Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Blogs as Deconstructionist Monsters


deconstructing futuristic monsters with Jaques Derrida Posted by Hello

Jacques Derrida, the founder of the deconstructionist school of philosophical inquiry, speaks of "monstrosity" as that which is new and unexpectedly imposes itself on the sluggishishness of that which is conventional, familiar, old.


JACQUES DERRIDA:


"...the future is necessarily monstrous: the figure of the future, that is, that which can only be surprising, that for which we are not prepared, you see, is heralded by species of monsters.

A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow.

All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, to welcome it, that is, to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange, but also, one must add, to try to domesticate it, that is, to make it part of the household and have it assume the habits, to make us assume new habits.

This is the movement of culture.

Texts and discourses that provoke at the outset reactions of rejection, that are denounced precisely as anomalies or monstrosities are often texts that, before being in turn appropriated, assimilated, acculturated, transform the nature of the field of reception, transform the nature of social and cultural experience, historical experience.

All of history has shown that each time an event has been produced, for example in philosophy or in poetry, it took the form of the unacceptable, or even of the intolerable, of the incomprehensible, that is, of a certain monstrosity."


(Passages - from Traumatism to Promise, in E. Weber, ed.: POINTS-INTERVIEWS 1974-1994, Stanford University Press 1995, p. 385-387)



VASPERS THE GRATE:


Even the names of monsters are horrible:

* Godzilla

* Sasquatch/Yeti

* Golem

* Frankenstein

* er...Blogs...!!!


Yes. "Blogs." Most normal people say that word
with undisguised distaste and irritation.

Mainstream media types look down from their insular ivory
towers and spit on mere common bloggers.

Imagine: an unkempt, unshaven, unsavory fellow
sitting at a computer, pounding deliriously on
the keyboard, staring maniacally into the screen...

with a half-drunk cup of cold coffee (latte?),
and the chewed crusts of cold pizza on a plate...

a fellow in scraggly pajamas...

a journalist-blogger!

Horrifying indeed. Especially to mainstream
news media figures
who engage in biased,
sloppy journalism, then try to cover-up.

Blogmonsters have stalked:

Trent Lott's praise of racism

North Korea's nuclear explosions

John Kerry's Vietnam war record

Dan Rather's sloppy journalism.

Jonathan Klein called bloggers
guys sitting around in their pajamas,
implying they are not elite journalists
tied to monolithic media conglomerates.

The Status Quo, the Powers That Be
are scared of little laptop bloggers!

I'll say it again:

Blogs are the Next Big Thing
after conventional web sites.

I hear the New Next Big Thing
after blogs is the wiki.

But let's stick with blogs
for a while, and really get
to understand them, and why
Everyone Must Blog Now.

Blogs are the new media watchdogs.

Blogs are the new teen diaries.

Blogs are the new "up-close-and-personal"
corporate public relations channel.

Blogging is a new way businesses can operate.

A blog can be the digital all-in-one
business card, resume, portfolio,
product spec sheet, brochure...

and a blog can be more intimate,
more interactive, more immediate
than conventional web sites,
which are, unnecessarily and wrongfully,
rather static, passive, and cold.

Get With It. Get Monsterish. Get a Blog.


(More on Rathergate & deconstruction at Streight Site blog)

Monday, September 27, 2004

User Observation Testing is Mandatory


Without UOT, you know next to nothing. Posted by Hello

User Observation Testing =

skillfully watching
representative users
interact with your web site
to obtain information
or to perform a task.

Of Very Limited Value:

* user surveys--they tell you what they
think you want to hear. They don't want
to hurt your feelings.

* feedback forms/emails--usually these
contain angry complaints or superficial,
emotionally based compliments.

* opinions of upper management--they
tend to see the web site according to
how it achieves corporate goals and
conveys the corporate mission and "look."

* opinions of co-workers--they pat you
on the back or enviously attack.

* opinions of friends & family--you know
they often praise or criticize depending
on mood, or how you last treated them.

* judgment by the web designers--they
want to say the web site is usable so
they look good, but designers are not
typical users of a web site.

Input from all the above sources is not
totally worthless, but still--you need more.

You need to test typical, average users,
who will actually be using the web site.

FOR EXAMPLE:

A web site selling cell phones must test
actual cell phone users, or those who are
planning to buy a cell phone.

USER OBSERVATION TESTING

Observe--do not assist them.

Take notes--write down their behavior
and comments. Link paths they use.

Interpret results--from perspective of
professional web usability analyst.

Report results and prioritized
recommendations to management--the hardest part.

Help implementation of enhancements--
this also requires web usability and design expertise.

User Observation Testing--
don't assume your web site is
easy for users to rapidly
accomplish what they need to do.

Martha Stewart Gets Vasperized






Even public relations web sites must be user-focused in design and content.

Narcissistic, self-congratulatory, "we-oriented" sites are counter-productive. They assume they are the center of the user's universe. This attitude is entirely out of step with the digital age of transparency, interactivity, and connectivity via shared information and mutual interests.

Martha Talks (NO LONGER ONLINE) is a failure from both an ethical and a web usability point of view.

I call this an "Image-centric Diva Disaster."

Martha Stewart, who will be residing in what is nicknamed "Camp Cupcake", a federal women's prison camp.

She was found guilty of conspiracy, making false statements, and obstruction of agency proceedings connected with an investigation of her mysterious selling of Imclone bio-tech stock.

Peter Davidson, at his Thinking by Peter Davidson blog, has a good post entitled "Cluephone Rings for Martha," which inspired me to write this.

While I don't think it would serve any purpose for Martha Stewart to have her own blog...she'd probably get a lot of snide remarks, hostile comments and bizarre blog "comment spam"...still, this image-centric web site is fraught with problems.

I see many positive qualities in Martha Stewart. I like what she has done for housewives and househusbands, giving them projects to work on, that beautify the home while saving money.

I like women who rise to the top and command lucrative empires. I admire her innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and ambition to be great.

But my appreciation of her many good qualities wilts and evaporates when I arrive at her little personal self-adoring web site.

