Dvorak, ye shalt not throw stones

PC Magazine author John C. Dvorak, whose work I enjoy thoroughly, threw the proverbial boomerang stone today in his column AJAX and the Road to Bad Web Sites, where he criticized a web site:

Holy crap! The Web site usctrojans.cstv.com is far worse than the football team. I’m not sure what they are hoping to accomplish with a site like this, but if you want to see the site at its worst, use Firefox and make the text two sizes bigger by hitting Ctrl+ twice. That way you can see the problem with Web sites that use AJAX.

Dvorak is correct in his statement, and his statement came right back to haunt him. Compare the two images below. The first is a screenshot of his column as viewed without any font size changes; the second is a screenshot of his column after hitting Ctrl+ twice to increase font size.

Screenshot of Dvorak's column (normal font size)
Screenshot of Dvorak’s column (normal font size)
Screenshot of Dvorak's column (large font size)
Screenshot of Dvorak’s column (large font size)

I know how important advertising is to PC Magazine, but increasing the font size caused the ad to appear twice, and covered some of the text of the article. Let’s hope their web designers read Dvorak’s article, too.

A lesson in poor UI design: AOL

After cleaning up my brother’s laptop (more precisely, reformatting it and reinstalling the default factory configuration), I decided to install AOL for him. I went to the web, downloaded the software, and fired off the installation.

After AOL installs itself, it starts up. The first time you run AOL, you are asked whether you are a current member or a new member. Well, I am neither (I don’t have my brother’s AOL information), so I looked for the cancel button. There was none. I pressed the escape key; nothing happened. I tried the close box; it can’t be clicked on, because the front window is a modal dialog. I tried ALT-F4; nothing happened.

This is foolishly frustrating. I figured I’d click the New Member button and look for a subsequent way to cancel this process. The next window I was given asked for all my personal information (name, address, etc.), and provided a single button: Next. No back button, no cancel button. No way to end things.

Intriguingly, if you shut down, AOL will shut down safely, but that’s hardly an effective solution. Clearly, the AOL folks didn’t think of the situation where someone wanted to install the software but not configure it — a task that is relatively common to IT folks.

Overall, a very good example of poor user interface design.

Congrats to Louis (BananaBits)

Louis, a long-time friend, co-worker, and collaborator, has won an ExpressionEngine design contest for his work on BananaBits. I’ve told Louis for a long time that he’s a great Web designer, even though he doesn’t consider himself a Web designer by trade (he, much like myself, is more a jack-of-all-trades). Maybe now he’ll start believing me…

Why do I like Louis’s work? One of the judges, Cameron Moll, said it best:

The art of restraint is much ignored these days. BananaBits serves up its pages without a lot of nonsense, while text sizing and color play a key role in making this site not only attractive but very legible, too. Simplicity executed nicely.

Designing Web sites is not about making them look like brochures, it’s about delivering content in a clean, usable, aesthetic manner. Louis has a knack for this, which is why I’ve tried to get him to design as many Web sites for me in the past as possible — and why I’ll continue to use him in the future (and pay him for it!).

Tickers and Web pages

Recently, a client asked me my opinion on tickers. My response was, “They’re great for the stock market, and bad for Web pages.” A quick little Web search on usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s Web site, useit.com, found this quote, from his commentary on Sun’s Web site redesign, circa 1997:

Almost all users disliked the scrolling tickers (marquees) in some of the prototypes. Users complained that they were hard to read and time-consuming to interpret. One user kept missing the beginning of the text and thus had difficulty understanding what the message was about. One user said that he tended to ignore such text with the explanation that “I have never seen any information in crawling text that had any interest to me.” One more indication that users can see through gimmicks and that they have an explicit understanding of Web design and what they like and don’t like on the Web. (Usability Testing of Advanced Homepage Concepts)

My sentiments exactly. A ticker on a Web page is like a skywriter on a beach — when you’re just about to walk back to your car. In other words, odds are you’re not catching the full text, part of it may already be faded out, and you’re not going to wait around for the rest of it to appear.

If you want to give people content on a Web page, give it to them. A callout box with your hot news item can be much more effective, and doesn’t suffer the usability drawbacks of a ticker.

