Archive for November, 2009

The DIY Guide to Web Usability Testing

Posted on November 29, 2009. Filed under: Web User Experience | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Usability is a simple word that’s tough to pin down.

If you define it as “capable of being used” the implication is, you can either use something, or not. Pretty cut and dry.

Ah, but there’s more to it. A car, for instance, can operate perfectly fine; or it can start and stall and start up again. While you can still use the vehicle, it’s hardly an ideal ride.

Same goes for a web site — your preference is for a smooth experience.

But how do you know if your web site is a well-oiled machine rather than a clunker? Not by looking, that’s for sure.

You are not the target audience

Having what appear to be the right elements does not ensure your site offers an ideal user experience; as in, it’s easy to use and intuitive.

The sticky wicket here is, because you created the site, it all makes perfect sense. Your judgment is clouded by already knowing what everything means and how everything is supposed to work.

News flash: You are not the target audience — web visitors ultimately decide if a site works. If they stall out, they’re apt to go elsewhere.

The do-it-yourself method to web usability testing

You can spend a lot of money to hire someone to conduct usability tests of your web site where techniques may involve sophisticated labs and analysis. That’s great if you can afford it. Budgets, however, often don’t allow for the expense.

Still, it’s important to do some kind of usability testing prior to launch. You didn’t put up a site just for show, right? You want it to deliver the goods; tell your story, sell your product or service; in a way that’s meaningful and satisfies website visitors.

The good news is, you (yes, you) can do a decent job of usability testing for low or no cost. You don’t even have to test a lot of people. Patterns in response arise after questioning five to eight individuals.

Notice I said individuals. The best way to do this is one person at a time; where the participant is comfortably sitting at a computer while you’re observing how they use and perceive the site. Groups or even two people at once are not as accurate because one person will influence the other(s). It’s not intentional on anyone’s part, even so, that’s what happens. One at a time, got it?

Also, if you have a few target audiences, or personas, as is now the popular parlance, test five per persona. Each group has different expectations — you want to see if the site satisfies these varied wants and needs.

When soliciting volunteers — yes, many will do this for free, just ask — indicate you’re looking for feedback on a web project. As opposed to saying you’re doing usability testing. Testing implies there are right/wrong answers and the word usability is not commonly understood.

The key is to ask open-ended questions

To prepare for testing create a set of questions. You can have a pre-determined order, however, you are also reacting to feedback, so be flexible — better to ask questions in a way that makes sense for how your test is going rather than stick to a rigid scheme. The main thing is to reiterate there are no right or wrong responses, and you must ask non-leading open-ended questions.

So, rather than, “Do you think this is a good design?” go with “What is your impression of this site?”

The response may or may not have to do with design. That’s fine. You’ll find out what people think from a variety of perspectives  — extremely valuable information. This will also open up other avenues for questioning.

If, after asking, “What is your impression of this site?” the reply is, “I like it.” Then you go, “Why?”   On the other hand, if the response is “It’s confusing,” ask “How so?”

More good questions:

  • What do you think this site is for? Why do you think so?
  • Who do you think would use this site? Why?
  • What kind of product/service do you think is being offered? Why?
  • What do you think this button/link is for?
  • What do you like best/least about the site?
  • If you could improve one thing about the site what would it be?

Don’t take it personally

Take notes. Stay objective. Remain neutral regardless of feedback — never argue with, praise or help the participant. Do not explain why something is the way it is. You’re looking to extract information. If a person asks “What’s this for?” respond, “What do you think it’s for?

You can ask participants what they think a particular button or link is for, to discern user expectation. If a person thinks a link will lead to something it does not, ask why they think it will go to there. This helps refine nomenclature. Even seemingly obvious words may not be clear to your audience.

When trying to determine if web architecture offers a logical path, or looking to see how users would likely complete a task, ask “How would go about doing/finding “x”? (fill in “x” as applies to specific circumstance). Closely observe the process and make note of areas of difficulty — here’s where you’ll want to make adjustments before the site goes live.

Test early, and preferably more than once

It’s ideal to catch problems early on, before too much coding is done. In fact, for truly low budget early-stage tests use Photoshop versions of web pages.

