Christopher Bazin - Developer and Analyst

Christopher Bazin – USC Grad Student/Webmaster/Sprinkle-Donut Hunter, exploring the technical world and learning how to communicate!

Social Media Design

Social media Design.

I have always been interested in UI design and user behaviors.  I think it is a valuable profession and extremely important when introducing a new Web site or software package.  What about social media? Does as much thought go into developing a social media platform?

It seems that you just can’t sit down to a computer anymore without checking your Facebook account or twitter account.  With out the ease of use of these tools we sure wouldn’t spend so much time using them.  However, there also has to be something that keeps us coming back too.

An article recently posted on Mashable.com titled “Why User Competency Matters in Social Design” is a great “map” to the insight of social media design.  In reading it, I do agree with most of the content and I think it is a good checklist for any social media project.  I am wondering if this list was made in hindsight after the study of trends or does it have a behavioral scientific background.  In either case, it is interesting and a good nugget of information.

Using Facebook to Save the World

Lost credit card?

Lost credit card?

My day started with the usual Sunday morning ritual.  I got woken up by the dog.  I found some comfortable clothes to slip into for my morning walk and off I went. My destination, Starbucks down the street.  I was dragged almost all the entire way except for a few stops so Flash could release some pressure to his seemingly enormous bladder. So, I got my coffee and took a moment to take a couple of sips before the dragging recommenced.  Today was going to be a great day because I was off to Disneyland to see an old friend performing in a show.

Part two of my Sunday routine, which includes torturing the dog into doing tricks for food and watching some TV, I got ready to meet a good friend of mine so we both could head on over to Disneyland <insert cheer>.  As I walked to my car I saw a credit card laying on the ground.  I had to look twice because frankly, it just looks odd that something of value like that could be laying there on the wet pavement.

You have no idea how hard it is to return a found credit card these days.  I think everyone just expects no good to come to those who loose it and criminal activity to those who find it.  The last time I found a credit card I actually regretted it.  Why? Well when you call a bank to notify them of a found credit card they just want you to destroy it.  First of course they ask you a slew of questions.  I knew that this person was near by so why can’t they just call the person and I hand it over?  Apparently, that is just not an option.  We are just not given the opportunity to be good Samaritans anymore.

If you are on the other side of the fence and you have lost your card, obtaining a new one is a painful process.  You have to monitor the transactions that have taken place, you have to wait for a new card and you have to wait for a new PIN.  It could take a week before you can even see your OWN money!

So with the prospect of this person never seeing his card again I decided to pull out Facebook.  I looked up his name.  I didn’t really know what to expect but I was looking for a matching name and maybe city.  Considering that this is Los Angeles, I figured that even the origin of the profile wouldn’t be right.  There is one other feature I failed to tell and that is that his picture was on the card along with a logo of a sports team.

As luck would have it I found a matching name and photo.  So I thought, what the heck! I am going to send this person a message and see if they respond.  After about 3 hours I got a phone call with an out of state phone number and a remarkably happy person on the other end of the line with the news that his card was safe and sound.

So, after my trip to Disneyland, I called the card owner and bingo! Another life was saved and another card holder reunited with his card.  We can all sleep better tonight.  So I guess what I found so amazing is that I connected with someone I had previous NO connection to.  No third party connection, no friends of friends, no work history in common.  All it was, was a lost card and the willingness to do something good.  To accomplish all of this I used Facebook.  Is there anything Facebook can’t do? :)

BuddyPress for One (and ALL)!

BuddyPress for One (and All!)

This headline appeared in all the WordPress control panels on February 26, 2010. BuddyPress is no stranger to WordPress-configured sites but previously it would only work with the WordPressMU (multi-user) installation.  If you don’t already know, BuddyPress is a plugin that turns your WordPress blog in a social network.

So what is different about this new release? Not so much what is “different” but more of “what will change.” This release could mean big trouble for other social network packaged competitors. This new version of BuddyPress can be installed on the single user WordPress 2.9.1 and higher.  To be clear for those people who don’t use WordPress, the blog you are reading is a “regular” installation of it.

I have to admit I tried installing it on this blog.  The plugin was very easy to find and I quickly installed it and activated it.  Unfortunately, beyond that I got frustrated.  I have an existing theme purchased from studiopress.com and it made for a lot of confusion.  I think it will take a while before the this community feature becomes widely adoptable since a lot of existing blogs/blogsites have a custom template associated with it.

