloney on the internet, believe it or not.    Some people will tell you that your navigation should use verbs; others nouns.   Some people will decry scrolling; others will insist that the blog is the way to go.   Following anyone’s tips is fine, but they should not be used at the expense of common sense.    For instance, avoiding scrolling for the user may be impossible if you consider that some of your users may still be using 800 by 600 screen resolution or less.

A Link Should Send You to the Place You Expect It

If I click on a link that says ‘find a book’ it should help me find a book.    It should not be a list of tutorials on how to find books.    Call it ‘tutorials’ instead (and then do some serious thinking about whether this is a 20% or an 80% thing).

Don’t Be Cute

If you want to provide a way for people to contact you, call it “Contact” or “Contact Us” not, “Get the Skinny” or something else more barbarous.

The Designer Must Decide

In a profession of information experts, everyone thinks they know how best to design a website.    The problem is that each department sees a different user, and wants to make that user happy.    Reference desk people see the person struggling to access a database.    Cataloguers see the user that can get into the system and download every book they need like it was no tomorrow.   Community workers see people struggling to learn a new language or afraid to walk into the library in the first place.    All are important users.   All have unique needs.

Unfortunately, while we want to make these users happy, trying to make everyone happy at the same time results in a website that puts everything but the kitchen sink on the front page — confusing everyone and pleasing no one.    Alternately, we focus on the users who have a negative experience in brief moment in time – so many factors can play into that complaint (the user’s mood at the time, his or her expectations about library service vs what libraries actually offer etc.).     Of course, we need to take user complaints seriously – but is web design really about solving everyone’s unique problem?   I argue no.    Web design is finding out about how human beings interact with computers / digital media and applying that knowledge to improve access.    A good website cannot solve anyone’s particular information need.    It can, however, make the act of discovery more enjoyable.

All this leads to my conclusion – let the designer decide.    He or she may make a mistake about a particular user’s need (and this will be evident through user testing etc.) but he or she will do a better job of improving access than a committee of people all trying to please their particular vision of the user.

Final Words

If you have been paying attention through the tips, you might have noticed a common thread – the problems website designs encounter are often not design problems at all – they are management, consensus-building and coordination problems.    There is always a delicate balance between alienating your stakeholders and having a process be so participatory that it kills the design.   I would argue that more good designs are killed than bad designs improved.     The killing happens over time as priorities change and band-aids are applied to address minor non-essential issues coming from a variety of different places.

What tips do you have to improve navigation of websites?

Neither Libraries Nor Information is Free

12 Jan

Oh The Future of the Library is still in question.   This time it’s Seth Godin weighing in.   I actually agree with most of what he has to say.   I think alot of what he thinks is shaped by an aged or narrow sample of libraries.   I find it kind of like saying ‘It’s over for Restaurants’ after getting poor service from an old-style greasy spoon that’s been around for 50 years.   It’s the future of ‘restaurant’.   Not ‘restaurants’.

Librarians have weighed in as well.   One of them is Sarah Glassmeyer.    I have to say I am disappointed in her response.    When it is fairly obvious that Seth is talking about Public Libraries, her response is to refute by reminding that we also have academic, legal and special libraries.   That’s pretty weak.   The latter libraries serve a specific purpose and are available for a specific audience.   I would not expect Seth to have a beef with Academic libraries, unless he had a beef with academics in general (which might be the case, but it’s kind of a different story).    Public Libraries have to stand on their own two feet, thank you.     We need to comfortably explain what we do in very specific terms.   We have to envision a future of service that meshes with reality.

For instance, Seth speak in particular about offering DVDs for rental and how this is a fairly uninspiring use for public libraries.    It’s a bit of a sham argument, actually because it offers flawed anecdotal evidence.   DVDs may circulate more often than other items, true, but they also have shorter borrowing times (they used to have 1/7 the allowed borrowing time at MPOW;  we just changed that to 1/3.) and tend to have larger fines when they are late.    In short, by nature every DVD we circulate will have the opportunity to be borrowed 7 times before a book gets returned.   Not to mention that DVDs tend to be on hold, so they are un-renewable, and so-on.

