Posts tagged ‘usability’

Blog tinkering

IMG_4216Over the last few days I’ve added a few features to my blog which other blogs have had for ages…

  1. Comments subscription. Get email updates to post’s comments. I’ve never quite understood why this isn’t a standard feature of WordPress. Does anyone ever subscribe to an RSS feed of comments? I don’t think I ever have.
  2. Gravatar. Updated my theme to include comment author’s gravatars
  3. Tag cloud. Seemed an obvious thing to add to the side bar, given the time I’d spent tagging old posts.
  4. Clustr maps. A little sidebar widget to show where the site visitors are coming from.

As, I assume, most people will be reading this through a feed reader, all of my tinkering will be irrelevant/invisible. Which means you won’t see the long (pointless?) sidebar of widgets now on display.

Does anyone ever look at these sidebar widgets? I’m sure when I view others’ blogs/sites I tend to block out anything down either side of the page assuming it’s peripheral, unless it looks like a menu for navigation. So why should I expect anyone to look at the ones on my site?

On the OpenLearn project the number of Moodle blocks (down either side of the page) grew to an unmanageable number. Deciding which (or rather whose!) block should be removed or put at the top was a tricky task. Though, this problem has now been solved by moving all the tools into one block.

[The photo above, which I took yesterday, has nothing to do with this posting, other than to show I have done something else over the last few days apart from tinkering with my blog.]

Usability of OpenID

Mike Ellis posted an interesting article up about OpenID, which is quite critical of OpenID and although I do like OpenID, I agree with much of what he’s saying. Maybe I like OpenID because it’s a way of reducing the number of usernames/passwords I need to remember, rather than being a good way of reducing password overload.

I’ve recently been in conversation with the OU Communications group about how they can OpenID-enable some of their sites and my feeling is that it’s going to be difficult explain what OpenID is how to use it. I feel that to be able to use an OpenID at all you need a basic grasp of how it functions, which may be why it appeals to techies? I’m sure using a url as your identity is going to be an alien concept to people used to using usernames & passwords.

Also there’s plenty of room for confusion when logging into an Open University website using an OpenID… is my OpenID something the Open University gives me?

Future of web apps

Spent the last few days at the Future of Web Apps conference, and, as with the previous one in February, loads of excellent presentations and lots of food for thought. Also managed to wrangle myself a place in the workshop sessions, which were well worth it. Here were the highlights for me…

Steve Souders (Yahoo) on high performance websites, excellent tips on how to improve the response time in your web app. This was all focussed on improving the speed of the front end, rather than the more usual approach of improving backend speed (with database optimisation etc) – but as he demonstrated, the gains are much more significant when applied to the front end. Steve also gave a workshop on the same subject – his presentation slides give all the info you need – rather than me repeating it all here. Steve’s team have built a plugin for FireBug, YSlow, making it easy to show how your web app scores against his 14 rules (see the presentation for details of these rules). The only one of these rules I would question, for all but the biggest of web sites/apps, is the Content Delivery Network (CDN). Out of interest, I ran YSlow against our OpenLearn site and there is definitely some scope for improvement.

Dion Almaer (Google) on Google Gears, this was broadly the same as I’d heard at the Google Developer Day and I’m still not totally convinced it will get huge take-up. The reason being that I think it’s only really relevant for a small slice of web apps – eg for salesmen-out-on-the-road apps – or maybe I’m being unfair, being able to use GoogleDocs when not online would be good. I am quite interested in the WorkerPool with thread-like JavaScript, and would be fantastic if this could be implemented in JavaScript generally. I should probably mention that I do actually like the fact I’m not always connected to the web!

Robin Christopherson (AbilityNet) – I think this is the first time I’ve been to a mainstream web development conference where there’s been a presentation highlighting how to develop for visually impaired users and I’m sure (hoping!) his demo of screen reader software (especially the reading of the image names on the Amazon tabs) was an eye-opener (excuse the pun).

Heidi Pollock (BluePulse) on the mobile web and all the associated complications and headaches due to the sheer number of different web browsers used on different phones and the screen size you can actually work with. Before her presentation I would have had no idea where to start designing an app for mobile phone, now I do, but whether I want to cope with all those headaches is another matter!

John Resig (JQuery) gave an insight on the future of JavaScript (v2). Though I have a voice in the back of my head telling me that it’s just converging with Java, for example, optionally giving variables types and being able to import packages of classes. However, ignoring my fears that this is reinventing Java, it will certainly be good to see some more ‘real-programming’ type principles applied to JavaScript. I did learn Java before JavaScript, so maybe I’m biased anyway. Another thing John mentioned and is applicable to the work I was looking at alerting user to a new MSG message with a beep, is the implementation of <video/> and <audio/> tags in HTML 5.