If you can manage a series of tests, all the better. Use static pages to start, get feedback, make adjustments and re-test to see how the changes fare. Hold off on the actual development (coding), until you feel you are close to the end-result, or at least as far as you can go until you need to test out a series of process flows.

It’s good to know what’s right, and even better to know what’s wrong

While it’s nice to hear what’s right with your site, it’s equally important, if not more so, to learn where things fall short. Where are the trouble-spots, design issues and misinterpretation of intent?

Now, go forth and test. Know in your head to welcome responses that point to problems. Discover glitches and make fixes. After all, once the site goes live, hang-ups and stall-outs represent lost opportunity.

For additional resources visit:

Usabilty.gov: Your guide for developing usable and useful Web sites

Useit.com: Jakob Nielsen’s Website

Usereffect blog

– Deni Kasrel

Is this information helpful? Do you have experience with do-it-yourself web usability testing? How’d it go? Comments welcome.

Related article:

The Most Overlooked Step To Website Success

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The Most Overlooked Step To Website Success

Posted on November 23, 2009. Filed under: Web User Experience | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Have you ever linked to a web site only to leave right away because it was cluttered and confusing?

It happens all the time. Why struggle through a disorganized mess when it’s easy to hop off and head to another destination that offers the same services?

Just like in real life, clutter on the web presents lack of focus. What’s less obvious is how a visually appealing website can suffer from the same problem.

Hidden problems with hierarchy

Visual confusion occurs when too many elements on a page carry the same weight visually. There’s no clear starting point, or hierarchy. So a visitor’s eyes dart about the page and more or less fight to figure out where to land first.

In another situation, your company name, tagline and main navigation are positioned atop your homepage; where you want users to see it right away; yet this isn’t necessarily how someone experiences the page. If, for example, your logo and main navigation are muted in design as compared to a right-hand sidebar sporting an array of eye-catching graphics, the visitor’s focus is pulled to those jazzier images. Their eyes glance over the top of the page such that it may not even register. Your main message is instantly diluted.

Good-looking design does not guarantee optimum user experience

It’s like when you go into a furniture store and see a chair that’s sharp and stylish yet is uncomfortable to sit in. You pass it up and search for something that both looks and feels right.

Your website can be much the same when form trumps function. A bugaboo here is that a nicely laid-out page does not immediately present itself as problematic — it looks fine to the naked eye.

That’s where usability testing comes in. The testing reveals hidden problems that hinder your site from working at peak level.

A costly step to overlook

It perplexes me how a business can launch a website without first seeing how the site is perceived and used by target audiences. This type of testing is an undervalued and overlooked step to website success.

Meanwhile, the same company takes pains to put a lot of effort into search engine optimization of keywords, tags and other elements of coding. So great; you figure out how to rank high in search results, only to misguide those eyeballs when they reach your lovely site.

Repeat after me: Usability testing is not a luxury

There are companies that specialize in user experience. Depending on the depth and purpose of your site you may want to fork out the dough to bring in an expert. Many web developers offer this service, too. I advise at least going the latter route. Particularly when you’ve got lots of forms an/or e-commerce going on, it can be money well spent.

If purse strings don’t allow paying for usability testing, take matters into your own hands. It need not be a costly complex process.

And to prove it, my next post will offer tips on how you can conduct usability testing for low or no cost. Stay tuned.

-Deni Kasrel

Have you, too, noticed web sites that look good but lack focus? Do you think more sites can benefit from usability testing? Comments welcome.

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Rumor Has It Social Media Marketing Doesn’t Matter

Posted on November 19, 2009. Filed under: Marketing and Public Relations, Social Media | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

A marketing manager told me his company doesn’t promote its brand on Facebook because, “That’s for personal stuff. People don’t want to be sold to there.”

Oh really?

Then how is it Coca-Cola, Target, Pizza Hut, Sears, Whole Foods, Microsoft, Best Buy, Starbucks, Procter & Gamble, Red Bull and a gaggle of other companies are building their brands via Facebook fan pages and groups?

The reality is, people are increasingly visiting Facebook, and other social media platforms, expecting to find favorite brands there. And if the brand is absent, it may have a negative effect.

