Archive for July, 2008

RecipeZaar Listens to their Users!

RecipeZaar SiteDid you see that?!? Did you see how quickly RecipeZaar found my blog post, read it, and commented? I didn’t contact them, call them or send them any e-mail–they were actively searching for feedback about their service, and letting visitors know their feedback is appreciated and used. Well done, RecipeZaar!

Do you know what that type of personal attention does to the users’ likelihood of conversion? Yesterday, I was angry as #@*&^#@(! at RecipeZaar and today I’m considering subscribing to their premium service. And maybe even buying a membership for my sister … can you believe it?

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had that level of customer service?

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A Few Usability Mistakes RecipeZaar Made

One of my hobbies is cooking, so I often search for good recipes on the Internet. Recently, I found an excellent recipe for berry scones on RecipeZaar–soooo good, in fact, that I wanted to write a review on it. 

I saw the one review someone wrote about the recipe the first time I made it, so I expected to find the link to write a review somewhere near the reviews. Nope, not there. But it wasn’t too hard to find the “Rate this Recipe” link at the top of the recipe. The problem was what happened next.

Rather than letting me rate the recipe, RecipeZaar wanted me to register. Okay, fine, I thought, I will give them my e-mail address, then they’ll let me write the review. But they didn’t. Now that they have my e-mail, they want to send me an e-mail and make me confirm my registration before I can write the review. Argh! I’m trying to finish up my scones and get back to work. I thought I would do them (and other visitors) a favor by telling them how good this recipe is, and now I’m having to go through all these unnecessary steps just to write a stinking review! Hey people, I’m in a hurry here!

But I do really like the recipe and hate leaving things unfinished, so I go to my e-mail, and there is (thankfully) an e-mail there from RecipeZaar. They did do SOMETHING right!

So I click on the link in the e-mail where they tell me to and I get to a screen with my password on it and instructions that tell me to copy the password in order to change it. Okaaaaaaay. So I do, and I click on the Continue button, thinking I’ll FINALLY get to write my review, but no. Now I’m taken to a personal information page where I get the joy of deciding whether or not to get e-mail for different situations and changing my password. (Geez, can I write that REVIEW yet?!???) Okay, so I change my password, change a few e-mail settings, click Save. Now where is my recipe? I need to know what temperature to cook these scones at … it’s nowhere in sight. I’m still on the settings page. Oh boy. How do I get back to my recipe?

Oh here’s a recipe search feature. I type in “Dannon berry scones”, thinking I’ll get right back to my Dannon berry scones recipe, but RecipeZaar shows my a whole list of all kinds of other scones and Dannon things that have nothing to do with berries. I end up going back to Google, which was how I found the recipe in the first place, just to find the recipe I was using in the first place on RecipeZaar.

Thanks, Google, for rescuing RecipeZaar from a disastrous experience. Now that I’m finally “registered” I can finish my task.

What happened here was RecipeZaar violated a coupld very simple rules of usability:

Let the user complete their task.

Do everything you can to help the user complete the task they’re working on–then you can ask for favors (like registering at your site or filling out a survey). In this case, my primary task was to make the scones, and then I decided on a secondary task: to write a review. RecipeZaar got in the way of both of those tasks by requiring me to register and losing my place (the recipe) in the process. I’m so angry that I am willing to take time out of my day to tell everyone else about my horrible experience.

Remember what I told you.

RecipeZaar should have known I was trying to write a review of the Dannon Berry Scones recipe (hey, I clicked on the “Rate this recipe” link!), but after taking me on a rather circuitous path, they left me in the middle of nowhere, with no way to return to my task. They completely forgot that I had told them I wanted to write a review of the Dannon Berry Scones recipe.

If you’re going to require people to register in order to do something on your site, do it quietly, without interrupting, and ask for all the information after the user has completed their task. If you must ask for it before task completion for some reason, at least have the courtesy to return them to where they were so they can finish what they were doing.

There, I’m finished ranting. Were you listening, RecipeZaar?

Now for something happy …

This was up on Astronomy Picture of the Day: Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

Why do we have to defend usability?

