Excellent Insights from Website Testing

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Website testing comes in many varieties:

  • card sorting
  • prototype testing
  • pre-launch testing
  • post-launch testing
  • in-person or virtual,

and others that I can’t even remember at the moment. I’ve been doing a lot of testing lately, and I’m loving it! Why? Because I’m learning so much from our volunteer participants than I could even imagine learning from studying the sites myself.

Unexpected Testing Insights

Sometimes the most important insights aren’t even about the site being tested (although I definitely get lots of those from the participants). But in my in-person testing, I make sure to ask each and every participant to pass along any thoughts she might have about any website on campus–what they like and what they hate. I tell them that anything they want to pass along to me will either

  • be passed along to our designers or developers to make our sites better, or if the site isn’t one we developed,
  • be noted and possibly used in a future site.

In other words, I truly value the input from our test participants!

Users are Not Predictable

Sometimes the participants are students, who are typically excited to be involved in the University’s website program because they want to be heard. They often have ideas about changes they want to see that this old woman would never have dreamed about (but neither did the 30-something clients, designers, or developers). They feel free and open to share that they

  • never use Twitter
  • use Facebook and IMs to communicate everything
  • want and expect to find quality information instantly on University websites and will find alternate ways to do things if they don’t like the interaction we force on them
  • use mobile devices for Internet browsing nearly as much as their laptops
  • want to be involved in planning University sites

In other words, they are not the passive users we sometimes assume they are. And they don’t think the way we think they think. In fact, I have to admit that even the staff and faculty who help us test (most of whom are women), rarely go without surprising me with one insight or another. Even the ones I think I’ve gotten figured out. There’s always that one comment, spoken under her breath or added as an afterthought, that really makes a difference in the test results or that should be brought to someone’s attention in one way or another.

Gold in the Nuggets

So the next time you think your site is just about perfect; that everyone will have a reaction to it that you want (or assume), think again. As the old miners used to say, “Thar’s gold in them thar hills!” You might have to dig a bit to find it, but it’s there, and it’s valuable.

Oh. And to my test volunteers: Thank you!!!!

Co-Creation of Training Materials

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I just read a great post by Abby The IA about using social media to create products or processes. I’m hoping that she’ll forgive me for borrowing her thoughts, but I can’t help it. She’s got some great ideas here and I’m using some and will use more as I work on training materials for Conductor, our proprietary content management system.

You see, Conductor is a great product. I use it, and I love it. Lots of clients use it, and most love it. But there are some downsides to it. One of those is training.

I recently got back into training on Conductor when a coworker left the University. And so much has changed in the time I was off, that I find myself feeling inadequate to train.

And, on top of that, we’ve recently started sending out surveys to find out how to better train users.

If you ever want to be brought down to size, try asking people what they really think of you, your product, or your service.

And that’s why I am going to follow Abby’s advice.  Among other things, Abby advises:

Use Your Product.

Well, that’s a no-brainer because I use Conductor almost daily. But I need to learn to see it from the eyes of those who don’t have immediate access to our developers. I need to remember my struggles with it as a novice.

Google Your Product.

That’s not really an option for me since the product is used only by ND folks. However, I can continue to read the surveys; I can continue to encourage folks to contact me with issues, complaints, or their wish lists.

Pay Attention to Bias.

Yes, I must admit. I’m biased toward Conductor because my coworkers create and improve it. But there are a lot of users out there who are just as biased toward Contribute or Dreamweaver because they are familiar with that product. I need to listen to why they are biased; what is it about their product that demands that loyalty? How can we make Conductor better in that regard? Or, in my case, how can I teach them to use Conductor in a way that meets those same requirements?

A lot of times it’s not that the product doesn’t do what they want, but merely that I haven’t taught them how to work with Conductor to do what they want.

Play Devil’s Advocate, Not Naysayer.