Facebook, a friend indeed

A study by Performics and ROI Research, titled The Impact of Social Media: A deep dive on how consumers are adopting social networking sites and interacting with brands surveyed 3,000 U.S. consumers and found active Facebook users welcomed messages from marketers. After connecting with a brand on Facebook they were:

  • 44% more likely to purchase the product
  • 46% more likely to recommend the product
  • 46% more likely talk about the product
  • 27% more likely to post an ad for the product

In November, Razorfish issued Feed: The Digital Brand Experience Report 2009. Based on an in-depth poll of 1,000 “connected consumers,” its findings determined 40% of those surveyed have “friended” a brand on either Facebook or MySpace.  Akin to Performics’ results, that same group indicated befriending a brand plays into their decision to purchase and/or recommend a product.

Teens don’t tweet, right?

Have you heard teens don’t use Twitter?

This pearl of wisdom was largely fueled by a report titled How Teenagers Consume Media issued in July by Morgan Stanley. The “research” was conducted by a 15 year-old summer intern, who concluded that European teens are down on Twitter. Many media outlets jumped on this juicy nugget. Immediately, people started chirping the “teens don’t tweet” line.

If you bothered to actually read the report, however, you’d note in the second paragraph it states: “Without claiming representation or statistical accuracy, his piece provides one of the clearest and most thought provoking insights we have seen. So we published it.”

Excuse me? There’s no claim of statistical accuracy? So the findings are based on what? The opinions of this young bloke’s chums?

Meanwhile, in September, comScore, a provider of business intelligence that employs rigorous research practice, issued a survey that showed users in the 12-17 and 18-24 age groups are Twitter’s fastest growing audience segments.

Call me crazy, but I’m inclined to trust a company that has a certifiable methodology rather than a report based on anecdotal evidence.

It’s common knowledge (not)

My point is simple: Common knowledge about what kind of people do or do not use a particular social media platform, along with ideas about what type of experience is or is not acceptable on those networks, may be just that — ideas. As in, the “knowledge” can be inaccurate.

If you’re working on a communications plan do your due diligence. Seek out reliable market data. Don’t risk losing out on a great market opportunity by basing your strategy on hearsay.

Then again, maybe it’s not worth the trouble. It won’t make a difference. Everyone knows marketing is just a bunch of b.s.

– Deni Kasrel

What do YOU think about the reliability of market research about social media? Do you know of other inaccuracies that are often cited as fact?

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Expand Your Network With Xing, The European LinkedIn

Posted on November 13, 2009. Filed under: Social Media | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Xing logoIf you want to expand your network and gain global contacts, here’s a tip: join Xing.

Like LinkedIn and ZoomInfo, it’s a social network for business professionals.

The European LinkedIn

According to the corporate overview on its investor relations page (it’s a publicly traded company), Xing has in excess of 8.3 million members and the platform enables communications in 16 languages. Now that’s taking a worldwide web perspective.

Xing has free and premium memberships. The freebie version lets you post your work experience, make connections, join groups, search for jobs and businesses as well as add applications. With the premium package you can send messages to anyone in the network and post jobs.

All that’s close to what LinkedIn does; however, you get a strong Euro slant with Xing.

Gain global perspective

I recently joined Xing at the invitation of Urs E. Gattiker, an enterprising gent currently situated in Switzerland, whom I have come to know through LinkedIn and Twitter. Urs heads up My.ComMetrics.com a tool for tracking blog performance. He’s a super networker and a savvy entrepreneur.

Urs has me co-moderating a new Xing group he started called Social Media Monitoring. Topics include analytics, benchmarking, monitoring tools and ROI as pertain to social media usage. It’s got a nice international membership, which will no doubt help flavor the discussions.

There are plenty more groups to join, and I look forward to gaining an even broader perspective on my chosen field of strategic communications. Mobile marketing, for instance, is more advanced in Europe than here in the States.

Though I am admittedly new to this platform it does look to be a good networking tool.

If you too want to connect with more people and companies, it’s easy – just get into the Xing of things.

– Deni Kasrel

What do you think of Xing? Are you already a member of this social network? If so, how are you using it?

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Does Online Communication Lead To Offline Isolation?

Posted on November 11, 2009. Filed under: Commentary, Social Media | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Figure in shadow (Big Stock Photo)Recently, while at a networking event, talk turned to whether social media and other means of online messaging actually makes us antisocial. That is, if we are so busy Tweeting, Facebooking, text messaging, and otherwise communicating through technology, are we then less eager to converse in person?