Joe Walker (DWR) on Comet and attempting to get over the hurdle of the fact that the web is a pull technology. This is something we had to address with MSG, being able to push new message notifications and presence state changes out to the user. We achieved this by use long running connections, only returning if some needs pushing out to the client, or after around 45 seconds. So I’ll need to look into whether comet can give us a better/different approach.

Tom Coates (Yahoo) showing FireEagle (though it’ll have a different name on release), a way of sharing your location, so relevant to me with the MSG – Google Maps integration. Essentially it provides a service that applications and devices can use to either write or read your current location. So you could have your mobile phone automatically update where you are now (using GPS) and have this fed out to Twitter. This could be a really good one for us to look at for MSG and auto updating your location rather than relying on someone remembering to go update their location. As Tom pointed out, there are loads of potential privacy issues/concerns (“Burglary 2.0” was mentioned during the Q&A), but they seem to have done a really good job of addressing and anticipating these.

And last, but by no means least, Michael Kowolski’s (Kitsite) workshop on Interface Design for Web Apps, reminding us just how critical a good user interface is – and he wasn’t just talking about the graphical design. Everything he mentioned ought to be common-sense, obvious and in-built to web app developers/designers, but to me it highlighted just how often and easily it gets overlooked. Creating a easy-to-use and intuitive interface actually requires quite a lot of thought and planning, the fact that the user doesn’t have to learn the interface is a *good thing*.
It did make me think that Moodle has a way to go in this respect, I know that Moodle has ‘themes’, but essentially this is just changing the CSS and a few graphics, and that’s not really changing the interface. Michael is going to post the presentation up soon (here), and it’ll be a good one to look through again.

All in all, a thought provoking few days, and makes me wish I had far more time to investigate in detail all I’ve found out. The final thing I’ve learned is that I ought to get into the habit of blogging live, rather than leaving it till I get home and trying to remember all the excellent stuff I found out about! (or take better notes…)

How to make new MSG messages more obvious? – part II

In order to test out the options I listed I tried some of them out this morning on a few people in KMi. I gave people a task – looking for particular materials on the site and posting a message to a forum and asked them to respond to any message notifications they may receive. I tested with 3 people (ok, not a huge sample!!), and each of them had notifications with two different types of notification (text appearing in the banner and the popup layer).

However, not a single person noticed the new message notifications 🙁 So guess that means we’re going to have to come up with something slightly more annoying 😉

How to make new MSG messages more obvious?

We’re still finding that people don’t always realise they’ve received a new message in MSG (I’m guilty too!), and I think this is because the only notification they get – when they’re just on one of the OpenLearn sites, so don’t have MSG Client or MSGAlert running – is a change in the presence status icon in the banner. Even if users notice it’s changed, unless they mouse over, they’re not really going to know what it means – especially new MSG users.

So here are some options we’ve come up with to make the receipt of a new message more obvious… and I’ve included a few mockup screen shots of how it might look…

Option 1: leave as-is

Option 1: leave as-is

Basically don’t do anything to what we’ve already got.
Pros: no work involved!
Cons: doesn’t solve the problem!

Option 2: pop up layer

Option 2: pop up layer

This would have a pop up layer (not a browser window!) which appeared in top right when a new message arrives. This is similar to how GTalk works and the actual design & text etc of the layer can be changed, along with the actual position – could be in bottom right instead.

Pros: makes it very noticable and fits with how other web-based IM systems work (well, GTalk!)
Cons: covers over existing text etc (though it disappears when layer clicked on to open the MSG chat window)

Option 3: Text next to presence icon

Option 3: Text next to presence icon

When a new message arrives text would appear just next to the presence icon in the banner, clicking on the text would bring up the chat window. The actual text that appears can easily be altered.

Pros: doesn’t cover over any existing text
Cons: might get lost in all the other text in the banner (esp the new my learningSpace link etc)

Option 4: Blinking presence icon

When a new message arrives the presence icon in the banner would blink (between say green/red or green/gray). Clicking on the blinking icon brings up the chat window and stops the blinking.

Pros: doesn’t take up any more precious space on the page!
Cons: users still might not realise what a blinking icon means so would still need to rely on the mouse over. Also some users might not like blinking icons (well I know I don’t!)

So, those are most of the options we’ve got, so I’d like some feedback on which might be the most likely to work and would be acceptable to appear on the OpenLearn websites. Please bear in mind that the exact design/position/layout of each can be changed easily enough, and we could combine two or more – eg text appearing & blinking icon.

Comments or other suggestions welcome 🙂