Thoughts on Blog Usability

DSC_0723 I’ve been kicking around the idea of redesigning my homepage and blog, though I’m not sure I really have the free time to do it. To start, I thought I would to put down a few thoughts about applying usability principles when designing blogs.

When you starting thinking about usability it’s temping to jump right into lists of principles and rules of thumb. It’s a little silly applying Fitt’s Law when you haven’t even established what you want your site to accomplish in the first place. So what, generally, do you want your blog to do?

Personal Goals

  • Share thoughts and work with others
  • Collect a body of work to represent myself (like a portfolio)
  • Collect information for later discovery (by myself and others)
  • Provide an outlet to continue practice writing
  • Allow others to communicate with me and comment

If you’re creating or redesigning a blog for a company, the goal set may be very different. Below are some examples that don’t actually apply in my case.

Business goals

  • Communicate with customers
  • Build long term relationships with customers
  • Produce quality content to drive search traffic
  • Generate revenue through advertising
  • Etc.

Many projects don’t even get this far before the graphic designers and web developers are already making mock-ups, but we still have one more important step to do. We know why you’re building a blog, but why are users coming to it?

This is tougher than you might think. User-centered design requires you to put yourself in other people’s position and suspend your own ego a bit.

User goals

  • Get help with a problem
  • Read about a topic they’re interested in for entertainment
  • Keep in touch with me, see what I’m up to
  • Wait until I slip up and reveal internal Google secrets

Just kidding about that last one. For a larger site with a bigger potential audience, you can see how it might be useful to break up users into logical groups – in my example, the number of people who want to keep in touch is much smaller than the number of people with problems.

Some usability experts will even build fictional personas to organize the way they address the need of different user groups.

A final step I like to take is to think a bit about the goals of spammers, hackers, and other abusive users. This has less bearing on visible things like graphic design but is an important consideration for any public-facing site or web app.

Abusive goals

  • Post spammy content and links
  • Hack the server or blog software and insert malware, links, content, or new pages
  • Scrape my content to generate spam

The reason I like to think about this now is that you sometimes need to balance usability against security measures. Users probably don’t enjoy filling out captchas or waiting for their comment to be moderated, but those are probably okay tradeoffs to mitigate comment spam.

From goals to design

Speaking of tradeoffs, you’ll never design the perfect blog and there’s no way you can apply every single usability principle that’s ever been posited. Try to figure out how you can support both your goals and your users’ goals.

For example, I have a goal to share information with others and my potential readers want to find information and do some reading. One commonality here is readability – I should make it as easy as possible to read my blog. This probably sounds pretty obvious, but site redesigns rarely start with typography. It’s a lot more fun to design a logo than think of the best way to present text. Readibility is a complex topic with mixed findings in the literature that deserves it’s own post, coming later.

Another common point – I want to share and collect information so people can find it, and my readers want to get help or read about the topics I tend to write about. This means that I should pay special attention to my blog’s information architecture, navigation system, and search engine friendliness. For example, most blogging systems and CMSs implement a few basic built-in navigational systems, and one that’s very common is the timeline view. You can see it on the right-hand column of my blog now. But when was the last time I used to it look up information? Do my users ever come looking for help designing a WiFi interstitial page and think to themselves, “I should click here where it says January 2009”? Maybe I should nix that section in the redesign.

We’re on our way to designing a successful, usable blog but there’s still plenty of work to do. Stay tuned for more.

In the mean time, I’d like to hear what you did when you designed (or redesigned) your blog. Did you put any emphasis on usability and audience or just come up with an cool idea and implement it?

One thought on “Thoughts on Blog Usability

  1. Although my goals for were not as lofty as your site, when I redesigned it a few months ago my main goals were to make it very simple, uncluttered, and expandable.

    I wanted the navigation to be so simple that even a caveman could do itâ„¢. This is why it’s large, starts at the top left of the page, and isn’t cluttered by anything. If anyone lands on a page deep in my blog, they should be able to easily figure out where to go if they want to learn more about me or my site.

    I also left myself plenty of room in the navigation to expand the content areas of my site if I ever get ambitious (not likely).

    So in a nutshell, I was going for simple and uncluttered. I stumble upon so many blogs that just appear so overwhelming with fancy graphics, unnecessary widgets and crazy typography that I end up leaving with a headache.

    But other than that, I just jumped into photoshop.

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