A while ago I contacted Kim Krause Berg for a usability review, but I threw a curve ball in on her. I asked her how I could make this blog more usable. I believe Kim is the first person who has ever offered blog usability review services.
Her feedback was why I made the changes mentioned here, and many other site improvements. I asked her if she would let me interview her about blogs and blog usability and she said sure. The interview is in the extended area of this post.
How long have you been a blogger?
Since July 2002, one month before Cre8asiteforums went live. My friend, Bill Slawski, had one and his enthusiasm and support gave me the incentive to try it. I started with two blogs, one for SEO news and another one for personal stuff. I removed the personal one quickly after realizing talking about myself was too depressing.
My SEO news buddies then were Andy Beal, Peter DaVanzo and Kalena Jordan. We were considerate of each other, so there was very little news overlap or stealing of stories. When other SEO news blogs poured in, I was ready to begin branching off into the field I was moving into, which is usability. Now I blog about both topics. I write for two other blogs besides mine - SERoundtable and Cre8tive Flow when I can squish out the time.
Which blogs do you find most interesting and / or inspirational?
SEOMoz is the one I visit every day. It's never boring. I hate to be bored. Jeff Zeldman writes creative post titles that lure me in like fishing from the creek. I always visit because I'm afraid I might miss something special, such as the birthday post he recently wrote to his late mother. His blog is an example of a Christmas stocking blog. There's always the promise of finding something in there to play with.
I like good teaching blogs, like 456 Berea Street and some of the larger blogs with staffs that supply a constant supply of research and articles, such as Putting People First and Boxes and Arrows. As you can see, I'm a boring bloggee. I read blogs to learn something, rather than be entertained. If I can be entertained, while I'm devouring research, all the better.
I scan about 150 blogs on an almost daily basis. If I know the person personally, as in someone from the SEO industry, I monitor their blog as if I'm waiting for a telephone call from them. I also hunt for examples of blogs that represent a segment of blogging, such as corporate blogging. For that, I like Debbie Weil's Blogwrite for CEO's . I'm not a regular at women-only blogs, though Blogher is a dynamite blog when I want a gender fix and LipSticking because of the honest writing. I don't have time for blogs outside my work interests, and yet when one of my favorite bloggers sets off on a tangent and goes off topic, I'm hanging on their every word.
I like bloggers who talk to me, not at me.
In the blog usability review you mentioned human emotional connection: What blogs do you see that do it well?
Very few. I have two memorable examples of how powerful the human connection is with blogs and how it's the best marketing tool of all.
I came upon two blogs that blew me away while aimlessly roaming around places like Technorati and Bloglines. Both initially caught me with their post title that appeared in the feed. Both had a first sentence that forced me in, against my will. The first blog example turned out to be a hilarious story written by a NYC male escort who had a disastrous date who happened to not be a client. She was such a screamer and so loud he was terrified he'd be ejected from his apartment complex due to the noise. What made this so fun wasn't the story as much as how well it was told in the blog.
The other find was more amazing because the post title was simple, and yet I was compelled to click on it. It turned out to be this searing, touching piece written by a father whose little girl had just died. I was an emotional wreck when I finished reading it. So much so that I had to write about it in mine. "The Extreme Human Power Behind Blogs Is Not For Sale" It had a true impact on readers. Even now, as I re-visit the post that I found "Dear Elena" I get choked up.
Blogs unite the humanity of us. Even business and corporate blogs. It can be pleasant to discover the CEO who has feelings or business that has time to talk to us. Not every blog wants to reach out for a group hug, but I have a soft spot for those that do. Web sites can be empty holes on the Internet, where you wonder where their people went.
Is an emotional connection more of a requirement with blogging than other types of web publishing?
No. I look for the emotional connection on all sites I evaluate. We're social creatures. We're translating this to the Web in many ways, like MySpace and Linked in. The latter is dry and as thrilling as a rolodex until you start reading what people have to say about people they've worked with. Humans are the ones with the credit cards, not search engine bots. Humans go to the Internet when they're lonely. Political blogs thrive on the emotional connection. Character blogs may be failing, however, because of their nature. One of the actors from the TV Show "Invasion" had a blog, written from the perspective of his character. The blog has been removed. Steve Rubel notes the demise of other character blogs, saying, "Character blogs are a waste of time because a character is not and never will be human - unless it's Pinocchio."
What types of blogs are ok to host on free blog hosting servers like Blogspot? When should a business decide it is worth it to place a blog on their own site?
For credibility, I support blogs with their own domain. However! Credibility and authenticity can be just as well displayed on free-hosted software. One example is one my new favorites, Rosie Sherry. I think she's awesome in that she's a woman in QA who blogs, so I have someone I can relate to. But, she writes clearly and has earned my loyalty, not because of her blog host, but because of the quality of her blog.