Nothing is said about her distressed fans or the uncertain customers of her products, except thanking them for their (automatically assumed) love, sympathy, and support. What about their disappointment in you as a role model, Martha?

No apologies. No repentance. No admission of any kind of guilt. No regrets. No promises to look into financial dealings more closely.

An appalling lack of any sense of possibly being in error.

She'd make a good politician. They never admit to making mistakes or to seeing any way they could have done anything better.

I'm very troubled by her image-centric marketing approach.

"Image-centric" means preserving the original image, at any cost. Putting the product or corporate entity first and foremost. Users and customers are relegated to oblivion, at best. They are seen as nothing more than suckers from whom to derive maximum sales.

No concessions, no compromise, no acknowledgment of reality, the reality that she was found guilty of certain charges.

Image-centric marketing is blind and deaf toward the lowly public. Image-centric marketing is based on arrogance, denial of imperfections, and contempt for questioning and critique.

The semiotics of her photo—arms crossed in defiance and self-protection, smiling with a “I'm so rich and popular” smirk, against a dark background reminiscient of death, the grave, the prison—are ghastly.

That's nice, the K Mart spring green for the text and the minimalism of the site. A weird contrast to the macabre photo setting. I guess the dark background helps us peons to focus on her grandeur, the way her hair and skin seem to radiate, by contrast.

She sadly seems to have lost touch with the world outside her little mortal empire, an empire of embroidered throw pillows and pine cone knick knacks, lovely, useless artifacts and dust collectors.

The top navigation bar consists of:

email * notes to martha * other voices * trial update

The same links are repeated at the bottom of the page.

Notice how image-centric this web site is?

Email Martha. Write a web love note to Martha. Other media voices supportive of Martha. Trial update of Martha. Martha. Martha. Martha.

She built a brand on her previous marketing-imposed image. Now that the image is tarnished, she continues to cling to it with all her might.

Going along with the image-centric strategy, one would think that an “About Us” page would be appropriate, some biography of Martha, stressing positive achievements. Plus a history of her company, and whatever else the woman has been involved in.

Guilty celebrities are often engaged in pushing the original, seemingly benevolent, polished image at us.

As though it might be able to tackle and erase the new, tarnished image running rampant in the world.

I don't mean to rub salt in the wounds, or kick a person when they're down, but Martha Talks is an object lesson in how NOT to design and contentize a PR web site.

Martha Stewart--you've just been Vasperized.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Horrible Web Monstrosities


Posted by Hello

Afraid So: Welcome to the Dark, Grim, Hideously Unusable Web

Some web sites are so creepy, they should be shot in the head. They have "nightmare unusability" and are a real pain to deal with, especially when it's late, you're tired, and you need information fast, or you need to perform some task quickly.

A web site seems ugly, grotesque, alien, and even sinister, when you really need it to be nice and user-friendly, but it's not.

It mocks your attempts to find the relevant content you're sure is in there somewhere.

It scares you with it's slimey, freakish pit of hellish difficulties and gross uncertainties.

It angers you with its smug, callous indifference to user experience, as evidenced by its macabre mis-labeling of links and its hard to decipher, dimly-lit categories.

The nightmarishly unusable web site grows darker and more frighteningly pathetic the deeper you plunge into its awful quagmire of uselessness.

If you think I'm being wildly critical, just wait until you've been working for hours on your computer, then, right before retiring for sorely craved sleep, you suddenly realize you need a bit of information that's on the internet.

You go to a web site you're confident will provide this needed data. And it's next to impossible to track it down and obtain it. Or any similar situation where you need a web site to deliver the goods easily, quickly, and without your jumping through all kinds of hoops to get it.


What makes a web site creepy?


*Excessive hype about the company.

*Irrelevant features forced upon you.

*Site registration required, prior to performing any tasks or searching for the information you need.

*Information categories defined or organized poorly.

*No "search this site" function.

*No easy to understand site index or site map.

*Poorly written summaries of article contents.

*Confusing arrangement of information.

*Failure to cite references for information, and providing no links to the sources, making the information suspect and virtually worthless.

*Site-induced disabling of user's Back button.

*Dense, lengthy blocks of web text that's misery to try to read.

*Failure to use short paragraphs, bold sub-heads, copy chunking, inverted pyramid style writing format, blue/underlined hypertext links.

*No indication of visited links, so that, in your rush to locate information, you repeatedly, mistakenly visit links you've already seen.

*Poor indications of link destinations.

*Failure to specify that a document is a PDF (Pretty Damn Frustrating) file that, when you decide you don't want to download it, and you click on (select) "Decline", the monstrous PDF program keeps running anyway, causing your computer to freeze up, and making it difficult to turn your computer off and start over.

*Flashing, blinking things.

*Intrusive pop-up ads.

*Other forms of "visual noise" and cognitive dissonance.


Anything that gets in the way of your attempt
to accomplish your purposes.

Anything that slows you down.

Anything that doesn't work right.

Anything that conveys the arrogant message:

"Do what WE want you to do NOW,
and maybe you'll get to do
what you want to do LATER, if at all."


What YOU Can Do to Stop the Preservation and
Proliferation of Horrible Web Monstrosities:


1. Immediately send an email to the site owner,
telling them that you will not tolerate such
shabby workmanship and will tell others to
avoid their ridiculously unusable web site.

2. Go to the This Is Broken web site (http://broken.typepad.com) and
submit a screenshot of the culprit site,
with an explanation of what you were trying
to do, and what prevented you from doing it.

3. Abstain from returning to, or imitating
the errors and faults of, the offending site.

4. Help others to spot and avoid such sites.

5. Explain to other users that web usability
principles are well known and easy to implement,
thus there is no excuse for these sites.

6. Compliment user-friendly web sites loaded with
relevant content via emailing their operators.

7. Encourage other users to visit the sites you
have found to be highly credible, informative,
and usable.


Saturday, September 25, 2004

Blank Nothingness of Non-Observation of Users


Web Usability Void of Not-Knowing Posted by Hello

You simply cannot know if a web site is usable...


...unless you know typical users can easily
find information, order products, provide input,
or perform desired tasks at your site.

