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Can You Get TOO Usable? (Of Blinders and Peanut Jars)


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#1 Grumpus

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Posted 01 January 2004 - 11:33 PM

I'm not a usability expert, by any means. When I program things, I put the controls and buttons and things that you click where I think they should be and call it a day.

This method definitely contradicts the teachings of the usability experts, both here and from around the world. "There's nothing wrong with where you put that button," say they, "but it would be better if it were moved up here. That's where the user expects to find it."

So, I was working out some ideas for a user interface and spotted a half-full peanut jar someone had left up here over by one of the other machines. Staring at my screen and the work before me, I reached out and snatched up the peanut jar and proceeded to glide my thumb around the ridge of the lid to find that little tab to pop it open. I didn't find it, so I glanced down to make sure I was, in fact, holding onto a peanut jar. Yup. It was a peanut jar. Planters. Perfectly normal - just no tab.

I slid my thumb up to the edge of the lid thinking, "I don't need a stinking tab!" I pressed upwards as I glanced over at some notes.

Nothing. No budge.

Finally, I looked at the jar for a moment - top, sides, and bottom. Why the heck wouldn't it open????

Then, I saw it. In bright blue letters taking up a good 50% of the viewable surface of the lid were two words: "TWIST OFF."

On the surface, this seems like it was my fault. I was wearing blinders and didn't notice that gigantic set of instructions on the lid. But, give me a break for a second - Peanut Jar lids - Planters, Generic, or Otherwise have ALL always had a metal lid with a plastic rim around it that you popped off the jar. (At least during my lifetime, that has been the case). I wasn't looking to do anything new, here, I just wanted a handful of peanuts.

This got me to thinking about a discussion we had about no one (or at least not many people) here knowing about our Cre8asite Resource Directory. How could that be? The link is right up there on the top of the screen, all out by itself.

And thus was born my Blinders and Peanut Jars Theory. In this theory, the more usable your web site's interface (i.e. The more effective you are in putting things where they are expected to be), the more difficult it is to express a new idea or feature or concept or whatever to your visitors.

These forums have all the controls and elements pretty much where they are supposed to be. You, as a visitor, know what you want to do - either find a post, browse new stuff, ask a question, or whatever. Since everything is right where it's supposed to be, we hop right in and do it - without ever looking around. Chances are, I could change the text in the blue strip up top to say, "Click here for $50" and it'd be a day or two before someone clicked it.

And so, for you, members of the Peanut Gallery, at what point does Usable get too Usable? When is a site layed out so well that it becomes detrimental to the expression and/or delivery of new ideas and functions if for no other reason than no one will see it - even if you do put it up there on the top of the screen all by itself?

Is there a time or a set of circumstances when you are better served by putting a link or a button in the "wrong" place just so the user has to look around for a minute - and maybe spot something else that they never knew was there?

They say familiarity breeds contempt. And all I wanted was a peanut.

What do you think?

G.

#2 Jonathan

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Posted 01 January 2004 - 11:41 PM

Make it idiot proof and someone will make a better idiot.

#3 dragonlady7

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 12:20 AM

Well, just to quickly address one aspect of your point-- that's why grocery stores are laid out as they are. Most stores, for that matter. The marketing types who decide how a floor is laid out in a retail institution walk a fine line between making it easy for the shopper to find *everything* they're looking for, and forcing the shopper to go through the maximum number of aisles to have the largest exposure to the products possible to incite them to make impulse buys or remember things they needed that aren't on their list, or whatever.

So I suppose the same thing applies in webdesign-- walking the fine line between putting everything precisely where the user expects it, and making it so they have to actually look at your page.

good example, and i have no more time to make any more comments, but very thought-provoking! thanks.

#4 BillSlawski

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 07:13 AM

The Nature of Gothic[/url]]And it is one of the chief virtues of the Gothic builders, that they never suffered ideas of outside symmetries and consistencies to interfere with the real use and value of what they did. If they wanted a window, they opened one; a room, they added one; a buttress, they built one; utterly regardless of any established conventionalities of external appearance, knowing (as indeed it always happened) that such daring interruptions of the formal plan would rather give additional interest to its symmetry than injure it. So that, in the best times of Gothic, a useless window would rather have been opened in an unexpected place for the sake of the surprise, than a useful one forbidden for the sake of symmetry Every successive architect, employed upon a great work, built the pieces he added in his own way, utterly regardless of the style adopted by his predecessors; and if two towers were raised in nominal correspondence at the sides of a cathedral front, one was nearly sure to be different from the other, and in each the style at the top to be different from the style at the bottom.


Each page needs to be looked at individually, and designed based upon a number of things including a prior history and relationship with customers, brand building, ease of use for the required purpose, enjoyability of use.

But, your wrongly placed button is a good idea. I like those.

#5 Grumpus

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 08:44 AM

That 2nd to last line of my post is what really contains the key to this, I think. (Or, maybe not. What do I know?)

Familiarity breeds contempt.

I find myself being guilty of it all the time. Especially with a place like here that's familiar to me. I can whip in here and get to the "New Posts" page without really ever looking at the screen. I've had to teach my pop-up blocker in Netscape to allow them for this site because if I didn't, I'd never know when I got a new PM without checking my e-mail first.

