Web Visitors vs Users, Impatient vs Bored and how they affect Website Change Management

Why are users on your site?

  • To look around?
  • To do or achieve something?

I pondered this question after reading Gerry McGovern’s discussion on Impatient vs Bored.  He suggests that people using (or rather choosing ‘not’ to use) websites are actually more likely to be impatient than just bored with your content.

I think we need to explore the different types of sites and people visiting them to understand this a bit more.

Different types of sites

IT people have traditionally used the rather woolly terms of Web Site and Web Application to differentiate between something simple and something more sophisticated.  There’s no official classification here.  There’s usually some characteristics that point more to one than the other.

Characteristics of a Web Application

  • Dynamic content.  This could be driven from a database or external source
  • User interaction.  Users can register/update information, upload, download.  They can ‘do’ useful things on the site.
  • Commerce.  Users can buy things

Users and Visitors

People accessing the web can also be classified.
 
You could say that a visitor is

“someone who has a passing interest in your site, looking to find some information or browsing around for comparison purposes.” 

A user is

“someone with a longer term association or affiliation who potentially logs into the site, or gains knowledge of the structure and becomes expert in achieving their tasks.” 

It’s reasonable to assume that users are subset of visitors.  Visitors and users will also access both types of sites. This means that whether someone is a visitor or a user depends on the specific context of their goal at the time of access, and their past history on the site.  (phew – almost drew a venn diagram there!).

Impatient and Bored

Impatience is something more likely to be experienced by a user who’s trying to complete a meaningful task – i.e. they have a certain expectation of how a site will work and perform.  Casual browsers are more likely to switch off from the site if they don’t like what they see.
If you want a huge generalisation then:

“Users with an affiliation to a site (web application) are likely to become impatient if their progress is impeded, and casual visitors to a site (web application or content site) are more likely to become bored if the content is not engaging or visually appealing.”

Underlying Factors

There’s a couple of factors that underpin all types of web access:

  • Information Architecture (IA) – the structure of the information, sections and pages on the site.
  • Usability – the ease with which people can achieve their goals on the site.

IA is equally important to simple and sophisticated sites, as a visitor to a company brochure site needs to know that they can get around speedily and find what they’re looking for without undue delay.  Bad IA on a larger site is likely to grate with users over time and people will find themselves frustrated because their navigation around the site isn’t logical.

A good and logical IA is often a matter of being consistent with de facto standards.  For example many web users now have subconscious expectactions that company sites have ‘Contact Us’, ‘About Us’ etc.  Going against the grain here leads to impatience.

Usability is the detail in every interaction.  The sections and pages on the site may be completely logical, but if the developers have produced a whizz-bang Flash product catalogue widget that takes over a minute to load, then you’ll be getting some impatient users.  The effect will be similar if the flow of a page or workflow tries to go against simple and accepted interface design principles.  This could include using non-standard form elements on a page, or collecting information in a strange order just because it suits a back-end system (but not the user).

Functionality vs Visual Design

For the most part, functionality wins over visual eye candy with users.  Business users routinely put up with desktop applications that do what they need without swooping curves, dripping in glass buttons and subtle gradients.  There is however a growing expectation of a minimum level of visual design on the web.  Maybe this  makes up for the fact that sites still rarely deliver everything a user wants.

The Pressure to Redesign

Creative agencies will often suggest a site’s poor performance is down to the visual design not being up to scratch – as they want to perform that job.  This takes advantage of the (still) general lack of understanding about the web amongst company decision-makers. This surprisingly includes a lot of marketing departments who still only think ‘print’. 

The other extreme is marketers on a constant rebranding trip, constantly quoting ‘market risks’, effectively keeping themselves gainfully employed.

The model of development on the web over the years has been largely evolutionary, with change coming without warning, and largely without consultation with users.  This was OK in previous times (I refuse to say web 1.0), when user expectations were low, and the level of engagement with any one site was also low.  This is still true for many small sites.

