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    The Importance of Strong Usability within Web Content Managed Systems

    The term Web 2.0 was first coined by O’Reilly and Associates, a publisher of books on software development and web development, in early 2004, and is based on software release nomenclature. Web 2.0 describes the current trend towards enhancing collaboration and information sharing and utilizing these tools to aid functionality. Within the realm of Web 2.0, anyone is a content author; sites such as Wikipedia, Facebook, and Flickr allow users to create their own media and content as well as decide what metadata or “tags” the content should have.

    Prior to the advent of Web 2.0 technologies, content creation for CMS-driven websites was typically managed by a few organizational users. The idea was that power in the hands of the few would make site creation and maintenance less cumbersome overall. However, with the evolution of website creation, the introduction of Web 2.0 tools has put content creation in the hands of the many causing an explosion of content which begs to be properly managed. This management creates various challenges for user experience specialists.

    Problem

    While CMS sites featuring Web 2.0 tools, such as Wikis and Blogs, allow users to upload and manage their own content, several potential issues can arise.

    • Disjointed Content Pieces
    • Poor Search Results and Findability
    • Fitting Unlimited Content into a Limited Space

    A user experience specialist can assist in avoiding these issues. Three important activities to encourage the success of the content managed system are:

    • Creating strong guidelines through a style guide
    • Using card sorting to create a strong site map and controlled vocabulary
    • Flexible layout structures

    Challenge: Disjointed Content Pieces

    When multiple users manage and update a single website’s content, there is a risk the site’s content will become disjointed. Each user’s distinct writing style will impact the continuity of each page. When the home page or section landing pages contain various writing styles, readers may question the credibility of the site.

    Users also often take advantage of the WYSIWYG editors, available in most content managed systems. These editors allow the user to specify formatting, such as text size, typeface, and justification. Without restrictions and guidelines on content format, the site’s look and feel can become disjointed, because it is easier for users to insert tags and other special items within an article than create HTML code.

    Finally, ensuring the most recent version of a content piece is available to the end users can be a challenge. When an article is updated while a user is viewing it, the content he is reading at the moment could change when he refreshes the screen. At this point, the viewer could become confused and think he has been diverted to a different article. Alternately, the reader may finish reading the article, return to a list of items after the article’s content has changed, and not receive any visual cues that the article has been updated.

    Solution: Create Strong Guidelines through a Style Guide

    Differences in categorization techniques, increased risk of mislabeling, and the differences in formatting preferences of each user can lead to a distracting segmented-looking site that lacks solid information indexing. Style guides identify the formatting for the presentation of the information contained on the website. Some elements the style guide defines are:

    • Header font, size, and color
    • Text font, size, and color
    • Formatting of links
    • Displaying the timestamp for content pieces

    Style guides can eliminate the appearance of disjointed content. Depending on the flexibility of the software used for the content managed system, the style guide can be incorporated into the site in the form of a CSS document. CSS stands for cascading style sheet. CSS documents help separate the content of a web page from the visual elements and allow the administrator to control the formatting of a page without touching the content. If the style guide defines showing the timestamp for when content was uploaded or last edited, site readers will benefit from knowing how recent or valid an article or photo is. Similarly, when users add content containing text to a site that utilizes a solid style guide or CSS file, the visual display to the end viewer will look the same as the other content within the site.

    Challenge: Poor Search Results and Findability

    Web 2.0 created a new concept called folksonomies. In folksonomies users are also responsible for attaching metadata to all content they have submitted, including articles, photos and videos. Online photo albums, such as Picasa and Flickr are a great example. When a user uploads a photo to either service, they have the additional capability to attach key words that describe that photo. User generated metadata adds value by creating a collaborative blend of different people’s thoughts. It allows for possible tags that might not have been thought of by the organization. However, a user may not always provide metadata or valid metadata, which can make information difficult to find and also challenge the strength of the controlled vocabulary.

    Solution: Use Card Sorting to Create a Strong Site Map and Controlled Vocabulary

    Card sorting is a usability technique that allows users to determine the best way for items to be grouped. In open card sorting, no pre-defined groups are given to the participants. Participants determine their own group definitions. In closed card sorting, participants place the items into pre-defined groups provided by either the business customer or the user experience specialist. Card sorting is most often used to help determine the navigation for a site and how users visiting the site should view the content.

    Results of the card sorting exercise can then be used to inform the development of the site map and navigation approach. The key to this task will be not only creating the right number of main and secondary navigation items, but avoiding using terms that are ambiguous. Labeling must be done well, using terms that are easy for site visitors to comprehend and intuitive enough that there is not a question of what content is found in each category or section.

    The difference between what a user searches for, what they actually want, and what metadata lies within the system can be drastic. Controlled vocabulary helps to bridge this gap by relating terms to one another so that the term a user enters can be linked to the metadata attached to the content piece. Giving users the ability to tag their own content is one of the more enticing features of Web 2.0 and content managed systems, but creates the risk of invalid metadata which can result in poor search results and findability. A folksonomy is not the same as a controlled vocabulary, and therefore cannot replace it. Similar to a thesaurus, a controlled vocabulary shows similar terms, either broader or narrower, that are related to the original term. A solid controlled vocabulary, using ideas generated from the card sorting activities will keep the search ability within the site operable.

    Challenge: Unlimited Content vs. Limited Space

    When any user has the ability to create and upload content, the amount of content contained in the site can be endless. This creates a challenge of determining where all this information should be placed in the front end so that those viewing the site will be able to find it, yet not be overwhelmed by a clutter of information. Site owners and the user experience specialist will need to determine the following:

    • What types of information appear on landing pages and the home page?
    • Do the most important or read items appear on a landing page or is it most recent?
    • What is the limit of the number of articles or media that appear on a main page?
    • How many links to archived pieces are shown in an archive list?

    Solution: Flexible Layout Structures

    A good solution to this challenge is to allow for flexible layout structures that define how many regions or pieces of content will be contained in a page, while allowing various types of content to be placed in that space. Define which sections are to be used for main content, which sections are to be used for supplementary content, which can be collapsed or moved and which need to remain stationary. Defining all the possible ways the space can be used but adhering to the organization of the various sections will create a good information space that is user friendly yet displays as much or as little as desired.

    Final Thoughts

    Content managed systems combined with the arrival of Web 2.0 create an incredible opportunity for collaborative content development. The expansion of knowledge it brings will enhance everyone’s lives; these sharing and social media environments will create widely distributed communities for sharing and growth. However, as with any good thing, it will also bring its share of challenges. These challenges will only spark new opportunities for improving the user experience.

    Prior to Web 2.0, there were limited content authors, and it made it easy to disregard the multitude of users that visit a site every day. Web 2.0, in conjunction with Wikis and Blogs, have made user experience specialists think twice in regard to the stability of the sites they have created. Taking additional time to fine tune site maps, layout structures, and style guides will ensure the success of such sites in the future.

    References

    Boxes and Arrows: Card Sorting: A Definitive Guide.
    Web Developer’s Virtual Library: Benefits of Cascading StyleSheets.
    Wikipedia: Web 2.0.

    Learn more about Tonia M. Bartz.

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