And so, here I sit taking this site for granted - just as I did my peanut jar.

How do we fix this?

One idea that came to mind was to simply randomize the links up at the top of the screen. On one page load, they may appear in the order they do now, but on the next page, they might be mirrored. This would force people to look for the link, but at some point (and some point soon) it would move into the realm of tedium rather than usefulness.

What about randomizing or otherwise logically shuffling the order of the forum listing on the front page from visit to visit? I wager that even I would have a tough time listing each and every top level forum subject available here and I wonder if the average user could list more than 50% without looking. But would that serve any purpose, in the end? Someone looking for SEO is going to scan until the see the SEO section, then scan again for the proper category within it.

I guess the real question here is: How do I get my visitors/users to see what I want them to see, rather than see what they are looking for?

G.

#6 Jonathan

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 11:56 AM

I took the site for granted for ages... I found you peeps via the forum, not the resource directory which i think took me 3 months to notice.
Never noticed it was there because it was put alongside the forum controls which i have seen so many times in other forums i don't even read them..

I do think the website hospital has more potential. As a newbie i can't learn much from old posts because once the person has changed things, new people like me i guess cannot see how it was beforehand to compare with. How to showcase certain sites that go from bad to good i don't know but every time i go there the thought crosses my mind that this section needs playing up more - as does the directory in my humble opinion.

The directory... Before i search the forums now i go there to check for answers - is that what is intended by cre8asite? Is the directory meant to be more comprehensive by design than searching through scattered posts? I feel it is but maybe i'm wrong. If it is it is not obvious when one first comes to the forum of the intent of the added resource directory, therefore kinda the whole site.

Maybe i have the wrong end of the stick..

Cheers, jon.

#7 Ron Carnell

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 11:59 AM

LOL. Blinders are rarely where we think they are. If they were, they wouldn't really be blinders! :)

I suspect a real problem with your theory, G, is that you only think we are "putting things where they are expected to be." Quickly now, as soon as you read the last post in this thread, reach over and click the "View previous topic" link. Uh, you know, the link at the TOP of the page? How many visitors do you think expect navigation out of a thread to appear only where they haven't yet had a chance to read the thread? If people are ignoring things on the page, I don't think the blame can be laid at the feet of near-perfect usability.

Visitors and designers are both victims of habit, I think. Would it surprise you, G, to hear that I have never gone to the "New Posts" page you referenced above? That's simply not the habit I've developed for navigating through the forums, though clearly it's the one you've found most suitable for you. And that's cool, because I honestly don't think usability is as much about putting buttons in the "right places" as it is giving users educated choices in the hope that one will be "right" for them.

How many different ways can a visitor navigate to the Resource Directory?

Assigning blinders to a visitor, I think, is counter-productive because it also necessarily assigns blame. I often tell my writers they will never reach every reader, but those they fail to reach are still their responsibility. They choose which readers to reach and which to lose. It is never the reader's fault when the writer is misunderstood. And, similarly, it can never be the visitor's fault when they get lost or can't find their way.

Good web designers, like good writers, must be able to recognize their own blinders if they are to remove them. I'm honestly not sure if that is harder for the writer or for the designer. Unlike the writer, the designer should also always be a user, but they can't allow themselves to be just "a" user. They have to be ALL users, avoiding the habits that shrink a web site to just a few linear paths. If usability is about choices, the designer must be willing to constantly exercise and explore those choices. I think those who fail to do so are the ones guilty of wearing blinders.

BTW, opening the jar of peanuts was actually the second problem you faced. Had the jar been buried in a drawer you use only once or twice a year, the first problem would have been more readily apparent. Look around the link to the Resource Directory, G. How often do you think a visitor goes to the Rules or FAQ's page? Or logs out? Or, for that matter, makes a Donation? The only link in that entire area that "might" be used more frequently than once in a blue moon is the Search link and I suspect, for most visitors, that too would be questionable. Even when there is no pattern, the human mind will create one, and in this case it really doesn't have to work very hard.

Your link to the Resource Directory, I think, is buried in a drawer most people just don't open very often. :)

I really liked Bill's post, and especially the quotation. It highlights, I think, the very common problem of privileging ascetics over utility on the web. When it's time to add something to a page, we look for places it will fit, rather than finding the place it will be the best used. We forget, I suspect, what every great artist innately knows. Beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder, but rather is inevitably defined by function. (As any dispassionate look at the human body should quickly remind us.) If we put everything were they need to be, the ascetics will usually take care of themselves.

<Not quite off-topic, but close> The most closely examined page in Playboy is not the center-fold. And, nope, it's not even the jokes. I remember a study, circa 1984, that concluded the more closely examined page was the cover. Everyone was trying to find the little rabbit hidden there every month.</off-topic>

:)

#8 Grumpus

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 12:21 PM

OFF TOPIC:

As a newbie i can't learn much from old posts because once the person has changed things, new people like me i guess cannot see how it was beforehand to compare with


I've been thinking about writing a script that'll cache the URL being reviewed at the time the review is asked for so that it can be compared to changes made over time. I just haven't gotten around to it.

