Increasing findability

Iain Barker with an excellent primer on information scent.

Enabling people to find the specific information they require amongst the hundreds and thousands of other pieces of content available on a site can be a difficult task.

…It is interesting to note that the Orange homepage doesn’t actually contain the global navigation that appears on all other pages of the site. This is a point often forgotten on many sites, the homepage is the only page that doesn’t need to employ the same global navigation as the rest of a site.

The principle roles of the homepage are to confirm to users that they have in fact arrived at the right place and provide them with a clear and simple first step towards the information they require.

hCard and hCal

After the we05 conference I was pretty interested in the hCard and hCal microformats.

So far I’ve incorporated both formats into various sections of the WWF-Australia website – some specific examples being our contacts and events pages (although there are others scattered throughout the site).

In theory I love the idea of microformats – the ability to provide semantic value to HTML elements in this way is very appealing at a conceptual level, but I’m starting to question the practicality of this approach.

One of the things I need to be able to provide to the staff here is some form of WYSIWYG editor for maintaining the content of the site. There are very few people in the organisation that are fluent in HTML, so this kind of editor is pretty important. It strikes me that using a WYSIWYG editor pretty much rules out the possibility of incorporating microformats in our editable content.

One alternative is to only use these microformats for structured data, where the templating system of our CMS outputs structured data using microformats to provide the semantic value. While this is easily doable (as demonstrated in the examples above), if you are relying on a templating system to output the microformat content, why not just create an alternate template for iCal or vCard and output the format directly?

The only other thing I’m thinking of is RSS feeds, and being able to embed microformat content into the entry content. This has potential benefits in that subscribing services can parse out that information from the entry payload, but again, given the points above how much value is actually provided? Why not just provide iCal or vCard content directly?

Another aside: if I’m wanting to embed an event in an RSS feed, do I need to re-add the title to the description of the feed? Or is the title assumed to be the title of the event?

If anyone a) can grok what I’m on about above and b) has any thoughts, please drop me a line. I’m going to have to make a few decisions regarding the CMS administration tools in the next few weeks and this may have an impact on some of those decisions. Thanks 🙂

Timely: Marc Canter is talking about the concept at syndicate [via Doc Searls]

Drupal

Thought for the day: calling Drupal a “content management platform” is stretching the truth somewhat. Technically, yes, it supports the management of content. But it lacks fundamental features, such as creating site structure, and re-using content across the site in forms outside of basic “show everything for a category” style lists. It’s more a “community blogging platform” with some additional features, and a big community doing lots of hacks to get things resembling a normal site.

This is not to dis what the Drupal community has achieved – it is significant and is an amazing platform for certain types of sites. We’re going to have to a significant amount of hacking to get it to work even with a basic structure. And one section of the site in particular is looking like requiring a significant amount of custom page development.

I often hear (on the web and elsewhere) that the CMS market is crowded, and that it’s tough to be competitive. But I actually disagree. There is no system that I’ve found, certainly in the open source space, that really balances blog-style/community tools with site management tools. Flexible version control and workflow management is also lacking on many tools – some don’t have any (or poor implementation) and others are too restrictive.

It seems that the systems that do exist are either a) overly expensive ($20k for a basic installation is a stretch IMO), b) counter-intuitive from an admin/editing perspective, or c) lacking core features (like standards compliance etc.). Perhaps our needs are too specific. But I have read about and talked to a number of people that have lamented the same thing.

What this means is that there is still room for CMS systems to take root and take on a significant chunk in the market. Certainly, if we had a bit more time we would seriously consider building something ourselves, or at least getting involved in extending a framework or existing project (Cuyahoga comes to mind) that fits our needs. It’s no trivial task, but I certainly don’t think that building a solid system is out of the realm of possibility.

Flame off

Clay Shirky: Group as User – Flaming and the Design of Social Software:

You could easily imagine many such experiments. What would it take, for example, to design a mailing list that was flame-retardant? Once you stop regarding all users as isolated actors, a number of possibilities appear.

Interestingly, I read this immediately after reading Webdiary’s attempts at resolving the flaming issue. They adopted a “five post limit” as an experiment to help reduce personal attacks.

I’m keenly interested in this issue as I expect we’ll have to have to deal with this sort of thing as we open up “talkback” tools on the WWF website. This won’t be for a little while to come, but I want to be well prepared and have some measures ready to apply before we launch.

