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Human Factors and Blog Design

The best products are designed with Human Factors in mind. That's why Web design and usability is a frequent topic of my Web Performance Matters blog.

Jeff Atwood's blog -- Coding Horror -- focuses on programming and human factors. And according to a recent interview with Jeff on the site Daily Blog Tips, "the blog is attracting over 500,000 unique visitors every month, and it also counts 60,000 RSS readers, meaning that Jeff probably knows what he is talking about".

The Coding Horror logo was originally created to mark examples of dangerous code in the programming classic Code Complete by Steve McConnell, which Jeff rates as his "all-time favorite programming book."

I have recommended Code Complete myself. Jeff's favorite books are on my shelf too. So I respect his judgment and recommend his blog, which I have added to the blogroll on Web Performance Matters.

Thirteen blog clichés

Jeff recently published Thirteen Blog Clichés, a post summarizing his "opinions about what makes blogs work well, and what makes blogs sometimes not work so well." These are presented as a list of common mistakes to avoid (or anti-patterns). If you have a blog, or are designing one, you've probably read similar articles before. Even so, Jeff's checklist is worth a look. All such lists tend to contain a core set of common guidelines to follow and/or pitfalls to avoid, but some of Jeff's opinions step outside the conventional wisdom.

Because I maintain two blogs -- Web Performance Matters and UpRight Matters -- I decided to rate both blogs against Jeff's criteria. Here are edited versions of his recommendations, and my responses. To read Jeff's full discussions of each guideline, see the original. And for the full story, see the many responses posted by Jeff's readers in the comments section of his blog.

Illustration: Blog Cliche -- Calendar

1. The Useless Calendar Widget

I can't think of a single time I have ever found the blog calendar widget helpful. My computer already has a calendar function, so it's not like I need another calendar displayed in my web browser.

Every post carries an obvious datestamp, so I can easily discern when it was published. But knowing whether someone posted an entry on the third Tuesday of the month? Utterly useless.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

I agree! Someone reading a blog like Daily Kos, that publishes daily about politics or current affairs, might find a calendar useful. But a calendar isn't appropriate for our content, so we've never thought of including one. Even if we had, the Squarespace publishing platform we use (see bottom of sidebar) doesn't offer such a blog calendar widget -- another sign that it's not in great demand.

2. Random Images Arbitrarily Inserted In Text

One of the cardinal rules of web writing is to avoid large blocks of text. There are plenty of excellent web writing guides that exhort you to break up your text, using bullets, numbered lists, quotes, paragraph breaks, images -- anything to avoid creating an intimidating wall of dense, impenetrable text.

But like all good advice, (this) can be taken too far. For example, when you find yourself inserting random pictures into your writing for the sole purpose of breaking up the text. As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. But you should no more insert a random image into your writing than you would insert a thousand random words into your writing.

Images are not glorified paragraph breaks. Images should contribute to the content and meaning of the article in a substantive way. And if they don't, they should be cut. Mercilessly.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

I know I am sometimes guilty of writing long posts. But I won't write a thousand words unless I have something worthwhile (I hope :-) to explain, and I try to keep all my posts interesting by breaking up the text using headings or images. And I promise that we will never include an image that bears no relationship to the subject matter!

3. No Information on the Author

Every time a reader encounters a blog with no name in the byline, no background on the author, and no simple way to click through to find out anything about the author, it devalues not only the author's writing, but the credibility of blogging in general.

Maintaining a blog of any kind takes quite a bit of effort. It's irrational to expend that kind of effort without putting your name on it so you can benefit from it. And so we can too. It's a win-win scenario for you, Mr. Anonymous.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

I agree! That's why we provide brief introductions and longer author pages.

4. Excess Flair

Illustration: Social bookmark icons

Blogs work because they're simple. When we clutter up our blogs with a zillion widgets, features, and add-ons, we're destroying an essential part of what makes blogs worthwhile. Examples include "crazy" JavaScript image loading techniques, annoying pop-up image previews of links, and pictures of the last 10 visitors to your blog.

Before adding any new "feature" to your blog, consider whether its value outweighs the additional complexity it introduces.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

This recommendation can be controversial -- see the comments on Jeff's original post on this topic. But I agree with Jeff, and I do try to reduce the clutter whenever possible. See my decision on item 6 below, for example.