And yes, you've got the basic gist of what the directory is for. We do need to clarify a bit in there, but none of the copywriter types here have given me any copy (other than telling me that the copy I wrote is crap). :)

The directory really isn't the point of the thread, though. It's just an example of the Blinders and Peanut Jars Theory in action.

G.

#9 Grumpus

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 12:36 PM

Ron - as usual, your post is an excellent clarification and expansion (and in some cases, correction) of the scenario I've outlined. Maybe it's not removing the blinders that I'm searching for here, but rather, searching for ways to break the users of their "habit" so that they see what else is there.

And yes, though I didn't explain it very well in my post, I'm aware that folks have differnt habits in how they access and use the forums - but nonetheless, once the habits are established they (we/I) tend to become blind to anything else. Maybe this isn't a usability issue in the strict sense of it all. It's maybe more of a marketing or presentational issue than usability?

As I've said, exactly none of this is in my area of expertise, but the issue of getting people to be aware of what they are seeing is something that I'd like to be able to get a handle on.

Back in the days when I was doing tech support, I often experienced a similar phenomenon (call it Blinders or whatever you will) where a customer would call up and say, "I keep getting an error." My response was always, "What error did you get?" And the response back to me would most often be, "I don't know, it just said ERROR." The fact is that it didn't just say error, it gave you a specific error.

This isn't the exact same thing, but exploring it might take us in the direction we want to go? In this example, the person is seeing the error and saying, "That's an error - the specifics of the error are of no value to me." In which case, blame can be appropriately assessed on the user. And in many cases, the "habits" we're talking about in the original example(s) can be placed upon the user, as well. I, as a developer, am only guilty of setting it up in a way that it's easy to fall into a habit.

Or no?

G.

#10 bwelford

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 01:06 PM

Exactly ... or no?

Peter Drucker had it right over 50 years ago. Help is defined by the recipient.

So your audience defines how they want to use the product. If you want to introduce something new to your audience, as you said Grumpus, it's a presentational thing. Put a big sign up. "Check this out - it's NEW!!!". Communication is about the other person getting the message. If they didn't, then the communicator remains as the person with the problem.

#11 Grumpus

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 01:23 PM

Good quote and good link, Barry.

As that article says, though, help can be deemed by the recipient as being a nuissance or busybody - something I can copletely understand.

How would I, then, as the person presenting the "help" set a bar to tell me what is going to be generally percieved as a nuissance and what is going to be percieved as helpful?

And, in respect to putting up that sign, I'm not exaggerating when I say that 50% of the lid area on those peanuts was taken up with the words "TWIST OFF". They were literally humongous (and VERY BLUE), though they were of no use to me until I actually took the time to read them (even though at had LOOKED at them moments prior to reading them).

G.

#12 Salome

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 01:56 PM

As a newbie i can't learn much from old posts because once the person has changed things, new people like me i guess cannot see how it was beforehand to compare with


You could use the Wayback machine Jonathan

http://www.archive.org/web/web.php

My take on the blinders theory is that if you research your users very well before you start the content generation, you will know what those specific users expect on a site. It is all about communication and the responsibility to communicate is definitely with the creator - not the receiver.

I do take note of Nielsen and others' guidleines for a homepage, but I also thorougly research the user I expect to come to the site before I create anything.

And test test test during the creation stages. That finds your hidden drawers and blinders for you. I'd rather find them during the process than after launching.

Sal

#13 Ransak

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 04:18 PM

How do we fix this? 

One idea that came to mind was to simply randomize the links up at the top of the screen. On one page load, they may appear in the order they do now, but on the next page, they might be mirrored. This would force people to look for the link, but at some point (and some point soon) it would move into the realm of tedium rather than usefulness.


I think you'd have to really know your audience well to pull this off. For me, if the site navigation chaged randomly, I'll be real annoyed. I believe that many users, including myself, like becoming familar with a sites main elements, espeically navigation.

I guess the real question here is: How do I get my visitors/users to see what I want them to see, rather than see what they are looking for?


If you want to direct the users eye to something, it has to contrast with its surroundings. For example, on this site the color scheme is a cool blue. If you wanted to add a new link the the top navigation you might make it with red text, or perhaps even a red background with white text. This would make it seem to 'pop' off the page and for sure be one of the first things people see.

There are certain iconic or symbolic clues you can add as well. A small graphic like a 'stop-sign', or an exclaimation point can add emphasis to an element. A warning or danger sign works for certain things. As does adding the word 'new' as text or a graphic.

For some sites this is not easy, one site I work on has a ton of information the owners want to show, all at the top of the page too! Many links and graphics are competing with each other. Movement is a way to make an element stand out to a viewer. This site had a link to some contest they were running. It was getting no traffic. I made an animated .gif of some dice rolling and wham, more hits almost instantly. Now I have to fight with the owners to keep from making everything animated, but that's another thread. :)

There are many methods you can use for setting up visual clues that users will pick up on and can direct their eye where you want. You can do some research on Gestalt Theory, a psychological theory on how people percieve groups of objects. It has some interesting principles that can be exploited to make elements pop out or blend into a page.

http://www1.cs.colum...iplestable.html

has a nice article on the principles of how people percieve groups of objects (such as a group of links). You can build on these principles and use them in your visual display to put emphasis on certain elements, understanding how people will be looking at them.