Digital File Check: Disabling file sharing, thanks to record companies

C|Net’s News.com recently reported that three trade organizations representing record and movie companies released a program called Digital File Check, a so-called “powerful scanning engine that allows you to search your computer for installed file-sharing programmes , as well as media files.” That quote is directly from the home page, as is the grammatically-incorrect space before the comma.

Since I like being a victim, I decided to run this on my laptop, which was recently overhauled as a result of a hard drive crash. Here’s some interesting information on the overall experience.

  • The Digital File Check (DFC) Web site is written mostly in Flash. It is also configured to scale to window size, so peole with desktop resolutions of 800×600 will have a difficult time reading the blurry text without zooming in. Whoever designed this site needs to take some hints from usability expert Jakob Nielsen.
  • Nowhere on the DFC Web site does it say it only works on the Windows operating system. Glad to know they have no problem with file-sharing Mac and Linux users.
  • Inexplicably, you are required to enter a password when installing the application, in order to “stop unauthorized users from trying to run this program without your permission.” I thought they’d want people to run this program as often as possible.

I chose the password “jerk”. The default password recovery question is, “What is your favorite movie?” I also used the work “jerk”. Too bad passwords must be six characters long, so I changed everything to “thejerk”. Continuing, the installation finishes fine, so I fire up the program, type in “thejerk,” and get to the main window.

Going for total system hosing, I tell the program to do a full file search. After a few minutes, I’m told I have 0 file-sharing software, 0 videos, 6 music files, and 14,000 images (exactly 14,000).

A little wizard tells me it’ll automatically remove my file-sharing software if I click on the ‘next’ button, even though I don’t have any. Confused, I click ‘next’ anyway, wondering how a program can remove something I don’t have.

With the excitement to be gained by uninstalling things not installed, I click next, hoping for total system meltdown. No luck; the program(me), obviously concerned that the user does not read what’s on the screen, warns me again that it’s about to remove software that doesn’t exist on my computer.

Sadly, clicking ‘finish’ didn’t reformat my hard drive in an attempt to remove the nonexistant. However, I’m still curious as to what those 14,000 (exactly 14,000) images are, so I go to the “Music, image, and video files” area.

This is clearly a very useful tool, if you are interested in seeing a list of every image on your hard drive, including those installed by evil programs such as Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Visual Studio, OpenOffice, and the demon of all demons, the Recycle Bin. No formats are ignored — I have JPG, GIF, PNG, BMP, and TGA files identified.

By the way, the program simply looks for any file with a <dot><extension> in the filename — anywhere in the file name. I know this because I created two files on my desktop, one named thejerk.gif and another named thejerk.gif.txt. Both were empty files (0 bytes). Excellent false positive matches by DFC.

Overall, this is the most impressive piece of useless software I’ve ever seen. I’ll give an update after I install it on my home PC, which is chock-full of legal music files (from my own CD collection) and legal images (taken from my own digital camera). I can hardly wait.

Most Hated Advertising Techniques, Google AdWords, and more

Jakob Nielsen, the proclaimed “king of usability” and probably the guy who knows more about what you should and shouldn’t do on the Web, recently published an article on useit.com on The Most Hated Advertising Techniques. It basically tells you this:

  • People have intrusive ads – popups, flashing ads, and ads that block Web content.
  • People hate ads that advertise something they have no interest in.
  • People hate ads that play sound.

This is certainly one reason that Google Ads are so effective: they are largely text-based (and thus unobtrusive), they don’t popup or play sound, and they present ads that are related to the content of the Web page.

From my perspective, I eliminated all pop-up, flashing ads, and obtrusive ads from all my Web sites about a year or so ago. Incredibly, my ad revenue went down about 5% as a result. Which told me one big thing: You don’t need popup ads in your campaign.

Further, one of my newest sites, EQ2Craft, uses Google ads. The other sites use Burst Media for graphical banner ads. Incredibly, my Google ads generate about 200% greater revenue per click than the standard banner ads. Clearly this is partially a factor of site content, but it is interesting to see how effective Google ads can be – and how unnecessary popup and related user-unfriendly ads are.

Consider how much traffic an average user brings to your site. Then determine how much traffic (and potential ad revenue) you lose when one average user decides don’t want to deal with your advertising techniques. The result is an ad campaign that works for you and your users.