5. The Giant Blogroll

Illustration: Giant Blogroll

Citing your references and influences is a great and necessary thing, but obsessively listing every single blog you read is just noise. If you're really reading this many blogs, you should be linking to them organically in your blog posts, in a sort of natural quid pro quo. Wearing a giant blogroll on your sleeve is an empty gesture that feels artificial and insincere.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

Agreed! On Web Performance Matters, I aim to keep my blogroll focused, and group the links into categories. We have not added a blogroll on UpRight Matters yet, but we plan to adopt the same approach.

6. The Nebulous Tag Cloud

tagcloud.png

Tagging content easily beats organizing everything into hierarchical folders, and tag categories on blogs are moderately useful, particularly for bloggers who tend to bounce around among many different topics. What I've never found useful, however, is the stereotypical tag cloud visualization, where the size of the tag word varies with its frequency.

The perception is that tag cloud visualizations are cool, like badges of honor for the tagging club. The reality is that tag cloud visualizations are chaotic, noisy, and unusable. Keep the tagging, lose the cloud. A simple sorted list of tags, along with the number of posts associated with each tag, is much more effective.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

Content tagging and indexing is a complex subject, and one I have given much thought while developing our blogs. [I even read Everything is Miscellaneous, and started to write a post about it until I realized that I was just adding to the echo-chamber on that topic. See item 11 below.]

I believe that tagging with keywords has value, but the resulting folksonomy is most useful as a supplement to, not a replacement for, a carefully designed and consistently applied classification scheme or information architecture. Therefore we will continue to index our content using both methods.

However, despite investing a lot of time implementing a Technorati tag cloud for Web Performance Matters, which has been sitting in my sidebar for 4 months, I have come to the same conclusion as Jeff -- it takes up space without adding any value. So I've now removed it.

I see this as an example of the dynamic nature of blogging. It's agile publishing: you don't have to get everything right the first time. You can create something, try it out for a while, refine it, or remove it altogether. In this vein, revising your blog's layout is greatly simplified if your publishing platform is CSS-based, like Squarespace.

7. Excessive Advertisements

Advertising is a fact of life, but your blog is not Times Square. Does every square inch of whitespace have to be filled with paid links, Google AdSense, and ad banners?

Here's a related article on blog usability that's a perfect -- even ironic -- example of how you can hurt your usability with excessive, obnoxious advertising. It's everywhere.

It is almost never in the reader's interest to see advertisements, so tread very lightly, and be respectful of your audience. If you take the time to advertise responsibly, you may find that readers appreciate you for it.

Well, probably not, but it can't hurt to try.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

We do have a few ads. I try to organize them tastefully, so that they don't interfere with the content.

8. This Ain't Your Diary

Let's be perfectly clear: readers aren't coming to your blog to read about you. They're coming to find out what it can do for them.

Illustration: Diary

That said, blogs are a place for writers to find an interested audience, and a place for readers to find a helpful peer and a unique voice. It's OK to be yourself; at some level, it is a cult of personality: people are reading not only because your content is useful to them, but because they like you.

It's normal to inject a regular dose of yourself into the conversation. But like Tabasco sauce and other powerful seasonings, a little YOU goes a long way. A really long way. Write accordingly.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

Agreed! I won't be writing about my experiences remodeling my house, unless I see a connection worth exploring.

9. Sorry I Haven't Written in a While

If you haven't posted anything new to your blog in a while, don't waste our time with apologies. Just write! The best apology is new and improved content. Maybe with a wee bit more consistency this time, though:

  • Pick a schedule you can live with, and stick to it
  • Don't produce substandard posts, just to keep to a schedule
  • Talent is far less important than enthusiasm

And the best way to demonstrate your enthusiasm -- and to improve -- is to get out there and write. Regularly.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

My objectives for Web Performance Matters are much the same as when I started the blog two years ago -- to contribute an organizing framework and a regular supply of ideas. I have to admit, I've had a few long gaps in my writing. I've also apologized and promised to do better! But after reading Jeff's advice, I'm in a bind. Should I apologize for apologizing? I guess not. I'll just keep writing.

10. Blogging About Blogging

I find meta-blogging -- blogging about blogging -- incredibly boring. I said as much in a recent interview on a site that's all about blogging (hence the title, Daily Blog Tips). If you accept the premise that most of your readers are not bloggers, then it's highly likely they won't be amused, entertained, or informed by a continual stream of blog entries on the art of blogging.