Frank Vollono

#14 Ron Carnell

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 07:04 PM

Help is defined by the recipient.

I had to really laugh as I was reminded of this one, Barry. I've read about everything Drucker ever wrote, but it's been decades ago and this aphorism had completely escaped me. Pity, too, because no more than four days ago, I had to spend half a day exchanging email with someone in my community who I discovered was truly hurt because I would never accept her help. While I always appreciated the heart behind the offer (and frequently said so), in every case she was offering me solutions to problems that simply didn't exist. That is so incredibly hard to explain to someone and still avoid hurting them.

They were literally humongous (and VERY BLUE), though they were of no use to me until I actually took the time to read them (even though at had LOOKED at them moments prior to reading them).

It's the same old "you can lead a horse to water" phenomenon. Short of drowning a whole bunch of horses, I'm not sure there's any perfect solution.

I think Frank makes some excellent points about attracting the visitors eye. A painter or photographer knows there are tricks to lead the eye where the artist needs it to go, and most of those will work just as well on a web page. Lines, color, contrast and white space can all be used effectively. Trouble is, leading the eye to water still ain't gonna make it drink.

The only solution I've ever found is a very time-consuming one, as subject to failure as to success. You have to train the user.

For example, if you want regular visitors to notice "new things," then I think there must be a specific page area for those news things and there MUST be new things there on a fairly frequent basis. At least some of the new things should probably even be useful, so the visitor feels rewarded for noticing them. That's the macro-basis for the success of blogs, I suspect, but it works almost as level on a micro level. I could cite a few examples of that from my own web sites, but I don't need to because I think there's an excellent example that has developed right here. Regulars to Cre8asite have been "trained" to watch the logo as a holiday approaches, knowing it will very likely transform into something slightly (and cutely) new. :)

It takes time and consistency, but it can be done. Unfortunately, that helps not at all with first-time visitors. If someone can devise a way to get them to actually read what's on the lid of a peanut jar, I would love to hear it.

I mean, short of drowning all of them, of course. :)

#15 Grumpus

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Posted 02 January 2004 - 07:31 PM

I mean, short of drowning all of them, of course.


Do peanuts float? 8)

This thread has turned into as interesting and informative a read as I'd hoped it would. Nothing earth shatteringly new, but you've all helped organize the swirling thoughts into a pattern that I may be able to make some sense of.

That doesn't mean that I think the thread has necessarily run its full course, but thanks for everything so far!

G.

#16 BillSlawski

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Posted 03 January 2004 - 09:14 AM

Great posts! I have some more to add, but I don't want to overlap too much with what I was working towards on my multiple part blog posts. I'm going to have to work on those a bit more today before I add much more to this one.

#17 Guest_scottiecl_*

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Posted 03 January 2004 - 06:31 PM

I think we are talking about 2 different things here:

Usability: The ability to easily learn and use a site with a minimum of obstacles.

Marketing: The ability to direct the user's attention to where you want it to go.

Bridget's example was excellent- stores are laid out in a way that draws traffic past promotional areas. The basics (the stuff you need every week) are always in the same place, you know where to go to find them. The specials are placed in your path (tables in the aisle and endcaps) so that you are likely to notice them and pick up a few extra items.

This is harder to with a website because you don't want to force more "walking" or clicking- you don't want to introduce pop-ups or clickthru pages or other annoyances. But you can (and should) designate special areas so people are trained to look for the specials, the news, the latest changes, as Ron pointed out. I think that's a great concept!

#18 tosheroon

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Posted 04 January 2004 - 06:27 AM

Grumpus you already pointed out that your familiarity with the site means you just hit the past 24 hours button, thats what I and I suspect a great many others do too.
Surely the best solution is to make the resource directory part of the forum. Just add it as a catagory the way you recently did with css and style, you can limit posting to the directory and organize the order with stickies or sub catagories, every time you post a new resource it'll show up in the recent posts list and you can even give people the opportunity to discuss or vote on how useful the resources actually are.

#19 Adrian

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Posted 04 January 2004 - 09:03 AM

The marketing types who decide how a floor is laid out in a retail institution walk a fine line between making it easy for the shopper to find *everything* they're looking for, and forcing the shopper to go through the maximum number of aisles to have the largest exposure to the products possible to incite them to make impulse buys or remember things they needed that aren't on their list, or whatever.


Like always sticking things round the entrance to the store that people stop at to look at. So when you want to walk in and go to place to have a look at something, you first have to navigate round all the dawdling people near the door :mad:

Certainly not usable, if it were, it'd be easy to get in and out of the store without being so impeded, but thats the whole point, to try and get your attention with something you may not have thought you wanted....

How many different ways can a visitor navigate to the Resource Directory?


Interesting point Ron, gotten me thinking about how we can maybe improve that....
Something along the lines of a link to the relevant section of the directory in each seperate forum, perhaps even in each thread, perhaps even doing a bit of pattern matching to 'search' for things in the directory. Though with how vague some thread titles and the like can be, that last bit could be quite problematic.

Certainly looks to be an aspect that the web could learn from the bricks and mortar world.

