Weblog Usability

For the past week or so, I've been making various improvements to the weblog. Some of it is behind the scenes type stuff that isn't even visible, and much of the other changes are relatively subtle. Many of the improvements are aimed at making things easier for new visitors, especially those who stumble onto an individual entry or archive page. For new visitors and those who aren't so familiar with blogs, it's important to provide some sort of context and assistance (especially for confusing technologies like trackbacks and RSS). So what's changed?
  • Next Page: Ever find a new blog you like and start reading the front page? Whenever I do so, I'm invariably disappointed when I get to the bottom of the page. Usually, there's nothing down there - no way to continue reading. Given that one of the most annoying things about maintaining a blog is that all your great content quickly falls off the front page to languish in the obscurity of the archives. How to avoid this? I used to just have a link to the archives down there, but the ideal solution would be to actually continue reading right where you left off... so I added a Next Page link (some weblog software provides this feature by default, which is great). That way, you can just keep reading. It only goes back a few pages, but I figure that's better than nothing!
  • RSS: RSS is an interesting technology. It can be extremely useful, and a lot of people use it without even realizing it (on sites like my Yahoo, etc...) Unfortunately, usability tests have shown that most general web users tend to be a bit unclear on the value, use, and function of RSS feeds (and this is certainly an understandable reaction, I think). I still need to address this somehow, though I haven't yet decided how I'm going to do so. In the mean time, I've made a few revisions to the feeds. I've always had the feeds available, but I noticed a few things I wanted to change. The main feed is now RSS 2.0 and I've changed it so that it contains the full text rather than just an excerpt. I've done this mainly because I've actually begun using an RSS aggregator, and it's much more convenient when a blog has the full entry text in the feed (and annoying when a feed only has an excerpt). I also removed the images and moved the section further down on the side navigation. Power users will obviously be able to figure it out, but I didn't want to clutter the top of the navigation with something that average visitors wouldn't understand... Again, more work will be done to rectify this area.
  • Individual Entry Pages: One recurring theme here at the blog is that we need better tools for information aggregation and analysis. However, aggregated content (i.e. search results from Google, the aformentioned RSS aggregators, and even blogs themselves) has certain implications which must be considered. Most sites are designed from the top down, assuming that visitors will start at the main page, then make their way to the more specific content. However, with the increasing trend of content aggregation, visitors start on other sites and make their way to the lower levels of your site, bypassing a large portion of your site's design (the portion that guides the visitor to their target content). Because of this, lower level pages like the indivudual entry pages need to provide some sort of context to the visitor (this context is normally created by the process of navigating through your site, but remember, visitors have bypassed your carefully laid out information architecture, so they have not gleaned any such context). So I've attempted to provide a little more context on individual entry pages (in the upper right area of the page). There are several other things I've changed on the individual pages, but that mostly has to do with meta data and page titles.
  • Montly Archives and Category Archives: Same issues here as on the individual entry pages, and similar changes have been made (adding context to these pages, again in the upper right). There are several other things I'm considering. With respect to the monthly archives, I'm not sure how useful it is to list every month on the right side of the main page (plus, I've been doing the blog long enough that the list of months is getting pretty cumbersome). Do people really navigate in that way, or are categories more useful? Also, categories would be a whole lot more useful if I used them better. For instance, I collected all of my recent Philly Film Festival Posts in a category page, which (I assume) makes it easier for folks who end up on any individual entry to get to other entries from the film festival.
  • Trackbacks: I've often considered just getting rid of trackbacks. If people are confused by RSS, they must be doubly mystified by trackbacks. Plus, trackbacks are major spam magnets. It apparently got so bad here that my web hosting service disabled it for me because it "was causing the server to become slow and unstable for other users on the system." (incidentally, that's why it wasn't working for a while, in case you were trying). Trackbacks have been enabled again, but I may decide to remove them at some point. If I do keep them, I'll have to make several improvements, similar to the above (i.e. provide explanations and context for them).
  • Comments and other areas: Lots of other smaller improvements need to be made, including a better way to list out comments (right now, it's difficult to tell when one comment ends and an other begins - the byline doesn't stand out enough). I've added some text explaining what happens when a comment is submitted (mostly explaining why some comments may not show up right away, though most do). The About area of the website could also use some updating. And there's probably another million little things I'll want to do as well.
As implied above, lots of additional changes coming in the future. I've been meaning to do this stuff for a while, so it's nice to actually make some progress. There have been a few papers released recently about weblog usability that were very helpful in this process.

First is Jacob Nielson's recent alertbox column, Weblog Usability: The Top Ten Design Mistakes. Quickly going through his list of mistakes:
  1. No Author Biographies: Well, I do have an About section that explains the site and me a bit, but as I mentioned earlier, it needs to be updated.
  2. No Author Photo: I question the validity of this. However, while I don't display one on every page, I do have the Fake Webcam (which is kinda silly and hasn't been updated in ages)...
  3. Nondescript Posting Titles: This is one thing I think I'm actually pretty good at (with some exceptions, of course). I used to lament my inability to come up with clever titles, but the lame titles I come up with that just explain what the post about are probably more useful to the average visitor. Also, I think I'm pretty good at writing for the web (i.e. using lots of lists, providing emphasis, and generally making content scannable.)
  4. Links Don't Say Where They Go: This is another one I think I've been pretty good at over the years.
  5. Classic Hits are Buried: This is something I've done a lot of thinking about in the past, and the result was the Best Entries page, as well as the little random image on the side navigation.
  6. The Calendar is the Only Navigation: Earlier in this post, I wondered how important the monthly links were in the side navigation. Nielson clearly thinks they're emphasised too much: "A timeline is rarely the best information architecture, yet it's the default way to navigate weblogs." He suggests the use of categories, which as I've already mentioned, I need to improve.
  7. Irregular Publishing Frequency: Another thing I used to struggle with and attempted to fix a while ago by setting a regular schedule. I make at least one post a week, and I always post on Sunday. Unfortunately, I don't post nearly often enough to really build up a lot of traffic.
  8. Mixing Topics: Color me guilty here, and while I know that a blog that serves a certain niche tends to fair better, I have difficultly settling on such a niche. However, several recurring themes have emerged here that have narrowed the focus of the blog considerably, which I think helps.
  9. Forgetting That You Write for Your Future Boss: A good point, but I don't think this has that much to do with usability (at least, from a visitor's standpoint).
  10. Having a Domain Name Owned by a Weblog Service: Check. No blogspot or livejournal for me. However, a colleague recently suggested that I make the weblog the front page of the site. That might work out, but that would also pretty much bury the other content on this site (which is more than just a weblog, after all, though most other areas of the site aren't updated very often anymore). Then again, the previously mentioned tendency for information aggregators to subvert top down navigation structures might make that a moot point (i.e. most people get to the Asimov area through a search engine, not by navigating from the homepage). Getting back to the point at hand, I think this is somewhat valid, though I think TypePad blogs do not suffer from this just yet.
Another extremely useful resource was this blog usability study, which touches on many of the things above (and in greater detail). I'd go into this one a bit more, but this post is long enough as it is. Perhaps more on this subject later in the week.