Surveys, questionnaires, feedback forms,
assumptions by web designers,
approval by corporate managers,
awards from web development organizations,
accolades from academic communities,
pats on the back from bosses...

...none of these are proof
that a web site is usable.

Usable means typical users
have no problem doing what
they want to do at the site.

If you haven't watched a typical user
interacting with your web site,
without any assistance or advice,
you really do not know how usable it is.

Only User Observation Tests
conducted by a professional team
can provide you with facts about
how usable your web site is.

web usability abstract art poster

A Name You Can Trust for Usability ExpertisePosted by Hello

Friday, September 24, 2004


Benevolent products, designed to solve problems or enhance life, along with good customer service, will always defeat shoddy, con job products, designed to make a fast buck, accompanied by reluctant, outsourced service.  Posted by Hello

What's Wrong with (Almost) All Web Sites

*
*
In attempting to compile a list of URLs of web sites that comply with user needs and good marketing principles, very few sites could be found. If a site complied with a few principles, it contradicted so many others, it was not deemed worthy to cite as an example of anything.

If the following statements seem harsh, cynical, or sarcastic, toughen up. Your site visitors are probably speaking to their friends in far uglier language about your web presence, if your site frustrates user expectations and fails to sufficiently guide and assist them.

While some design issues are subjects of heated debate, the abundance of clearly dysfunctional aspects of so many web sites makes it clear that all is not well on the Web. Let's work together to make the Web a more satisfying and productive place to visit.

How many of these problems have you encountered in web sites you've visited recently?

1. Counter-Intuitive User Interface. Immediate gut feeling of being dumped into an alien environment. You freeze. You can't overcome your paralytic sensation of futility. Seasoned web design pros say the user interface is “intuitive.” You wonder: “intuitive” to whom?

It's difficult to tell what can be done at the web site. A table of task options, telling you “If you want this, go to [site link]” or “If you are [customer/user type], please consider going to these locations first, in this order, before doing anything else” would be nice.

Conduct user observation tests to determine if your site is deficient here. If appropriate to your site, include novices with weak web navigation skills in your pool of test subjects.

Every site is different, and requires site-specific user guidance suited to its unique purposes and user types.

Insufficient user guidance is, according to many experts, one of the biggest problems with web sites today (www.useit.com/alertbox/20031222.html and Andrew Chak at www.uie.com/articles/chak_interview/).

Slapping a site map, search box, and navigation buttons on your site is not enough.

Consider winnowing, multiple user-segmented site maps, information channeling, site tours, page/link popularity indexing, facet maps, topic maps, and other online helps. (See WEB DESIGN: THE COMPLETE REFERENCE, Thomas Powell, McGraw-Hill/Osborne, p. 338-348, et al.)

2. Clandestine Sponsorship. It's difficult to find out who's behind the web site, what the organization's purpose is, what agenda they're promoting, what credentials are possessed by key personnel, what a typical member is like, what audience they're striving to serve. Secrecy or indefinite identity works against the credibility of the site.

Some sites have nothing like an “About Us” page, assuming we already must know who they are or we wouldn't have landed on their site. As if all users type in their URL, or link to them from a related web site.

But the second most popular Internet activity, after email, is Search Engine enabled searching.

If you're reluctant to be transparent, what are you doing on the Web?

3. Link Labyrinths. The user links into a page that disallows returning to previous pages, or fails to clarify its relationship to the rest of the site.

It's even worse when the browser's Back button has been deliberately disabled. (This is called a "mouse trap"). The site now seems like a confining maze. Users at this point tend to close out of the site.

I got caught in a "mouse trap" at a popular ecommerce site. I was curious about a product. Customer reviews were available. I clicked on "Product Reviews." I read a review.

So far, so good. But trouble was lurking just ahead.

I had an option to "Rate This Review."

Being (sometimes) a nice feller, I thought: "Okay, I'll rate this review, I like it, and want them to know I like it, it was thorough and informative."

I clicked on "Rate This Review." Lo and behold, I'm transported to a page that is trying to force me to Register. I don't want to Register. I buy nothing online. I get facts online, and purchase at "bricks and mortar" facilities. Call me old fashioned.

I was tricked into a mouse trap. When I hit the Back button of my browser, I kept returning to the Registration page, over and over and over again. I was getting annoyed. I closed out of my Windows session just to escape this mouse trap.

Now I have a grudge against that ecommerce company.

Never take over the user's computer, usurp their navigation, or attempt to bully or deceive them into doing something. Just because you don't know how to persuade them to do it.

Consider putting an “information trail,” “depth gauge,” or “path indicator” across an upper region of the page, showing the structure of the site thus far (not necessarily user path):

Home > Products > Industrial > Engines > Truck Engines

The user can easily select (click on) one of these locations to jump back into. User's current location in site is in bold type.

4. Link Misnomerisms. Links are labeled in a way that doesn't clearly identify, in a manner that makes sense to users, what these links are. This forces users to embark on frustrating, time-consuming “linking expeditions” through the site, or to simply give up and go elsewhere.

Mysterious, poor labeled links are dead links. They're time-wasters and they tend to annoy users.

5. Print Design Transference Error. Text is in Print Read format, instead of Web Scan. Site looks like an article-driven cyber-magazine, rather than a link-driven web site. Dense text without bold highlights, underlined hypertext links, or heads/subheads is difficult to read online.

No “printer friendly version” function is available, so if you print out a page, you have to print the advertisements, editorial photos, navigation tools, and other irrelevant features.

Some Print Read text is okay for variety, but use Web Scan text, bulleted or numbered lists, and short paragraphs whenever possible.

Avoid the urge to write it the way you want to say it. Write it the way users want to quickly skim it.

6. Narcissistic Mirror Syndrome. When the site owner looks at the site, the site owner sees his or her own reflection.

Web site text conveys a “we” orientation, rather than welcoming users as valued individuals. Replace “We (blah blah blah). Our products (blah blah blah)” with “You'll find...Your interest in...You are...”

Focus on how user needs are satisfied by the benefits derived from product features. Let users see their interests reflected in your site. Mirror their concerns. Anticipate their questions.