Viral Videos

Today Mashable shows us one of many trendy new viral video formats.  The slo-mo dog.  Humorously, they break down the formula for a viral video like this:
Cute dog + Silly Activity/Article of clothing/amusing prop = Viral Gold

In a word – Adorable!

Eyetracking Web Usability – Book Review

Eyetracking - Book Review

Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading experts in Web usability and Kara Pernice, the managing director of the Nielsen Norman Group, conducted unprecedented research in Web usability using eyetracking and published it a new book simply called “Eyetracking Web Usability.”  I was fortunate enough to have attended a usability conference 2009 in which both Nielsen and Pernice were presenters.  Until then, I was unaware that any technology of this sort existed.  This book speaks to the developer, the designer and also, thankfully, to the corporate executive.  Much of the research has been assembled from 2006 and this book was recently published in its first edition in November of 2009.

Example of an eyetracking computer

So what is usability? Usability.gov defines it as “Usability measures the quality of a user’s experience when interacting with a product or system—whether a Web site, a software application, mobile technology, or any user-operated device.” This definition, although broad, pretty much describes this type of research.  Until recently (within the last ten years) the notion of taking usability studies one-step further and incorporating eyetracking research wasn’t possible.  Previous studies involving eyetracking relied on heavy medieval looking contraptions that were both distracting to the subjects and difficult to calibrate.  Now eyetracking studies (related to computer use) can be done by sitting at a desk with the subject using a computer application or viewing a webpage while infrared cameras surrounding the computer can pick up eye-movements and compensate for head displacement.  This, in a word, is remarkable.

Figure 1 - Gaze Plot

Figure 2 - Heat Map

But how does it all work? At the beginning of the book, Jakob Nielsen and Kara Pernice lead us through a brief introduction about eyetracking metrics.  These metrics rely on two types of eye movements: fixations and saccades.  Fixations relate to what the user is looking at (in focus) and saccades are the transition movements from fixation to fixation. Looking at the data in form of Gaze Plots and Heat Maps one can quickly see the plethora of data available from a few simple sessions on eyetracking. In the figure (figure 1) you can see a series of fixations and saccades on a Gaze Plot.  The size of the dots relate to the time the user was fixated (focused) on the spot.  The numbers on these dots (fixations) correspond to the order of the “looks.”  The lines between the dots are the saccades.  These lines actually note the eye movement and thus are out of focus for the subject.  Out of focus therefore implies that the user is unaware of the content of these areas unless you count peripheral vision. The aggregated data from these gaze plots help to create a heat map (figure 2) that shows where the test subjects, as a group, fixated the most.

So here is the obvious question.  In a class that focuses on online communities, why am I reviewing a book about Web usability and eyetracking? User experience is important regardless of what the content is.  If your user is coming to your community and you want to encourage participation and engagement you need to make it easy.  More importantly, you want the user to not only be successful but have their experience score high in satisfaction.  The point being is that the site may have the content/community the user is seeking but if the user is unsuccessful, unconfident or unsatisfied, they may just seek out the competition.

So here is what I learned.  Perhaps a few of these points seem painfully obvious, based on my years of experience in development and production these mistakes are innocently made on many Web-based projects.  What is carefully outlined in this book, both and the beginning and the end, is that the subjects (users) were given a specific task (either topic specific or general browsing) and the data was collected by eyetracking machines and vocally.  The researcher never spoke. They only recorded the session.  A research study wouldn’t be complete without a clear understanding of what the metrics are for the study.  Quantitative measurements were done based on task time, success, errors and user satisfaction.

Probably the biggest and most interesting finding is the phenomenon of Banner Blindness.  Banner Blindness is a term to describe the users complete disregard for advertisements on the Web. Only until this type of research was available did this evidence present itself.   The book alludes to the notion that this is a conditional effect from previous of Web browsing.  The usability angle is to make sure that content is not presented in a way that could be subconsciously presumed to be a banner advertisement.  The census example is an excellent illustration where many test subjects when asked to find the population of the U.S. completely overlooked the obvious.  Why?  Well there are many reasons the book suggests.  One is the location of the information.  The “right rail” is often used for targeted advertisements.   Also, miss-labeling of certain features of website and information congestion can also lead to problems.  I found it interesting that interactive components like dropdown menus and search fields are high visible attractors for users and consequently prevent users from seeing important information.  The book calls these magnetic elements.

