Weblog Usability

 By Shamus May 2, 2006 13 comments

Since this is a blog about Anime from last year and videogames from last decade, it’s safe to say this thing has a narrow audience. So, I try to keep this thing running smoothly to avoid driving off what few people are generous enough to show up. So the following is interesting to me:

Via Mark I find Jacob Nielson’s Weblog Usability: The Top Ten Design Mistakes. This is interesting. I try to run a nice blog that’s easy to read, comment, and link to, simply because I know how annoying it is when I’m using someone’s blog and it doesn’t work right.

So Nielson has ten things that he thinks are design problems on most blogs. Let’s have a look:

  1. No Author Biographies: I Have this. It isn’t much, but it lets people know I’m not an alien, a robot, or a dog. Lots of people don’t care about this, but when I hit a blog that interests me I always look around for a bio. If nothing else, I want to see what gender the author is. I hate trying to link to someone and talk about their work without using gender-specific pronouns. Grrr.
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  3. No Author Photo: This one sounds silly to a lot of people. However, when I stumble on a new blog I almost always check the bio and look for a photo. If they have one, I’m much more likely to come back. I like to know who I’m talking to. A 61 year old woman who blogs about Quake 3 Arena is way more interesting than a 25 year old man on the same subject. If I run into a Catholic, West Indian black Republican who likes comic books, I’m going to take notice. If I wrote about the same subject, it wouldn’t be nearly as attention-grabbing. Does this make me a racist and a sexist?

    Sigh.

    Probably. Who cares? I can’t bear to even care about that sort of business anymore. The point is, unique viewpoints interest me a lot more than the viewpoints of unknown people. We’re used to knowing the gender and age of the people we’re talking to, and I take those expectations with me into the blog world. It’s entirely possible that the next generation won’t care about stuff like this.

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  5. Nondescript Posting Titles: This sort of depends on what you’re posting about. Not every post needs a newspaper style informative heading. In fact, this Ambient Irony post is a great example of a nondescript posting title that makes the entry more interesting. If he had a “proper” title, it would ruin the joke.
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  7. Links Don’t Say Where They Go: This is absurd. Most people can see the ‘ol navigation bar at the bottom, which says where they will go if they make with the clicking. It would make the whole thing clumsy and overly verbose if I gave a site title or domain name every time I linked something. Often I don’t even care if the user follows the link or not. If I mention Someday’s Dreamers, I expect most people will just read what I have to say on it, but those who have no idea what I’m talking about can click on the link for a little context.

    If the thing I’m linking is the foundation for my post (if I want to build or add to what another blogger has said) then I usually mention them by name.

  8.  

  9. Classic Hits are Buried: I wish WordPress had a nice way to highlight the “best of” posts. I’ve added the “Readme” to the right-hand side, but those are hard-coded. This wasn’t hard, but it seems like an inelegant solution. This thing is run by PHP, and hardcoding parts of the site offends my inner programmer.
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  11. The Calendar is the Only Navigation: I gots me some of them fancy categories and whatnot.
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  13. Mixing Topics: Well, it depends on how you define “topic”. Certainly a blog that is just about whatever the author is thinking right now is going to be unfocused. In that case the blog is more or less about the author’s life or work, and they had better lead a very interesting life or accomplish some very interesting stuff. I do neither, so I write about geek culture.
  14.  

  15. Irregular Publishing Frequency: I think most people know this is important. It’s tough to keep up. I try for a minimum of two posts every day. On the weekends I build up a collection of short posts that I can deploy when I’m feeling uninspired. If I get a bunch of ideas, I try to save some for the next day rather than overkill one day and have nothing the next.
  16.  

  17. Forgetting That You Write for Your Future Boss: Mark nailed this one, “…I don’t think this has that much to do with usability (at least, from a visitor’s standpoint).” Anyway, if any employer would refuse to hire me based on what I have here then I probably wouldn’t want to work for them anyway.
  18.  

  19. Having a Domain Name Owned by a Weblog Service: Behold my domain name! Marvel at how it glitters so!

I would also note that as helpful as this is, none of this is a ticket to a successful (traffic-wise) blog. Steven Den Beste ignored almost all of this, as well as eschewing even basic weblog mechanics like comments, trackbacks, or even the most basic of them all, permalinks. Despite this, he was in the Technorati top 100 for a long time. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s like winning the bronze in the 100 meter dash – on a pogo stick. Sure, he didn’t get the gold, but… on a pogo stick?

1313 comments. That's a baker's dozen.


  1. bkw says:

    WRT SDB (LTAs are fun!) : content is king.

    I think I found your site through either SDB or dotClue (which I know I found via SDB). I keep visiting your site because you talk about stuff that I find interesting in a manner that I find engaging.