DVDs also act as a catalyst for other library uses.   It’s plain good old fashion solid business practice, like offering a coupon for Prime Rib Roast knowing that people will also pay full price for the horseradish, potatoes and string beans to go with it.   And, well, some of those DVDs are the popular renditions of Pride and Prejudice, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and encourage reading (re-reading, even) just as well.

But enough about DVDs – we need to talk about the future of libraries.

Part of the problem is that a public library is not specifically about individuals, but a learning community.   Take, for example, the idea that we could just buy everyone a Kindle and be done with libraries.   At this time, the Kindle offers a selection of about 336,000 books.   As an individual, that is a huge collection of books to choose from, and almost certainly bound to improve my learning.   On a community level, 336,000 books is dismal.   We do not want or need a community that reads the same 336,000 books, and probably the same 336,000 books that will be yammered on about in the usual channels.    Maybe Amazon will fulfill this important community knowledge diversification need in the future, but I would suggest that they have no incentive to do so.   On some scale, for a good 25 years at least IMHO, communities will need to share their resources in an organized way for the interest of the community.   Some libraries will fulfill this need very well.   Others will not.   The former will succeed and flourish; the latter will die a slow and painful death (until another model emerges from the ashes).

(Notice that I haven’t brought up the many other issues with things Kindle-ish, like Jessamyn West has previously.)

In other words, this one idea about libraries (which covers about 50% of library work, I would say), while admittedly declining, still has a fairly good shelf-life on it.   I would also remind that no librarian in the 21st century is advocating for a faster horse here.   Public libraries are dropping those reference books like they were no tomorrow.   They’re also getting rid of those old books that no one is borrowing too.   Public Libraries are no archives.    We don’t keep artifacts on any large scale (although it’s a bit of a political thing to admit that we do actually throw books away when they’ve had their time.)

I haven’t brought up the plethora of other things that libraries can, have and continue to do.   For one (shameless self promotion) MPOW is hosting Podcamp Halifax, which (i think) strives to do precisely what Seth suggests is the right thing:  Train People to Take Intellectual Initiative.    Except it’s not really training.   It’s better.  It’s providing space, moments-in-time and opportunities for people to gather and train themselves.   Actually, training is not even the right word.    When a space is designed right, the learning is self-organized.   Learning is a natural human behavior, provided that barriers don’t get in the way.   Oh hell – Angela Mombourquette explains it all much better than I do.   In short, we need more unconferences in communities and public libraries are one avenue to help make sure these happen.

And you know what?   I’ve been talking about this for years.    My very first post (July 2006) is an interesting look at how to help people take intellectual initiative.    Not too long after that, I was talking about Open Space and The Law of Two Feet.   The way I see the future of public libraries then and now is still the same and Seth pretty much hits the nail on the [side of the] head.   It’s not about training.   The public, as a rule, doesn’t want training per se.   They would go to school for that stuff.   What they want are places to learn.    Places that have, among other things, DVDs to borrow.   (It’s always nice to bring a little bit of library home with you. )  Places with a little bit of friendly nudging to keep you motivated about learning.   Sometimes with a bit of facilitation.   Sometimes with a bit of structure.   Other times but just leaving them the heck alone to read in a nice quiet spot.   No one is filling this niche right now on any grand scale.    It’s a market failure.    That’s why we need public funds to fill it.   For now and into the future.

Finally, this article needs a shout out because Erin Downey speaks my mind about information and learning as well.

Why “The Clash City Rockers” is a Well-formed Song

3 Jul

UPDATE:

It seems that I converted Mick Jones to librarianship after this video.    (Yeah, that’s the ticket.)   Actually, he really just opened up his own collection to the public library.   Bottom line is, Mick understands the importance of making knowledge of all kinds and formats available to the public.   Thanks Mick!

(July 3, 2009)

A long time ago, I used to be a Tutorial Assistant for a Listening to Music course put on by Adrian Hoffman.   Usually at the time when we discussed the “Classical Era” (ie. Mozart, Haydn, early Beethoven) there was a lecture on form.   Often, form was expressed as a tool for absolute music (ie. how to give a song a structured feel to it).    I always itched at doing a lecture on how form can impact program music (music that tells a story or paints a picture) – and especially I wanted to do this lecture using a piece of popular music.

So I did an explanation of form using “The Clash City Rockers” by The Clash.   I should note that I believe that the brief samples I use here qualify under fair use policies, in particular because I am using them in a tutorial about music, adding considerable amount of my own knowledge and material in the process.    Got any other good examples of how the form of a rock song really suits the lyrics/content well?

