Friday, April 01, 2005

Blog design and usability

Tom Foremski over at Silicon Valley Watcher makes a valid point in saying that there really haven't been any usability studys of blogs specifically.

One could argue, as I often do, that blogs are simply a sub-set of web sites, so one could wonder, as I hadn't until now, whether a usability study on blogs would unearth anything wildly surprising.

But blogs do have some differences in typical format that do beg the question: are we doing this in the best possible way. The way post after post appears in reverse chronological order...down past many "folds" in some cases. The navigability that relies on much simpler and more limited options...usually only by date and maybe category.

Tom asks two specific questions in his post that do provide food for thought for me personally.

The first is about posts and clicking to get complete posts. On this blog and all of my other blogs based on the Blogger app, what you see is what you get. All posts are there, in their entirety. On my Personal Blog (powered by iBlog, and my Political Blog, powered by Movable Type, you can have only part of a post display on the page, with a click through to read further.

Well, when I write a long post like this one I think it would be better to be able to provide an abstract/teaser and let people decide to click through to the rest of the story. This is pretty critical on a blog like my Personal Blog where I'm writing about a broad swath of topics, from American Idol to Blogging to get the picture. On the other hand there is no arguing that making people click through to get a single line of text, or maybe a link, does seem anti-user-friendly. So clearly, one must use common sense and discretion.

The second issue is about how to display links. Do you embed them in words like this, or do you actually show the link,for example like this:

Tom Foremski over at makes a valid point in saying that there really haven't been any usability studys of blogs specifically in this post:

Frankly I think the latter example would make blogs miserable to read. I don't mind the idea of listing Sources at the end. And I agree that while sometimes embedded links are pretty can figure out where that link is bound to be going, in other words...other times links are mysterious and annoying. Here's an example:

In this National review piece the author links to someone else's blog post, embedding the link in the word "self-parody." While the author may think she is being obvious, there's actually no explanation of what qualifies the post as self-parody, and it just becomes hit-and-run snarkiness without context. I think that's unfair, and treats readers with as much contempt as the blogger. It's as though she's saying, 'if you're cool you'll understand why this is self-parody.'

BUt the occasional link embedding that is obtuse or unfriendly aside, I find it hard enough to read blog posts on screen...especially ones as long as this one. If I had to look at a bunch of URLs, it would really put me over the edge.

Perhaps, it's a matter of trust. If you've been reading me a while, then you presumably believe the quality of my links is good...relevant, trustworthy, comprehensible. And when you roll the mouse over the embedded link, don't you see the URL displayed anyway? Or is that just in Safari?

These are good discussions to have as blogs move from being a tool used primarily for self-expression to a tool used for a broader range of communications to a broader audience.

Shel Holtz happens to agree with me here.

As the target of the "self parody" link, all I have to add is, exactly. This snarky approach certainly has its roots in web publishing many years ago. (Suck perhaps popularized it before Winer did). It was really beneathe the National Review to do that. I got over 800 hits over last few days from that page, though few really lingered long. Here was my response to the substance of the article, for what it's worth. I guess they just felt it was alright because everybody else does it.

Regarding the usability, I was amazed when I first encountered blogs over a year ago how readily they broke the design guidelines of "web design guru" Jakob Nielson, who had took Slate to task for having a long front page. Here's my study of web page lengths from January 2004. So I decided to completely reject the weblog format since most of my writing is long. If I have something short to say, I usually say it in the comment section of someone else's blog. :-)
One more thing. The "blog post" that Elisa referred to was a 4,500-word analysis about inclusiveness at a blogging conference.

Now, instead of "self parody," if Heather MacDonald had written, "One of the triggers to this whole women-in-blogging issue this time around was a sophomoric analysis by some software engineer about the so-called diversity at a conference of elite bloggers and journalists, she would have been much closer to the truth, and still snarky.
Gotta love a blogger who can keep his perspective...and his sense of humor.
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