Businesses who want to blog need to consider their target reader and interests. I like Target, but doubt I'd ever want to read a blog by them. Businesses need to carefully consider who they let author their blog as well. A poorly presented and written blog can drive people away. People can spot a huge ego for miles away. Check motives.
What are the biggest usability errors that seem to be built into most blogs or blogging platforms?
The number one usability error bloggers make is not explaining to the reader who you are and why you have a blog. If you are a Splogger, admit you're only purpose is to steal other content. (Just kidding.)
The second biggest is poor planning and pathetic software that makes poor planning possible. Archives and search are my pet peeves, especially for established blogs. Good bloggers wrote GREAT STUFF 8 months ago, but good luck trying to find it. Categories and tagging are band-aids. No solutions are universal for all blog software, and therefore, not accessible to all bloggers. Instead of putting a map to my house online, I wish Google had worked on Blogger's archives and blog search problems. (By the way, their map is wrong.)
Does design play a key roll in blog usability?
Yes. If readers can't use it (find old posts, fill out comments) or read it (i.e. small font, doesn't render in Firefox), they may not return. How many blogs blow up in handheld devices? User centered design requirements shouldn't end as soon as the site is called "a blog". The same user interface problems that are seen in web sites are seen in blogs.
Design for revenue is being explored now as blogs participate more and more in the realm of ecommerce and marketing. The million dollar question is "Can we be paid to share information?" Sure. I'd buy a book from someone who has a blog that teaches me and keeps me informed. I figure their book is probably good too. How profitable are blogs with auto-ripped off content packed with Google Ads? We're exploring this too, unfortunately.
Are the default templates usable? When should a blogger consider professional design services?
Templates are excellent places to start with. This is both a curse and a blessing. It's a blessing because new bloggers can get a feel for the whole blog thing, the secret code, how to post, how to put up ads, etc. A curse because you no longer need to hire a webmaster. You can just go get a free blog template to sell your beaded toe rings, and keep an ongoing dialog going about the next big bead fad (just to be able to say its still a blog.)
Corporate and business blogs will be considering brand and identity. For example, Cre8asiteforums has a blog that is moving to a new home and new software. The blog staff has changed how it looks and is re-working the purpose for having a blog. (Why would forums have a blog?) It is intended to look like it belongs to the forum but is not smothered by it. This has taken a staff of designers, writers, programmers, arguers, artists, and someone to make sure the blog editor doesn't quit in sheer frustration. (It's not me. I get to watch.) We did start with a template offered up by Wordpress, but in the end, it will be our own look and feel.
My own blog is based on a template that I destroyed after years of playing in the code and I have no idea what the original template used to look like.
I would recommend professional help if changing an established blog. This is because there is a history there to consider, including back links, feeds, and readership based on the status quo. One of my longtime favorite sites had a re-do and I'm bummed because they said goodbye to the liveliness and humor the old one had. Was this a conscious business decision or an oversight?
You mentioned some of my offers (like the newsletter offer) were a bit weak in nature. Do you think it is easy to mix commerce and blogging? Are there any friction points? If so, how do bloggers typically mess this up?
This is something I know you care a lot about. It's also new, this idea of mixing business with blogging. The kinks aren't worked out. Performancing.com is one such site that is willing to keep looking at this, even the mistakes. Problogger covers making money with blogs extensively.
When blogging and business combine, the reason for the blog has immediately changed. It's morphed into a sales tool and already being exploited to death with splogs and auto-generated theme-blogs.
Bloggers mess up by deceiving their readers.
With Seobook, I suggested offering regular readers a choice of whether to get the version with the big book ad in the middle (first timers), or a version that is just posts (those who bought the book or decided not to and don't want to be bombarded with the ad every time they come to read your blog.) However, the no-ad version can still convert by prompts like "Have you read my book?" or "If you're on this site, you may have read my book. Here's how to tell others about it" or "I wrote about this in my book" inside a blog post on a particular topic and you present a non-invasive link. In other words, you have a product and there's no reason to ignore it just because you are "a blogger". You are a blogger with a book for sale, and services to promote.
I look for these 6 points on every blog start page: who, where, what, why, when and how. There are different ways to answer these questions but they must appear quickly and be forthright and visible. Tell me how long you've been blogging, and this may influence your credibility. Show me the blogs you link to, why you blog, what you blog about and when you think you might not be blogging for awhile. Communicate. If someone puts up five blogs, on different themes, and can honestly write original posts for all of them, they're likely not from the planet Earth, and definitely not married with children. Those bloggers are doing this because of the ads stuck on these blogs, and heck, if they keep writing really good stuff, who cares?
The mistake is not being original and doing it for the supposed revenue. I'd like to see bloggers earn their revenue with clever blogs worth reading. If they sell something I want, I'll buy from them. Many bloggers are book writers and a blog is perfect for marketing their knowledge and style. They do need to be considerate for those who aren't coming for the book (or any product/service), however. These are the user centered design issues bloggers now face as they move into the competitive mainstream.
