Spotlighted Links

Please note that some of these links may have suffered linkrot. They did work as of the date when they were recommended, but the Web is a highly fluid medium.

April 26, 1999
The Yale Web Style Guide is now available as a hardcopy book. I tend to prefer more principle-based or methodology-based books, but there is also something to be said for a long list of detailed design rules. And the online version of the Yale styleguide has for sure proven to be a classic over the years.
April 25, 1999
Bruce Tognazzini explains why he likes writing long Web pages. The good Tog ought to recognize that only a brilliant writer like himself can keep users scrolling to the bitter end. The average site is cursed with extremely impatient users who want to get in and out and get answers or buy products fast. Paradoxically, the average site probably has below-average writing, since most commercial sites use repurposed print writing filled with "marketese" which backfires in terms of lowered trust and consumer skepticism. So, read Tog, but don't listen to him when it comes to page length.
April 22, 1999
New evidence supports my 1997 theory that the size of websites follows a Zipf distribution: Data on the distribution of traffic in Australia shows that The first statistic is a little off from the theory, but the second statistic is exactly right. In general, if two sites are rank-ordered N and M for traffic, then the ratio between their traffic is N/M, so comparing site #100 with #500 gives a ratio of 100/500 = 1/5 = 20% (exactly as measured). Interesting to know that the theory holds up not just for the Internet as a whole but also when considering a subset of the net (here, Australian users accessing Australian sites). (I thank Eric Scheid from Ironclad Networks for bringing this data to my attention.)
April 16, 1999
AltaVista has posted its proposed design for taking payment for search results. Considerably better than some commentators (including myself) had feared: the untrusted area is clearly marked as "Paid Placement." Such honesty is the best policy for creating long-term trust and value on the Web. The new AltaVista design still degrades the service, however. There are now four paid links that distract the user from the actual search results:
  1. The traditional banner ad (presumably still sold on a keyword basis)
  2. Whoever bought the keyword at RealNames
  3. Books from Amazon.com (many users quickly learn not to click this link since it rarely leads to the best books about the topic)
  4. The new "paid placement" link
Clutter, clutter, clutter. On the sample screen, the search results are allocated about 1/3 of the pixels - but a user with a small screen would not see any search results above the fold. One wonders how long a search engine that doesn't show search results can survive.
April 16, 1999
Update to earlier posting: I assumed that the difficulties in using the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce's home page were due to response time delays. This is probably wrong. Instead, the main usability problem is that the active area only cover a small part of each of the big buttons. You cannot have a button that looks like a single interaction element but behaves differently, depending on what invisible area the cursor is over.
April 15, 1999
vBay, a parody of eBay.
April 7, 1999
During Q1, Yahoo made 0.4 cents per page view. Down slightly from 0.5 cents for Q4 of last year as reported in my Spotlight for January 13. Since the new number is the same as my estimate for earlier in 1998, it may be that 0.4 cents is Yahoo's natural level and that the temporary increase in Q4 was due to the holiday season.
April 7, 1999
Xerox launches a redesign that is claimed to make it easier to compare products. It is indeed great to have links from individual product pages to pages for similar products, though the cross-references don't specify how these other products differ from the current one. It would have been better to order the products along meaningful dimensions and suggest alternatives in terms that make sense to users (e.g.: faster vs. slower, higher-resolution vs. lower-resolution, BW instead of color, etc.). Amazon.com is restricted to viewing its products as an unstructured soup ("other relevant books"), but Xerox should know why it has different product offerings. Despite some design improvements, I challenge you to discover why the Xerox WorkCentre XD100 costs $20 more than the XD102. It's there, but very well hidden and obscured by a content error. The product summary for both models is "Everything you want in a copier, including a printer" which is essentially meaningless and evidence that poor mini-content often dooms the usability of otherwise decent site design. One more usability blooper in the new design: links don't change color after you have visited the destination page - sure way to make users feel more lost. I wouldn't say that Xerox completely wasted the $5M they spent on the redesign because the site does seem better, but it's amazingly poor for the high prize tag.
April 7, 1999
Usability improvements in the redesign of Salon: Missing: subheads, bulleted lists and other aspects of writing for scannability (Alertbox Oct. 1997); liquid layout that adapts to the user's preferred window size (Alertbox March 1997).
April 7, 1999
Update to Spotlight for March 31, 1999: Amazon.com recants and removes the irrelevant auction listings from the middle of their book descriptions. The original design was uncommonly bad at polluting te user experience, but at least it lasted less than a week.
April 4, 1999
A few days after the Los Angeles Times quoted my critique of the website for Bill Gates' new book, the site has been made (reasonably) accessible for users with disabilities. The power of the press. (The link points to syndicated version of the article on the Denver Post site since the LA Times removes articles from their own site after a week.)
April 3, 1999
Forbes has a great article on the penetration of the Internet in Western Europe. The percentage of disposable income one needs to spend to get online from home is 2% in the U.S. and 4% averaged across Europe. In other words, European pocketbooks are hit twice as hard, making it no surprise that there are still more Americans online. Internet costs and available income both vary significantly across countries. Based on the numbers given by Forbes, I have calculated the relative home-budget impact of Internet use in each country, using the United States as a baseline at 100%. Low-cost leaders are Finland 101%, Denmark 122%, and Norway 131%. Somewhat surprisingly Italy at 157% and Belgium at 169% beat Sweden at 171% and The Netherlands at 180%: probably because the survey looks at after-tax income. High-cost countries are Portugal 405%, Greece 371%, Spain 285%, Ireland 263%, and Germany 253%.

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