Archive for the ‘research’ Category

Web 2.0 – Technology & Social Media

July 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Technology almost sounds counter to the principles of simplicity discussed in the last blog, but it often takes a lot of work to look like you’re coasting. At its heart, Web 2.0 is about giving the user control, about making it easier for them to interact and engage with your site, or with data online. The result of this is, hopefully, seen in the metrics you use to measure success – whether that is sales, downloads, page views, comments, productivity, lower costs, whatever!

Something as simple as not forcing your page to have to reload all the time can have a great impact on user interaction. Having as much content as possible client-side is great, but can make the initial download of your page slower. Asynchronous calls to your web server, or the use of the iFrame, only replace portions of your page on the fly, and mean a much improved user experience. Ajax is probably the most recognizable ‘technology’, but it is just a group of underlying technologies that act together to provide a framework for the communication and display of asynchronous information to your visitors. If you are familiar with JavaScript and HTML, you’ll have no issues with Ajax.

One of the most effective ways to disseminate information these days is through RSS (currently referred to as Really Simple Syndication). With RSS, your visitors don’t even have to physically visit your site to get new updates, they simply subscribe to a data feed that lets them know when new content is available. They can read the content in an RSS browser, or link to your site and read it directly – either way, pushing information to them like this means more interaction, and a more consistent level of interaction.

It’s not just individuals benefiting from the simple interactivity provided by Web 2.0 technology though. Many businesses are utilizing online software services instead of installing and maintaining expensive software packages. Google Apps are one such example of this ‘cloud computing’, where a simple interface is all that is required – the data, and the software required to manipulate and present it, are maintained online. While some may question trusting your most vital business information to a 3rd party, the cost savings can make a compelling argument.

Social Media has become synonymous with services like Facebook and Twitter, but social media is really just a catch-all phrase to describe any web-based technology that allows social interaction between individuals online. Services like Facebook, which recently surpassed 500 million users, are so prevalent now, that the internet is truly accessible to just about anyone. If you can think it, you can publish it – via blog, YouTube video, podcast, tweet, or Facebook update… however you choose!  Web 2.0 isn’t just about making data on the internet more accessible, it is about enabling users to become contributors. We aren’t just providing our own content either, but are validating existing content from others through retweets, diggs, and other social markers. In essence, we are now determining what is important on the web, not being told what is important.

Businesses have also begun to embrace social media, and realised that it is an effective way to interact with, and influence their users. Social media can become an effective viral delivery mechanism for your message – it can spread exponentially. How many tweets or Facebook posts did you see recently about the Old Spice campaign? Don’t fret if you are a small company either, social media tools level the playing field somewhat, and provide you the same tools and opportunity that the big guys have.

Web 2.0 isn’t a technology per se, it is a philosophy that has driven a whole new generation of tools and technologies. We are only about 5 years into the Web 2.0 shift, yet it has already heralded a fundamental change in the way we use the web, access data online, and how we interact with each other. Exciting times are surely ahead as well.

Web 2.0 Design – Keep It Simple, Stupid!

July 20, 2010 4 comments

Following on from my previous blog, discussing Web 2.0 philosophy and the paradigm shift in internet use, today’s effort will address what Web 2.0 means to web site design, layout, navigation, and interactivity.

When surfing the web, you probably come across sites that make you wonder what the designer was thinking, and not in a good way! It seemed that for a long time, web designers and developers were simply making sites for themselves, showcasing their skills, or trying new scripts and effects for the sake of it. While that might be okay for your personal site, those “effect of the week” styles spread like wildfire through business sites too. Web 2.0 design isn’t about the underlying technology, or what’s cool this week, it’s about providing the simplest, cleanest, and most effective interface for the end user, your customer.

Design Considerations

Consider the following site, for the Twitter software MarketMeTweet. There are very few extraneous elements here. Strong, bold colours delineate sections, and walk you through the story being told. Fonts are large, easily read, and are hard to ignore. The call to actions are clear and simple. Design elements double as navigation tools and visual guides. The layout is central, scales well to all resolutions, and works in all browsers. The whole layout is visually accessible, and means little effort is needed by the user to find what they want.