If you don't know how to do that, or don't want to, abandon your business altogether: it's doomed to fail soon anyway.

7. “Welcome to Web Sites Anonymous.” No personality—the web site seems cold, dead, sterile. No staff credentials or bios.

Could the president or some spokesperson for the organization have a frequently updated editorial column, with a photo of that person, to make users feel like the site is a representation of a real living human? How about a personal welcome letter?

8. Credibility Deficiency. Lack of verifiable references to external sources. No relevant, substantiating outbound links. No bibliographies of sources quoted. No documentation of facts.

Sometimes the only supporting documents are other materials by the site owners.

For more guidelines on source documentation, go to:

www.library.jhu.edu/elp/useit/evaluate/#e/


9. User Animosity. Indifference or hostility toward users. Rarely do you see a “Can't find or do what you want? Let us know. We'll try to help you. Express your problem, and we'll get back to you within 48 hours” link for feedback to the site owner or organization. Rarely does a human vouch for site authenticity.

Microsoft does an admirable job at this, but who else? Feedback forms, when they actually work, force users to exercise creative writing skills, that most do not have, to convey their concerns, questions, frustrations, or suggestions for improving the site.

Why not offer, in addition to an essay type feedback form, a multiple choice series of check boxes? Give users the ability to click on a statement that expresses their concern, to help those who are not good at writing. Negative feedback can be your best ally. For every user who complains, there may be 1,000 too busy, lazy, or angry to do so. You can learn from harsh critiques. Glowing praise just makes us complacent and smug.

10. Spurious Site Maps. Users generally avoid, can't find, or can't understand standard site maps, according to a study by Jakob Nielsen at:

www.useit.com/alertbox/20020106.html

One thing that renders a site map hard to use is specialized, or site-inconsistent, terms for the page sections.

Structure your site map in a manner that's easy for users to follow and see connections. Even advanced users who know insider lingo will understand wording that is common to the lowest level users.

Label links and page sections in everyday language with which your users are familiar.

Don't know what that language would be? Abort your entire web site immediately. You have no business being online.

11. Dysfunctional Feedback Forms. This one's hard to believe: web sites existing in the “interactive environment” of the online community realm, but it's difficult to interact with the site owners.

This is frustrating for users, and contrary to the whole point of having a web site, yet the problem pops up where you least expect it. Web Design sites, Web Credibility sites, and Web Usability sites have been guilty of not monitoring their feedback functionalities.

Sometimes a site doesn't even have a “Contact Us” page, which is a huge violation.

But lo and behold, when you go to the “About Us” page, there's a feedback form, if you scroll down to the bottom. So you excitedly type in your comment or question, filling out all the required fields, like full name, email address, phone number, and land address, then click on Submit. “Method Not Approved. Error Has Occurred” appears on your screen.

You stare at the screen in bewildered astonishment. Then you return to the feedback form and try it again. You check and double check your work. All required fields are entered. The email address is valid.

You click on Submit again. Error message again. That's it. This web site has lost its credibility by violating usability expectations.

You'd love to write an old fashioned letter and land mail it to the site owners, to make them aware of the problem, but you really don't have time.

So off you go, clicking your way to its competitors.

12. Wrongly Rejected Registration Forms. It's a pain to register at many sites, but if the site looks credible and informative, users will comply.

Users provide a lot of personal information, and come up with a special user name (e.g. “Hipwebber 59”) and a password. Hard to hack passwords are composed of at least 8 characters, upper and lower cases with a mixture of letters, numbers, and symbols.

Often, users are also encouraged to make selections from a list of email newsletters and unabashed updates on new products.

It's annoying when, after going to all that trouble, a user clicks on Submit, and gets an Error Message.

One instance of this was when the site registration form required a password, but not a user name, although actual full name was required.

When submitted, the Error Message announced that access to member area was denied, which was intimidating, implying the innocent user may be a malicious hacker, then asked for user name.

When actual real name was entered, the same Error Message appeared.

Registration was aborted, and the user never returned to that site.

13. Corrupt Comment Posting. The web is supposed to be interactive, right? What is going on, then, with all this deterioration of interactive functionalities?

It seems to be a full blown epidemic all of a sudden. Users are being defeated in their attempts to communicate with site editors and site owners.

Here's another example for you to ponder.

A user reads an email newsletter published by an extremely reputable and well known Internet information organization. It specializes in delivering news updates and in-depth articles on the topic of IT systems and network security.

The user clicks on a link in the email to go to the actual web site of this organization, to a specific article mentioned in the newsletter.

The user reads the article on a revolutionary new technology that will redefine the entire information industry.

When the user attempts to take advantage of the “Post Your Comment” functionality by clicking on the link, the URL included the phrase “Create a Handle” rather than “Post Comment.” A message appears on the screen: “You have already created a handle. Your handle is [handle name].”

This occurs repeatedly, whenever the user clicks on “Continue Posting” or “Back.” In frustration, the user clicked on the Back button of the browser to escape this “mouse trap” and aborted all attempts to post a comment on a topic of great interest.

The user then fired off an email to the site editor to inform her of the problem, requesting her to respond to the user about remedying the problem.

If you want to drive users and customers to your site, keep these prevalent blunders in mind and avoid them. Want a competitive edge? Want to dominate your online market? No problem. Help users understand your web site, navigate it, and accomplish tasks at it. You'll be miles ahead of most of your competitors.

If you experience problems with a specific web site, please contact the site owner or webmaster to report the problem, and your personal opinion or conclusion about that site.

Generally, site owners and webmasters will appreciate your taking the time and trouble to help them improve the site.

Complaints are welcome by secure personalities who know that nobody's perfect.

Every time you contact these people and make known a problem, you're moving us all closer to the goal of:

"Turning the World Wide Web into a user's paradise."

Thanks in advance!

Vaspers T. G.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Power Emails: how to write them

***


Two major aspects of email are writing effective email messages...and identifying and reducing spam.

Spam is Unsolicited Commercial Email (UCE), sales promotion email you didn't request. It will be dealt with in an upcoming Spam Savvy article.

