Monthly Archives: March 2013

Time to rethink website navigation systems

On January 6th, 2013, I outlined my thoughts on how I wanted to design websites that worked for both tablets and PCs.

I made the following observations;

  1. We need to start designing websites with tablets in mind. Displaying PC websites on the 10-inch iPad worked quite well. However, with the smaller iPad mini, we need to make more optimized websites.
  2. Desktop websites tend to be loaded with insane amounts of junk and redundant material. 90% of the content on the website, for example, is either a) advertisements, b) navigation, c) recommended links. The real content of the top page, which we would expect to be the headline news, is only 10% of the page.
  3. Because desktop websites come with so much junk, you would actually lose very little by removing it and making the page fit comfortably on the iPad mini.
  4. Looking at newspaper applications designed for the iPad, it becomes apparent that even the top-navigation bar is not really necessary. If you provide a button that summons up a page dedicated to navigation, you can dispense with even the most basic web navigation elements.

Today, working on an updated version of Ponzu, I am now absolutely sure that top-navigation can and often should be removed. With even the most basic web navigation scheme being cast under doubt, I am now of the impression that website navigation as a whole needs to be completely re-imagined, with inspiration for the new generation most likely to come from native mobile applications.

We’ll update this blog with our progress as it happens.

In the meantime, here’s an excellent write-up of traditional navigation designs and patterns that are common on current websites. Unfortunately, as you can easily see, the vast majority of these designs require the precision of a mouse cursor and are very, very unsuitable for an iPad mini.

Participation Inequality in Social Networks and Ponzu

It’s an old post but still as relevant as ever. A great post by Jakob Nielsen on encouraging more users to contribute to a social network.

Some excerpts with my comments;

User participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don’t have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they’re commenting on occurs.

At the MBSJ2012, we had better results. In the analysis of “likes”, we found that 45% of the participants used the “like” button more than once. That is many times more than the 1% + 9% = 10% you would except from the 90-9-1 rule.

Jakob Nielsen also gives some recommendations to increase participation.

Although participation will always be somewhat unequal, there are ways to better equalize it, including:

  • Make it easier to contribute. The lower the overhead, the more people will jump through the hoop. For example, Netflix lets users rate movies by clicking a star rating, which is much easier than writing a natural-language review.
  • Make participation a side effect. Even better, let users participate with zero effort by making their contributions a side effect of something else they’re doing. For example, Amazon’s “people who bought this book, bought these other books” recommendations are a side effect of people buying books. You don’t have to do anything special to have your book preferences entered into the system. Will Hill coined the term read wear for this type of effect: the simple activity of reading (or using) something will “wear” it down and thus leave its marks — just like a cookbook will automatically fall open to the recipe you prepare the most.

Our “like” system falls within the category of “make it easier to contribute”. It also incorporates “make participation a side effect”, because you need to “like” a presentation to put it into “my schedule”. These likely contributed strongly to the better participation ratios at MBSJ2012.


In scientific conferences, participation inequality is a very important issue. This is because the online community is not the end-product, but it only serves as a means to enhance the scientific community, the vast majority of which is not very active on social networks. More importantly, the more important members of the scientific community, i.e. the professors, are less inclined to participate in these activities compared to young researchers.

Hence we should restrain ourselves from going overboard with social features which will tend to make the whole system unfriendly towards less social active participants. The social features should be there, but not necessarily prominent. They should help participants subtly and not be intrusive. We should also measure the success by the ratio of participants and the median activity, rather than the total number of activities. Most importantly, I believe that we should refrain from using social network features as a “voting” system for awards, unless we augment that with more traditional methods.

I believe social networks are important for scientific networks, but it is only a tool that has to be used very carefully. Ponzu (A Japanese sauce) is great for some food, but not so for others. Even when it goes well with your dish, too much will spoil it.

Jakob Nielsen, Intranet Social Features report

Jakob Nielsen, the renown user experience consultant, has posted a report on Intranet Social Features.

Below are a few excerpts that I found especially relevant to Ponzu, together with my comments;

Similarly, there’s now no doubt that social features are even more useful inside the enterprise for supporting employee collaboration and knowledge management. We used the slightly hokey term “Enterprise 2.0” to summarize our early research, and the new research confirms that the real effect of social features on intranets is to change how organizations function by making communication more open.

We also believe that social networking features in a conference program system (Ponzu) has a real positive effect on scientific research.

Little training is required. Users take to social tools easily when they’re given them for the right reasons and in the right work context. It takes little training, transition time, or urging to get people on board. In general, you should design social tools that employees can easily use without special training. In addition to following usability guidelines, you can achieve this goal by emulating popular Internet designs, such as the 5-star rating system known from Amazon and Netflix.

Avoid advertising the new tools as “new tools.” Instead, simply integrate them into the existing intranet, so that users encounter them naturally. For example, you could turn an existing bookmarking (or “quick links”) feature into a socially shared bookmarking feature without great fanfare.

It is essential that Ponzu’s features are modeled after popular Internet designs. That is why our “like” system is modeled after Facebook. We should resist making features complex. In fact, the example that Jakob Nielsen mentions, “turning an existing bookmark into a shared bookmarking feature” is essentially what we did. In Ponzu, we turned an existing bookmark (my schedule) into a “like” feature.

Despite companies’ concerns about employees using social tools with impropriety, infractions remain rare.

As long as attribution is built in and required, communities police themselves.

As with Intranets, the users of Ponzu will also be professionally accountable for the comments that they make. There should be no concern about impropriety.

In user testing of intranet search, we’ve found that it’s essential to provide a single, unified search across all intranet resources. This finding was replicated for social intranet features: they should be searched as part of the overall intranet search, rather than having individual siloed search engines for each social tool. Depending on the implementation, the need for integrated search can be a strong argument against outsourced or hosted social software, because many SaaS services don’t support federated search.

This is a strong argument for integrating all the social features inside Ponzu, instead of relying on third-party SNS or commenting solutions. Using Facebook or Twitter badges to provide social features is not a good idea. Neither is using DISQUS for the commenting system. Everything should be within the same system so that we can provide integrated search.

The most important conclusion from both research rounds is that social intranet projects must be driven by business needs — that is, the problem or pain point you’re trying to solve.

The reverse process is common, but deadly. Don’t start by saying, “Twitter and microblogging are cool, and I’ve heard good things about Yammer.” Our report says good things about Yammer, too, but that’s no reason to throw it onto your intranet. Maybe your business needs something completely different.

The difficulty here is to understand what the “business needs” of scientific conferences actually are. If you think that the needs are only to learn about research, then you don’t need social features in the first place. Only by perceiving scientific conferences as a social event can we understand which social features we need, and how we should implement them.

Today, many companies see intranet information sharing and other social features as offering true competitive advantages. It’s not something to build because it’s fun — it’s a workday utility. Social tools are an expected part of a knowledge worker’s standard toolkit, and many executives recognize this.

Widespread use of internal social media breaks down communication barriers. Although that sounds good, it can threaten people accustomed to having a monopoly on information and communication.

So, before implementing intranet collaboration tools, you must consider your company culture. If people are strongly committed to the “knowledge is power” tenet and don’t want to share, then sharing technologies will obviously fail.

Also, there’s still concern that, given social tools in the workplace, workers will fritter away their days and not get any work done. What we actually find — in companies with vibrant social platforms — is that employees are no more inclined to fritter away their work hours on non work-related communication with social tools than they were likely to do before these tools existed.

Social sharing is not for all scientific conferences. The medical community tends to be more rigid then the scientific community, with a stronger hierarchy and more formality. Hence it might be less suited than the relaxed molecular biology scientific society.