Sometimes I want to scream when a trainee asks “Why can’t Conductor do such and such? My product does it!” Or “Why don’t you show us everything about our site? Generic training doesn’t work.” My gut reaction is to defend our product/my training and say something like “Deal with it!” or “Can’t be done!”

But who am I kidding? I’d say the same thing given similar circumstances!

So, instead of screaming, I need to stop and ask questions. Just what is it that makes your product better? Or, if it’s about training, I need to ‘fess up and admit that I need to cover more site-specific details and not try to cram everything into a one-hour session.

Handout mapping edits to published pageSo now that this has finally been drilled into my feeble brain, I’m trying to address this. I’m working on handouts to be given to trainees showing them how to edit certain portions of their site that may not be obvious or may not work according to the generic plan. I’m creating “maps,” if you will, to their site.

Will it work? It’s too soon to tell, but I’m asking for feedback on this, too, so that instead of saying “I don’t have time/budget to cover all this,” I’m saying “Here are some concrete examples of how to work on your site. And let me know if you need anything else.”

Have No Toes on Which to Step.

This is a hard one. My toes tend to be sensitive when coworkers or others try to tell me how to do my job. But I’m learning to dance with them. I find that sharing the spotlight (and work) with others and giving them credit for their input makes for a better product. And if I’m saying I want a better product, then I’d better be willing to dance with others, including users!

Make Things Bigger and then Smaller.

This is what I had planned on doing when I approached my supervisor with the idea of creating these handouts. I figured, quite frankly, that he’d say that we couldn’t spend the time on this–that it wouldn’t fit into the training budget for the sites.

He fooled me. Seems he’s as committed to doing what’s right for the users, as well!

So, in this case, I started with a big idea, but didn’t have to shrink it down. Win-Win!

Admit When You Have No Skin in the Game.

I should be used to this, right? I mean, I’m an IA and (temporarily, at least) a trainer. But it’s difficult to admit to clients (users) that I can’t make decisions as to increasing the amount of face time; that they need to call support, not me, each time they have a question since we have to bill for our time. But I have to admit this.

And in the long run, users tend to understand there are restrictions (even they know I’m low in the food chain). And that way, no one has expectations that get dashed or feel they have been misled.

Am I doing all this? Heck, no.

Am I working on doing all this? You bet! Whether it’s Conductor training, website best practices, or just learning everything I can about my career, I’m trying my best. And isn’t that what our clients want, after all?

So whether you’re working on training materials, new websites, or some other service or product, I’ll wager you can find a way to use Amy’s points to make your work better. Let me know what you think. Personally, I’m glad hers is one post I got around to reading!

Top Considerations for Choosing URLS

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Main Building, Univ. of Notre Dame
Main Building, Univ. of Notre Dame

Boy, we’re lucky to be at Notre Dame!

No, seriously. Besides the fact that we work at a premier university, if we’re wanting to make sure our websites have a fighting chance in the bit world of the Internet, just having the “nd.edu” brand adds to the value of any Web address we can think of for our various departments and programs.

But that aside, how do we pick out the best URLs for our new sites?

Well, the answer I give today is different from what others would have said two, five, or 10 years ago, and will be different from what I might say in another year or two. Search engines are adapting to the “new world” of SEO and how Webbies try to get their sites noticed, and the rules will change as the Web evolves.

But right now, here is what the experts are saying we should consider when picking a URL:

  • Keep it short. Longer is more SEO friendly and more descriptive, but harder to type without errors and harder to remember. Also, current (2008) research[1] showed that long URLs tend to be ignored, with users clicking on shorter URLs more than twice as often.
  • Keep it simple. Easy to remember is a key.
  • Make it descriptive. If the URL doesn’t describe or somehow obviously relate to your site, chances are that your users will not remember it very long. (Will users remember that ace stands for Alliance for Catholic Education?  Or tas stands for Teachers as Scholars? Maybe so. Know your audience and how they think.)
  • Make it memorable. It’s easier to remember impact than Economic Impact Report (impact.nd.edu).
  • Make it easy to spell (versus easy to misspell). Otherwise, reserve likely misspellings of the URL for redirects. (When deciding on a URL for Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics, we “argued” about whether users would misread or misspell the one chosen: advanceddiagnostics.nd.edu. Two d’s or one?
  • Make sure it’s not ambiguous. (Gee, do I spell out department-of-french? Or was it dept-of-french? Or was it just French?)
  • Make sure there are no “words within words.” Beware of accidentally running together words that could be taken apart in different combinations—For instance, Peterson’s Experts would not want to use petersonsexperts.com.
  • Use keywords when possible. Would your users be looking for you under department or French?
  • If you must use hyphens or underscores, which some argue helps search engines find the keywords easier, use hyphens. Although underscores are gaining in acceptance, hyphens still rule. Better yet, though, would be to leave out the hyphens since users tend to forget them and thus make errors when trying to type in your URL.
  • Use lowercase. For most of us, the use of capital letters in URLs will not make much different; most servers these days use Microsoft operating systems that don’t care whether you use upper- or lower-case lettering. Also, search bots “learn” to tell the difference and route traffic to the site in spite of any capitalization issues. However, some experts feel that with the growth of open source software, the problems with different cases will increase. Thus, at Notre Dame, we avoid the case issues by defaulting (through Conductor) to all lower-cased urls, including subpage names.
  • Make sure it’s not spammy. If you think your URL might be considered spammy, check it out at http://www.seomoz.org/labs_tools/spam-detection/ before requesting it.

Consider the following URLs in use by Notre Dame. A lot of thought and discussion went into choosing these URLs, and the final choice was often a compromise. Choosing the correct URLS is not always as easy as one would think.

What would you have chosen as a URL, based solely on the criteria above?


Current URL
Alternative SEO-Friendly URL
(much longer)
Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics advanceddiagnostics.nd.edu advanceddiagnosticsandthereapeutics.nd.edu
Alliance for Catholic Education ace.nd.edu allianceforcatholiceducation.nd.edu
Department of Applied and   Computational Mathematics and Statistics acms.nd.edu appliedandcomputationalmath.nd.edu
Applied Investment Management aim.nd.edu appliedinvestmentmanagment.nd.edu
Notre Dame Magazine magazine.nd.edu notredamemagazine.nd.edu
Robinson Center rclc.nd.edu robinsoncommunitylearningcenter.nd.edu
Strategic Research Investment sri.nd.edu strategicresearchinvestment.nd.edu

What’s your least favorite URL? Most memorable? Have you experienced choosing the wrong one? If so, how did you work around that? Let us know!

[1] 2008 MarketingSherpa eyetracking heatmaps show short URLs are clicked 2.5x more often than long URLS (http://searchengineland.com/supercharge-your-urls-for-maximum-seo-impact-14006)

A Search Box by Any Other Name …

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Web Search Box ExamplesI recently studied a number of blogs and sites talking about placement and design of search boxes and buttons. While there is very little data on why decisions were good or bad, there are plenty of opinions as to what makes a good button/box and placement good or bad.

Search Box Location

The one point all the authors agreed on was that the search function should be at the top middle or right of the page and easily distinguished from other items on the page. (You will note that Harvard failed in this in that it includes search as part of a menu line. If you click on “search,” you are directed to another search page.)

Wikipedia moved its search box from the left sidebar to the top right corner based on common user expectations (most search boxes are in the top right corner), research about the search box size and how that would affect the Wikipedia layout, and actual Wikipedia research lab results.

Reasons cited for having the search box in the top-right corner include:

  • Expectations of users
  • Better use of site real estate
  • Immediate access to the browser scrollbar
  • Easier to maintain fixed standard width from page to page

Icon vs. Words in Search Boxes

While no one gave any reason why the magnifying glass icon should not be used, of the 11 major sites I checked, only four used it, and three used it in conjunction with the word “search.” Bing was the sole site that used only the input box and icon, with no accompanying text.