Figure 3 - population clock no fixations - useit.com

Navigation. Simply put, this are the roads and bridges that you build so your users can easily travel through your website.  The placement of these buttons on your website are important and how they are labeled are even more important.  The study found that people are twice as likely to look for navigational elements on the left side of the page or to the top at subnavigation buttons than looking at the global navigation elements.  The authors attribute this to a lifejacket scenario in which the users subconsciously know that there is always a safe way back. Therefore this assurance that the global navigation exists at the top eliminates any reason for a fixation on those navigational elements.  The book also makes a point of noting that one should pay specific attention to menu/navigational wording and arrangements since this can help users feel included or worse it can actually repel or insult visitors.

How important are the elements on a page when people first open a page? The book looks at seven items that were based on rapid fire tests: Login link or field (26%), Logo(22%), search(16%), language selectors(14%), banner self-promotion(7%), contact link(2%), privacy policy(1%).  The study attributes the large number of fixations on the login fields/links and the search component to the magnetic attraction to open fields.  Logos are also described as a sort of anchor or reassurance that the user has landed on the right page.  The importance of that logo’s consistency in placement and size throughout the site is described as an insurance policy for the user.  Although rarely does it get a second look as the user navigates the site.  I found it also very interesting that users have been conditioned on element placement.  For example when looking for shopping cart information:  users looked in the upper quadrants for shopping cart indicators (42% left top, 58% right top).  In my opinion, this is purely due to a standard that has been adopted and made a pseudo rule.  This, like the search location in the top of a page, has now become instinct to users.

The research on images presented in the book is very interesting and is a topic that is detailed in 25% of the book.  The data presented pertains to specific tasks the user is instructed to do. Images can be treated in many different ways.  One way is as a visual obstacle course where users look at the information around the images but not at the images themselves.  Images should pertain to the content (obviously) but one interesting note is that people ignore stock images 85% percent of the time.  Perhaps this is just another example of subconscious quality control that the user is invoking.  Interesting images always win.  Images of attractive people who also look real and authentic (non-models) also get many looks.  Also worth noting was the gender differences when looking at images.  The book reports that in studies where there were images of men with clothing on sites, men looked not only at the clothing but also at the face of the male model. Women only looked at the clothes.

Almost all of our Web browsing visits are sprinkled with advertisements.  Whether it is searching through Google or looking through our favorite shopping site.  Once you are aware of these statistics with respect to advertising you will begin to notice why methods like Google Ads are so successful.   All of the following data is presented based on percent fixation corresponding to the type of ad.  After all, the biggest part of successful ad campaign is getting looked at.  88% of internal promotion that matches the site style gets first place.  This is more like the deals or specials of the site.  Text ads get 52% of the fixations.  These plain text ads, the book suggests, has a visual relationship to Google in that Google is a trusted name and their information is almost always presented in a plain text format. 52% of ads that have clear text separate from graphics (i.e. not having the text running over the image). 51% of ads on search engine results pages get looked at as well.  Only 35% of pure graphical ads even get a glance.  Finally our favorite, the animated graphic ad only gets 29% of fixations.  The location of ads is important as well.  Placing them on the right hand side in a website gets the most fixations compared to the top of the site.  In a SERP (search engine response page) more fixations are gleaned from the top then from the right side.

This book is a great read with lots of illustrations, a touch of humor and enough research data to back up the findings.  It really is designed for a broad audience –both industry professionals and hobbyists.  Although much of the data seems to be common sense, the reality is that as a Web developer and Web producer I still had many “Ohhhh” moments.  None of this information can be taking out of context.  This is what makes this book so interesting.  The test subject’s tasks and their vocal testimonial is the key to this book’s success.  This book provides ammunition in backing up design decisions to corporate suits and also gives producers insight when talking to designers, developers and the top tier of a corporation.

An eyetracking study is not for everyone nor is it needed. The book clearly states this in the closing chapter.  In general, it provides us with some behavioral data and it is available for use when good old fashion Web usability studies just are not providing answers.  Thank you Jakob and Kara.

Advertisers – So not cool

This video link is directly from Brian Solis’ website in which by pointing out what advertisers are currently doing it illustrates the advantages of social media to directly listen to customers. Brilliantly done.

Groupon. Why not?