I’ve noticed I always having to defend the worth of usability–and it seems all the other usability practitioners out there are in the same boat. Why is that? Why is usability such a hard thing for people to understand?

I’ve given it some thought and here’s why I think it’s a hard thing for people to “get”.

People are self-centric. Looking at the interface from a user’s perspective means you have to step out of your own shoes, and despite what our mothers tried to teach us, most folks who design and develop software and/or web sites have a hard time doing that. Developers, managers, even graphic designers often mistakenly believe that their own personal preferences are the best way to implement something. It never crosses their minds to think otherwise. Let’s face it, folks, we’re talking about some very ego-centric people here. Developers, managers and graphic designers (especially the really good ones) are really smart people and they know that. They know they’re smarter than the average joe, so of course they know the best way to do things. The problem with that logic is actually in the fact that developers ARE smarter than most people, so they “get” what 80% of our users will never begin to fathom. What’s easy to a developer or designer is usually really hard for the average user.

  • My son reminds me of this all the time when he points out to me something he thinks is super-easy that his classmates just don’t get. Just today he showed me a paragraph in his favorite book that he had asked some of his classmates to read–none of them could decipher it. One couldn’t even pronounce the word “Galaxy”. The kids seem really stupid to him. But really, it’s an issue of usability–the book is not usable for (and perhaps not intended for) that target audience.
  • I also get gentle reminders whenever I watch someone else surf the web. Sometimes I find myself wanting to point out the right link to click on–and it’s then that I remember I’m different.

Usability people spoil all the fun. Just at the most exciting time, when the boring requirements have been developed and an initial design is sketched out and it’s time to create some code, the usability person wants to come in and take over and go do a test? What?!? There’s nothing yet to test! Usability practitioners know this is the absolute best time to test, but it’s really hard to convince management, who wants to see the thing built and generating revenue as soon as possible, and developers, who are eager to get started, to step back, take time, and consider how well the design really fits the user.

If you do it right, nobody notices. Have you ever noticed that when things work right, it doesn’t get noticed? People tend to notice what’s wrong, not what’s right. So if you do usability as it should be done:

  •  you never incur all the expense you would have had for redoing it
  • you never get the calls and complaints
  • your support traffic never skyrockets

… but see, the expense isn’t there, the calls aren’t there, the rework isn’t there. Because it’s not there, how do you tell them how much good you did? How do you demonstrate the difference? Managers think, “So what good was all that usability work? It just took up extra time and money. Why don’t we cut that usability stuff out? It’s not buying us anything.” The problem is that people really can’t see prevention–it’s invisible.

So usability becomes something that we have to sell to management, to developers, to clients. To sell it, we need proof that it works. To prove that it works, we need the proper tools. The proper tools cost money. But to get the money (and resources) to do usability, we need the proof that that it’s worth the investment in time and money. It’s a circle with no end …

But the investment to get started is getting smaller. Now Silverback Usability Testing Software is available for just $49–and hopefully some other software vendors will see the wisdom in selling usability testing software at that pricing level. Most PCs now come with a video camera and microphone embedded. Perhaps with the reduced investment to get started doing usability, we’ll see more people taking advantage of this effective tool. Perhaps. But it’s got to be enough to get us over those other three things …

Usability Testing Tools: Morae and Silverback

In the past, I’ve relied on Morae from TechSmith to record and analyze my usability tests, but I haven’t convinced my new boss to bite off on the cost of it. There’s nothing better than a video clip from a usability test to show the managers, client, and especially the developers problem spots that need fixing in the user interface. Morae ties it all together nicely by allowing you to capture video of the user’s facial expressions, the user’s voice, and their actions and clicks on the screen–all synchronized and easy to tag, analyze, and pull clips from. At $1,495 for the bundle, I always thought it was very affordable (especially compared to the usability labs of old, that had multiple rooms, video cameras, and recording equipment), but I’m in a different environment now. My boss needs to be convinced of the utility of it before he’ll spend a penny.

