Spotlighted Links From 1998

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.

December 31, 1998
Disney's head visionary, Bran Ferren talks about the problems in corporate IS departments: they are the most despised part of the organization because they lack vision (focusing on fire-fighting instead) and neglect projects that could improve the company's over-all productivity. Much of what he says rings true: for example, I am amazed at the lack of resources invested in the usability of intranets. It's as if many IS people think that it's enough to make bit-transport available and then people will figure out how to use the corporate information infrastructure.
December 30, 1998
Jon Katz analyses the difference between the postings in public discussion groups and the email received from "lurkers" who don't want to argue (and flame) in a public forum. He cites statistics showing that 98% of site visitors don't post in discussion groups and points out the danger in assuming that the 2% who do post are representative of the rest. A classic example of the participation inequalities on the Internet and the problems inherent in many current so-called "community" interfaces (that are not communities at all).
December 29, 1998
The New York Times has a great weekly column on e-commerce. This week, the topic is trends for e-commerce in 1999: designing for low bandwidth, integrated advertising, some fraud, $18 billion sales, and better back-end systems. All good points. In particular, all sites should prepare contingency plans for the security disaster that will hit the Web soon. "Which disaster?" you may ask - I don't know, but Internet security is weak enough that something bad will happen. Be prepared to explain to your users why your system is safe when the lead story on the evening news is how some other site lost a million credit card numbers or posted private tax returns on the public Internet (or some other disaster).
December 24, 1998
The Apple store is "closed for the holidays" from Dec. 23 to Jan. 5. Amazingly clueless: the Internet is international and not everybody celebrates Christmas. Websites need to run 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. You can't simply take an ecommerce site down and expect customers to come back later. Only redeeming point: a link to a list of local dealers - but the list is U.S.-only. European and Asian customers might well take this as a strong indication of Apple's priorities and intentions to offer good support in their regions in the future. A classic example of how a bad website can undermine a company and do active damage to its brand.
December 22, 1998
Jesse Berst hardly needs links to boost his traffic: he is the most widely read writer on the Web today. His secret? He's a good writer to begin with and then he uses the recommended style for writing for the Web. Anyway, his current column is particularly good: a list of new ways of improving Web search.
December 21, 1998
Chris Crawford's classic book The Art of Computer Game Design is available in an online version on the Web. The book is from 1982 so all the examples relate to long-gone games (though many of the early games were the most fun ones: it's hard to beat PacMan or Marble Madness). But the book is really about the principles of designing engaging user interfaces and not about individual titles. A major point in the book is that enjoyable and engaging games require a tight interaction between the player and the game: player participation makes for great gameplay to a much larger extent than beautiful graphics (a lesson that is lost on some current game designers and many Web designers).
December 20, 1998
TiVo is launching a field trial of an information appliance that will automatically save 20 hours of television broadcasts on a harddisk so that they are ready for replay when the user requests them. Two huge usability wins: A TiVo VP is quoted as saying that "this has the potential to be bigger than the Internet" - obviously wrong since their system is not interactive: it's a convenience rather than a revolutionary power shift. It is not going to change society to find an easier way to watch the same TV shows, but it's surely worth buying a gadget that allows this.
December 17, 1998
Andrea Williams from the investment banking firm Volpe Brown Whelan presents the argument for a customer-dominated Web strategy and emphasizes the need for loyal visitors instead of eyeball-collection (as I said myself in the Alertbox for August 1997). Finally an analyst who understand the reversed power relationship on the Web instead of seeing it as an extension of the existing media landscape. Follow her advice and profit.
December 15, 1998
The New York Times cites makers of several high-end products for not wanting to sell on the Web for fear of diluting their brand and endangering their channel. How clueless; how arrogant. The Web is a roaring beast that will devour brands like Pioneer and Maytag for breakfast. You can't "protect the channel" in the new customer-dominated future: the only way to business survival is to blow up the old channel structures. If these companies don't do it themselves, then new Internet-focused companies will do it for them and establish new high-end brands that derive their luster from the premium service they give on their sites. I bet that there is at least one Pioneer VP who is writing a business plan this very minute for breaking out and creating new high-end brand to be sold over the Web (that's where most of us rich gadget freaks hang out, you know).