The price of Success

With community sites becoming more mainstream and popular, companies now often elicit feedback to work out where to go next.  Sometimes when big changes are made (Facebook) with little or no communication, things can get a little heated with petitions and protests galore.
 
Just imagine if Microsoft significantly changed the interface to Word on the millions of computers around the world without notice.  It just wouldn’t happen! 

Sites like Facebook have learned the hard way that success on the web also breeds greater responsibility to change with regards to your users.  Users of free services can simply vote with their feet, and increasingly do.  Facebook has flooded the social web space and so hangs on to many users as they’ve become the de facto standard. 

Very few sites can rely on such a situation.

Managing Change

So how can you manage change on websites?  When do you need a lick of paint, and when do you need a complete redesign?

The following isn’t an exhaustive list, but gives some thoughts on some tools and approaches to consider.

Understand your user base.

Use web stats tools like Google Analytics to understand where your users come from and where they go on the site.  Set up goals to see how successful things like your payment workflow is – i.e. what percentage of people add something to a cart, and subsequently complete the transaction?

Analyse the paths into your site so see if there’s any opportunities for SEO improvement, like better keywording, extra landing pages etc.

Make the right changes

Sometimes it’s appropriate to do some field research to work out the right changes to make on the site.  This could be from a variety of sources.  The key is to remain light-footed throughout the process so you can react to changes as they (inevitably) occur:

  • Business Requirements.  This is typically what drives most change, but internal people are not the only people in the equation.  They don’t use the site the way external users do.
  • Usability testing with the current site and a group of users can be quite revealing to find gaps that explain poorly performing site areas, and also give rise to new ideas.
  • User surveys can be effective, but asking questions of users needs to be offered sparingly, and in an optional way.  Keep things small and succinct to get the best return of ‘take home’ points.  Consider offering some reward for completing the survey.

Design it right and Try before you Buy

In order to react to change, and feedback you need to get people looking at your intended changes as quickly as possible.  The following is an example of an iterative approach from detailed design to implementation for a complex change that will affect a large number of users:

WireFrame

Wireframe development is a great place to start by designing layout and visualising key elements and interactions on the site.  This is specifically tackled before any detailed visual design to test the concepts with business people and prospective users.

Prototype

This can be created from the wireframes to put some more meat around the concept built in the wireframes.  This could be as simple as page images with hyperlinks to allow clicking through the flow, to a slim ‘actual’ prototype in place on the site.  You’d typically build a ‘proper’ prototype if you’ve got some technical risk to overcome – e.g. proving a technical solution is possible for a given situation.  Some tools like Axure exist to facilitate wireframes and prototypes in one. 

Prototype testing

This is then performed either with a control group of users, and or with business users to assess the viability of the solution and also to get valuable feedback and other ideas. 

The wireframes and prototype would then be updated again with further rounds of testing as required to get to a point where things are formalised enough to start development. 

Visual design may also creep into this area, as some people simply can’t say ‘yes’ until they see ‘exactly’ how something’s going to look, but try and limit this.  This is where you hope for a programmer who’s design-savvy. 

This phase ends with the wireframes being signed off by the business.

Visual design

This will no doubt continue to evolve as it’s the tangible stuff that businesses can ‘feel’, but should be tied down as early as possible.  The business should sign off completed mockups (e.g. from Photoshop), based on the approved wireframes.

Completing the Job

The rest of the job is standard develop/test/implement etc, but developing small chunks and testing early, and implementing often is always a good way to go.

If the original prototype  was actually ‘functional’, then you might be able to go fairly quickly to some internal or public A:B testing and with a bit of work you could find yourself finished. 

Whether you’re catering more for visitors or users, the first step to any change is putting yourself in their shoes.

Setting up a Continuous Integration .NET Build Server without Visual Studio

We start with Windows XP SP2 (doesn’t really need to be a ‘server’).  My requirement is to rely on the .NET framework and open source tools – i.e. not requiring a Visual Studio Licence.  We’re using .NET 2.0 so everything will be in reference to that.