#20 peter_d

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Posted 04 January 2004 - 08:33 PM

One of the better phrases I've come across in relationship to usability is:

"Don't make me think"

That's a loaded sentence. On the surface, it's saying "be intuitive". On another level, it is suggesting that your audience will tend toward action, rather than reflection. This is an important concept in interactive environments. It also tells us why people never read the manual.

Make it easy for a user to move to action. Be clear about what that action is.

Art

As Ron suggests, good designers and photographers know how to lead the eye. They establish hierachy. They know that not all information is equal, and some aspects must be relegated, or made obscure, in order to increase the clarity of the central message. Repetition is also a favoured tool of artists, as is spatial sequence. Usable sites tend to be good on these three points.

The problem Grumpus experienced with the jar is a repetition failure. His expectation, derived from years of repetition, was suddenly changed without sufficient warning. He didn't want to read the manual (reflect). He wanted to eat (action). I'm not sure they could have written the instructions in a "better" place, as the user will move to action first.

#21 BillSlawski

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Posted 04 January 2004 - 09:43 PM

I'm not sure that usabilty is just about ease of use. There's more to it than that.

But I do think that we've framed this fairly well. It's a matter of expectations, and deciding what the best way is to broaden and widen the expectations of visitors to a web site, or eaters of peanuts.

Having a bit of variety, in ways that people can learn and understand and remember can create a richer and more enjoyable experience.

I mentioned in the blog post I wrote about earlier, when discussing the John Ruskin chapter, that Macromedia introduced an element of individuality and change and variety by having a number of their employees start up their own blogs.

The company created a number of ways to start conversations with thier customers by doing that. Smart marketing ploy, or usability? I'm not good with those lines sometimes, Scottie :D

But I've always placed visitor satisfaction as part of the definition of usability that I believe in, and think that Macromedia's attempt to provide a number of perspectives and individual voices is an interesting attempt to provide a rich experience.

#22 peter_d

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Posted 04 January 2004 - 10:14 PM

I don't think that ease of use is the opposite of depth of content. After all, a book by Kafka is identical, in terms of ease of use, to a book by JK Rowling. Open cover. Turn Pages. Read words.

It's a matter of expectations, and deciding what the best way is to broaden and widen the expectations of visitors to a web site, or eaters of peanuts.


Agreed. And the problem of definitions occurs again. Where does usability end and design begin? Where does marketing start? Is SEO copywriting? Depends who you ask.

They are all elements of a whole that must work together in order to function. I feel web job descriptions may have got too specialised.

BTW: Read a great quote the other day: Never be afraid to try something new. Remember that a lone amateur built the Ark. A large group of professionals built the Titanic.

#23 Guest_scottiecl_*

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Posted 04 January 2004 - 11:32 PM

The company created a number of ways to start conversations with thier customers by doing that. Smart marketing ploy, or usability?


Definitely a marketing strategy.

Peter puts it well- love the Titanic and the Ark quote. There is overlap and someone has to keep an eye on the big picture.

You can hire the best plumbers, electricians, framers, and drywallers that are out there, but without an overseer each will do what makes the best sense for their part of the job. While their work may be excellent, they may cancel each other out or even damage the building if someone isn't managing the timing and overall progress of the work.

Very much like specialists working on a website- someone has to maintain the big picture view of the goals of the site and work with the specialists to stay on track and pull things together. Design, technology, usability, marketing, copywriting, and SEO all have to work together.

#24 wanderer

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 12:26 AM

Usability: The ability to easily learn and use a site with a minimum of obstacles.


Does this mean web site has to cater to peoples' expectations to be usable? I donít think so.

When visiting a chain store in a different location than the one we usually shop at, we expect to find the store to be laid out the same way. One of the pharmacy chains here in Canada comes to mind as I write this. Almost every Shoppersí Drug Mart Iíve gone into is laid out the same. A few weeks ago, I walked into one in downtown Toronto, and the layout was completely different. I was looking for two standard items and it took me forever to find them because nothing was where it was supposed to be. Major frustration. On the opposite end of the scale is Sears Ė a department store chain. No 2 stores have the same layout. I know that. I expect it. I do not walk into a Sears store with ďblindersĒ on. It doesnít frustrate me either.

Another brick & mortar comes to mind. This particular store forces shoppers to traverse an entire floor (which is huge at over 5,000sq. ft.) before reaching a place where they can exit (or continue on to the second floor). It is laid out like a maze with the products forming the path walls. Is it usable? Must be. Most evenings and on weekends you canít get a parking space in the huge lot.

What is the difference between these examples? Expectation.

Users expect to find a home link in the top left corner.


I donít think this is an accurate statement. More accurate would be ďUsers expect to find a home link on the page. They look first in the top left corner because this is where it is commonly found.Ē Does that mean if it isnít where they first look, they will get frustrated and leave the site because it isnít usable. No. At least not yet.

One of the dangers of striving for usability is applying a label of usable on habitual behaviour. By catering to the behaviour we run the risk of entrenching the expectations to the point where unrealized expectation = unusable. So many of these usability studies seem to me to focus on habitual behaviour.