Social software

Clay Shirky: Social Software and the Politics of Groups. This piece has been around for a while, but I’ve finally had a chance to read it. Interesting points throughout, one stand-out point (for me anyway):

If a group has a goal, how can we understand the way the software supports that goal? This is a complicated question, not least because the conditions that foster good group work, such as clear decision-making process, may well upset some of the individual participants.

One of the things that I have had to think about a lot in designing a CMS for WWF (which we probably won’t be doing, but the exercise was fruitful in many other ways) was how to handle things like approvals processes for sensitive content and how to facilitate people’s natural tendencies to support such processes, rather than introducing a rigid framework that won’t be used, or be ineffectual at encouraging productive behaviour.

Clay also wrote A group is its own worst enemy which outlines some core things that “social software” developers should take into consideration.

I keep recalling, though, a book by Amy Jo Kim, entitled “Community Building on the Web” which looks at a number of online communities (especially early communities) and outlines a number of strategies for supporting group activities on the net, some of them similar to what Shirky outlines. Might pay to revisit that book some time soon…

As the web strategy for WWF continues to develop, coping with group dynamics will become more important. Lots to learn 🙂

Eyetracking

Another great article about what works on the web – based on an Eyetools tracking study. Would be great to get my hands on the full report.

One of the things I would like to change is moving from the “image banner” layout that we currently have to one more like the Amnesty USA site, or even something like that used by news sites such as BBC news. My hunch (somewhat backed up by stats) is that our banner image is so dominating that visitors are missing the feature article. The study summary seems to support that view. (Our nav is also overly dominant, but that’s beside the point).

The summary also reinforces the view that traditional navigation schemes are less important than previously thought. This is a growing meme. And I’m more and more convinced. The issue for me is that we are part of an international organisation with online guidelines, and even though not explicitly stated, it’s pretty clear that the top banner image is a “required element” in WWF homepage designs.

Our brand is obviously important, and that means consistency (to a degree) – so which wins? I think perhaps I need to do some chatting with the other WWF webbies worldwide…

I’d love to do an eye tracking study on any new home page designs, but even at their new reduced rates (about USD$1,000 per design), they’re still a bit too expensive for us. Maybe they have a non-profit price.

WWF updates

The WWF-Australia website received a facelift today. As I mentioned previously, this is an interim update aimed at fixing some of the more prominent issues identified with the current design.

The immediately obvious changes are the banner and the imagery on the home page. We’ve changed the menu options in a couple of ways:

  • the menu options appear all the time which means that you no longer need to click to work out what options are underneath each menu option
  • the wording and links of the “How you can help” section has been changed to be better focused
  • the “Campaigns”, “In the field” and “Science and policy” have been lifted up the menu hierarchy, as a majority of the site’s content actually exists under these options which were hidden in the old design.

We now have a featured article that appears at the top of the content area. Previously these feature articles were hidden at the bottom of the page, “below-the-fold” so to speak. The aim is to include a few “action items” so that visitors can be guided towards activities related to the issue outlined in the feature article, so that there’s more to do than donating. Although this update only includes a basic “Make the switch to Green Power” option, I hope that over time the actions will become a bit more exciting and to have a few more options as well.

The news section has been slightly re-designed to include a featured image, as well as making each title a link (instead of the previous “More” link after each heading). We also highlight our current fundraising appeal on the home page now.

When reviewing our site’s stats I noticed that one of the most popular search terms for the internal site search engine was “Search term”, which was the default text in the search box! So I have revised the search box to hopefully be a little more visitor-friendly, as well as alerting the visitor if they haven’t entered a search term.

We’ve removed most of the graphic icons and buttons below the navigation which were creating a visual clutter (and IMO visitors probably didn’t even notice due to “banner blindness”). We’ve left two buttons highlighting items of interest.

There’s lots of other little things as well, and of course there’s still heaps more to be done, including an extensive re-appraisal of the site structure. This is a first step towards what I hope will be a much simpler and more visitor focussed/friendly site. In the short term, we are in the process of redefining all of the donation pages as well to make them a lot clearer.

The only other thing worth mentioning is that the design currently breaks under Internet Explorer 5 for Mac. I’m very tempted not to bother fixing this, as even Microsoft no longer supports its own browser! (If that ain’t a sign, I don’t know what is). I’ll have a look at it tomorrow anyways to see if it’s an easy fix.

I will be very interested to see if there is any significant change in visitor patterns – I’m fast become an avid stats watcher, which is a new experience for me to say the least!