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Know Thy Users
AlbertIQ and WebWowser disappeared around the time that the DotCom bubble burst. Was it
because they didn't know their users? You can decide for yourself after you've
read this article.
Software developers are often tempted to design for themselves rather than
for their users. It is just plain easier that way. But experienced developers
point to the holes burnt in their asbestos suits as proof that breaking the
"know thy users" commandment can be painful.
I recently learned of a Web-based tool that goes overboard in its efforts to
abide by this commandment. The tool is WebWOWser,
a product that's promised to be "a whole new way to create Web sites that's
as natural as word processing, as simple as e-mail, and as fast as
WebWOWser is being developed by an Internet startup company, AlbertIQ.
On the AlbertIQ Web site you'll learn that WebWOWser "takes the mystery and
hassle out of Web site publishing once and for all." It is said to be
"the first real solution for everyday people who want to get their stuff on
the Web their way."
WebWOWser is definitely not a tool created by developers for developers. Here
are some more quotes from the AlbertIQ and WebWOWser sites. They reveal just how
carefully the tool was targeted to appeal to novice users:
- "...one-step answer for everyday people who want home pages and Web
sites that are fun to build, simple to publish, and easy to maintain."
- "...fast and friendly wizard that will walk you through the few short
steps necessary to create your initial site."
- "...helps you get the word out to friends, family, and colleagues and
reports back to let you know who's been visiting."
- "...provides you with the kind of activity reporting, security, and
control that only sophisticated businesses with professional Webmasters have
enjoyed until now."
OK, you have my attention
When I first learned of WebWOWser, I couldn't help but be intrigued. The
designer in me was captivated by the promises to make it simple for novices to
create, publish, secure, market, and track Web sites. The developer in me was
fascinated by the whiz-bang technology.
behind WebWOWser is definitely hot stuff. The page editor is a Java control
that uses dynamic HTML to render changes to Web pages. Use of COM allows users
to drag-and-drop and copy-and-paste local resources into the WebWOWser page
editor. Only necessary changes are uploaded to the server, where the developers
have put ASP, COM, and XML technologies to use rendering dynamic pages that
reflect the latest changes made by the user.
WebWOWser is currently at a pre-beta stage of development. About two weeks
ago it became available for preview in a Microsoft Internet Explorer
5.0-compatible form only. Future versions of WebWOWser will support IE 4 and
Netscape, AlbertIQ says. To use the preview version of WebWOWser, you'll have to
the Java Virtual Machine installed.
Unfortunately, I'm afraid the AlbertIQ folks may lose a significant share of
novice users by specifying these requirements. Such a user isn't likely to have
a clue what version of what browser he's using, much less what techno-features
are enabled and what Java VM builds are installed.
Put to the test
How close does the preview version of WebWOWser get to its goal of making it
easy to create exciting and attractive personal Web sites? I put it through its
paces to find out.
I discovered that creating an initial, attractive Web site was as fast and
easy as AlbertIQ promised. First I filled out a bit of personal information. I
report, were written simply, clearly, and with hardly a word of legalese. Next I
used a simple three-step wizard to choose the type of site (gardening or family,
for example), name and describe the site, and personalize some preliminary
content. Next...well, next nothing. That was it. The site was created and
available for viewing on the Web.
The site was laid out neatly and written in the brief, friendly, and
straightforward style that works so well on the Web. Kudos to AlbertIQ for
showing novice users, by example, how to write prose for the Web.
After checking out my new site, I decided to edit it to make it more
personally mine. At this point I had to wait a bit for the Java control to
download. A clearly written dialog box explained the wait and told me what I
could expect to see next. Then my browser showed the page editor loaded
with my new site and primed for editing. The following screen capture shows a
selected element (named an atom in WebWOWser terminology) ready to edit, move,
I ran into a number of bugs, but that's to be expected with software labeled
Breaking the commandment?
The page editor was easy enough for me to use, but I'm far from a novice
user. If I were AlbertIQ, I would definitely conduct
usability tests with target users. I wouldn't expect novice users to
understand, for example, anything about image formats. They would likely not
know that browsers work best with small JPGs and GIFs. The WebWOWser page editor
allowed me to drag-and-drop a large TIF image from my hard drive to the page
without warning me that it was not a good idea.
The on-line media center is another area where novice users are sure to get
confused. The media center allows users to upload graphics or select ready-to-go
images and art from the WebWOWser collection. In order to upload an image, the
user must first change the gallery dropdown box to My Media. That causes some
extra buttons to appear, including the Add Media button. Users must click the
Add Media button to reveal additional controls for browsing the hard drive and
uploading the selected image.
To add to the confusion, drag-and-drop works from the page editor but not
from the media center. Any user who gets the bright idea to drag-and-drop an
image, rather than hunt-and-peck to find the necessary hidden choices, is in for
a surprise. The Web browser will display the image on a new page, totally
dissociated from the previous media center page.
Because the page editor and media center offer the most complex features,
they also present the greatest opportunity to confuse novice users. The other
functions (visitor stats and "promote it," for example) are quite
simple and straightforward. Even novice users should have no trouble using them.
The AlbertIQ team has made a valiant attempt to bring Web site publishing to
the masses, and for the most part they appear to have succeeded. Judicious
application of usability testing, focused on the most complicated features,
should help the team honor the commandment: Know thy users for they are not you.
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