December 15, 1998
Also in the Times: Disney's new Go site is based on heavy usability data from Infoseek. Since Infoseek is one of the best search engines and has a professional usability group, this is promising news, though there is always the risk that an old-media company like Disney can mess up any Web strategy.
December 11, 1998
It is now thirty years since Doug Engelbart invented the mouse: an anniversary that was much celebrated this week. We should remember that most of Engelbart's other inventions in hypertext and collaboration are still missing on the Web. In fact, his ideal of augmenting the intellect is in grave contrast to the prevailing design attitudes these days when many proponents of eyeball-focused Web design attempt to suppress user initiative.
December 9, 1998
I have long said that frames are bad for usability, but it has now been discovered that frames are a security risk: basically, a third-party site can cause the browser to display a frameset that looks like it is coming from your site, with your URL in the browser's location box and with your navigation bars and other user interface elements. The only difference between a legitimate page and an evil one is that the spoofed frameset includes one frame from a different website. If this frame asks for the user's credit card number or password then the average user will enter the requested informartion, believing that the data goes back to the "good" site, when in fact it goes to the frame-spoofer's site. One more reason to minimize use of frames.
December 3, 1998
The new Palm Pilot VII comes with built-in wireless connectivity and is the first step toward realizing my vision of standard mobile Internet access: has to be standard rather than an add-on to allow software developers and Web service developers to count on users' ability to access the Internet. Unfortunately, this first product is very weak: requires use of a separate email address (get it: unified messaging is in), only allows access to a restricted subset of the Web (get it: openness is the foundation of the Web), and has a miserable service plan that charges 30 cents per kilobyte (since a 28.8 modem transmits about 3 kilobytes per second, this is equivalent of a per-minute charge of $60 for airtime - get it: this is not a paging service; we want wireless IP and the cost savings associated with digital). I predict that the Palm VII will still be a success because of the huge pent-up demand for untethered connectivity, but it will be easy to knock it out with a true mobile Internet solution.
December 3, 1998
George Gilder is usually too disconnected from reality with his insistence on abundant bandwidth Real Soon Now. Interesting thought pieces, but not very realistic. But an essay he wrote earlier this year is right on in setting directions for the customer-dominated reality of the Web: "Life Span vs. Life Spam" says that companies used to waste customers' time in order to conserve their own resources (one of the worst examples is the telephone message your call is very important to us, so please continue to hold). In the future, customers won't stand for this since their time is getting ever more valuable (the ultimate limited resource), so companies that conserve customers time will prosper. My added comment: The Web is truly driving this shift - if you have to wait just a few seconds too much for a page to download, then you are out of that site and give your e-commerce dollars to a faster site.
December 1, 1998
www.microsoft.com gets a redesign and the General Manager writes that the design goals were to "reduce clutter, condense the editorial, upgrade the navigation and speed up page loading". How can I do anything but agree since I have been talking about speed, speed, shorter content, and clear navigation structures for years. It is particularly interesting to notice that almost every single press release announcing the redesign of a major website states that faster download was one of the main design goals. People would save a lot of money if they listened to the usability findings before blowing their budget on a "cool" and good-looking design that nobody can use. Regarding the Microsoft redesign: I still find it quite hard to navigate the site (try finding the product page for Barney) and there are several minor usability problems in the use of DHTML (for example, on the Internet Explorer download page, the little triangles sure do look clickable).
November 27, 1998
David Thiel of Microsoft Research explains why it is difficult to design audio enhancements of user interfaces. His main point: "if you don't keep a high information to disruption ratio then annoyance will result" - clearly a lesson not taken to heart by most sound effects heard on the Web today. Another great insight: "for audio time is like screen real estate", so keep most sounds short. This short essay should be required reading for anybody who wants to design interactions that move beyond the current GUI stagnation.