Meta-blogging is like masturbating. Everyone does it, and there's nothing wrong with it. But writers who regularly get out a little to explore other topics will be healthier, happier, and ultimately more interesting to be around -- regardless of audience.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

Of course, Jeff's post and this one are about blogging. But the reason we care enough to research and write about these ideas comes back to the Human Factors dimension. As we work to improve our ability to serve and communicate more clearly, we want to share what we learn to help you connect with your own readers and communities.

Cynthia writes:

Since my blogging objective is to make a competitive difference in the world, I took special note of Jeff’s post on Thirteen Blog Clichés, and of his focus on human factors. Why? Because I want to have conversations that matter -- presumably with humans!

While Chris and I stay focused on our respective blogging objectives, we work to apply the right technology to enhance understanding and to make the experience of conversing valuable for readers. Jeff’s opinions about effective technologies and techniques resonated with my blogging experience and my blogging intentions. If you have similar intentions, we think you will find them useful too.

11. Mindless Link Propagation

One of the most pernicious problems in blogging is the echo chamber effect. Most blog entries merely regurgitate what other people have said or add vapid commentary on top of news articles and press releases. Only the tiniest fraction of blog entries are original content, and only a tiny fraction of that fraction is worth your time.

If everyone knows about it, what value does that information have? My advice here is almost contrarian: if everyone else is talking about it, that means you should avoid talking about it. Switch things up. Seek out uncommon sites with unique information. If all you can find to talk about is what's already popular, you're not trying hard enough. Form your own opinion. Do your own research. Go out of your way to blaze a new trail and create something we haven't already seen hundreds of times before.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

That is so true! This issue is exactly what stopped me from completing my review of David Weinberger's book, Everything is Miscellaneous, even though I had read the book and dozens of pages of reviews by others. But then I found myself summarizing other readers' feedback, which amounted to a folksonomy about the topic of folksonomies -- that is, a meta-folksonomy. I began to wonder whether, if I were to review other similar discussions, and add some Technorati tags to my review, would I then be contributing to a meta-meta-folksonomy?!

People criticize Web 2.0, and the blogosphere in general, claiming that it's just a giant echo-chamber in which uninformed opinion is amplified, and true expertise is drowned out by uneducated bleating, like the sheep in Animal Farm. While that criticism may sometimes be true, it is not the whole story, and it does not do justice to the educational power of the Web.

In this case, I concluded that the world did not really need me to summarize what everyone else was saying about David Weinberger's opinions about tagging, folksonomies, and the wisdom of crowds. In fact, to write such a post would just fuel the critics' argument (and by the way, it was turning into a very long post). So I went back to writing about Web performance!

12. Top (n) Lists

Illustration: Following Instructions for Dummies

Yes, exactly like this one.

Lists are a great convention. They make sense, people understand them, and they're a logical way to structure your writing. But don't let lists become a crutch. I'm always taken aback when I see the "most popular" posts on a blog dominated by Top (n) Lists. Shortcuts are only meaningful if you know what it is, exactly, you're cutting.

If you find that the Top (n) List convention is a go-to tool in your writing toolkit, consider re-balancing your writing portfolio with longer, more in-depth pieces as well. Not everything should be a sprint; throw a few small marathons in there somewhere to complement your short distance skills.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

I agree that it's good to aim for a balance of short and longer posts. Having written technical articles for years before blogs existed, I'm actually more likely to write long essays -- see my comment on item 2 above. So to balance those marathon posts, I've found that deliberately trying to compose shorter posts whose structure is a list of guidelines or principles helps me keep that balance. My series on Performance Wisdom contains several examples of this approach.

13. No Comments Allowed

A blog without comments is not a blog. Yes, there are exceptions for massively popular blogs where comments don't scale. But until that applies, the value of the two-way conversation far outweighs any minor inconvenience on your part. It's an open secret in the blogging community that the comments are often better than the original blog entry itself. Would you browse Amazon without the user reviews?

Don't be afraid of comments. Embrace them. Moderate them. The community will respect you for it, and your blog will be better for it as well.

--Jeff Atwood, Thirteen Blog Clichés [edited]

We want comments! One of the primary reasons for blogging is to have conversations about the things that matter. It's not about us. Well, most of the time, anyway -- so we won't apologize if our writing occasionally lapses into introspection or vanity.

Note: This is cross-posted on Web Performance Matters and UpRight Matters.

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Posted on Saturday, September 22, 2007 at 12:30AM by Registered CommenterChris Loosley in , | CommentsPost a Comment

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