Does our ability to instantly send photos and videos to friends mean we are less likely to visit them in real life? Are Facebook family reunions in our future?

New technology, same old debate

The notion that technology leads to antisocial behavior is hardly new. It heated up when the internet and email caught fire. The same speculation happened when the telephone picked up in popularity — we didn’t have to visit our neighbors, or anyone else for that matter, to talk to them anymore; we could just give ‘em a ring.

The rise of social media — where a network aspect encourages a sense of community– intensifies the debate. We can feel as though we are all together even though we are all apart. We enjoy exchanges with friends and followers whom we never meet in person. Ever.

Does technology lead to social isolation?

Does our propensity to connect through technology imply we are more isolated as individuals?

According to a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the answer is no. Released last week, this report, titled Social Isolation and New Technology, notes:

“Today, the number of Americans who are truly isolated is no different, or at most is only slightly higher than what it was 30 years ago. Few people have no one with whom they can discuss important matters, and even fewer have no one who is especially significant in their lives. The more pronounced social change, since 1985, has occurred in the size and diversity of Americans’ core networks.”

Social media and diversity

Following up on that last sentence is where it really gets interesting. The study concludes that overall, the number and diversity of people with whom we discuss and confide important matters is declining. However, the opposite is true of those who socialize through technology. The study found:

  • People who upload and share photos online are 61% more likely to have discussion partners that cross political lines.
  • Frequent at-home internet users are 53% more likely to have a confidant of a different race.
  • The diversity of core networks tends to be 25% larger for mobile phone users and 15% larger for internet users.

Online we are more color-blind than in real-life. Perhaps having distance between one another makes us more tolerant of our differences.

Correlation between online communication and in-person interaction

As for the notion that communicating through technology leads to lower face-to-face social contact, the study indicates it ain’t necessarily so. Findings include:

  • Internet and mobile phone users are as likely as non-users to talk to their neighbors in-person at least once per month.
  • Internet users are 26% less likely to rely on their neighbors for help with small services, such as household chores, repairs, and lending tools, but they remain as likely to help their neighbors with the same activities.
  • Owners of a mobile phone, frequent internet users at work, and bloggers are more likely to belong to a local voluntary group, such as a neighborhood association, sports league, youth group, church, or social club.

Online community forums make us even more neighborly:

  • 60% of those who use an online neighborhood discussion forum know “all or most” of their neighbors, compared to 40% of Americans.
  • 79% who use an online neighborhood discussion forum talk with neighbors in person at least once a month, compared to 61% of the general population.
  • 43% of those on a neighborhood discussion forum talk to neighbors on the telephone at least once a month, compared to the average of 25%.

It really is social media

Technology is not a bogeyman turning us into isolated shut-ins. On the contrary, communication via the internet, cell phones and social media encourages in-person interaction. And it may make us more tolerant of our individual differences.

In other words, it really does make us more social.

– Deni Kasrel

What do YOU think of the Pew report on Social Isolation and New Technology? Do the findings surprise or confirm your own opinion on the topic? Comments welcome.

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Recommended Reading: Six Pixels of Separation

Posted on November 7, 2009. Filed under: Books, Business Strategy, Communications Strategy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Six Pixels of Separation (book cover) In Six Pixels of Separation: Everyone Is Connected. Connect Your Business to Everyone. Mitch Joel recounts the tale of how in the 1500s the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez captained 11 ships carrying more than 500 soldiers to Mexico on a mission to conquer the Aztecs. Many fell ill along the way and others were intimidated while in foreign surroundings. When worried soldiers asked their leader about his plan for returning home Cortez responded by burning the ships. There was no going back.

New channels, new ways

Today, entrepreneurs and business marketers must contend with foreign territory, in the form of new channels, new platforms and new audiences that are upending old ways. Mitch Joel believes you can either cling to the past (a surefire route to eventual failure) or you can burn the ships and learn how survive in the new world.

There is no going back

YouTube, Twitter, podcasts, blogs, user reviews and other online options enable anyone to create content that can be seen by everyone.

The challenge is for marketers to connect with consumers in these channels in ways that are honest and meaningful and that enable businesses to monetize their efforts.

Losing control is a good thing

Change occurs so rapidly in the digital era we can’t know where it’s all headed.