Another excellent example comes from, – a pet insurance provider. Again, bold colour choices make the site look great, but they are not just for effect, also providing a visual aid, separating the various elements. A strong, persistent header means the user won’t easily lose their way, and provides  a consistent visual anchor for the user. All the activity happens below the header, but it’s all seamless to the user.

Unfortunately, this site wasn’t tested in all browsers – the two red buttons don’t display side by side in Chrome, like they should, and do in IE. It takes a lot of effort to make something look simple and work well. Don’t get complacent.

Web 2.0 design is about getting back to simplicity, focusing on the message, and always keeping the end user in mind. Back at the outset of the world wide web, web pages had to be simple, we didn’t have the tools to make them interactive, or do much of anything! Gradually, as the tools became available, the focus was lost – the message was lost.

So what can you do to make your site more “Web 2.0” ?

Focus on simplicity of design. It’s like the old story of how to sculpt an elephant – you just chip away anything that doesn’t look like an elephant! During the design process, keep asking yourself if elements serve a purpose, and whether that purpose serves you, or the end user. Make every pixel count. Strip away any elements that don’t make your site more visually accessible or easily navigable. Give the user the least possible choices to reach the most information.

Use technology wisely. Whether you are coding from scratch, or using libraries and code snippets, what’s under the hood of your site can make a big difference to the user experience. As with the design and layout, ask yourself if that few hundred lines of Javascript or new CSS3 element is adding something useful, or is it just cool? The technology should be invisible to the user wherever possible.

Be a user advocate. Try and see your site from your user’s perspective, and make sure you analyze your web traffic to identify patterns of behaviour that might reflect a problem with the layout or navigation of the site. What path are users taking through the site? What pages are seeing the highest abandon rates, and why? Is there anything you can do to make your site react to your users itself? Buying patterns can alter the choices presented to users, perhaps showing them what others bought at this stage, or in conjunction with specific items. Find out what the user wants and needs, them give them it. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy.

In the next blog, I’ll be discussing some of the tools and technologies that have contributed to the rise of Web 2.0 – and how Social Media has influenced the internet landscape.

What does “Web 2.0” mean to you?

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

I had a discussion recently with someone that claimed to be a “Web 2.0 expert”. First of all, I am always skeptical of anyone that declares themselves to be an expert, or a “guru”, I think it’s my job to decide if it’s warranted. Secondly, he steadfastly believes that Web 2.0 is really just a collection of technologies and software (e.g. Twitter, Flickr, Facebook etc.), displaying a decidedly social media bias.

This inspired me to re-evaluate my thoughts on what exactly I thought Web 2.0 was. It’s almost a throw-away term now, often bandied about by marketers, but is there a single answer to “What is Web 2.0?” I don’t think so. In coming up with some notes on the subject, I couldn’t narrow it down, so decided to do a series of three blogs, each addressing one aspect of what Web 2.0 means to me. This is the first in that series.

My feeling has always been that the term Web 2.0, which has really only been around about 5 years anyway, reflects a paradigm shift in the way The Internet was perceived and is now being used. Back in the days of Web 1.0, for the sake of a better term, users accessed the internet in much the same way they read a magazine. It was a very passive pursuit, and pretty much a one-way conduit. Yes, we entered information, but usually only for the benefit of the site owner, not for our benefit.

With Web 2.0, the philosophy changed. No longer were we passive observers, we were actively contributing. Our visits and habits drove search engine rankings; our videos and blogs meant that we were also providing content; our need to be engaged led to more interactive content, tailored to our needs and wants; and Social media meant that we were using the internet for our own purposes, not just as a means of driving business to online retailers. Businesses are of course harnessing social media, and people are still monetizing blogs, but at the core, they are still our tools, and represent our collective consciousness. Webmasters use web analytics to determine our every move, how we interact with their sites and services, and whether they meet our needs – but the fundamental shift is how quickly that data now leads to change. In many cases, interactive sites change content on-the-fly based on how we use the site. Perhaps more than anything else, the Web 2.0 shift means that the tail is now wagging the dog.

