What I wish I could make rule number one for intranet governance.

February 27, 2008

Intranet governance is a curious activity, basically you are trying to set generic rules that apply in too many different situations. Trying to apply a one size fits all regime to too many sizes. It’s all done with the best of intentions, you want to make all the users, the consumers and contributors to work to best practice.

But you also need to make the rules objective, to have a checklist and tick the boxes.

The rule I really wish I could make would be ‘Don’t be annoying’.

That’s it. I’ve no idea how to put this on a checklist, how to objectivise it, how to get an automated process to evaluate it…

But in my head it’s rule number one. Don’t make me watch a flash animation you put on the site to make it ‘less boring’, don’t make me hunt for a submit button because you stuck it in the wrong place, don’t make me see an error message because you mislabelled an input box and I failed to work out what to put in it, don’t make me put in information that you don’t really need, or put it in twice…

Anyway – as I said, its pipe-dream, because it’s too hard to be specific, and what annoys me might actually help somebody else.

And that leads nicely to Joanne Newsom. Responsible for one of the best gigs I saw last year, where she played in full the stunning full orchestra version of her ‘Ys’ album at Glasgow City Halls. Joanna has a voice that sounds like cats doing it. Part child, part mad old lady… and to many people, very annoying. But not to me,  her albums and EPs are near the top of my desert island discs and when she did this version of a old Scottish ballad as an encore in Glasgow it was just sublime.


Treat concepts imported from the external web with caution

February 20, 2008

We all need to be careful thinking that emergent Internet behaviour will also work within an organisation. We should, of course, examine such emergent behaviour and use it where we can, but it’s important to dig deeper and try to spot if the different environment means that different rules apply.

I’ve mentioned before that I think wiki’s need ‘managed’ and that the unforced organic growth seen on Internet wikis is problematic, it’s just too wasteful if the contributor resource is limited. This seems to tie in nicely with JPs pearl analogy. Sure, natural pearls are better than cultured ones, but cultured ones are better than fake pearls or no pearls at all. And natural pearls are rare.

Another Internet concept in web design to be careful about is stickiness.

Stickiness really means trying to manipulate a user to stay on a particular site. When done crudely it means sites didn’t link to other sites, or ‘windowed’ other site’s content. It is a very bad idea, and it’s thankfully less common than it used to be. If your site doesn’t have what someone was looking for the best thing to do is to link to something that does, you get the props for directing people to the info they want.

We’ve come a long way from crude ‘pop up’ tricks, but there is still a desire for stickiness – the motivation for a site provider is that you get the ad revenue and the ‘eyeballs’. Sites like facebook and myspace are quite sticky, but sites like YouTube have learned a better way, allowing embedded content rather than forcing you to go to you tube and navigate down.

On an intranet, the desire to be sticky needs to be resisted, the desire is still there, departments want the credit for the content they provide, and can be slow to add in features equivalent to You Tube embedding. Ask people not to use ‘open new window’ links (it’s stupid in the days of tabbed browsers anyway) never use javascript links to control the users browser, encourage cross divisional linking, and encourage RSS or data feeds for applications. I know there is still a lot to be done on the usability of applications, but the next wave of collaboration activity needs to dealt with in applications too. Stickiness is the enemy of collaboration.

My pop music choice for illustrating this is one of my all time favourite tunes. It’s a very curious song. One of the last songs produced by the maverick producer Joe Meek it has a haunting tone, the ‘neediness’ in the voice is nearly pathetic (just like over controlling stickiness in a web site!), the instrumentation is heavily treated, like its being heard from some ghostly dancehall, and the vocal style – is that a lisp of poorly fitting dentures?- adds to its charm. 

the first thing you should do when you become involved in intranets

February 18, 2008

The first -and best- thing you can do when you first become responsible for an intranet site is to get connected to any support groups for people with disabilities within your organisation.

Obviously it’s just the right thing to do, to ensure that your intranet supports everyone within your organisation, but there is an added benefit; the usability dividend.

You should seek out people who have limited hearing or vision or who have restricted mobility and find out what problems they are having. This is also a great way of revealing problems that all users will be having and driving up the quality of the intranet.

