Monday, March 16, 2009

Want A Good Website? Use Good Websites

As an Internet user and as a person involved behind the scenes in helping to design a new media website, I’m a strong believer in listening to what users think. Probably the most important question we should ask is “What do you remember about the website,” because what they remember, in a collective sense as we ask the same question to many users, can reveal a site’s strengths and weaknesses. Then all you have to do is get around your pointy-haired boss and get things fixed.

I’ve seen this process work firsthand. As I’ve mentioned before, recently rolled out a new iteration of our website. The new iteration has been on the street now for three months, and response has been better than we expected, in that we’re actually getting people to sign up, post profiles, photos, stories, et cetera. We never had that on our old website, even though we had the same intentions and even though the site was up for a year. Why? It has to do absolutely with a confusing interface and poor perceptions of the site in general – a little from a design standpoint, but most of it from the standpoint of how they were able (or unable) to interact with the site and how the rhetorical presentation of text on the site helped or hindered their interactions.

What do I remember about Uncharted 1.0? The dreck of the user interface. Rhetorically we were telling people in person and on the site that we wanted them to visit and post their own stories and photos, but we were not providing the rhetorical means to that rhetorical end. First of all, the only method we had at the time for users to submit a story was a hyperlink that would open up an e-mail, asking people to submit story ideas to us. It felt strictly old media, setting up the idea that, well, if your story idea is good enough, we, the high-and-mighty Uncharted gurus, will contact you and let you know how to proceed, lowly peon. We had the gates up and waters on the ramparts. We did not get a single user submission, though, in face-to-face talks, we had lots of promises of submissions. Once people got to the site, they encountered a user interface so elementary and so ugly – not like other sites, where they’re able to post information themselves and see it published before their eyes.

With Uncharted 1.0, we tried to present stories and photos by category (hiking, family-friendly, high adventure, et cetera), lumping one or two story/photo packages together on the same page, or at least with connecting links. This served, however, to show that we as the gurus were the ones directing how people should read our material, and that if they liked one story in this category, by golly they were sure to like everything else. And it didn’t work, not even for us. I had a lot more fun posting stories and photos to this blog than I did posting them to Uncharted -- and I now know why. I knew what this site wanted me tod do, and it made it easy to do it.

With Uncharted 2.0, we’ve kept categorization but changed the categories. Now story/photo packages are grouped by geographic location, with the idea being if you thought this was fun, here’s a few other things in the general area the other Uncharted users thought was fun too. It’s more helpful, we think, than the previous grouping.

Then there was the back end. Once we received a story, we had to complete a Herculean twelve tasks to get just the text posted, nevermind the even more difficult task of getting photos up with the story as well. The task of posting a story was so cumbersome we looked at it as more of a headache than a bonus when one of our staff completed a story. Six months after the site went live, even WE were not using it, and it was our site, our baby, our lifelong dream.

Next time around, we got smarter. We examined the site to determine what didn’t work (nearly everything; in fact, the only things that got moved from one site to the next is the text on the “legal” page and some of the text on the “about us” page). We worked with beta testers to make sure that they, as submitters, got to the front of the line. This is your site, we told them. This is what we’ve got in mind. Tell us if it works. We poked and tweaked and prodded and now, we think we have a much better product. It’s not perfect by any means. There are still aspects of the user interface I find clunky, but it’s a gigantic leap for mankind over the previous site.

More importantly, the back-end we use to post our staff-generated content is the same as the process visitors use to post their stuff. Thus, we can see whether things work, whether things are broken and whether the process is too lengthy or needs more explanation. Having both the front and back end use the same interface not only saved on programming costs, but it keeps us aware of the same posting methods our users will use.

Now when we ask others (and ourselves) what we remember about our website, the answers are different. We remember stories and pictures and what we read and some of the comments that have been made, things of that nature. Only occasionally does a usability or cognition question come up. I take that as a sign that we’re on the road to succeeding with this site.

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