In response to this Web 2.0 shift, web site designers and developers have gone back to grass roots, with principles and practices that reflect a more simplistic approach (I’ll address this in more detail in the next blog in this series). No longer is design meant to show off the capabilities of the designer, or the sophistication of the platform, but it is meant to make our life easier, by allowing us to navigate, learn, and act more quickly. Granted, many of the technologies required to make our lives easier require great underlying sophistication – but that’s their problem! Internet marketers have also been forced to re-evaluate how they reach their audience. You can’t simply rely on a single medium to tell your story, or to reach your audience. Strategic plans are now required that integrate many styles and communication channels, and if you don’t unify your message across those channels, it simply won’t reach your audience – it won’t rank highly enough, and it will just be more noise.

Marketers and internet users are no longer adversaries, they are partners in the new Web 2.0 revolution, each driving the other. The last five years have been an exciting time for those of us who work in the internet industry, but much more than that, it has been a Golden Age for the user. Now, Web 3.0 ?

go directly to the next Web 2.0 blog …

Are your cats evil geniuses, and plotting your demise?

March 29, 2010 2 comments


I have a masters degree in Learning and Animal Behaviour, really. I’m not bragging either, just providing some background for you to judge this blog by. I know how bees let their hive mates know about the location of food sources with a neat little dance. I know that you can train an African Gray Parrot to have better verbal skills than the average call center employee in India. I know that gorillas can lie if the need arises, and am aware of one female chimpanzee who learned to trade sexual favors for food … not personally aware you understand!

I had a 100 years of amazing research behind me when I was done my degree. Give me a rat and a maze and I was your man. A pigeon and some grain? I could make BF Skinner my bitch! I did get bitten by a monkey once, I forget if it was Jake or Elwood, but that aside, I was a finely tuned machine. I even understood that Far Side cartoon where the janitor couldn’t reach the banana hanging from the ceiling. Then we got our first cat.

I thought I understood animal intelligence. I had written papers comparing brain size and tool use in chimps and early humans. I understood all the principles of conditioning. None of that prepared me for owning a cat. Dogs are easy, they want to perform for you. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs. We had a dog growing up. I just don’t think it’s fair to leave a dog home alone all day. Dogs are high maintenance, like blondes. Cats are more like brunettes. A cat wouldn’t care if you didn’t call it the next day after hooking up… a dog would follow you home that night.

Our first cat, Pebbles, was a Cornish Rex, a breed that is hypo-allergenic, which was the main reason we got her. She was actually a Texan, and as much as my education tells me not to humanize or anthropomorphise animals, it showed! She had some serious attitude, and took no crap from anyone, least of all me. She had me wound round her little cat finger.  I had no idea how to get her to do anything, which in retrospect was a great preparation for marriage. Pebbles eventually succumbed to cancer, but my wife and I were now officially cat people. We got another Cornish Rex cat, Simon, and now also have two ‘regular’ cats – Jet and Zack.

I recently woke up with all three cats on the bed. Well, Simon sleeps in the bed with us, just like Pebbles did. The three of them seemed a bit too alert, at least for animals that sleep 23 hours a day, and I swear they were up to something. I now have trouble sleeping as I don’t trust them, and if you have cats you shouldn’t trust them either. Any animal that only shows real love when you are opening a can of tuna, and most of the time seems totally oblivious to your presence is not to be trusted. The fact they can resist my extensive educational prowess worries me too … screw dolphins, my theory is that cats are actually FAR smarter than other animals and that they just tolerate us while they are planning to take over. Watch your cats closely for a few days if you have any, you’ll soon come to believe me.

Perhaps I should have gotten a dog instead. You’ve all heard about Pavlov’s dog, right, well he did have a cat as well you know. The cat was sitting in the corner laughing it’s ass off every time that damn bell rang.