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eduweb conference

Budget Usability Testing

Is web usability testing possible for less than $50, in less than 2 hours a week? That’s what Chas Grundy of the University of Notre Dame said in his eduweb conference session. So while John and Erick are at HighEdWeb, I’ll finish up with my own conference notes.

Usability testing can be as simple as sitting 3-5 users down in front of your website, and watching what they do. With screen capture software and/or a webcam, you can even record them.

Chas offered several suggestions and encouragements on web usability testing.

  1. Focus on the big issues. Begin today.
  2. Decide what to learn, how to learn, who from, when to test. Most users are similar. If high school students can’t find your “Contact Us” button, neither can rich elderly potential donors.
  3. Explain to the users that there are no right/wrong answers. In fact, they’re not being tested at all – the web developers are.
  4. Test early, test often. Don’t wait until the site is set in stone.
  5. You can test using paper prototypes and mockups, even before your site is finished.
  6. Test competitors’ websites too, to see if alternatives work better than what you’re doing.
  7. When you test, give users tasks. Don’t leave it open-ended.
  8. Encourage your users talk out loud over the tasks, but don’t offer any direction yourself.
  9. If you ask about something, people will create opinions where they had none before.
  10. What web users say is not always what they do. Ignore speculation.
  11. Fix the obvious, do special testing on the hard parts, then retest.
  12. Design once, increment forever.
  13. Remember: everything we do could be wrong. We don’t know until we’ve tested it.

Chas suggested several usability testing software tools…

…and several websites on usability and usability testing:

  • sensible.com – The online home of Web usability consultant Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think.
  • useit.com – For usability research, many turn to Dr. Jakob Nielsen’s website. For graphic design beauty, they usually look elsewhere.
  • usability.gov – A one-stop source from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services on how to make websites more usable, useful, and accessible.

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Tuesday, October 6th, 2009 Usability 1 Comment

eduWEB: the role of writers

One of the purposes of the eduWeb conference was to bring together marketing and web people. One show of hands suggested that the audience was evenly split. I myself am fairly evenly split, having written both PHP code and annual reports – both coder and copywriter.

According to Sarah Stanek, Senior Writer at California State University East Bay, the underappreciated members of the web team are the writers. Writers need to be at the first web meeting, not the last. They need to become trusted as the content authority. The writer should be the managing editor on the Web team. Professional writers can offer four things: ability, authority, access, and accuracy.

How can experienced writers make a website better?

  1. They can encourage each member of the team to agree in advance on word count, voice, content lifespan.
  2. They can help to break log jams in the workflow. Stanek’s advice: ask for corrections and edits to the website, make them, acknowledge they’ve been made, then go live.
  3. For students, they can provide deadlines. For administrators, they can suggest topics to write about.
  4. They can help review blog posts before publishing, if necessary. “Boring is okay, long and boring is not,” says Stanek. Moderate comments quickly. Don’t be afraid to close comments either.
  5. They can write interview questions (but not the answers). Put ideas in their heads, then put cameras in their faces.

Under the influence of social media, some web strategists are calling for professionally-generated content (such as marketing copy) to be replaced by user-generated content (such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter) because “it sounds more authentic.” But Stanek sternly insists that professional writers do not sound inauthentic.

In fact, says Stanek, “student bloggers write about ten times more formally than I do.” At a major university, over-formality may be a more serious problem than students writing ungrammatically. But that’s a whole other issue: where do people get the idea that stilted writing makes them sound smarter? I think the University Writing Center has a 12-step program for that…

True, journalists who cut their teeth writing for newspapers and magazines need to adapt their style for the Web, but any professional knows how to adapt. Writers have had to deal with an electronically-oriented audience for a long time.

Besides, in the past forty years, people haven’t changed as much as all that, even if buzzwords have. “Blogging is not a meaningful verb,” Stanek says. “The word is writing.” Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message,” in 1964. That is, simply because a story moves from a newsletter to the Web, the message changes. If only because the screen is harder on the eyes than paper, writing for the Web needs to be shorter and scannable.

A “pencast” of The Role of Writers session (audio synchronized with notes) is available.

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Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 Web Content 2 Comments

eduWEB: marketing becomes customer service

Though the closing keynote speaker at eduWeb conference did approach student recruitment from the perspective of commercial marketing and even salesmanship, his concept of marketing also embraces more personal factors: relationships and customer service. As Erick noted, he sometimes sounded ruthless, but he tempered his ruthlessness by saying, for example, that we shouldn’t try to convince every student to enroll, only those we can best serve.

With my slight background in direct marketing, I’m fascinated by how easy it can be to continue with business as usual (and unfortunately state employees are notorious for this, aren’t we?) without ever finding out if we’re meeting the needs of our customers. Of course, direct marketers believe they’re immune to this problem since they claim they’d go out of business if they weren’t!

The speaker, a former admissions director, urged each member of the university community to see every working hour as contributing to the central goal. (To help his own company’s meetings to do that, he removed the chairs from his conference room). He quoted a college gardener who, when asked what his job was, said, “To recruit fine students.” Certainly it was more than erosion control. Every part of a university, even every website, contributes to the opinion that outsiders have of it. Responsibility cannot really be shared. Only individuals can be responsible.

“What’s your school’s elevator pitch?” the speaker challenged. An entrepreneur develops an elevator pitch because his only chance to win a big investor or a big client might last only a few seconds. Before the elevator door opens, he or she has to prove why this enterprise is different from any other. Every university needs a unique selling point. If another school can do what we do, then we’re redundant.

It can’t be said too often: visitors to your website come for their reasons, not for yours. What are they looking for? The speaker quoted Michael Sexton, Dean of Admissions at Lewis & Clark College: “Stories not stats, people not programs.”

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Thursday, August 20th, 2009 Branding 2 Comments

eduWEB: Higher Style for Higher Education Websites

Design and usability: that was the focus of the eduWeb conference session led by Stewart Foss, a former college webmaster and founder of edustyle, a showcase for the best higher education web designs.

Here are some of the thoughts I came away with: › Continue reading

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Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 CSS, HTML No Comments

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