UPDATE:

You can go through all the verses of the song and perform the same exercise, actually.     Third verse has “everybody gone dry” on the “down” section” and “plug into the aerials that poke in the sky” in the “up” section (sky/up works really well, don’t it?).    Then, the suburbs are down, and the “you won’t succeed unless you try” get the up.   Very simple “up-down” technique that does alot to help the song makes sense.   I’m always impressed when I see this amount of craft put into a song.

UPDATE July 5, 2009

Just watched this with my wife and must admit that the front needs considerable editing.   (yeah, I’m babbling alot about whatever and whatnot – I think I couldn’t decide whether this was a video blog post or a tutorial on music).

Skip to about 1:30 to get to the fun part (where I use the “W” to show how the song is well-formed).   I’m going to spend some time editing this down shortly and I’ll repost it.

Doing a 15 Minute Presentation in 10 Easy Steps

9 Apr

Thanks Formication!Presentations are not easy to do well even if you are a designer or professional speaker.   Understanding your audience, having a catchy topic, being loud enough to be heard are all things that require practice.    Designers and professional speakers have the bonus of experience (and pre-set slides) on their side – you probably do not have any of the above.

After the Computers in Libraries conference, I got to see all kinds of styles of presentation.   There is one style that always stands out, no matter what.   I like to call it the “Scatter-Drone.”   That is the presentation that has 50 bullet points scattered on every slide with a long-winded drone of a voice wavering in the air saying something, but nobody really knows what because catatonia has already taken over.

 

There are simple things you can do to prevent being a total bomb in your presentation, though.   Here is one step-by-step process you can use to create a half-decent 15 minute presentation out of your typical Scatter-Drone.

What Do You Have to Say?

  1. Create 12 blank slides using your favorite presentation software.   
  2. The last slide should say “questions” or have a nice question mark graphic on it.
  3. The second slide should provide an agenda consisting of three sections.   Nice if you can offer a “promise” – something that you can assure will be worth taking away from your presentation.
  4. The third slide will offer three “big picture” points — you will repeat these things three times throughout your presentation.
  5. Fill in the rest of the slides with as many bullet points as you want.

How Will Your Audience Understand You?

 

  1. Print off your presentation as is.   Yes, it does stink right now – now you must fix it for your audience.
  2. Think of a single word or phrase that describes each slide (remember, each probably has 5-6 bullet points).   Go to Flickr’s Creative Commons and use that word or phrase to find a picture that will suit the bullet points you have on your slide.   Replace the bullet points with your nice picture.   As you put your pictures onto the slides, take a look at how other people do their presentations and adapt accordingly.   I appreciate that you are not a designer – but grab some ideas from people who are.
  3. Use the original presentation print-off (the one with all the bullet points) as your notes and the slide show with the pictures is what your audience will see.   Now you can just “read your slides” without anyone ever knowing that that’s what you are doing.

 

Feeling Confident and Prepared

 

  1. Start by acquainting yourself with the audience somehow.   Poll them.   Ask them what they expect from you.   Crack a joke to test their level of seriousness.   Maybe even throw them a bit, by offering an alternative presentation style.
  2. Give yourself an idea of where you are going to repeat your three key messages.    You should do this somewhere in the middle (slide 7 or 8) and again near the end (10 or 11).

 

That’s it.   A generic procedure for creating a half-decent presenation if you are not a designer or professional speaker.    It’s not too difficult to get a passing grade from your audience.   Remember, the audience *wants* you to present well and share your ideas in a meaningful way.   It just takes a bit of preparation, and some way of getting feedback from your audience.

Three Briefs About Your Web Presence

26 Jul

I had three brief things come to mind, neither of which really need a whole post to describe.   I’ve been thinking what works for a web presence in a Microblog world, and what real competitive advantages & disadvantages websites have over other media.

Are You Ready for Your Blog?

One of the things that is overstated about web-based promotion is ROI — the idea that you put little work into a website and return pretty good results nonetheless.   With blogs, this idea has become even more apparent since with typical WYSIWYG editors, you literally just have to type into a box to make a web post happen.