Only one site (NPR) used the word “go,” and again, that was in conjunction with the word “search.”

One site (AltaVista) used the word “find” instead of “search.”

Two sites (Boston Univ. and Wikipedia) used language within the input box, with Boston clarifying that the search included by the Web and directory.

Wikipedia’s technical blog still retains the “search” and “go” language; however, in the English version of Wikipedia, the search box contains the word “search” and the magnifying glass icon. For them, the “go” function was meant to find articles with the same title as entered in the search term. On my quick review of these sites, however, that wasn’t always the case; NPR.org’s “go” function gave me the same results as the “search” function.

Search Box Width

Usability expert Jakob Nielsen recommends 27 characters as the ideal width. He indicated that his tests showed this width would accommodate 90 percent of queries. If the box is shorter, only part of the query would be visible, making editing and review difficult for the user.

Experian Hitwise published a breakdown by percentage of clicks in early September that shows that search queries are getting longer. What effect Google Instant will have on that is up in the air, but it would behoove us to watch for trends and, as a safety measure, make sure our search boxes are wide enough for those longer queries.

Experian Hitwise charge showing searches consisting of 5 to 8+ keywords have increased 10% year-over-year for the 4 weeks ending 9/5/2010.
Experian Hitwise charge showing searches consisting of 5 to 8+ keywords have increased 10% year-over-year for the 4 weeks ending 9/5/2010.

Based on this survey and your own experiences, what are your thoughts? Is there anything that says one way is right or wrong?

If anyone has tested theories on placement, size, and language/icons, let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

In the meantime, I’m charged with figuring out a way to test these for AgencyND.

Practicing Your Passion

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I just read The Four-Letter Word that Makes You and Your Work Irresistible on the ChangeThis site. (By the way, the word is “love.”)

I would highly recommend taking a few minutes to check out Change This. There are some really good thoughts about life.

Anyhow, the passion the author calls for seems as if it would work well with just about any line of work, so I thought we could apply his P-R-A-C-T-I-C-E formula to Web work. Let’s try it out:


Ha! This one’s easy to figure out, hard to practice. It takes a lot of patience to work with the disparate group of people involved in bringing a website to fruition! Take the hard-to-get-along-with client who demands more than you think she should. Or the developer who insists on having enough time to do his work correctly. Or the designer who doesn’t want to be a pixel pusher. Patience. Yup, that’s a necessity.

But what about patience with yourself? I know I hate it when I lose track of projects or forget to contact a client. I want to take responsibility for the whole project, even though I’m only a small part of a larger team. Patience with oneself is probably the hardest part of the job for some of us, but without it, how can we expect to be patient with others?


How often do we tell our team members how much we admire their work? Or their ability to see things we can’t? And how often do we keep silent about who actually thought of an idea that the boss really likes when that idea was not originally ours? For me, it’s darn difficult to praise clients when they raise a good point that I should have already raised. Or to congratulate a developer on providing a great  solution to a picky client. But what does it really cost me? Not much in comparison to the reward it provides to the team (and to myself).


Same thing as recognition. Little cost; great reward. So how come I find it hard to thank someone for making me work hard to grow? The client who insists on good service, a superior product, and intelligent answers is often the one who is maligned in our meetings. We should be thanking that person (at least in our minds) for he is the one who demands that we grow. In fact, I want to thank Gabe, who pointed out that my links didn’t work on my last post. I was totally embarrassed and had to admit I didn’t check them after publishing. It was not easy to hear that I did something so mindless, but I’m thankful to Gabe for pointing this out to me so I could fix it. (Now! That didn’t hurt a bit!)


