A professional development experience at Harvard
By Alex Aranda, Principal Consultant, Innovo Ideas Interactive.
Aware that our field evolves in the blink of an eye, I have made the personal commitment to frequently seek for professional development opportunities. This summer, I went to Harvard University to participate in a seminar on Data Visualization.
The location was the CGIS-south building at Harvard University; just a few steps away from Harvard yard and Harvard square, this beautiful building offered convenient, state of the art facilities -a perfect setting for this seminar-.
Imparted by distinguished Professor Hanspeter Pfister, the seminar on Data Visualization was a great opportunity to explore different visual representation methods and techniques, hear the latest on research and new ideas on how to increase the understanding of complex data.
The lectures, team activities and hands-on exercises were an excellent way to dive into the subject. The experience got even richer by sharing ideas with participants; some of them representing global innovators such as Google and HP, not to mention scholars from renowned institutions such as NYU.
The seminar was a fantastic experience that reinforced a clear goal: we need to create simple, creative and user-friendly visual representations of data to improve comprehension, communication, and decision making in a world overloaded with complex information.
Not long ago I was reviewing the usability of a client’s application, including a “status list”; the first thing that caught my attention was the amount of status available and the illegibility of the ‘lights’ identifying the status.
Having researched colour vision deficiency in the past, it was very obvious to me that these status indicators were not only impractical, but also they were not complying with accessibility best practices and laws (US Section 508).
The colour selection was random and unplanned and the visual treatment was not helping either. The design was trying to add some volume to the ‘status lights’ with light and shadow, making the colour even more confusing. Finally, the page was too busy, using more lights than a Christmas tree.
After discussing this with the client, he confessed an embarrassing situation while presenting the software to a potential client; someone in the audience pointed out that he couldn’t see the ‘status’ that he was talking about.
What to do:
Thinking about Usability and Accessibility doesn’t mean compromising on the result, but including these requirements in the design process.
First of all, always keep in mind that colour-only is not a good identifier. We all perceive colour in different ways and many people may have serious difficulties understanding your message. Forget the ‘traffic light’ concept. Although we are used to the message, this is not the most user-friendly approach.
Review the colours you are using and test different values/hues to achieve a clear contrast in the absence of colour.
Use a combination of colour and symbols to identify your status indicators.
Finally, reduce the clutter.
- Do you really need all these status indicators?
- Can the status list be simplified to have a cleaner screen?
- Do you really need a status indicator when everything is OK?
After all, when driving, you don’t have a green-blinking light in your car dashboard indicating that everything is OK.
Some thoughts on why companies should utilize more the new channels of communication in their marketing efforts.
Consumer behavior has changed and the old school channels of communication are rapidly losing power. Today, consumers fast-forward TV commercials, immediately recycle flyers and junk mail, read their news form the web and find the closest restaurant using their mobile devices. They can choose which marketing messages they receive and from whom, and they expect to be involved in the conversation.
The new school marketing delivers what today’s consumers want: Relevant, interactive communication through their channels of choice.
The following chart outlines some of the differences between Old School Marketing and New School Marketing.
It is common to find a simple Telephone Number field with a set of instructions attached to it: “Please don’t use spaces, dashes or brackets”… “Use brackets, don’t use spaces”… “Area code in brackets, no spaces”.
Yes, the database expects a clear format and this is very important, but the user shouldn’t have to pay for it.
All forms and specific fields should be designed taking a user-friendly approach, utilizing client side scripting to format the data, no matter how the user inputs the information.
Using the telephone example, the user should be allowed to input dashes, spaces, brackets; the script will strip these characters sending only the information needed.
Other alternative is to use a multi-field format with properly labeled and sized fields, and scripting to allow the user to continuously type the information by jumping from one field to the next one once the field is completed.
As a last note, don’t wait until the user fills the complete form to provide feedback, immediate validation is necessary to offer a positive user experience.
I was recently presented with a web application for evaluation and I was surprised to see that what we think as a “Usability Basic Principle” was poorly executed. The use of “You Are Here” indicators.
It is important to let the users know at all times where they are. A user may lose track while browsing through your website or using your application and unless they know where they are, they will abandon the task and leave your site… frustrated!