While uncertainty unnerves some, Joel adopts a seize-the-day attitude.

He believes a world where anyone can say whatever they want about your brand or business is a good thing. After all, he declares, “You will see and hear the types of insights and comments you never normally have access to.”

Convert consumers into marketers (for your brand)

Brands have many options for building communities and Joel stresses that in the end it’s the quality not the quantity of the relationships that matter. Focus on creating an engaged community rather than simply going for heavy traffic.

Successful communities instigate word-of-mouth that builds exponentially through the power of networks. This scares executives who are afraid of losing control of their brand.

Joel argues that while you can’t control the conversation “You can control whether or not you take part. You can control whether you will encourage your consumers to be so passionate they actually start marketing your company for you.”

Dare to be bold: Open up your brand assets

One of Joel’s suggestions for how to instill passion in consumers is sure to raise eyebrows from old-school brand managers — he advises to openly provide “the tools they need to change your brand.” This includes access to logos, text, audio and video.

The old way is to control all those assets. It’s dangerous to let consumers have at your brand willy-nilly. Joel reckons consumers are going to do whatever they want with your brand anyway, so you might as well be a part of the process. By freely giving your assets you send a message that you stand behind your brand.

Mitch Joel walks the talk

New market dynamics shift communications from mass media to mass content. Joel’s view on how to create effective content that clicks with consumers is spot on.

That’s no surprise considering he writes a successful blog and has a popular podcast series, both of which are also titled Six Pixels of Separation (and of which I am a fan).

With those digital avenues, and with this book, Joel is an astute observer of human behavior. He understands how people think and react and knows how you can connect and contribute in order to get people to care about the same things you do.

Joel also runs a marketing agency called Twist Image. He’s an enterprising entrepreneur and a fair portion of his book offers insights into how self-starters can become their own media channel; and not just in the obvious ways, like starting a blog (though he does cover that). He explains how to create a credible personal brand, and how you can make that brand come alive in the real world by leading offline activities, like a PodCamp, a kind of self-organizing “unconference.”

Engage with a spirit of adventure

Six Pixels of Separation helps you recognize how moving from mass media to mass content is like exploring a new world rife with opportunity. It helps you gain the confidence to evolve with a spirit of adventure.

It’s inspiring, and yes, contagious.

– Deni Kasrel

What do YOU think of the ideas presented in Six Pixels of Separation? Do you agree with Joel’s burn the ships attitude? Maybe you have your own example of how you created a successful community and/or a personal brand. Please share. Comments welcome.

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An Easy Trick For Increasing How Often You Post To Your Blog

Posted on November 3, 2009. Filed under: Blogs/Blogging | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

calendar (image by Big Stock Photo)Did you know this November is Better Blog Month?

Yes, it was decreed so by Cathy Larkin, a public relations/social media consultant, who has designed a month-long program for improving the content of your blog.

A well thought-out program

Larkin says one of the reasons she devised this scheme is because she wants to improve her own blog. She reckoned, why not have others join in the process? Which is, by the way, nicely thought-out.

Larkin posted invites to her program via LinkedIn and Twitter. I saw her tweet and enlisted in this blog boot-camp.

Each week of Better Blog Month has a different theme, with corresponding exercises to complete. The process begins with self-examination: You ask yourself why you’re blogging in the first place and then take a hard look as to whether your blog does indeed meet all of those goals. If not, then make a note of where the holes are and think about how you can plug them.

Write shorter, post more

An end-goal of the project is for participants to post more frequently.

Posting more frequently can help your search engine optimization (SEO), because search engines seek out new content, and a fresh flow of stories means visitors come to your site more often, which also affects your search rank.

One easy way of posting more often, so Larkin tells me, and especially if you are pressed for time, is to write shorter posts.

One trick to writing shorter posts is to dash off an intro and link to an article that you like and think will be of interest to your readers.

Apparently it’s cool to link to articles that you’ve written for other web sites.

Let’s give it a whirl: I wrote a more detailed post with notes and early impressions of Better Blog Month for The Bloggers Bulletin.

It’s got more tips on how to improve blog content. Here’s the link to the story titled One Month To A Better Blog.

– Deni Kasrel

What are some of your tricks for increasing the frequency of posting to a blog? Care to share? Comments welcome.

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