Further, there is a side-effect of catering to the behaviour. If everything is where we expect, we pay the minimum of attention to the surroundings. Weíre focused. We donít want to be distracted and worse, distractions result in frustration and an unpleasant experience.

Usability does not preclude uniqueness. Unfortunately, web sites donít have the real estate of a brick and mortar so the limitations are greater Ė there are only so many places to put that home link.

Personally, I like websites that differ from the norm in terms of where things are (unless the navigation sucks). Itís refreshing, and Iím much more likely to pay attention to the entire page on my screen.

So, what to do? Make sure the home link is obvious, find out what areas of the screen web users look at most frequently for those ďexpectedĒ items and put what you want them to see right there. Keep in mind though, that once repeat visitors learn where things are, the blinders are back on.

#25 cre8pc

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 08:58 AM

Does this mean web site has to cater to peoples' expectations to be usable? I donít think so.


Then whose expectations does it cater to?

I know you're not thinking this, but what's commonly found is that a design is based on the owner's expectations and what they think is the primary reason to have a website. Little thought is given to the people who use it and what they "expect" to accomplish there. (And then they wonder why the site isn't earning a profit or breaking even!)

The "expectation" is basic for website visitors. They arrive and want to understand immediately the purpose of the site. Then, they want to perform an action, whether it be to browse, search, purchase, play a game, contact you, etc.

It's while performing any task that becomes confusing, hard to learn, frustrating, or worse, not obviously enabled (as in, the design provides little clues on how to purchase, contact, search, etc.), that a site is considered to need usability/user interface improvements.

The first question I had when I read Stock's post that started this thread is "Did they perform user testing on the product redesign?"

It's no accident that a company like Site-Report.com does user testing and is on stand-by for any company smart enough to test their designs on people BEFORE final code lockdown and rollout.

Same with product designs, software design, hardware, etc. Anything that will be touched by a human being is going to be handled in a wide variety of ways, including peanut jars and web pages. The only way to know how to provide a perfect product is to watch people use it and correct errors based on the feedback.

A video camera zeroed in on Stock with a usability engineer monitoring it would have learned that a regular user of their product was caught unaware, frustrated and maybe even felt dumb for not realizing there had a been a change in the design.

"Don't make them think" is one of my favorite lines too (by Steve Krug, who wrote the book of the same name) and also, Don't Make Me Feel Stupid :D

GREAT THREAD!

Kim

#26 Grumpus

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 09:35 AM

It took 23 posts, but this is where I thought this thread might eventually lead us (though I was expecting some technical term, maybe):

One of the dangers of striving for usability is applying a label of usable on habitual behaviour.


It also seems, to me - a guy who'd never given the concept of usability a second (well, maybe third) thought until I met Kim about 15 months ago - that hindering someone's likelihood to be able to fall into habits that are detrimental to my mission for the sake of their mission might be a desirable aim.

It has been suggested that using color and lines can make things stand out - drawing the eye to the spot on the page where I want the user to look to be able to see what's "new" or whatever. But, at some point (with a regular user, obviously) doesn't the user get into the habit of seeing those lines and color and begin to ignore them just to get to their objective more quickly?

It has been stated that, here, people notice the new logo at holiday times because they've become accustomed to seeing one there. (I suppose I should take that down some time soon, eh?) Isn't it really more that the logo has a different color in it and that the lines that draw you eye have changed on that part of the screen? I think it's not so much that people have become accustomed to seeing something there at holiday times, but that it actually disrupts the habit of their eyes by being unexpected.

This doesn't hinder the user's ability to get to their objective when they get here, but it disrupts them just long enough to notice it. And now, our Christmas logo has been up long enough so that people no longer notice it. When I take it down later, the "red" will go away and people will notice again, but if I were to leave the snowman in there and change the "u" in forums to an "a", would people notice?

G.

#27 peter_d

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 04:01 PM

would people notice?


Ask "is it important that they notice".

A change will certainly attract attention, but that attention isn't necessarily positive. Are you distracting people from achieving their goal? If so, then you need to have a good reason to distract them.

It's a balancing act. If your desktop changed every day you'd notice it, but the downside is that it would hinder and confuse you. Familiarity and blinkered vision can be a good thing. Depends what you are trying to achieve.

#28 DianeV

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 06:25 PM

First, I have to say that I've been incorporating usability into websites since about 1997, so I'm no stranger to the concept.

However, what troubles me about some discussions of usability is the assumption that "it's all about the user and what the user wants". Well, certainly the user is vital, but even more vital is achieving the aims of the company. If the site somehow satisfies users but does not achieve the company's aims, what good is it to the company? In fact, the whole point of including usability is to achieve the company's aims via the user. This seemingly slight distinction provides a vital orientation point: I'm not so sure that companies will thrill to hire usability folk to help their users in a vaccuum without with the overall reference point of achieving the company's aims.

Moving on:

But, at some point (with a regular user, obviously) doesn't the user get into the habit of seeing those lines and color and begin to ignore them just to get to their objective more quickly?


Oh-ho, Stock, you've hit the nail on the head. But used properly, the user could recognize that those lines and color are where he's likely to find what he's looking for. In design, there's something called the "eye trail" ... where the elements of the design are built and placed such that they lead the user to the point where you want them to focus. It's used to direct attention. This is particularly handy where there's a lot of information on the page, but you want them to see one thing. Therefore, with astute and adroit usage of elements, you can identify for the user where the info he's looking for is likely to be.