What to do:
- Display a Clear Page Title – Use the highest visual hierarchy for the title in your content and always present it in the same place.
- Indicate the Location in the Navigation – Highlight/differentiate in the Menu and Sub-menus where the user is.
Other ways to let the user know their location in your site:
- Use Breadcrumbs – Breadcrumbs are a powerful navigation tool that also help communicate where users are in relationship with the rest of the site/application and the path they took to get where they are now.
- Use Progress Indicators – Let users know their progress during a process or while filling a multiple-page form.
As mentioned in my previous blog, Search Engine Optimization is divided in 2 parts: On-Page and Off-Page SEO.
After preparing and optimizing your web pages with On-Page SEO (read my previous article), you can start working in the popularity of your site with Off-Page SEO:
Off-Page SEO is about the activities you do to promote and popularize your website.
- Submit your site’s url “carefully”. I am AGAINST submitting to 1000’s of useless directories and using software that promises multiple submissions. Nonetheless, submitting to quality directories (count with one hand) and sites related to your field is a good way to put your name – and url – out there. The key here is quality over quantity.
- Prepare Press Releases and send to Online PR sites. A press release about your website’s launch, a new contract or a special event can be released to different PR websites, who will distribute the news to various online news outlets.
- Article Submissions. Create a short article on your area of expertise and submit it to article directories to be published with links to your site. Your article might also be picked up and published on other websites bringing additional traffic.
- Multiple blog platforms. Set up different versions of your blog on different blog networks like WordPress.com, Blogger and Xanga with links back to your website.
- Comments on Blogs. But don’t just spam for links; focus on building a relationship with other bloggers by providing relevant, useful comments.
- Collaborate with other sites that complement your area of expertise and let your site be linked from these sites. This is a more professional approach to reciprocal linking.
- Create Social Media Profiles. When creating social media profiles, you will include your web address company name and branding making your site more popular. Then, with the use of social media, you will find an additional channel that will bring traffic to your site.
- Social Bookmarking. Social bookmarking websites like Delicious, Digg or Stumbleupon are often crawled by search engines and their links help with your site’s popularity and listing.
- Create a useful Tool, or Widget for your target audience and make it available for free in your website.
- Hold contests with an interesting prize and provide mechanisms to help spread the news: email to a friend, like this, tweet this, blog this, etc.
Much more can be done to improve your ranking and popularity, but this list is a good staring point. Don’t forget to monitor your progress; a good analytics system will give you valuable information on your traffic, trends and efficiency of your web efforts.
Don’t forget to optimize your web site, read my previous article: On-Page Search Engine Optimization.
- Provide brief and clear titles for every one of your web pages, accurately describing the page’s content. Don’t repeat the same title in 2 pages.
- Take advantage of the description Meta Tags. Google might use the description Meta Tags as snippets for your pages. Write a ‘descriptive’ message that can inform the user about the topic of your page.
- Structure your site to provide readable URLs. This not only helps the search engines but it is user-friendly.
You can use: www.mysite.com/folders/desc_23.html (wrong)
Or you can use: www.mysite.com/services/pressure-washing.html (right!)
- Use meaningful “anchor text” and clearly identify them as links.
You can use: click here > (wrong)
Or you can use: Our Tiling Services > (right!)
- Take advantage of Heading tags to provide hierarchy to your content. H1, H2, H3, will tell the search agents what is more important in your page.
- Make your images search engine friendly by using the “alt” attribute. Provide a clear, descriptive “alternative” text for the images.
- Include a sitemap; an HTML site map listing your pages in categories. An XML version of your site map also helps the search engines to discover your pages.
- Providing fresh, on topic and useful content to your audience not only keeps your site interesting, search engines love new, relevant information.
- Avoid splash pages. Once popular, splash pages -often with flash animation- were used as a dynamic introduction to a website. Splash pages are now perceived as non-user-friendly. And for SEO, you are literally putting a barrier between the search engines and your main page, where all your relevant, fresh content is; not to mention the links that will serve to crawl the rest of your pages.
As a last note, Google has great information -available to everyone- on Search Engine Optimization and excellent webmaster tools and programs to help with the ongoing task of keeping your site in top shape. SEO information is not top secret… just Google it!
Also read my article on Off-Page SEO tips.