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Jeremy In Flight

Encounters, Vol. 1

Adventures from the front lines of being a user, both on the web and beyond it. I could fill a whole blog with just these types of episodes, but I’d never get anything else done. So, here are three stray observations for this inaugural edition of “UX Encounters”:

Don't Make Me Think

First up, I was ready to watch a show on Amazon’s Instant Video service recently when I got this error message:


Unexpected, especially because I didn’t think my Flash Player was out of date, but I was in no position to argue with Amazon here, so I clicked the link they provided to help me fix the issue. That brought me here, to a page that has three sections, four subsections, 29 links, one button … and nowhere does it say the word “Flash”:

Where should I go to learn about updating my Flash Player?

Where should I go to learn about updating my Flash Player?

Now, because I’m an experienced user, I figured out fairly quickly the information I wanted was probably under “Watching Amazon Instant Video.” (Which it was.) But first of all, I still had to puzzle over it. I had to think about it. If you design a link that promises me information about updating my Flash Player, then that’s what I expect. And I expect it to be obvious. Second of all, I’m not sure I represent the average user, and so I wonder how long it takes others to find the same information, or if they ever do. By missing this detail, Amazon not only burdens its users. It burdens itself by increasing the likelihood its users will have to contact its support staff for assistance.

The Case of the Missing Context

Quick, look at the far-right column of this chart. Are these companies certified or not?


Yes, right? Or ... maybe the “X” means no and a check mark would mean yes? It’s unclear, and again this is an example of the user being presented with a puzzle. I have to seek more context to figure it out, and even if that merely means scrolling down, that’s already a superfluous task. After all, I’ve come this far. That chart is from the website of a green energy supplier, which sent me a mailer suggesting I consider switching to them from my current electric company. This "X" might be the tiniest of details, but as a user I’m giving this company the most valuable thing I have — my time. I’m actually going online, finding and navigating their site, and researching them. I expect even the tiniest of details to add clarity, not confusion. User experience is entirely in the details, and this one falls short.

If I scroll, turns out the “X” does mean yes in this case, but that context was hidden below the fold:


Content Strategy and Credibility

Finally, let’s talk about bullshit. Content like this has become standard on many a newspaper’s website:


This example is from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and as we see it’s “promoted content” by Taboola, a company that describes itself as “surfacing your articles, slideshows, and videos to the right users, on the most innovative publishers in the world, and inviting them to click and consume it on your site, YouTube channel, or micro-site.”

In this case, these elements appear at the very bottom of the page, after you’ve finished reading a story. I visited the Post-Gazette on Dec. 13, and there are eight stories in that top section labeled “You May Like.” Only one of them — one! — was published within the past week. Four others are more than a month old, dating as far back as October. But hey, just because it’s a news website (emphasis on the new), that doesn’t mean some older stories aren’t useful or relevant to readers, right? Let’s take a look:

  • “China’s newest hotel sinking to new depths”: From Nov. 7, about a Shanghai hotel being built underground in an abandoned quarry. Originally reported way back in April 2012, but now Bloomberg Businessweek captured video of demolition work. It’s click-bait, and at least it’s kind of interesting. Even so, it makes the PG appear as if the daily newspaper has so little interesting content that it needs to promote third-party fluff from weeks ago. How is that useful to readers or the PG’s brand?
  • “Three found dead in suspected murder-suicide in Westmoreland”: Published Nov. 6. First of all, if you’re going to highlight month-old news about a crime, at least make it latest month-old news. See: Follow-up story two days later about the killer’s alleged motive. But even more of an affront to the user experience, the way this story appears within the Taboola grid there’s no context for the date, so the PG is suggesting ostensibly useful content (“Three dead? Near me!? When?!”) only for readers to discover it happened weeks ago and the details are stale.
  • “Classic golf mistakes amateurs make at the tee”: ATTACK OF THE ANTI-PATTERNS! SO MUCH BULLSHIT. RUN!
  • “Giant Eagle recalls candy corn mix, some prepared foods”: Published Oct. 29. Finally, important content … or, it would be if it were still Halloween.
  • “Quinn and Rose hoping for return to radio”: I have no idea when this was published. I could search for that information, but why should I? It’s a PG-produced video, it’s undated, and a link to any related story is absent. I gather that Quinn and Rose, whoever they are, lost their radio show somehow, but there’s no context, the video itself offers few details, and I have no clue what’s happening.
Screen grab from “Quinn and Rose hoping for return to radio."

Screen grab from “Quinn and Rose hoping for return to radio."

  • “Tim McGraw & Faith Hill share big news about ‘divorce’ ”: From Nov. 17. I just want to point out that this link leads to 115 words of crap that don’t even constitute the actual story. So, even if you’re a fan of McGraw or Hill, you need to click further to “read the full article.” The PG likes to send its readers on wild goose chases for the things they care about.
This is what users are led to if they click "Tim McGraw & Faith Hill share big news about ‘divorce.’ "

This is what users are led to if they click "Tim McGraw & Faith Hill share big news about ‘divorce.’ "

  • “Say cheese! Celebs caught cheating by the pap”: No comment.
  • “Video of Neal hit, punches to Orpik in Pens-Bruins game”: This is the most timely content of the bunch … but I only know that because I Googled it. Like with “Quinn and Rose,” this is a video with no date and no context. If only the PG had related, in-depth stories it could link to about the game that night. Oh, wait. It had threeOf. Them.

“There’s really only one central principle of good content: it should be appropriate for your business, for your users, and for its context.” So writes Erin Kissane in the “Elements of Content Strategy.” I eagerly await someone who can convince me that most of this content the PG allows and promotes is appropriate, useful, or user-centered. And let’s not ignore the two sections below “You May Like,” labeled “More From the Post-Gazette” and “From the Web.” Ten text links, and eight of them are exact repeats from above.

I understand this Taboola content likely exists on the PG’s website for business reasons, but there is no excuse why the newspaper can't have third-party content that serves both its bottom line and its readers. This is lazy. How stupid do you think your users are? How little do you value their time and attention? Content strategy speaks to credibility, and in this reader's eyes the Post-Gazette just lost some.

Jeremy BurtonComment