For the past couple of weeks my partner and I have been heavily involved in using Groupon.com. If you have not heard of it yet then use this link to sign up it is free and I get $10 if  one of those referrals makes a purchase.  Here is how it works: a person gets an email with the Groupon almost every day.  If you like the group coupon then you sign up and put in your credit card.  If enough people sign up for the deal then the deal goes through and all the people that signed up will be charged and their Groupon will be emailed to them.

As an experiment I tried canvasing new members through two different channels.  One was through a social media channel like Facebook and another was in a purely social environment.  I made a strong presentation in both cases trying to get new potential customers to the site using my link (or not).  Facebook’s case was pretty easy as I could reach a wide range of people quickly.  All I did was post a short testimonial and ask if there were any questions.  I did respond to a few people but it was quite easy having people sign up.  The other was I gave a short testimonial in the lunchroom at work.  That was so much more difficult.  I found more people to be much more skeptical when I presented things in person then if I had just emailed them asking them to sign up because it was good.

The range of questions was broader in the pure social presentation and I had to deal with a heckler (you know who you are if you are reading this).  Dealing with someone who questions the product tends to bring down the impact of my own testimonial and ultimately it was difficult to convince the group that this was a valuable service.

In all it was an interesting experiment to try to persuade users to sign up for something they had never heard of. I also noted that those who didn’t sign up immediately after the presentation were most likely not to sign up at all despite myself telling the potential new sign-up that it was free and they could remove themselves from any emails.

Good News for Small Businesses on the Web

WordPress Love.

We were so lucky to have Raanan Bar-Cohen, media engineer for Automattic, come to our Web Technology class on Wednesday February 24.  I have to admit I have a pretty good tech-crush on him.  I was already a huge fan of WordPress after only having used it for a short 2 months.  What I find remarkable is the ability, not just to use it as a blogging platform, but to use it a web CMS.  Admittedly, even Raanan  shied away from using the term contact management system (CMS) but he definitely identified it is an emerging trend.

In fact this blog/website is based on a Web site style template.  I am not shy to mention that I purchased this template from studiopress.com which I fully endorse. There are many other template companies out there.  The best part is, the templates are very easy to install.

Accompanying WordPress’ core blogging engine is along list of plugins that will satisfy any possible need – everything from twitter feeds to e-commerce (one I am particularly interested in).  What you do need to know is what you are looking for and that is usually half the battle.

So why is this good news for small businesses on the Web?  Well, these businesses and independent contractors often rely on hiring inexperienced affordable developers or having family members create their web presence.  This usually results in having sites with poor navigation, poor design and an overall unprofessional presence on the web.  In order for business to compete in today’s market their first impression is important.  Many consumers visit the sites of potential companies to determine legitimacy and worth.  Previously, having a robust website was quite costly.

Here comes WordPress, like a knight on a white horse.  Don’t get me wrong, it is not all rainbows.  There are still some technical needs.  You will need someone to get you set up, installed and clean up the site.  The most significant plus to having your site on the WordPress platform, is that you can have control.  Control on posting, changing pages, adding media, inter-site searching, basically everything you previously were relying on a third party to do.

I think we are about to see a rather large shift in small to medium sized companies (and independent contractors) having their sites migrate to an affordable WordPress-ish site.  A site where the HR managers can update their own job listings, the product managers update their company’s products and have the CEO writing communication press to their customers.

I love WordPress.

Windows 7 – my idea!

If you are tired of the Windows 7 commercial about the new operating system being “my idea” then watch this.

It’s Electric!

Electricity is in the air.

In a recent PCWorld blog post, Juan Carlos Perez writes about Google’s filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to “identify and develop opportunities to contain and manage the cost of energy for Google.”  Initially this seems like a very green thing to do.  Google has received a lot of criticism for being less than green with their server-farms humming away around the world.

The disturbing part about this endeavor is that Google is asking the FERC to act as a power reseller to wholesale customers.  Wait, I thought Google was in the indexing/search engine business?  It is a little frightening to think that one day we could be paying Google for our lights!

Should there be some sort of limits on industry cross-overs?  Should the fact that Google almost owns the search engine business be taken into account?

As of February 21, 2010 – Google can now officially sell and buy electricity, mashable reports. They have made clear that the reason for this move is strategic and not based on any commercial motives.  Their statement, “Right now, we [google] can’t buy affordable, utility-scale, renewable energy in our markets.  We want to buy the highest quality, most affordable renewable energy wherever we can and use the green credits” emphasizes their plan.

I don’t think we have heard the last from this business move and I can’t help feeling that the giant has other motives.