And don’t forget cognitive disabilities such as dyslexia, here’s a great article on the problems people with dyslexia face. Ensuring your intranet is written well enough to support user stylesheets means that it has good semantic markup, so you may find your search engine works better for everybody.

Intranet managers often get bogged down with ‘the governance model’ or trying to prove abstract values like ’employee engagement’, but underlying all that is always resolving the basic question ‘what problems are you having’ and that’s something worth fixing, especially to people who may be having significant problems.

Wanted! Does anyone have a good example of a Dyslexia friendly user stylesheet that works well with IE6?

I wanted to keep adding in pop music oddities, and its tempting to tie this particular song into comprehension problems…

I loved this song when it came out, in the long hot summer of 1976 – hope you like it too.

What Althea and Donna can teach us about developing websites.

February 16, 2008

Recently, watching an old clip of the late 70s one-hit wonder ‘Up Town Ranking’, I said to my partner that I preferred Althea to Donna. I just thought she had a nicer voice, especially the ‘ooo’ bit as they repeat the title. My partner usually ignores my pontification about pop music, but this did bring an exasperated retort; “No one else in the world, when hearing Althea and Donna, try to analyse which one is the best, and anyway what do you know about singing?”

It’s true I can’t sing a note, but just as I was framing a reply in my head to prove my knowledge – quite extensive knowledge actually- of 1970s female reggae vocals, (take sides! Janet Kay or Susan Caddogan?), I wisely perceived that this was a debate I would lose by the mere fact I wanted to have it and my partner didn’t.

Asking people what they think of a website leads to a debate you can’t win either.

Within an organisation you are usually asking a senior manager, or key stakeholder ‘what do you think’ – in other words you are asking someone who won’t be an intended user an unstructured question about which, really, they aren’t skilled enough to answer. If you were deploying air conditioning would you show them the blueprints and say ‘well, what do you think?’, or a complex legal policy document and ask them is its OK?

Maybe it’s because people are so familiar with websites they think they are experts.. how hard can it be?

So my only advice is to never get into a position where you are asking an open ended question – sure, ultimately you’ll have to make your decision makers happy, and you should find out what makes them happy and then swallow your pride and make them happy, but as a professional you need to lay the groundwork, explain how the site is brilliantly optimised to deliver business benefits and so that cool gimmick they saw on another site isn’t appropriate. You need to do that before you ask them what they think.

Oh and the next song on the TV was The Proclaimers… I kept quiet.

While you were sleeping.

February 14, 2008

My favourite tune from last year was ‘While you were sleeping’ by Elvis Perkins.

http://www.elvisperkins.net/site/music.shtml (click on song title)

There are a couple of reasons it stood out; it’s structured very unusually, starting with minimal instrumentation, and slowly adding in more and more instruments, it builds into a great complex layered piece of music that is endlessly enjoyable to listen to, following the melodic threads as they work together.

The impressionistic lyrics list the things that can happen while you aren’t paying attention, from mundane domestic events to the world spinning… and even more powerfully words that seem to reflect Elvis’s own life (‘my fathers widowed wife’…’reaching for the plume of smoke’…’were you falling or were you flying’). A quick google should find what I think this refers to. Oh and don’t let the name put you off, it is his real name.

Of course, I can’t resist making this into some analogy about intranet design.

I was thinking about this when I was listening to the this week in tech podcast. Leo Laport had some ‘A list’ web pundits on. Jason Calicanus and Robert Scoble. Some of the recent tech company mergers were being discussed, and Leo, Jason and Robert enthusiastically speculated about yahoo, audible and the rest and then the 27 million dollars funding for etsy was mentioned. Etsy is a really interesting site for crafters selling their goods, it is miles better that eBay and seems a step forward in how we use the web for interaction… Jason and Robert has no comment to make on it though (I felt like they kinda smirked about the ‘crafters’ and couldn’t wait to get back to talking about stuff that was for them).