While giving advice might be easy, are we truly counseling our clients or team members? Or are we simply showing them how much we know? True counseling can come in the form of suggestions that help someone come to the “right” conclusion, allowing them to save face and grow at the same time. When we counsel someone properly, we share wisdom as well as knowledge, and we share our true selves, which is a gift even the most strapped of us can offer.


Yeah, I know. We charge for every minute. We have to. We’re a business. But are we truly giving our clients or team members all of our time? Or are we listening with half an ear while texting or checking our email? Try taking notes on a pad of paper next time. Look at your team member when he’s talking, and try to be truly engaged. You might be amazed at how much he knows!


I’m going to turn this one around. How well do I take instruction? I recently met someone in my field who really turned me off by telling me how to do my job within 30 seconds of meeting me. When it came time to try to learn something from that person, I had a difficult time. I kept that resentment alive and blocked everything offered to me. So who suffered? That’s pretty obvious; I did! Will I do better next time? It’s a wait-and-see game, but I would hope that I’m mature enough to take instruction from a more knowledgeable person.


Complaints are common. I, for one, get sick of hearing them, especially when they tend to be habitual or running heavily some weeks. But I need to listen to them, truly listen. It is by listening to my clients, team members, and others, that I’ll learn. And by empathizing with others, I can show them the compassion and respect they deserve and that I will one day want.


Times are rather rough right now where I work. Morale is suffering a bit. Nothing drastic; just your everyday stuff. Every time I want to scream and call it quits, I look to a core group of coworkers who help me put the issues into perspective. They help me come to terms with my skills as well as my limitations—and see how I can contribute to the solution rather than the problem. In other words, they encourage me to do my best when everything around me seems to want to break me down. Giving that kind of encouragement to others helps not only the recipient, but also all those around him, including yourself.


So that’s my moralizing for today. I give full credit for the idea that made me stop and think to Mark Sanborn, author of the ebook referenced above.

I love my work! It’s my passion and my calling. Now I just need to practice showing that love!

Lesson in Teamwork

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Although this blog doesn’t deal with Web projects in particular, it concerns a lesson anyone who works on a team has learned or will learn one way or another.

I’m taking an online class in technical writing that requires me to coordinate my work with two other people in a different time zone. Coordination has not been easy to begin with, but the last assignment was a killer.

For an earlier assignment, we had to write an instruction manual for a piece of pretty awful software. Then we performed a usability test on that manual. We used the information gleaned from that test and the instructor’s notes to prepare a report and revise the manual.

Because preparation of the manual, itself, was a headache, I volunteered to head the report portion of the project. Although I forwarded drafts to my team members, I managed to lose a very important file prior to the submission of the assignment.

I don’t know how I did it, but considering my frame of mind when trying to get this report and my portions of the manual revised in time, I’m not totally surprised.

Problem: Our instructor will not accept that I was totally responsible for this mess; she will be downgrading my partners if I don’t provide the file required. All this means that I have to re-create a file in xml in my “spare” time and get it to her before she grades the assignment.

Moral of the story (other than keep all the files in the same folder!): Share all files via a common server, even those files you don’t think are “necessary” for the others in a team. You never know when a bus will hit you.

To leave your coworkers out in the cold is unforgivable; to do it purely by mistake is never acceptable and is pure stupidity.

To my class team members: I apologize, even though I doubt you’ll feel much like forgiving me.

To my instructor: Thanks for allowing me to redeem myself.

To my coworkers: I vow to never do this to you. I have learned a hard lesson and hope to never put myself (or anyone working with me) in that position again.

Website Strategy—Planning: What a Concept!

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How in the world does one go about planning a new or reworked website? Well, in a lot of cases, that planning consists of a number of committee meetings ruled by one or two people who force their ideas down the throats of everyone else. Or perhaps the committee works well together, and they all agree on what they want on their site. Sometimes, an “expert” or team of experts is hired to devise the plan. The experts may even sit down with the people owning the site and find out what they want on it.