The inline ads on my site are probably a bit aggressive and annoy repeat visitors. Are there other ways that would be easy to add a call to action without lowering the conversion rate?
I'd like to see some programming genius's come up with ways to tick them off. To pursue blog commerce, we need more options in blog software. For example, in my blog, inline ads repeat down the page. I don't want that, but don't know how to turn if off. Other blogs have the same problem, and its compounded with ads in their feeds. This is, again, how ads got in the way of a good thing.
End user options like "View with ads", or not, is one of my dream ideas. "Skip to content" is the basis for this, only it would be "Skip to posts - no ads please". Can you just imagine what screen readers are reading back to their users, with all the ads mixed into blog entries?
Conversions are like sneaky word games. They rely on their relationship to the value proposition. It's easy to get distracted from the value proposition in a blog that's intent on telling stories or sharing news. It's easy to completely forget to put in call to action prompts, especially if you don't want to interrupt a great story. One word can make a difference between a click, or not. It's not the big bulky ad or the repeated text ad that grabs them. It's how you persuade them to try something for free, or how your service will improve life for your reader. It's also when you tell them about your offer. Move ads around. Change ad sizes. Experiment with above the fold and below the fold, text ads or image. Avoid distractions. Build momentum but don't bombard. It's the same as any web site, but a blog with a following has to know when to stop selling and just sit quietly so visitors can read what you wrote.
You mentioned something about backwards vision in your review of my site. What is a backwards vision?
It's adapted from software testing practices like "backwards testing" and "requirements gathering". I look for several things.
1. If you took away all the fluff and stuff from the site, would I be able to still determine its purpose and/or the blog owner's priorities for the blog?
2. I report my first-time impressions on what I think the site's purpose and objectives are. I also report the market and reader I think the blog is targeting. If I am wrong or miss something the blogger thinks should be obvious, then the site didn't communicate properly to me what the site owner had wished it to. If I list things they didn't consider; well, I don't think that's ever happened.
3. The types of functional and non-functional elements the blog includes and how or if they support the blog's requirements. This includes "chicklets", plug-in applications and non-functional like legal items like a Creative Commons statement.
It's a discipline - one that bloggers may not have considered. Listing objectives and priorities for a blog is like laying the foundation. It's done before the information architecture stage. This list helps determine and narrow down blog requirements. Every element that is placed on the blog MUST be traceable to a requirement, which is traceable to a business or personal goal or set of priorities. If it does not connect, it is not offering support. If it can't be traced, it is a stray addition that causes risk to the design and in the longer term, success and life of the blog.
The functional and non-functional requirements should be traceable to blog priorities and goals. What sometimes happens is the blogger tosses in something because it seems cool to do. It should offer support, not serve as a distraction.
When it asks for anyone's name or email address, such as for comments or when it has any type of form that requests personal information.
What are your favorite usability books and resources?
All of them. Honestly, I read EVERYTHING. I'm shopping for a new bookshelf. To pick one? The Eisenberg's "Call to Action" book. For the web, Functioning Form. And UX matters. I read Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, of course and I enjoy Jared Spool and his staff's blog, UIE Brain Sparks. One more; Marketing Experiments blog. I like to read their latest findings.
What are the biggest differences between trying to improve the usability of a blog as compared to an ecommerce site?
The ecommerce site is about persuasion, creating desire and need. Some can influence decisions (Amazon is good at this.) The focus of this is usually lost in the design for blogs, or somewhere in the lack of understanding for how to market from blogs online. The blog is the wild child of the web family. It's still figuring out what its doing and it never intended to conform to anyone's standards. I can make suggestions for improving usability but I'm also well aware that the blog owner may not be interested. It's like talking to my own teenager. Same sort of resistance. Same "I already know what to do and don't need you." Sooner or later, they do.
What is the biggest surprise you came across while doing blog usability reviews?
How different blogs can be from each other and how compelling writing trumps bad design. Blog readers are patient, loyal and surprisingly tolerant. The second surprise is how many blog owners drank the funky kool-aid and thought blogging would be easy, or make them tons of money in a month. A usability review can offer reassurance that they are doing the right things and to be patient, or they are not doing the right things and let's fix that. Many people never considered they could set goals for their blog and guide their ship with a plan.
If I wanted to get a blog usability review how would I go about contacting you for one?
Send a limo to my house and take me to a health spa and we can chat during our massage. Or, visit Blog Usability Reviews to read more or order one. I also have a page called Blog Usability where I'm gathering resources to support bloggers interested in the usability side of blog life.
Thanks Kim :)
If you are thinking about improving the usability of your blog I highly recommend hiring Kim. She is exceptionally thorough. Her deep understanding of the web from doing so many usability reviews and her heavily participation in the social aspects of the web make her the perfect person to offer blog usability reviews, as she is excellent at balancing conversion considerations and the social aspects of blogging.
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