I assume here that you’ll be familiar with the actual software below and just want to get a Build Server up and running without having to install Visual Studio.  If you’re not familiar with Continuous Integration then start by looking at Martin Fowler’s Continuous Integration article and then the info on CruiseControl.NET, as that’s the tool that pulls everything together. 


There’s help on each of the sites below for installing and using each of the tools, so I won’t go into detail about each one.  The order of the list isn’t critical, but you’ll probably have some issues unless all are done.



  1. Install IIS from Add/Remove Windows Components (used for CruiseControl.NET) if not already present
  2. Open up a command prompt and run C:\WINDOWS\Microsoft.NET\Framework\v2.0.50727\aspnet_regiis.exe -i (to install ASP.NET in IIS)
  3. Install CruiseControl.NET (1.4) from http://confluence.public.thoughtworks.org/display/CCNET/Download.  NOTE:  If you’re using a remote SubVersion repository (as in my case) then you’ll need to run the CruiseControl.NET Service as a domain user that has access to the network location of the repository  rather than LocalSystem.  This is because CruiseControl will be using the SVN client to poll for changes. 
  4. Install Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0 SP1 from http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=029196ed-04eb-471e-8a99-3c61d19a4c5a&displaylang=en
  5. Install latest SubVersion (1.5) from http://www.collab.net/downloads/subversion/
  6. Install appropriate NUnit from http://nunit.org/index.php?p=download (targeting .NET framework 2.0 – I have 2.4.6)
  7. Install latest FxCop from http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=3389F7E4-0E55-4A4D-BC74-4AEABB17997B
  8. Install .NET Framework 2.0 SDK from http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=fe6f2099-b7b4-4f47-a244-c96d69c35dec&displaylang=en (you’ll need this to get around a NAnt bug whereby it can’t resolve an internal property to load the .NET framework)
  9. Download latest NAnt from http://nant.sourceforge.net/
  10. Download latest NAntContrib from http://nantcontrib.sourceforge.net/ (You’ll need this to run MSBuild)
  11. To save getting errors when building Web Projects (and other types) the easiest thing is to copy c:\program files\msbuild from your dev machine to the build server (otherwise you’ll have to alter the path of where the targets are in each project).

Once you’ve got all of these set up then you’ll be able to add some builds to your ccnet.config file ( most likely c:\program files\CruiseControl.NET\server\ccnet.config)


Test CruiseControl’s happy by going to http://localhost/ccnet It should come up OK but basically show ‘no projects’.


I’m not going to go into detail about setting up the builds here but may cover that in a follow up article, as it requires some more setup with SVN and a ‘standard’ project structure (to get benefit from reuse of build scripts).  If you’re still with me then I’ll share one last thing which might help… 


Some people choose to have NAnt in a standard place and just reference it from the PATH, but I now use the power of svn:externals to drag in NAnt, NUnit and other common external dependencies like MS Enterprise Library from a shared SVN location to each project.  This means you just get latest of a project and it has ‘everything’ needed to build – no installations or assumptions about locations of tools.

Microsoft Guidance Explorer – An alternative to WikidPad?

I tried Guidance Explorer again after a good while (for the purposes of documenting standards and processes), and concluded that it wasn’t going to be up to the job because printing wasn’t supported. 

I’ve been using WikidPad for a while and have been struggling with it’s
usability so I had another google around the printing capability of Guidance
Explorer (my eventual medium is likely to be some other wiki-like product, so
this is likely to just be my ‘input medium’).  I found the (rather
obvious) Guidance
Explorer Overview
on Codeplex that explains that printing is indirectly
supported through the export formats. I tried it and – whoa!! I take it all
back. 

The export to Word format at different levels and different views
is just great.  It gives you an index at the top with links to the actual content.  The formatting’s nice too.  The HTML format’s just the same as the Word doc visually, but spits out the content to separate files which is a bit nicer for deployment.

I still can’t believe how little-known Guidance Explorer is, but much of the Patterns and Practices work is documented, along with many other resources.  I’ll certainly be saying Bye bye to WikidPad.

NAnt Solution Task bug – Error checking whether ‘xxx’ is an enterprise template project.