Many people, even web-based business professionals and email marketing companies, aren't very adept at writing power emails. Rare is the person who knows how to write classy, effective emails that generate fast, satisfying replies.

Just imagine all your email messages consistently being Power Emails.

Imagine the increased sales.

The improved customer relations.

Quick answers to burning questions submitted to experts.

More problems solved by technical support services.

Improved communications with family, friends, employers, clients, prospects, colleagues, and suppliers.

All due to your skill in writing email.

First, establish the legality of your email message. There are specific U.S. laws that govern email. It's a criminal act to violate them. The laws are found here:

www.ftc.gov/bcp/online/edcams/spam

Once you've determined that you're sending legal, ethical email, with the recipient's permission, how can you make sure your legitimate email will be read?

Not by putting "Hi" in the subject line, that's for sure. First, let's look at from lines.

From lines: I delete all emails that claim to be from lusty females (“Christy Cream”), PC product providers, casinos, income boosters, or pharmaceutical companies. A recent trend has been weird names, hoping to provoke curiosity (“Heeltoe Sillastep III” or “me” or “Mean Bean” or "TECH"), so you'll open the email.

Spammers “spoof,” or pretend their email is from a trusted source, by putting the trusted name in the from line. Example: “From: mom. Subject: my next visit.” Delete these spam emails. If you open them, that alerts them to an active email address, they'll sell your address to other spammers, and you'll get more spam.

Spammers often use multiple throwaway, or ridiculously fake, addresses. Example: when your cursor hovers over a from address, without clicking on it, and the full address appears as a name or phrase followed by an absurd, lengthy line of letters and numbers, that doesn't look like anybody's authentic email address. Don't open, delete, delete, delete.

Subject lines: I delete all emails with subject lines of "Hi," FREE, no subject at all, or suspicious, pornographic, offensive, foreign language, pharmaceutical, computer or browser add-ons (“record all words typed”), or nonsensical wording.

"Hi" is a dead giveaway that the email is spam, amateur, or contains dangerous code (virus, etc.). “Hi” as subject indicates someone who knows nothing about email, the internet, netiquette, business correspondence, or human communication.

"Hi" is not a subject. It's a salutation, a greeting that may begin the text of the email message itself, but should never be the subject line.

Use inside information or personal details: Do you know something about the person? Something relatively unknown to the general public? Some odd fact you read in one of their articles? Some useful information by which you think they may be intrigued? These are examples of content that could be in the subject line.

Keep the subject line as short as possible. But don't use just one or two vague words. Put the most important words first, with less important words after them.

Example: “Marketing meeting 10-4-2004: confirmed,” rather than “RE: Meeting” or “RE: Marketing meeting” or “Confirming our meeting on marketing ideas scheduled for Aug. 10, 2004.”

Subject lines are truncated (shortened) by email services after a certain number of characters. Have you ever seen a subject line that was a long sentence, and it was cut off before the end? It was truncated.

Don't use “RE:” It's redundant.

Of course, we all know the subject line is “regarding” something. Subject: = RE: “RE:” is old fashioned office memo style. I've even received emails with subject lines "RE:RE:RE:usability-phobic designer syndrome" or whatever the actual topic was. Only use "RE:" when required by an email discussion list.

Consider spending more time composing the subject line than the email message. If the recipient isn't likely to know you, it's the subject line, with a non-suspicious from line, that will get the recipient to "open the door" of your email message.

Real life example: The subject line of my email to Jakob Nielsen, the leading web usability expert, was: "My Boxes & Arrows article: quoting you Jakob." He replied to my question. I wrote back thanking him, and left it at that. I've written emails to famous, therefore busy, web experts and designers. Most of them have responded, sometimes at great length, to my email messages.

Write only one email—to celebrities & experts. Famous people have very little time to read and respond to emails. They don't carry on continuous emailings. Be satisfied with one reply to one email from you. Send a “thank you” email.

Avoid using ALL CAPS in your email subject lines. Spammers tend to use these gimmicks to get people to open their emails. To bypass spam filters, spammers also use unusual symbols and spelling in subject lines. For example: “GiT aLL th'e +!!!+ViCodIn ^^pa~in^^p~ills***yoU c'an swa%ll+ow” or “*****L(.)(.)k aT mY seXXXy siS#teR*****” They also use “FREE” and “URGENT.”

Be specific in your message. Include a reference, like a date, URL, page number, product number, action attempted, or exact information you're seeking. Put at the beginning of your message any “please respond by (date)” requests.

Keep the email message as short as possible. Quick, to the point, no slow, belabored build up. Quickly ask your question, or make your comment. Few of us have time to leisurely read long-winded emails. Use self-restraint. Don't go off on tangents, or try to include lots of complex points. Cut to the chase. Then stop.

Some email specialists say typos and misspellings (sp?) convey the sense that your email message was urgent, passionate, and from a busy, thus important, person. I disagree. Proper spelling and punctuation are easier to read and understand. Write like an educated person. Don't type too fast. Careful with that gourmet coffee.

Use short sentences...and very brief paragraphs. Write, then revise. Turn one long sentence into two short ones. Break long paragraphs in half. Go back over your message and chop it into little, bite-sized chunks. Minds get fuzzy when confronted with long sentences and dense paragraphs. People don't like them.

Be certain that email is the best vehicle for the message. Would a phone call be better...or a fax...or a postal, “snail mail” letter...or a visit in person?

Emails typically are read, then deleted. People have a limited amount of email storage space. If your message should be saved and referred to in the future, email may not be the best way to go.

Abstain, unless clarity requires it, from hitting “Reply” and attaching the other person's email message to your reply message. This is annoying in most cases. If necessary, just quote portions of a previous email from the other person.

If you must send a file as an attachment to your email, first get approval from the recipient, especially with large files (over 50k). Give the attachment a title that makes sense to the recipient. Example: “Streightemail.rtf” means Steven Streight's article on email, in Rich Text Format.

Always ask what format is preferred for your attachment. If you're sending an attached article you wrote for a publisher, ask if they want .doc, .txt, .rtf, .zip, (etc.) The StarOffice .sxw text file causes problems for some systems. For an image, ask about .jpeg, .gif, .png, .bmp, .svg, (etc.) formats.