The institutional side of things, it’s not so easy.  This came up at the last 4th Thursday event, in fact.  When you open a blog for yourself, there is little to no brand associated.   You can pretty much use any template and away you go.  Institutions need to manage brands, reputation, target markets and quality assurance.   If you want your business or institution to be successful, it cannot look like every other blog.   As an individual, people can perceive you poorly and you can still have a successful blog.   Not so with an institution — if your library looks like a jerk, no one will show up to your branches.   Even though web presence has little to do with product/service development, people will associate poor writing on a website with the quality of a product or service.  Libraries cannot afford to have their services downgraded because of poor web content.  In short, you need to add a whole lot of editing, design and marketing time to the denominator of your ROI.

If you are institution, you need content before you establish your web presence.   A blog that has been doing nothing for a month will look bad.   Take a look at what happened to Google when they left their Google Librarian blog to sit for a while.   This does not work the same for individual blogs.   Go away for a month as an individual and people will just think you are on vacation or something.   Those same users will have higher expectations for your library, however.   If you want to start a blog, you need to commit 52 pieces of 800 words or better per year.   Then you need to manage spam, comments etc.   In short, add the costs of content creation and management to the denominator of your ROI equation as well.

In the end, the ROI is still going to look good — just not as good as most people assume.   If you do not put some time and money into the denominator of the ROI equation, the numerator will be zero — or worse, it will do damage to your library/company.

Thinking About Metrics — Total Time Viewing?

Television ads or well-placed bulletin boards are sure to find a good number of eyeballs, but how much time do you really have to get your message across to them?   More importantly, does your website offer a better alternative to these options?

Two popular ways to measure the effectiveness of a website are total visits, and time duration of visits.   Is it possible with typical statistics packages to estimate how much total time users access a website per month?   Yes.   Does it matter?  I am not sure.

For example, my statistics package (AWStats) will tell you the percentages & number of visits in each of the following time-duration categories:

  • 0-30s
  • 30s-2mn
  • 2mn-5mn
  • 5mn-15mn
  • 15mn-30mn
  • 30mn-1h
  • 1h+

A calculation of total time visited per month would be the mean of each category times the total visits that lasted each amount of time.   So, if you had 1000 visits in the 2mn – 5mn category, you might put (210 seconds * 1000 = 210 000 seconds or 3500 minutes or a little less than 60 hours total).   You would do that for every category, except for the 1hour + category.   Although you would definitely lose some numbers, I would remove the 1h+ completely from the list.   These durations almost always mean that someone left their browser running on this page, so the number aren’t really valid.

Then I would have pull two numbers from your stats.   The first is the total number of minutes per month that someone pulled from the sight.   The second is the total number of minutes in 30s-2mn, 2-5mn, & 5-15mn categories.   These are the categories that show the most engagement with a website (anything less could be a mistaken visit; anything more could mean the person was lost).

In the end, you can have an argument for your promotions people that you can expose your users to promotional content longer than other media.   This should shape how your make promotions on your website.

How Do People Come to Your Site?

Another misconception that many people have about a website is that a service merely has to “win the battle of priorities” and find its way to the front page of a website to get traffic.   The reality is something different.   Having a whole bunch of stuff on a front page merely gets people lost on the site.   You may get slightly more traffic to your page, but they might not be happy that they got there.   Further, you may, in turn reduce the traffic of all other pages in the mean time.   You really need to think about how people use your site before you “plop” something on a front page.

Some things people will immediately associate with your library.   These are the things that you should put on your front page.   Other things will be value-added services.   You have a logical pathway to these pages, but they should not take up the prime real estate.   THEN, you find excellent ways to ensure that these pages show up in Google and other search results.   Why?   Because if potential users do not immediately associate the service with your library, they are more likely to use Google instead.   Take advantage of common Search Engine Optimization techniques that can help you in this regard.

You can go further than this.   When I launched our website, one of the first complaints we had was that staff counted on the website to find simple things like the halifax weather, basic mapping, provincial catalogues etc.   My first reaction was “just Google it.”   But then I thought about how staff were using the site.   The website was part of their daily routine — they load up their operating system and then search the main links, most of which were already established on the website.

How are non-staff using the site?   I’d love to know.    Ideally, it would be great if key customers would have a library “visit” scheduled every Thursday morning, for instance.   In fact, I would be surprised if a few people had this exact routine.   Getting good data on this sort of thing could really help your respond to customer need on a website.   I’d like to see more of this kind of research in fact to go along with usability tests and statistics taking.