#29 cre8pc

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 08:22 PM

I'm not so sure that companies will thrill to hire usability folk to help their users in a vaccuum without with the overall reference point of achieving the company's aims.


I'm not aware of usability oriented teams or companies that do this but maybe they exist. I can't speak for the entire profession, but I was trained to request business and functional specs first and to not even consider proceeding without them. My tasks and test cases (what I prepare to test a site with) are designed to test if those goals, such as website goals for example, are met. The user interface engineers also demand this same information.

There's varying levels of experience in web design and development. From what I see in my work, nearly every small business has no idea that they need documentation and a plan so that they can later return and determine if those goals were met. It's more common to design for an "I want this to happen" and "I want this put there" scenerio, without giving thought to how it will be utilized later by the website visitor.

Case in point are images in catalogs that say "Click to enlarge." There's nearly zero thought given to this action and I think many users don't bother because an enlarged version of a poor quality picture isn't helpful. Different angles, clothing viewed in different sizes of humans, showing close up details...these are what the user wants.

The goal was to sell. The spec may have said "include screenshots". But, unless there's somebody there who understands what the online customer wants to see and what will help them decide to buy or not, it's more likely nothing will happen at all.

Kim

#30 Grumpus

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 08:34 PM

where the elements of the design are built and placed such that they lead the user to the point where you want them to focus. It's used to direct attention.


Yes yes yes, that's my point. A site has regular users. The thing they do every time they come there is down on the left. The designers want them to look to the right - so the graphics and art all lead the eye to the right. This is effective the first time or several times a person visits, but once the person knows that what they want is on the left, then the lines leading right become useless. In order to get someone to look there, I need to move the lines to break them of the habit of ignoring the lines trying to take their eye to the right? Right?

They can get into the habit of ignoring those lines - unless you can manage to give them something they want to see at the end of those lines every (or most of the) time they come in.

G.

#31 peter_d

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 09:04 PM

In order to get someone to look there, I need to move the lines to break them of the habit of ignoring the lines trying to take their eye to the right? Right?


That's one way.

Is it the right way? What are the costs? If your mission is to grab the attention of regular users at all costs, then frequent radical change is probably an effective approach. You might not end up with many regular users if changes continue however, as most people will not bother to spend time re-learning your site layout every five minutes.

All comes back to who you are trying to help do what.

#32 Grumpus

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 09:06 PM

Isn't a web site's primary mission to grab the attention of the users - both new and regular ones?

G.

#33 DianeV

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 09:19 PM

Excellent, Kim. I think you've said more in that last post than I often see in usability forums. It's important, I think, to let potential clients know these things ... what you'd be looking to help them achieve. (Which I'm sure you do.)

> "I want this to happen"

Yes. I think one of the ways this happens is that, because clients aren't web professionals (just as we aren't professionals at what they do), they don't necessarily know how to develop out a site to achieve their goals, but they do know what their goals are. On the other hand, you may get the occasional client who knows quite a bit, and that "quite a bit" gets explained in detail. In either case, it's up to us to take it from there and, in collaborating with the client, to help realize that vision. Then everybody's happy.

but once the person knows that what they want is on the left, then the lines leading right become useless.


Sure, but then you're happy that they're finding what they want. If I wanted to ensure that they *also* noticed something else, I don't know that I'd start moving lines around, but I would do *something* to get their attention. You'll see. ;-)

Isn't a web site's primary mission to grab the attention of the users - both new and regular ones?


Is it? That is, while I think you've got at least some of their attention by virtue of the fact that they visited the site on their own, I would think getting their attention is not the ultimate goal ... which would be sales, subscriptions, whatever. How you might do it could vary among types of sites.

#34 peter_d

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 09:20 PM

Isn't a web site's primary mission to grab the attention of the users - both new and regular ones? 


It's an over simplification.

Pop-ups grab attention, but are they desirable? Might be. A website that makes me sit through a big flash intro grabs my attention. Not in a positive way, I might add.

#35 Grumpus

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 09:48 PM

Peter, you keep playing the Devil's Advocate without advocating anything.

There have been a lot of good suggestions made by folks about things we can do in this thread. I, and I assume others, are trying to get a good picture of what can be done to achieve my goal when habits come into play. You seem to have a good grasp on all of this, so rather than just saying that things are bad ideas, maybe you could suggest one or two good ideas.

I'm glad Kim came in with the fact that my goals as the designer of a web site are important, here, and that it's not all about the user. I comprehend that we can't go annoying them. I really do get that. I'm just looking for techniques that I may employ or concepts to consider that will help me achieve my goals without ruining the user's experience. I have enough bad habits as it is. A list of other bad ideas doesn't help me come up with new ones.

Primarily, I'm looking for things in the realm of "habit", as that's what spawned my journey into moving down this train of thought.