Emails are public documents. They may be forwarded, quoted, posted on web sites, or printed out, and consequently, seen by unknown others. Therefore, exercise caution and tact. Don't engage in flaming (blatant anger-provoking language) or baiting (seemingly sincere, but deliberately provocative statements).

Compose in plain text, not HTML. HTML emails can contain viruses, and not all email client programs are capable of reading HTML messages. I have turned off my HTML email reading, for security, so all HTML emails I receive are unreadable.

Configure your “word wrapping” at 60 to 70 characters, or your recipient's email program will break lines in bizarre spots, making your message less readable.

Configure an appropriate “signature file” like name, title, company, web site URL, phone number, fax number, etc. It's added to the end of all outgoing emails.

Warning: never use email to transmit sensitive, financial information. Reputable firms never ask you to send such data via email. Con artists do this. It's called “phishing.” They tell you to put this data in email, or at a bogus web site.

Thank your recipient in advance for spending their valuable time reading and replying to your email. Express your appreciation for any assistance they may provide.

Follow these guidelines, and you'll greatly increase the readership of, and responses to, your email messages.

Welcome to the elite society of fully initiated Power Emailers!


This Blog is a Phlog, not a Plog

***

Here I go.

This is an historical moment. I'm going to do something now, something I normally abhore. I'm going to get up close and personal.

I'm actually going to post a plog blog about this blog being a phlog, not a plog.

And I'm going to try to convince you to buy a cereal box at a bookstore.

Confused? Don't be. Here, I'll explain what I mean, and everything will be fine and dandy.

I admit it. I've been reading Seth Godin's blog, and loving it. He's really smart, hip, and funny.

His Free Prize Inside book is packaged in a cereal box. I like that.

It reminds me of the Vandals (or the Violators? or the Viletones? some V punk band) vinyl 33 rpm record album.

It was cynically packaged in a cardboard album cover -- that had a large sheet of sandpaper glued on both sides.

So their album destroyed the album covers of other albums every time you slid it in and out of your album collection. Devious, but funny and brilliant.

The essence of punk: an album that attacks and wrecks the covers of your other albums.

A marketing program must likewise, though in an honest and benevolent manner, attack and wreck the unjustified sales resistance of customers, the over-stated claims of competitors, and the lethargy and latent mediocrity of the company itself.

Does your marketing campaign have sandpaper glued to both sides?

Seth invented the phrase "viral marketing" and explains how ideas are not imposed by hammering, but are spread via infection, thoughts leaking out and gaining ground unexpectedly. He calls it the "idea virus." I agree with him.

How I wish boring Vaspers was as interesting as Seth Godin.

Seth says don't try to be complexly perfect, be remarkable. Unfortunately, Vaspers is good at remarking, but isn't very remarkable. Not very commentable. Or is he?

But don't be too hard on Vaspers. See, Vaspers the Grate is, er...well, it's not a real "blog" site in the normal sense of the phrase.

Vaspers already told you in the "Blog Voice" article that he doesn't care for "blah blah blah blogs."

The trendy blogs that deliver excruciatingly personal details of tiresome, mundane thoughts and activities. ("I had a blue potato pizza today. Do you like blue potato pizza? How about chocolate anchovie chilli?")

Vaspers The Grate is a phlog, not a plog.

A "blog" is a "web log" meaning a log, diary, or journal published on the web. Thus web log = blog.

A "plog," as Seth Godin (Mr. Idea Virus, Purple Cow, cereal box book) explains, is a "personal blog."

A "phlog," as Vaspers the Grate invents and defines his new term, is a "philosophical blog."

A "phlog" contains rather long essays on important technical topics or conceptual issues. In a "phlog" you will not find short, off the cuff remarks on random items. That's what "plogs" tend to be.

Hey, this article is as close to a "plog" blog article as you're likely to ever get from VTG. So enjoy it while you can.

Now, go read my newly published article on the Brussels web site Usability Special Interest Group.

It's the first article of the August 2004 issue.

In this article, I explain basic forms and procedures for web site user observation tests, based on a recent test conducted by STREIGHT SITE SYSTEMS.

The home page of this web site is:

www.stcsig.org/usability/newsletter/index.html

If you type in what's above, but ended it with /newsletter/0408-user-observation [dot] html, instead of /newsletter/index.html, you'll be taken right to my article "User Observation Testing: Forms and Procedures for an Information-driven Website. "

If I provided the entire direct URL here, it would stretch unbroken across the text field and break the layout of this blog site, shoving things around in an unseemly manner. I'm still perfecting this site, so bear with me.

P.S. If you see Seth's cereal box book, Free Prize Inside: The Next Big Marketing Idea, buy it immediately. Few copies remain. It is being issued in a new printing, minus the cereal box packaging, which will now be a collector's item. I saw one copy at Barnes & Noble a few days ago. Pray that it will still be there tonight. I'm leaving right after posting this to go buy it-- and his book Purple Cow.


UPDATE EDIT: Yes. The last copy Barnes & Noble had of the cereal box version of Free Prize Inside was still there. (Was that an awkward sentence?) I purchased it. There is more inside the box than just the hardbound book.

VTG Desktop: Sept. 2004


Posted by Hello

Since I'm in an historical mood,
I thought I should show what my
desktop looks like this month.

I change it on a monthly basis,
and this month it's Andy Warhol
photobooth collage.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Subliminal VTG Ad


Posted by Hello
Computer art copyright 2004
by Steven Streight.
Created on JASC
Paint Shop Pro.

This is the logo we'll use
to overwhelm the competition.

They'll wonder where
the "vaspers the grate"
text is. They'll be annoyed.

We'll tell them to
keep staring at it
until they see it.

While they're staring,
we'll convert their customers
to the "vasperization process".

Saturday, September 11, 2004

The Internet and 9-11

***
Vaspers the Grate is non-partisan.

Vaspers has no comment on Democrat, Republican, Green, Socialist Labor, Independent, Libertarian, or any other political party, nor do I advocate any political or military agenda of any sort at any time.

But, since today is September 11, I felt I should make a statement.