    WRT the endless talking about what’s good and what’s not and How To Best Use The Web … Under a strictly populist interpretation of “good web design,” myspace with its 66 million registered users should be an example of everything TO do … which it very plainly is not.

    But again, in that case it is the content (or the function or utility the site provides) that trumps everything else.

  2. Shamus says:

    I hadn’t thought about MySpace when writing this, but you are right: It’s popular to the extreme, and it defies all the rules of good design. Aside from looking like crap, it has the added drawback that a lot of the content itself is also crap, but it enables people to network and communicate their crap like never before. :)

  3. shamus – check out Matt’s Asides plugin for WordPress. You can designate a category (Asides, or Best Posts) that gets displayed in the sidebar rather than inline on the main body.

    You canalso create Pages that index/link to your best of posts. Either way, I hope you do it, as I have a huge job ahead of me to read all your archives!

  4. When I worked at Sun in 1998, Jacob Nielsen invented the user interface of the JavaStation, which he billed as an un-desktop. This included such brilliant ideas as a browser without location bar (HotJava). It spawned websites which allowed to type an URL into a table and issued a 301 redirect. I would be very cautious following his advice.

  5. I’m not on the Technorati top 100 any more. Back when I was, I did have permalinks, archives, a best-of page, a bio with photos, and regular posting.

    As to “mixing topics”, that was almost a signature characteristic of my site back then. (E.g. what can we learn about the John Kerry Presidential campaign by examining the clinical treatment of tuberculosis? I’m not joking; I really did write that one in March of 2004.)

    I’ve been trying to work myself around to putting in the effort to start using Citydesk for Chizumatic the way I used to use it for USS Clueless, but it’s hard to motivate.

  6. Steven, I think that a comment you made earlier though really applies here: most of the trappings of blogs (permalinks, archives, comments, etc etc) are for the benefit of the readers. You’ve distilled Chizumatic into only the writer part. That means that 100% of your (finite) energy is on writing, which I for one am glad to see and would not want diminshed. Your regular readers dont need permalinks on your site to enjoy your writing – the writing alone is what we want.

    If you want to use Citydesk again thats great! but you should know that we arent hung up on how you blog – just what you blog. And when :)

  7. Mark says:

    Some random points:

    Nielson does indeed have some quirky ideas, but for the most part his columns are at the very least worth considering.

    Myspace looks like crap, but it’s plenty usable at the things it needs to do (i.e. encourage interaction and networking). There’s a difference between how something looks and how usable it is. That being said, there will come a time when sites won’t be able to get away with looking like crap, because a competitor will come up with a better design that is just as usable (if not moreso).

    Regarding hard-coded, inelegant solutions, perhaps I shouldn’t share how I implemented some of the features on my blog:P

    Steven, I think mixing topics is more about writing separate posts on different topics, not mixing topics in one post. Writing about politics from a different standpoint (like your example), is still writing about your primary topic. That being said, I think most bloggers have at least a few main topics that they come around to (and most of us have more than that). One of Nielson’s strong contentions, though, is that the most successful sites are the ones that focus on a specific niche. I don’t know if I buy that for a blog though, as I think there needs to be some variety…

    fledgling otaku, yes, most of the conventions associated with blogs are focused on the reader, but several are also associated with allowing other bloggers to comment on stuff (i.e. permalinks and trackbacks, etc…) For the most part, you’re right, we don’t need most of the blogging conventions on Chizumatic, but it would still be nice to link to a specific post on his site:P

  8. I mixed topics in the same posts, and I mixed topics in different posts. I didn’t always write about politics, for instance, mixed with other things or not. I sometimes wrote about science, or about entertainment (anime!). Basically, I wrote about whatever I felt like writing about on any given day, at any given hour.

    It’s true that niche blogs are, or can be, a good thing, but in the end there’s no substitute for good writing and a unique voice.

  9. Shamus says:

    but in the end there’s no substitute for good writing and a unique voice.

    Barring that, I hear posting cheesecake works too. :)

  10. Mark says:

    It’s true that niche blogs are, or can be, a good thing, but in the end there’s no substitute for good writing and a unique voice.

    Indeed! That’s why you’re blog was so great:)

  11. Ubu Roi says:

    Well, with the exception that I would use “your” instead of “you’re,” I’m in complete agreement with that. However, I should note that my opinion may not be that good, as I break at least rules 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, and arguably 3. As for #9, well…. That’s the reason I violate #1 and #2.

    Local politics and anime? Who’d be crazy enough to mix those two?

  12. [...] the recommendation of Shamus Young I’ve decided to add a picture of myself. I’m going to immediately inflict myself upon [...]

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