I would think getting their attention is not the ultimate goal


I used primary meaning "First" not "ultimate". I suppose it wasn't the best choice of words. I still contend that my "first" goal is to get the user's attention. Now, I need to keep there attention - not for this sessions, but to be able to get it back again the next time they visit. I don't need it for long, but I need it for a moment. If they are interested, cool, if not, then by all means, go back to their habits. If I can't get their attention for that moment when they first get there and present them with what I want them to see, then the efforts I put into designing a site that people will come back to are wasted.

Actually, it's times like this when I can actually sympathize with some of the wild and annoying tactics that sites like Yahoo have tried over the years (audio ads, pass-through ads, and all the others we've seen over the years).

Maybe there isn't an answer or at least a good one that will work in enough situations to make it worth mentioning, but I'm liking it when this thread moves in a direction toward positive exploration rather than a laundry list of bad ideas. I've got my own laundry list of bad ideas. ;)

G.

#36 Ron Carnell

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 09:55 PM

In writing, the opening scene/lead/paragraph plays a pivotal role in the success of the work.

The writer MUST capture the reader's interest quickly and completely, else the reader will be lost to the thousand other things simultaneously crying for their attention today. This is usually the first principle every fledgling writer learns, and as a result I see tons and tons of stories and poems that start off with an explosion that makes the Big Bang look like a firecracker. Drugs. Violence. Sex. Anything that will shock and hold the reader long enough to kindle the writer/reader relationship. Unfortunately, the fledgling writer has yet to learn that the opening must also fulfill an even more important role.

The opening represents an unwritten contract between the writer and the reader. "This is what I have to offer," the opening says, "In exchange for your time." You cannot introduce a conflict superfluous to the story. You cannot throw sex on the bed if you intend to immediately lead them into the kitchen for tea and crumpets. You cannot violently kill off a dozen people if those deaths have no effect on any of your characters. Offer more than you can deliver and you gain the readers attention at the cost of his trust. Even if the story is otherwise good, the reader will be vaguely dissatisfied and likely will never look for the writer's name again. The unwritten contract was not fulfilled.

The issue shouldn't be how much you can divert a visitor's attention on the web page, but rather whether the diversion will be suitably rewarded. If getting people to visit the Resource Directory is important enough, shut down the forums for half a day and provide nothing but that link. It'll get them there in droves. And if they agree it was important, most of them will thank you for it. The gamble, of course, is that a few might think the end didn't justify the means. You face exactly the same gamble even if you lower the stakes.

When you take draconian measures to get someone's attention, you are presenting them with an implication that you will make it worth their while. It's an unwritten contract.

You know what advice I usually offer to all those fledgling writers?

If you start out with a Big Bang, you damn well better be prepared to deliver the Universe. ;)

#37 Grumpus

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 10:07 PM

Excellent stuff, Ron, thanks. Most of it was stuff I knew, but a lot of it was stuff I'd forgotten. Putting it into the context of writing (when in some ways, writing comes into this, but there's a lot more) gives me a good perspective. I took a creative writing class at some point in college, so I can relate to your message pretty easily.

Thanks again!

G.

#38 peter_d

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 10:09 PM

Peter, you keep playing the Devil's Advocate without advocating anything.


I apologise if I came across that way to you. It wasn't my intention. Look, it's easy to get anyones attention on a web site: stick a big red box in the middle of your page with spinning words on it saying "Read Me!!!!". That's a solution, but I think we all agree, it's a crap one ;)

My understanding is that you want a way to attract the habitual users attention to new areas of importance, yes? I've advocated that there are aspects of design that help facilitate this (spacial, repetition, light/shade etc) and that changes need to be balanced against various other directives (as Ron suggests).

There isn't a general prescriptive solution I can offer, because my point is that one doesn't exist. Any solution is relative to context and goals.

BTW: Indeed, I have never noticed the resourse directory link.

#39 DianeV

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Posted 05 January 2004 - 11:05 PM

Sorry, Stock (Grumpus) -- I had realized that you probably meant "first" goal rather than "most important goal".

You're right, of course. How many times have many of us been to a website where we did not notice that there are, for example, new offerings. I'm saying that there are a number of ways of placing emphasis on particular items -- and/or placing them in areas where they'd be likely to get attention -- without moving standard layout elements.

OTOH, I'd bet that there *could* be ways of shifting standard elements around in order to accommodate something you want paid attention to *without* totally disorienting people. Most of it would be visual.

#40 bwelford

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Posted 06 January 2004 - 09:09 AM

OTOH, I'd bet that there *could* be ways of shifting standard elements around in order to accommodate something you want paid attention to *without* totally disorienting people. Most of it would be visual.

That's exactly right. DianeV. There's so much good stuff in this thread, but I think you hit the nail on the head there. A picture is worth a thousand words. My head is bubbling with a number of ideas but here are one or two.

1. Focus is the first requirement. You can't hope to do a great many things well at the same time.
2. The toughest visitor is the first time visitor coming in as a Guest. They've just dropped in for the first time. They don't know where anything is. So you'd better work out your priorities. Do you want them to know about the Resource Directory as one of the priority areas of the Forums? If so arrange the visual features of the web page so that they will visit that with a high probability.
3. If you don't care whether first time Guest visitors check out the Resource Directory, is it really important for frequent visitors? If so, then why not have a reminder as someone is signing in to become a Member ...

You see the drift. KISS.



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