Similarly, I’ve been waiting in vain for the usual web pundit suspects to start talking about Ravelry. Ravelry is Facebook for people who knit. Now I’m not a knitter, but what Ravelry does that is that it optimises the social interaction around things people are actually doing, and this means it builds up a collection of knowledge by doing so. It’s not a wiki, it’s better than that, as a technique for engaging people to contribute to the common information space it’s the best model I’ve seen and should have direct implications about how we all use social technology in the enterprise.

The 1 minute accessibility check for the busy intranet manager.

February 12, 2008

This check isn’t comprehensive but it will cover the most common problems. As a bonus, fixing an accessibility problem usually helps everyone using the site.

1. Take your hands off the mouse.

You’ll have to use tab and shift-tab to move through the page, and press enter to select a link.

What this shows: If people with restricted visibility or mobility can use the site.

Embedded flash, especially if the flash has a navigation elements, will probably fail unless the flash designer has been very smart (IE is actually better than Firefox at working with flash and non mouse users).

Usability dividend: It shows that there is a good logical navigation scheme in place.

2. Switch off your speakers.

Mainly applies to things with embedded multimedia, or flash. Is there alternate text or transcripts of videos?

What this shows:
If people with hearing difficulties can get the information they need.

Usability dividend: Transcripts are searchable and an audio track isn’t, so if there is useful info in an audio track always have a transcript anyway for returning visitors. Many browsing situations – open plan offices for instance – mean audio is probably a bad idea anyway.

3. Print a page with the printer set to black and white.

What this shows: If people with limited ability to distinguish colours can use the site.

Usability dividend: Colour is not as good as you might think for conveying information, particularly icons next to text, if something is important the best way to highlight it is to separate it from the other items.

4. Click the labels on form elements and check it moves the cursor to that input element.

What this shows: If the form has been properly coded for use with assistive technology.

Usability dividend: it gives a much better target area for radiobuttons and checkboxes, so it makes the form easier to fill in.

5. Read out loud only the link text on a page.

What this shows: If the linking text makes sense out of context so that the link summarisers feature in talking browsers will work

Usability dividend: Using good link text helps scanning users pick the right link.

So what use is this test? Well, you know if have a problem or not, this check catches 99% of all the problems I’ve seen, and gives a good hint about what to look at more closely.

It’s also a check you can do on any browser. If you want to do a deeper analysis, (the five minute check!) then try the following, you can get browser extensions to help you do these ones – more details on that another day.

  • Check with images off
  • Check with javascript turned off
  • Load a user stylesheet
  • Validate the HTML.

And if you have the time for a thorough and systematic test then read WCAG 1 priority list and also ask folks with a range of difficulties if they can use the site OK.

What can Lesley Gore teach us about intranets?

February 11, 2008

Lesley Gore’s body of early 60s teen-drama girl-pop may seem a curious choice for an intranet web design guru. But before you check up the usual Neilsen’s and Krugs, you might just find that listening to her The Essential Collection is all you need.

Her best known song is ‘Its My Party’

It’s a heart rendering tale of, erm, some bloke going of with somebody else, and this is an important lesson for web designers, namely that you’ll never get the girls at parties… No actually its not that lesson I want to mention, its that your customers, the departmental heads and ‘key stakeholder’ project managers will be emotionally attached to their web site design and will not be making the best choices. But, you need to be careful applying cold logic (and appeals to Saint Jakob) aren’t persuasive. Its their party and your job is to listen to them not to point out that Johnny wasn’t much of a catch anyway. I don’t know why its so common for people to think they know about web design and demand that people much more knowledgeable than them make some beginners mistakes, but it seems a common phenomenon,

There is more is Lesley’s ouvre than Its My Party though, here insanely perky ‘Lollypops’ should be on a constant loop while your users view your site… OK maybe not…

Lesley Gore – Sunshine, Lollypops and… (Link to video on ‘Daily Motion’)

This song really is on insane side of insanely perky. You can almost feel your teeth decay as it’s sugary sweetness envolpes you… Its just way too much of a good thing and thats the lesson here, don’t over do the good stuff, its just unpleasant.

One last teen anguish mini soap-opera

Sing it quietly to yourself sometimes…