Web Design News 11/05/10

Paul Boag

This week: Engaging and helping your users, the power of habits, why business writing is so awful and things to do at the beginning of each project.

Engaging and helping users

For the longest time usability was the mantra of the web design community. However simply making our websites usable is not enough. We also need to make them engaging too. We need to build a relationship with our users so they are passionate enough to spread the word.

However, engaging and motivating users is still in its infancy and has proved a learning process. This is beautifully demonstrated by three posts this week.

If you are new to the idea of engaging and enthusing users I recommend you start with Simple Strategies for Engaging Your Visitors. This post on six revisions lays out the basic principles of engaging visitors. In particular it looks at…

  • The ability of great content to engage
  • Engagement through giving users status
  • The power of letting your personality shine through
  • The use of humour
  • The need to communicate regularly
  • And the importance of usability

Although a great article it does not delve very deeply into the subject and has relatively superficial suggestions. However, Mashable has released a post entitled HOW TO: Cultivate Your Brand’s Super Users that delves a little deeper.

Image of a lego man streaking

Image Source: balakov

Instead of asking the question “How can get users to pay more attention” it suggests…

[We] flip that traditional marketing question around and ask, “How can we pay more attention to our users?”

The post then goes on to give four example case studies of websites that have done exactly that.

However according to Kathy Sierra in her recent talk at Business of Software 09, even that is not the right question. She proposes we should be focusing instead on how to empower users by creating sites that allow them to do things better, faster and smarter.

It’s a superb presentation that I recommend it to anybody with a desire to service their customers/clients/users better. If you don’t have the time to watch the entire presentation at least  read the summary on Konigi.

The power of habit

My second news item this week isn’t really directly related to web design even though it appears on A List Apart. Habit Fields is a fascinating post about how we form habits around objects. Here is how the author explains it…

Every object emits a habit field. When we sit down at the desk in our office to work, we shape its habit field into a productive one. When we sit down in a lounge chair to watch our favorite TV program, we nudge the chair’s habit field toward relaxation and consumption. The more we repeat the same activity around an object, the stronger its habit field gets. And the stronger its habit field gets, the easier it is for us to effortlessly fall into that mode of behavior the next time we’re around the object.

He goes on to explain how this can be problematic for a productive working environment especially in regards to computers. Its easy for you to ‘nudge’ the habit field of your computer so that you associate it with checking email, IM and tweeting rather than actually getting stuff done.

All of this sounds a little fanciful but the article does suggest some useful ways of controlling your environment in order to generate more productive habits.

Although it is an interesting article from a productivity perspective, it also got me thinking about how users form habits around our websites. Consequently small changes and decisions we make can nudge those habits in different directions. We certainly need to be careful when changing an existing site. Yet more evidence that large design changes are not always a good idea. Beyond that I don’t have any great insights but the article was certainly inspiring.

Have a read and let me know in the comments below whether you can see parallels with site design too.

Why is business writing so awful

It would appear that Jason Fried of 37Signals is jumping on the content bandwagon with a couple of posts on the subject.

The first is for Inc. Magazine and is entitled “Why is Business Writing so Awful?” His conclusion – because it all sounds the same. He writes…

When you write like everyone else and sound like everyone else and act like everyone else, you’re saying, “Our products are like everyone else’s, too.” Or think of it this way: Would you go to a dinner party and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night long? Would that be interesting to anybody? So why are so many businesses saying the same things at the biggest party on the planet — the marketplace?

He then goes on to highlight some great examples of well written copy.

He concludes with this…

I can already hear some of you saying, “Sounds great. But I can’t write.” So hire a writer.

I have said it before and I will say it again, it amazes me why businesses invest so much in design and so little in copy.

Tired woman are sleeping and holding cup. Laptop is situated on the table.

Tokar Dima, Shutterstock

Of course writing isn’t just limited to website copy. It also applies to the emails we write in response to user enquiries. On the 37Signals blog Jason gives an example of how important it is to be positive when saying no to a customers question. He concludes by saying…

Tone makes all the difference in the world.

I couldn’t agree more.

Things to do at the beginning of each project

I want to end today with a nice little checklist from Leah Buley at Adaptive Path. “Things to do at the beginning of each project” does exactly what it says on the tin with a list of things to remember when starting work on a new project.

Photo of the A Team

This is a worthwhile read for both web professionals and website owners. Although written from an agency perspective the list is applicable from both sides of the fence.

Some of my favourite items include…

  • Plan for a mid-point triage period. Even if you think things will go swimmingly, you’ll need it. Treat this as unstructured time for resolving lingering design questions. If possible, this should be face-to-face time when you get the the whole team together (including clients) and poke a stick at the designs (in the interest of making them better, of course!).
  • Create “this week” and “next week” signs. Pick a prominent spot on the wall and put up 2 signs: one that says “this week,” and one that says “next week.” As the weeks roll on, put whatever you’re supposed to be working on this week in the “this week” spot. And put whatever you’re supposed to be working on next week in the “next week” spot. When you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work left to be done, look at the “this week” sign and feel calm.
  • Communicate a lot. Use the back channel. Call people up and ask them how they think it’s going. If you have important information, try to think of everyone who will be impacted by it, and then try to share it, in whatever form is appropriate. Give senior or influential people previews before any “big reveals” to avoid unpleasant surprises during the Big Presentation.

Do you have a project checklist like this? If not it is definitely worth creating one. Rolling out a web project is extremely challenging and complex. It is not the kind of thing you can easily hold in your head. Make a list!