This is the offical 9-11 statement of STREIGHT SITE SYSTEMS.

My gift of commemoration of the Post 9-11 Miracle was the inaugeration yesterday of my new phlog (philosophical/professional blog) site:

www.streightsite.blogspot.com

It's devoted to issues related to Radical Usability and Mentally Correct Marketing. The articles are extremely short, almost like "business poems."

"Post 9-11 Miracle?" you may be wondering to yourself.

Yes. Miracle is correct.

The 9-11 attack on America's World Trade Center Towers showed that we as a nation were too complacent about terrorists and their intentions.

But the miraculous thing is: the total lack of major terrorist devastation in our country since that attack.

While I deeply regret and abhore the suffering in the Sudan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Iraq, and other places where terrorists have caused destruction and death, I'm grateful that America has experienced a miraculous protection thus far.

Now...

What can a web usability analyst do to combat terrorism?

I see two things I can do personally and professionally:

1. Pray for God's divine blessing upon the Internet and the World Wide Web.

I believe that God hates spam, computer viruses, internet porn, con artist schemes, DDOS attacks, malicious web sites, non-user-authorized spyware, anything that hurts people, fosters fear, and foments hate.

I can beseech God to launch a massive, supernatural cleansing of the entire Internet, in whatever way He deems appropriate.

I commend the Buddhist web site I once saw. It featured a beautiful benediction upon the Internet--that it would be compassionate, joyful, and tranquil in all its intentions and effects.

2. Work hard to improve web sites for ethical clients.

Seek out web sites that are worthy of massive improvement.

Web sites with noble intentions, honorable products, legitimate services, constructive goals, authoritative expertise, and carefully researched information.

Keep helping ethical clients make their web sites more usable, more benign, more credible, easier to scan for relevant information, and faster to utilize for task completion and information acquisition.

I can also help people, through my blog posts and my land mailed Client Education Reports, understand email writing techniques, computer security, spam reduction, and other relevant issues.

My goal is to make good people smarter and deprive bad people of important information.

I'm not sure what else I can do.

But what I can do, I will try to be very good at doing it.


Thursday, September 09, 2004

Power Email Checklist

***

1. Do I really want to say this? How will the recipient probably react to this message? Have I written it so clearly, it will be easy for them to reply? If this email is a reply, am I responding quickly to the other person's email to me?

2. Have I explained upfront who I am, what organization I'm with, my title, exactly what I want, why I need it, and why I'm contacting them? Have I included upfront any “please respond by (date)” request?

3. Is my commercial email spam? Or does it comply with the UCE (spam) laws?

4. Have I written an attention-getting subject line, with the most important words upfront? (Example: “Sunflowers: grow in partial shade?”)

5. Did I keep spam-like gimmicks out of the subject line? (ALL CAPS, mis-spelled words, !!!!!!!!, ***URGENT***, od'd use of %sym+bols, FREE, etc.)

6. Have I re-read my message, revised it, spell-checked it, shortened it?

7. Am I being polite, logical, clear, humble, calm, friendly, single-focused?

8. Do I sound intelligent? Or am I bothering someone with questions I'm too lazy to research on my own? Am I using street slang, or sloppy terminology?

9. Am I being too critical? too vague? too provocative? too wordy?

10. Is this a silly, frivolous email frowned upon or banned by my company?

11. Will I mind if this is just read, then deleted? Might it be better to make a phone call? Mail a postal letter? Fax it? Discuss this issue in a meeting?

12. Is email in plain text, and not HTML? Word wrap at 60-70 characters? No sensitive, financial information: no credit card, social security numbers in email!

13. Did I get direct permission to send an attachment? Is attachment in their preferred format? Is my email ending with an appropriate signature file?

14. Have I thanked the person in advance for any assistance they may provide?


Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Dysfunctional Forms Syndrome

***

Most web designers are probably aware that web sites have to work correctly, prior to any consideration of whether they are well written, look nice, and contain plenty of relevant, accurate content.

Designers are also commonly taught that broken links, that display Error 404 messages, are not conducive to a pleasant and productive user experience.

But there's another, similar problem that needs to be acknowledged and corrected.

Dysfunctional, or broken, forms are all over the web. This is a major usability violation, encountered on far too many web sites and blogs.

Site registration forms. Contact us forms. Feedback forms. Newsletter sign-up forms. Newsletter opt in or unsubscribe forms. Blog comment posting forms.

Many of these things are just not working, but you won't know it until you spend time filling them out, and attempt to Submit. When you get an Error message, and your data is wiped out, you may start cursing and pulling your hair out.

EXAMPLE #1 = Broken Blog Email Text Entry Function: There's a great marketing consultant blog site that I visit. I like the content of this blog, but comment posting is a pain. The first time I tried to post a comment, it was rejected due to "questionable content." What was this objectionable material? It was the "msn" in my astreight AT msn DOT com email address, which I had to fill in as a required field. So, I had to use one of my other email addresses to post a comment on this blog. And I have to remember this whenever I visit the person's blog.

EXAMPLE #2 = Broken Blog Comment Posting: Another marketing consultant blog has a broken comment function, but in this case, when you select (click on) Post Comment, you're greeted by a form for sending the article you want to comment on to a friend's email inbox. No comment text entry box is provided. I tried several times, but the same thing happened. No possible way to post any comment.

EXAMPLE #3 = Broken Unsubscribe Option: A huge consumer discount company's "Unsubscribe" function for their newsletters is dysfunctional. When I attempted to unsubscribe, "I got a message that my email address is not on file," thus I cannot "Unsubscribe" to the newsletter that they sent to my email address.

MY RESPONSE TO EXAMPLE #3: Here's what I wrote in the newsletter provider's Feedback text entry box, after finally finding it (the Feedback function was somewhat hidden and not easy to quickly locate):

"I used an email newsletter subscription *Unsubscribe* link you provided in the newsletter. When I pressed *Submit* I got the message that you did not have my email address on file. This is a legal violation of serious import. You DO have my email address on file, since you sent your newsletter to my email address. You DO NOT allow me to *Unsubscribe*. I will inform my legal counsel about this matter."