Just spent a little while looking into this.  I thought I’d be clever and add my build script to the solution it builds so I can get some intellisense from Resharper (although it’s somewhat limited).  This added the file into ‘Solution Items’ which is a virtual folder.

The error appears because NAnt expects to find valid project files in the solution folders.  I had the same error previously with Web Site Projects (as these are also ‘special folders’). 

I’m using NAnt 0.86 (Build 0.86.2898.0; beta1; 8/12/2007), and from the bug report it seems that it’s fixed in 0.86 beta 2 (not yet out) so you’ll have to get a nightly build if you’re desperate.

My workaround for the moment is to use the NAntContrib MSBuild task to build my Web Deployment project (which in turn builds all the dependencies), as follows:

<target name=”build.webdeploy” description=”Compiles a Web Deployment Project using MSBuild”>
  <msbuild project=”${project.dir}\mydeploydir\mydeployproj.wdproj” verbosity=”Detailed” >
     <arg value=”/p:Configuration=${build.configuration}” />
  </msbuild>
</target>


You can fill in the blanks yourself with the parameters.

Giving Guidance Explorer another go

I downloaded the Patterns and Practices ‘Guidance Explorer’ a year or more ago, and quite liked the idea.  I think the problem with any tool that tried to be a flexible storage and delivery method for ‘organic’ content (I’m interested in using it for development processes/standards etc) is viewed and searched by different people in completely different ways. 


Some like to dip into ‘reference’ material, some always ‘search’, and some people like to print everything and read cover to cover.  I know there’ve been some updates to the tool, and although the download count is still pretty low (3000 ish) I’ll give it another go and see if it works for me.


Other people just throw this stuff into docs and put it on SharePoint.  Others use something like WikidPad – which again I liked but ultimately got out of the habit of using – meaning it obviously didn’t work for me. 


Update


I just noticed that there’s no possible way of printing from Guidance Explorer, and so while I can understand the reasons why it isn’t implemented (to try and encourage people to write screen-consumable, concise content), it simply won’t work for the users I’m looking to target.  Shame :-(

How do you ‘rate’ a developer or team lead?

Just going through some old notepads from previous employment and found a table that I’d come up with to ‘rate’ all the developers in the department (I was a team lead there at the time – I also rated myself and the other team leads).  The purpose was to effectively work out who to put where – i.e. what teams.  It’s pretty a simple process, and is essentially a straw poll on some high-level KPI’s, but assumes you’re experienced, and ‘pretty good’ yourself, and can recognise/score people objectively and consistently.  If you let personal preference get in there then your results mean nothing.


Each person is scored on 4 categories as some may be stronger in different areas.  Each score is on a scale of 1-10, and the scores are simply added to get the overall rating ( out of 40).  You can obviously make this a percentage etc if you wish.  You could also apply an average to scores given by multiple people.


Developer Categories:



  1. Ability. Raw development ability.  Can they achieve a technical solution?
  2. Discipline. Their ‘normal’ work practice.  Do they take pride in their work?  Do they lead others in the processes they follow?  how do they work when unsupervised?
  3. Commercial Focus / flexibility,  When faced with a deadline or changing scope do they cope?  Do they think creatively and work with others to keep things on track, potentially adding commercial compromise into their original design?
  4. Control. How do they work under pressure? Do corners get cut, do they fall to pieces, or do they rise to the occasion? 

Team Lead (Technical) Categories:



  1. People leadership. How do they treat their team members?  Do they instil confidence and inspire their team to achieve?  Does their team ‘like’ them? You have to be careful with the last one, because on its own it shouldn’t give a big score.  It’s the icing on the cake rather than the meat in the sandwich!.
  2. Getting Stuff Done.  Do they get results?  Does their team get results?  Do they deliver regardless of obstacles and issues?
  3. Upward Management. How well do they communicate changes, issues etc to managers and stakeholders?  Do they ‘sit’ on issues and hope they’ll go away until they ‘blow up’?

  Team leads can obviously be rated as developers too…