November 24, 1998
America Online is buying Netscape. Hard to know what to make of this, but it will probably mainly be good since AOL has a strong commitment to ease-of-use. Thus, having them take over Netscape may lead to the first substantial improvements in browser design since Mosaic. On the other hand, AOL is too strongly associated with closed proprietary services to be likely to embrace the innovations that are necessary to advance the Internet to the next level. In particular, they are preoccupied with selling links to the highest bidder instead of helping their customers get the best services, content, and ecommerce deals. As a result, AOL has declined in quality every year for the last three years, with more and more annoying pop-ups and less and less useful guidance and good content. The most provocative analysis of the deal so far is the Online Journalism Review saying who cares about Microsoft? All they do is make money; they don't try to tell people what to think. AOL is a much greater danger to a free society. Another good analysis comes from Doc Searls (maybe the most insightful marketing expert writing on the Web these days).
November 23, 1998
The Economist surveys the interplay between technology and entertainment. (To navigate this article, click the section headings in the left stripe, even though it looks looks more like global navigation than local navigation.) The article concludes that the "Big Seven" of Content will strengthen their hold because of new technology. I tend to think the opposite: that the Internet will lead to more diversity in content, but it remains to be seen whether this will happen. I have been getting less optimistic over the last year as the vendors have refused to improve the navigation abilities of browsers and search engines. On one point I do agree with the article: broadcast networks will be losers in the new world.
November 16, 1998
Dan Shafer discusses the benefits of making page designs work across a range of monitor resolutions and window sizes, using the new design of the C|Net services as an example. I am very happy with the new C|net design: not only is it much more flexible (and should work better on WebTV and other new devices), it also gets rid of the "yellow fever" stripe that wasted too many pixels.
November 14, 1998
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, David Siegel denounced "cutting-edge Web design" during lectures in Australia: he has now decided to design useful sites instead of killers. Bravo! There is nothing as good as a reformed sinner, so I will definitely have a lamb roast in Siegel's honor. He is even quoted as preferring a "conventional and less exciting" design for one of his clients because it scored better in usability testing. Way to go, Dave!
November 11, 1998
John Rhodes' essay on informality, jargon, and tone of writing advises use of a vocabulary that matches the users' own online writing as seen in their email, discussion postings, and related websites. My take is that Web writing is more informal and relaxed than most other media, but should not take on too much of an "attitude".
October 29, 1998
David Weinberger: The Web causes the Death of Documents as people build intranet sites instead of long reports that nobody reads (unfortunately this essay is part of a long scrolling page, so the preceeding link jumps you to the middle of the page - not a recommended way of doing things: it is better to modularize information with each linkable unit as its own page).
October 14, 1998
Case study of an intranet redesign: a "boring" design focusing on employee needs greatly improved the intranet over an earlier design that was driven by the company's internal structure.
October 1, 1998
Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini writes about the sorry state of Web design, emphasizing the lack of navigation support and structure visualization in current browsers. Tog is one of the world's leading designers of Web-based applications (and for sure the world's best writer on the topic), so it is gratifying to see that his conclusion is much the same as my analysis from a hypertext perspective (last year I said that v.4 browsers are as bad as Mosaic with respect to navigation).
September 27, 1998
BabyWow is a new software product that helps infants and toddlers 9mon-3yrs increase their vocabulary. The $40 CD-ROM ships with 8 languages: evidence that international use was a fundamental part of the design and not an afterthought. I would expect nothing less from the head of this project: Tony Fernandes, author of the book Global Interface Design. Until Netscape laid off the vast majority of its user interface folks, Fernandes was manager of Netscape's User Experience Group: the Web's loss turned out to be the kids' gain.
September 21, 1998
Robert Seidman's Online Insider newsletter has a retrospective on his four years of publishing (one more than me). Interesting analysis of the early years and good predictions (including: most people won't get fast bandwidth for five years - a close match with my own analysis derived from a very different method).
