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Mar 26

Grading Myself Against Jakob Nielsen’s Design Mistakes

Jakob NielsenJakob Nielsen is one of the great heroes of the internet. He’s a web usability expert. I have learned a great deal from him over the years. It probably helps that his base attitude is the same as mine: people come to your website for a reason; don’t waste their time. And the biggest aspect of this is the way in which people create frills on websites that don’t help. The oldest example of this is blinking text. The first time you see it, it’s interesting. But it never is again. One of my most hated website decorations are drop down menus. They always distract, rarely work well, and often confuse users.

Earlier today, I was looking at Nielsen’s article, Weblog Usability: The Top Ten Design Mistakes. So I thought that I would run through the list and see how I’m doing. Now, it is no surprise that I’m doing okay. I have a general outlook that is very similar to Nielsen’s. But more important, today wasn’t the first time I’ve seen the article. Although, in my defense, I was doing about as well when I first did.

1. No Author Biographies

This is one of my great complaints about blogs. This includes blogs of friends and colleagues of mine. A lot of people really want to remain anonymous. And I agree that arguments should stand on their own. But none of this means that there shouldn’t be an author biography. But even people who aren’t anonymous still provide nothing. I take this as contempt for the reader. As for me, I think my author page could be a whole lot better. But it is better than it used to be.

2. No Author Photo

I don’t think this is as important, but I certainly like it. What’s more, when I’ve written about someone, I like to have a photo of them that I can use in my article. But it is really as simple as what Nielsen says, “It offers a more personable impression of the author.” I also think it helps in gaining regular readers. It personalizes the readers experience.

3. Nondescript Posting Titles

This is one where I really fall down. But I’m trying to do a better job. The truth is that I prefer direct headlines. I hate the trend toward two and three sentence headlines. On this site, I try to make the headline fit on a single line on the page. That’s about 35 characters. As I look at the last ten articles I posted, the two best headlines did take up two lines, even though not by much. They are: “Why Conservatives Ignore Global Warming” and “Why You Can’t Argue With Christian Apologists.” (Nielsen also notes that one should not put headlines IN ALL CAPS. Yes! It is harder to read. It reduces reading speed. It is ugly.)

There is another issue that Nielsen doesn’t mention. Google puts a lot of emphasis on titles in its rankings. I see this all the time. So I really will continue to improve this. I think I’m a lot better than I have been.

4. Links Don’t Say Where They Go

I’m not entirely clear on this one because I think that Nielsen is kind of vague on the point. But he’s very clear on what he doesn’t like. And it is something I see all the time. Here’s an example from him, “There’s more here and here.” I personally hate that because it doesn’t make sense. The least a writer could do is, “There’s more at this link.” But even that’s terrible. When I link, I try to include the article title as I did at the start of this post. But sometimes, you don’t want to slow the pace down in that way.

5. Classic Hits are Buried

Nielsen believes that blogs should highlight their most popular articles. I’ve got a greatest hits page, but it is perpetually out of date. It’s hard to keep up to date because the site continues to grow in readership. But every once in a while, I do a bunch of work on it. It’s about time.

6. The Calendar is the Only Navigation

This is a big problem with blogs. The diary nature of them is really not very good after you get a few articles written. Frankly Curious is currently headed toward 4,000 articles—a milestone we will hit in a couple of months. And we will likely hit 5,000 by the end of the year. I’ve done a lot to improve this aspect of the site. Instead of using the standard blog categories, I created my own PHP code to provide my own category pages. They provide titles and then the first few sentences of the article. You can check them out on the right. The same code is used in the site maps. In addition to this, the site now has two search features. There is the base one written in the blog. This one works great for single words, but it is useless for anything more. So there is also a Google search. Still searching kind of sucks in the world of blogs.

7. Irregular Publishing Frequency

There is no doubt that this used to be a problem around here. It isn’t anymore. In fact, the site is shockingly consistent. I try to do five articles per day. But when I’m doing a lot of technical work (which I have been the past couple of weeks), it tends to go down. I still usually get four articles up and never less than two. This is a point I stress to people starting blogs. It doesn’t matter if you only write one article a week. But write one article a week. In addition to everything else, it keeps you thinking about your blog. Krugman is good about this: even when he’s out of town, he posts little apologies and warnings. People like that.

8. Mixing Topics

Okay. I do this. It is the nature of the blog. The idea is to be mixed. And if anything, the blog doesn’t represent enough of my interests. But this is one of the reasons I’ve worked so hard to get the categories working. Even if I were focused, I’m not sure what I would focus on. I’m not a specialist.

9. Forgetting That You Write for Your Future Boss

I do forget about my future boss because I know that I will never have a boss again. People are willing to contract with me, but they aren’t willing to hire me. But my partner Will did point out that he avoided showing clients (many of whom are religious people and even churches) my site because of the coarse language. As a result, I’ve pretty much stopped using it. I find I can get the same kind of stuff across without those words. Of course, my writing on “spiritualism” would probably offend those people for different reasons.

10. Having a Domain Name Owned by a Weblog Service

I still find it amazing that some very big blogs are hosted on BlogSpot. They always seem like relics from the past. But to each his own.

Well, that’s it. I think I would have to give myself a B+. But then, I’ve always been a pretty easy grader. I intend to continue to work to improve the user experience. But most of my time goes to creating content. I still think that is the most important thing.

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