The company sent me an standard form email saying it would need 10 business days to unsubscribe me from the newsletter list. 21 days later, I'm still receiving their newsletters. I feel they are being deceptive and arrogant. I'm planning to sue the company and file a complaint with the FTC, accusing them of spamming in spite of requests to stop sending me email.

DYSFUNCTIONAL FORMS CAN CAUSE USER ANGER: It's time consuming and irritating to spend time and effort on forms that don't work correctly. Especially lengthy registration forms, where you have to fill out multiple fields of personal information and preferences.

Or when I write a lengthy comment on somebody's blog site, press *Submit*, and watch my comment vanish, or be disallowed because comments were turned off on that article, but you have to write, then try to post a comment, before you know this.

When I press a "Submit" button and nothing happens, or I get an Error message that is itself an error...well...I don't smile so much when that happens.

EXAMPLE #4 = Pre-Selected Options: Another monstrous forms usability violation is providing a response that the user may not want, and may even resent. This occurs with, for example, a series of check boxes, when one of the boxes is already checked ("pre-selected").

This presents two problems: you may not notice that an option is pre-selected, and it may not unselect when you select (click on) another option.

Let's say that the newsletter provider prefers to send people the HTML version of their newsletter, so they arrogantly pre-select the "HTML Version" box.

Let's say now that the user, who is usually in a hurry, clicks on the "Text Version" check box, and doesn't notice that the pre-selected HTML check box remains occupied by a check mark.

Thus, he has now subscribed to both versions. And he hates HTML newsletters, for network security reasons. HTML email can harbor hidden code viruses.

But the newsletter provider has usurped the user's right to exercise independent judgment and freedom of choice. You have bullied, forced, imposed upon the user what you want think is best for the user to have.

This is a gross violation of netiquette and contradictory to the philosophy of standard web usage.

When the user tries to *Unsubscribe* to the HTML version of the newsletter, and the *Unsubscribe* link is broken, insult is added to injury.

If anyone can develop a decent, reliable web forms and subscriptions list management service, they'll make a ton of money.

An impassioned plea. Please, webmasters, web developers, web site operators: check your forms and functionalities to make sure they work properly.

And don't go bury your head in the sand, or go ballistic, when someone takes the time and trouble to inform you of things that need to be fixed. Be grateful someone told you what you, for some reason, were unaware of.

Negative feedback is positive food. Complaints make us smarter and help us improve our work. Compliments just tend to make us complacent, and may even lead us astray into unjustified, smug, self-satisfied over-confidence.

Let's stop releasing web sites to the public without testing all the links, functionalities and forms. Let's also periodically check them to make sure they continue to work correctly.

Your web visitors will be very impressed.


Thursday, September 02, 2004

Blog Life Seminar 2004 poster


Posted by Hello

This is one of my favorite posters,
for an upcoming seminar.

So many people ask me, "What's a blog?
What exactly is blogging?"

My seminar is based on information
that I'm land mailing to clients and friends,
my Client Education Reports.

The seminar goes well beyond those reports.
Did you know that the only book
on blogging that I could find at my local
Barnes & Noble bookstore was
Blogging for Teens ?!?

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Blog Voice: how to command attention

***

Visit some blog sites and soon you'll realize this crucial fact: a blog needs a voice.

A unique voice.

A powerful voice.

An edgy voice.

An authoritative voice.

A self-secure voice.

A memorable voice.

An comical voice.

Practically any kind of distinctive voice, almost anything but the bland, vanilla, average sounding drivel that you can find on thousands of blogs.


What is "Voice"?

"Voice" in literary criticism refers to a one-of-a-kind tone, or style, of writing. What the text "sounds like in your head" as you read it.

Sarcastic, sincere, serious, silly, professional, amateur, educated, ignorant, hillbilly, Ivy League, subdued, wild, gentle, hostile, whatever.

You need to develop a vocabulary, tone of voice, and method of approach that sets you apart from the multitudes of other writers.

Does Vaspers the Grate have a "voice"?

Well, Vaspers has been banned from three other sites for being a bit too vocal. Yet Vaspers is just a mild mannered web usability analyst.

Vaspers is opinionated, but also quasi-diplomatic.

Vaspers is scholarly, yet also faux fun-loving.

Vaspers is non-conformist, but also pseudo-status quo.

Vaspers is spiritual, but also immaterial.

Vaspers is out-spoken, but in-formal.


Literary theorists will tell you that you simply must be different, which means cultivating a distinct personality, or saturating yourself with the writings of those who are eccentric, special, pioneering, unique, hard to imitate.

If you're exposed only to all the normal, regular, unspectacular stuff that everybody else is, how can you expect to be unique and interesting?

You'll just end up polluting the blogosphere with yet another "blah blah blah blog."

That's a blog devoted to boring, excruciatingly dull accounts of what a blogger had for lunch, what his favorite movie happens to be at a given moment, his opinion about this, and his theory about that: self-revelatory and self-exploratory drivel.

Please. If you're going to blog, at least say something fresh. Or say something stale if you must, but say it in a fresh style or manner.

Creativity and Unique Voice can be learned.

Sometimes, when a well-read or widely experienced person simply blurts out what they really want to say, it will be said in a unique, distinctive voice...

...if they're being authentic, true to self, genuine, and fervent, passionate about their subject.

It also helps to read some individualistic, innovative literature:

*Plato

*The Bible

*Freud

*Lacan

*Mark Twain

*Jacques Derrida

*Ernest Hemingway

*Marcel Proust

*Martin Luther

*Charles Darwin

*Charles Finney

*Buddhist texts

*Seth Godin

*Jakob Nielsen

*Maurice Blanchot

*O. Henry

*Jorge Louis Borges

*Alain Robbes-Grillet

*Aristotle

*Aesop's Fables

...any writings that have created controversy,
revolution, progressive movements, or
explosive reactions by opposition groups.

No great thinkers and actors on the stage of
history made their mark by being typical,
boring, normal, usual, conformist, or timid.

Follow their examples.

Speak your mind...in an interesting fashion!



Keep these principles in mind, and we'll all enjoy reading blogs with VOICE!