September 16, 1998
Trellix has posted an improved hypertext design for the Starr report. This version is indeed more readable than the original at the Library of Congress, but to make a true hypertext, you would have to link to the original testimony (and other source documents) instead of simply improving the footnotes. Of course, they don't have access to the 36 boxes of evidence (and this mass of info would take forever to type in and convert to hypertext). An even better hypertext would have cross-linked to Clinton's rebuttal of each point and some independent commentators, though the exact way of doing so becomes an editorial job and not an objective matter. The Congress website scores fairness points for linking to Clinton's rebuttal (even though this is done as a single link to the White House and not as a step-by-step link from details in Starr's report to the corresponding rebuttal arguments). The White House gets a minus for Web usability for using "INITIAL RESPONSE TO REFERRAL OF OFFICE OF INDEPENDENT COUNSEL" as the link from their home page to the rebuttal. All caps, no less, and certainly not in accordance with my usability guidelines for writing Web microcontent.
September 12, 1998
Article on trends for intranet search claims that only 32% of intranets are searchable across the company (as opposed to searching a single server that only holds part of the company's information). I usually estimate that large companies lose about $10-50 million per year in lost employee productivity due to poor intranet navigation design, and lack of proper intranet search probably adds $50 million to that cost.
September 3, 1998
A Carnegie Mellon University study found a positive correlation between Internet use and depression (warning: rather academic paper). Salon magazine has a pretty good critique of the study. I tend to believe the facts of the study as reported in the paper since the first author is Bob Kraut who is the world's leading researcher in the field of social use of computers (and my colleague at Bell Communications Research for four years). My main critique of the paper is that they have measured "Internet use" as a single variable, without reporting separately on the use of specific services. I can easily believe that excessive use of chat rooms does correlate with depression (I never liked chat much). I have a harder time believing that it causes depression to read, say, The New York Times (which broke the story) on the Web and not on paper.
September 2, 1998
The average salary of user interface professionals was $78,000 in 1997 (though 4% made more than $200,000). Average annual bonus was $9,000.
August 26, 1998
How to prepare your site to handle a disaster or other major event causing a surge in user interest and traffic (page views jumped by 1,100% on one newspaper site during a flood).
August 8, 1998
New York Times article saying that Web users in the U.S. waste 2.4 billion hours per year waiting for Web pages to download (access to the Times requires registration).
August 4, 1998
I have been reading the new book AOL.com about the history of America Online. I cannot recommend the book as a way of getting insight into consumer online services. This is a completely personality-driven book that spends more paragraphs on the restaurants people dined at while negotiating a deal than on analyzing the implications of that deal for how people use networked computers. As an example, the book has multiple portrait photos of Steve Case and other AOL executives but no screen shots of the changing design of the service over the years (or comparative screen shots showing how CompuServe and Prodigy looked at the time - even though such screens would have been compelling evidence for why AOL won). The book is well-written and has plenty of high-tech gossip, so it is perfect for being stuck in O'Hare when United Airlines cancels your flight.
July 27, 1998
Bruce Tognazzini's current Ask Tog column discuses his experience in designing transaction-based Web applications.
July 17, 1998
The results of the 9th GVU Web user survey are now out. Currently, only the raw data is available (analyses and other writeups are still in progress). Two highlights: 58% of users have small monitors (800x600 or smaller; percentage calculated only for users who knew - 23% or respondents answered "don't know"). The percentage of users accessing the Web with analog modems was 77% - exactly the same as found in the 8th survey in 1997. In other words, the Web continues to be dominated by low-end users.
July 15, 1998
The New York Times has eliminated the special subscription fee for overseas users. Bravo. In the two and a half year since the Times opened its website, they had gathered 4 million registered users in the U.S. (where it has always been free to register) and only 10,000 paying subscribers from the rest of the world. Pretty clear that the subscriptions were not working. (Also, by the way, they have launched a much-improved homepage redesign. The previous one turned news into olds with its slow download.)
July 3, 1998
Steven Johnson explains why Alexa may defeat the misguided "portal" strategy that is currently all the rage. Johnson doesn't state the critical need for reputation management if the Web is to stay an interactive medium, but this is the first article I have seen (besides my own) to recognize Alexa as the beginning of the next stage of the Web and the benefits from harvesting the collective intelligence of the (soon to be) billions of Web users.
June 28, 1998
Clickviews: readings on Website publicity, edited by Eric Ward.