But in all these cases, the reason for the site is absent or, at the very best, hidden in the corner. I mean, what’s the site for? Surely we can’t all afford to have a site made for us/our department/our group for the sake of vanity. It’d be easier to have a printed piece produced; one we wouldn’t have to maintain.

No, in nearly every case, the reason a site is built in the first place or revamped should be stated at the very beginning of a project—and it should not be “because we need one” or “but every other department has one and ours is not as pretty/pithy/up-to-date, etc.”

Determining the reason (the goals) of your site should be one of the first things you do. For without properly defined goals, no site, no matter how beautiful it is, will persuade your user (the guy who comes to your website) to do what you want him* to do. He may appreciate the beauty, but unless you define your goals and have specific actions you want your user to do, he will probably walk away pleased with himself but a little confused because “something was missing.” That “something” was most likely a call to action.

So you determine what you want someone to do; then you put in your call to action. Now what? Just for the sake of argument, assume not everyone who comes to your site wants to do what you want. Just suppose that he feels he can get a better deal, find newer information, get something for free if he just keeps on looking on the Internet. How are you going to convince him otherwise? That, ladies and gents, is the key to judging whether your website works—whether it serves its purpose in helping you accomplish your goals.

True. With a university site, one hardly has to worry about making sales (usually). And if a student is thinking of coming to Notre Dame, it might not take too much to convince him to delve a little deeper and find out about the benefits of coming here. But suppose he’s not really sure he wants to come here. Or his Aunt Agnes went to Harvard, and “gee, anyone who’s anyone would go there.” Do you have that response ready when his mind starts wandering away from that “Apply Now” button and back to Aunt Aggie’s tirade at dinner the other night? Well, if you want to turn that prospective student/faculty member/donor into someone who buys in to what you are offering, that objection is something you’ll need to consider—for each call to action—on each page.

How do you keep those website “musts” all straight? It’s not easy. However, something we use here at AgencyND might help. It’s a simple table that sets forth each top-level navigation page you anticipate having in your site, what you think you might want to have on that page, your goals for that page (calls to/points of action), possible objections, and (drum roll, please) how you will respond to that call to action.

Anticipating objections before you populate your site will help you further define your goals and also help clarify your thoughts as you sit down to write your copy. Knowing why you are putting something on the Web helps make what you put on the Web much more powerful.

Try out the table. See if it fits your needs. And if you find something you like better, pass it along. We’ll all benefit!

*Just a note. As a former editor and a woman who has been around a long time, I have no problem with using the formal “he” when referring to a person of unknown gender in cases such as this. I find it much easier to type “he” than “he/she” or “s/he” or “he or she” and am personally not offended one bit by this quirk of the English language. I apologize in advance if you are.


Hello world!

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Ah, the joys of agency life! I enjoyed my years as an editor for AgencyND, and never saw myself doing anything else.

That is, until a few years ago when I was told I would be supporting the Web developers by teaching something called Conductor (the University’s proprietary content management system). Yeah. Right. Me. Web.

Well, fortunately for me, my lizard brain lost the battle, and I engaged in a fevered pursuit of knowledge about not only Conductor, but also Web writing, best practices, usability, accessibility, wireframes, information architecture, blah, blah, blah.

Never have I had so much consternation, anxiety, or trepidation about a career move (oh, except maybe when I was dealing out stock options at a little company called Microsoft—and there, I truly had no idea what I was doing!). But, on the other hand, never have I had so much fun!

Every day is a new adventure for me. A new adventure precipitated by new challenge. Learning the lingo of developers, users, and managers; feeling my way around to find what, exactly, I’m responsible for; and learning better ways of doing things—all these add up to a lot of change in these last few years and a lot of excitement about the future of AgencyND, Notre Dame, and me.

And here’s where I’ll be posting my questions, my commentary, and maybe even a few answers I’m finding on my new path to “enlightenment.” Join me in my wanderings. And share your comments with me.

We might just learn something together!