The Silverback GorillaMy good friend Carla at StickySeeds pointed me over to some usability testing software that I hadn’t heard of before: Silverback. It looks like a very comprehensive usability testing package–and I’m betting it’s very easy to use, having been developed by user experience designers. They offer a free 30-day trial, and after that it’s only $49! (I could even spring for that out of my own pocket if I had to.) Now here’s some software that appears to have the potential to advance the state of software usability.

Why do I say that? So often usability practitioners meet resistance to employing usability testing during software development, and every little bit to make that argument easier (and show how affordable usability is) helps immensely. (Oh, and on top of that, they donate 10% of Silverback profits to help the gorillas.)

Silverback looks great, but it’s only for the Mac, and alas, I have no Mac. I e-mailed them right away to ask if they have considered making a PC version, and so far, they have no plans to, but it depends on demand. So if you think a PC version of Silverback would be useful to you, contact them and let them know. If enough of us do it, perhaps we can get them to make one!

I’m still on the lookout for more solutions, so if you know of any, please comment …

Writing for the Web

To write effective text for the web, it helps to think about how people read on the web. People on the web are busy trying to complete some task–they rarely stop to read unless they are looking for information and they believe they’ve found it.

So how do they read? In a nutshell: they don’t. They scan web pages, looking for something that resembles what they’re looking for.

As Steve Krug says in his book Don’t Make Me Think:

How do people use the web? We usually muddle through, looking feverishly for anything that resembles what we’re looking for that is clickable. If it doesn’t pan out, click the Back button and try again.

We don’t read pages; we scan them.

We don’t make optimal choices. We satisfice. (We choose the first reasonable option.)

Good writing for the web should facilitate scanning (not hinder it). There are a few simple guidelines that help:

  1. Start with the conclusion. Use the inverted pyramid style of writing.
  2. Chunk your content into bite-size pieces and use headings to show what’s in each section. Use meaningful words for your headings.
  3. Use bulleted lists. They’re easier to scan than blocks of text.
  4. Talk in the user’s words. Often we get stuck in our own vocabulary and we forget that people outside of your organization/company/industry don’t talk like that. Remind yourself of that and write conversationally, as though you’re talking to the user.
  5. Highlight important information in a block of text. Bolded text works well (as long as you don’t overdo it!)
  6. Cut the fluff. People on the web are in a hurry searching for something. Fluff gets in the way. (BTW, There’s no need to welcome visitors to your site in your text. Your site should feel welcoming–not say it.)
  7. Don’t exaggerate–stick to the facts. Minimize the use of adjectives that hype your message. Just tell the story as it is. Use objective language.
  8. Be concise. Cut the number of words in half.

Follow those simple guidelines and your text will work much better in cyberspace.

Here are some good resources on writing for the web:

  1. Writing Well for the Web from internet.com. Talks about writing style, writing headlines people will read, avoiding common pitfalls, and provides online resources.
  2. Web Writing Basics by Daniel Will-Harris. Gives a nice bulleted list with tips on writing effectively for the web.
  3. Effective Web Writing from New Architect. An article that discusses the different types of web visitors and how to write effectively for them.
  4. Guide to Writing Effective “About Us” Pages from work.com. The About Us section of a site is the place where you have permission to talk about yourself, but you still want to do it in a way that answers customers’ questions. This article is focused on corporations, but still gives good guidelines on what to include.
  5. Writing for the Web from Jakob Nielsen. Several research-based articles on writing for the web: what works, what doesn’t, with tested examples.
  6. How to Write the Perfect About Page provides advice for bloggers on what your “About” page should contain. It made me take another look at my About page and see just how awful it is in a visitor’s eyes. (I’ve made a note to myself to rewrite it.)
  7. The We We Calculator from Future Now. Calculates how customer-focused your text is.  

What bad ads do for the user experience

Are you a victim of bad internet ads? It seems they abound everywhere, getting very annoyingly in the way of whatever you were trying to do–or distracting you from your purpose, making for a very, very bad user experience.

Tamara Adlin, over at Corporate Underpants, has decided to do something about it. Well, at least she’s ranting about it. Who knows, maybe some of the marketing “geniuses” that came up with the bad ads will actually listen.

Well, we can wish, anyway … 😉