June 19, 1998
Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini has launched his AskTog column with advice on Web design. Tog is now the lead designer for an Internet startup, but for many years he was a Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer (that is, among the company's smartest 0.3% technical talent). He also founded Apple's human interface efforts in the early days of personal computing. Tog is the world's most creative and expressive author on user interface topics so I am sure that his column will be worth your bookmark.
June 12, 1998
Doc Searls argues why the television model of advertising doesn't work on the Web.
June 11, 1998
Infoseek is sponsoring a debate on measurement methods for Internet readership ratings. My analysis is that these ratings are useless for anything except bragging rights. Ratings should be irrelevant for an Internet advertiser since the only two things that count are (a) page views and (b) click-throughs. Why would anyone care how many other users see other parts of the site?
May 27, 1998
I have been one of the reviewers for Internet World magazine's weekly review of leading websites. My reviews include Barnes & Noble, Music Boulevard, Gateway2000, Pathfinder, and Microsoft.
May 17, 1998
Esther Dyson's essay on privacy on the Internet: too long to read on the Web (115 KB), so print it out. We need to think more about these issues and commit to protecting users' privacy. Most users are very reluctant to disclose personal info on registration forms because they don't know how it will be used. Tell people, and then keep your promise.
May 3, 1998
Mark Bernstein wrote a surprisingly positive review of the HotWired style guide to Web design. Until now, I had refused to look at this book under the assumption that nothing could be learned from HotWired which used to be famous for an atrocious design with the primary goal of repelling any users over the age of 17. According to Bernstein's review, the book is not actually a guide to user-hostile style but a case study of findings from HotWired's many design iterations. Presumably, the book title was chosen by a marketing department that knows that the Web is desperate for design rules: it is good to discover that the main focus of the book is much more useful for readers than an attempt to emulate earlier designs that didn't work. After reading Bernstein's book review, I revisited HotWired and discovered that it is now possible to read the text on their homepage and to use the page as a navigation aid. I stand corrected: HotWired may have sucked in years past, but this is no reason to reject the insights in the book.
April 24, 1998
The Industry Standard is a new magazine that is being billed as "the newsmagazine of the Internet economy" and as Wired meets The Economist. The first issue has not been published yet (you can sign up to get it for free at their site) so I can't say whether it will be any good, but it has sure generated a substantial buzz this last week. Also, they research their articles well.
April 14, 1998
Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini (author of Tog on Software Design) has recently worked on design issues for Web applications. He shows seven design iterations of the first page in a healthcare application. Two lessons:
  1. putting something on the Web does not automatically make it easy: most employees would never have been able to sign up for their health benefits without Tog's redesigns
  2. often it takes several iterations to get something right: simply finding a usability problem and "fixing" it in a redesign does not guarantee that the new design will work
April 7, 1998
Internet Computing Magazine names the twenty best Internet consulting firms, partly based on the usability of the Web design they do for their clients.
April 4, 1998
More evidence that advertising and a hard sell are less important on the Web than simply making it easy for users to buy: several sites report huge profits from facilitating comparison shopping and even guiding users to competing sites. (The link points to The New York Times which unforetunately requires users to register before they can read the article.)
March 22, 1998
Interesting essay "It's Service, Stupid: Real-Time Replaces Branding" taking the concepts from Regis McKenna's new book and applying them to the Web.
March 5, 1998
Susan Feldman and a group of professional searchers (typically librarians) have compared the use of traditional retrieval services like DIALOG with searching the Web. The traditional services win handsomely: twice as fast (10 hours compared with 21 hours when searching the Web to answer the set of test questions) and 22% higher relevance of the retrieved documents. Two problems with the study: Nevertheless: an interesting study. Also includes the professional searchers' tips for how to get the best results from current Web search engines.
February 26, 1998
The March 1998 issue of BYTE has a good overview of XML.
February 8, 1998
Survey of Internet performance shows that consumer-oriented Web pages required 42 seconds to download in December - more than four times the recommended maximum response time of 10 seconds.
January 2, 1998
Why most hypertext fiction is bad: the authors often don't have a story to tell

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