In the end, I think we still need more people thinking about web presence in all institutions.   The more librarians understand the technical benefits and limitations of the web, the more effective our services will be.

Halifax Rentals Go Viral

23 Jul

UPDATE:   I HAZ Embed Code now!

Killam Properties (the people who run Quinpool Tower) team up with Picnic Face ( the people behind the PowerThirst Video ) to bring you Landlord Lou, the only sane presence in a world full of murderous property thugs, annoying roomates and er, WTH?   a dancing panda?   (I’m not mentioning his siberian white tiger girlfriend.)

Yes, of course I know its an ad.    But I’m happy to see a little viral action coming out of my hometown.   And, I’ll let you sell me something as long as you entertain me first.  :)

Dawn of the Dewey: What About A New Standard?

11 Jul

Tim Spalding of Library Thing has initiated an idea for an open source, crowd created replacement for the Dewey Decimal System called OSC.   On the whole, I am for starting anything.   I think entrepreneurialism like this is a good thing.   Competition of any kind cannot hurt the process of information organization — it makes everyone stronger, smarter and more productive.  There’s more discussion about it by Tim from this Wednesday’s Uncontrolled Vocabulary.

I do get a little up in arms when I hear pretentious snark about someone’s idea.    More of it was thought to appear on librarian.net, although it seems it may not have been snark after all?

Having skimmed over the forum, one of the concerns I have at the outset is that the ideas appear to be mimicing, rather than replacing the DDC.     I would like to see people using their minds more about this issue.   Mimicing is a definite no-no from an aesthetic point of view, and it makes me question what the point of such a replacement in the first place?   I say if you are going to do something new, make it new.   Make it noticeably 2008, rather than an updated 18-hundred-whatever.

The other issue I have is that thinking about book order in the abstract is quite different from action thinking.   Considering that this replacement will be largely about placing books on a relative shelf order, I think we should be developing that standard while actually shelving books.   So, here is my idea:

  • Go to your local public library’s catalogue and using any random selection process of your choice, place a hold on 20 or more books.
  • Put those books in a shelf order, that makes sense to you.
  • Try an alternative shelf-order.
  • One more alternative shelf-order.
  • Post those titles and shelf orders to the Library Thing forum on this issue
  • Explain how you came to these shelf orders, which one you liked the best and why.

Or you can do something else similar.   The broad point i want to make is that, if this thing is going to replace DDS, then it ought to be based on some sort of new foundations, hopefully considering not only what the user thinks, but how the user will eventually use the system.  The only way to get at how people use something is through action.

All in all, I love this idea and kudos to Tim Spalding for proposing it.    And by the way, he is looking for a leader for this project — someone who will facilitate the process without dominating it.   You got the guts?  Go for it!

What Would Borges Say About This?

20 Feb

Cool staircase made out of a [personal]  library.    And another link, in case you  missed the Borges reference.

Found via BoingBoing.   God I love that blog.

National Film Board of Canada Has a Twitter Account

20 Feb

From the Myths On My Shoulders blog, the National Film Board of Canada has opened a Twitter account.

I’m a big advocate at watching what other industries do with services to see what might work for libraries.   While in its infancy, I am pretty interested to see what the Film Board will use the account for.   There may be plenty we can learn from these innovative folks.

Tell me what you think. . .

17 Dec

We are launched in beta with a new website over the holiday on January 17, 2008 and I would really appreciate your feedback. Your information will be really valuable to me because we are already looking at a review of the website just as fast as we launch it. True to principle, we may never get out of beta.

Untrue to principle, at least for the short term, there are no RSS feeds yet. They will be coming I promise — it’s just that there are some minor tweaks that need to happen and folks are doing vacations right now. Look out for them on the left hand side of the page, beneath the programs though.

I’d would also really like it if people could do a test using the following:

1. A mac

2. A screen reader or other assistive technology.

3. Non-Firefox or IE browsers.

4. Handheld browsers, especially the iPhone.

As any web designer knows, it’s really hard and expensive to cover every single base out there. We are using web standards, so most things should be fairly operable, but you can only be sure if you actually have a system in front of you.

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