What’s in it for me?

I’ve been interested to watch the response to the new Trade Me design, which was launched this past week.

There has been a pretty caustic reaction on the message boards, with some long time members getting a bit worked up.

It’s amusing, from the outside at least, to see everybody asking for the old design back, forgetting that they hated that design too when it was first launched.

This is not the first time that Trade Me has changed the design of the site.

In fact, it has only ever changed.

There was a good article in Slate earlier this year about the controversial Facebook re-design, which I think is relevant:

“How can I be so sure that you’ll learn to like the re-design? Because you did the last two times Facebook did it. In 2006, Facebook added the original news feed to its site.  People hated it. They said the feed cluttered their home pages and violated their privacy. [CEO Mark Zuckerberg] responded with a blog post titled, ‘Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.’ Facebook tweaked the feed a bit, but the redesign stuck. Zuckerberg’s instinct was right on. In time, the news feed became Facebook’s signature feature, the part of the site that everyone checked first. Last summer, Facebook redesigned its front page to give more weight to the news feed. Again, millions protested. But once more, people learned to love the new site—stats show members started using Facebook more often.”

That’s an important lesson: watch what people do and react to that, rather than paying too much attention to what they say they are going to do.

The numbers will quickly tell you if you’ve got it right or messed up!

I remember when Nigel was working on a tab re-design, to accommodate a new “Sell” tab. I was quite fond of the existing design and thought it looked better with only four tabs. But, luckily he didn’t listen to me, because that change turned out to be one of the single most successful design changes ever made to the site (and blindingly obvious in hindsight).

So, with my past track record in mind, there are three things about this latest design that I think are noteworthy…

Does mark-up make a difference?

Trade Me have called the new design a “clean and modern layout”.

Maybe tabs that actually look like tabs are now classical? I’m not sure?

Is fixed-width the new black? On the surface at least, it’s a bit ironic to move to a fixed-width design in response to larger screen sizes.  On the other hand, I’m sure that working with a fixed size canvas will make it significantly easier to make design changes to the body of pages in the future.

I wonder if most of the cleaning and modernising they are talking about has actually occurred under the covers.

The HTML that makes up the new home page has changed significantly.

The <table> tags and one square pixel spacer images of yesterday have been replaced by CSS and some shiny new semantic mark-up.

Although, there is still one remaining <table> tag (for old times sake?):

<table id="PagingFooter" cellpadding="1" cellspacing="3" border="0" width="100%">
<tr><td colspan="3" align="center">
<h1 id="MoreLink"><a href="/listings-feature.htm">More homepage features...</a></h1>
</td></tr>
</table>

I’d be interested to understand what has motivated this change.

No doubt there was a lot of cludgy old mark-up to clean-up, and it’s great to see this happening.  But when I see new HTML like this, I can’t help but wonder if the inmates are running the asylum:

<div class="Widget Corner TL"><!-- ie --></div>
<div class="Widget Corner TR"><!-- ie --></div>
<div class="Widget Corner BL"><!-- ie --></div>
<div class="Widget Corner BR"><!-- ie --></div>

Perhaps I’m just showing my age, but how is that an improvement?

On dancing chickens etc…

The first thing that many people would have noticed in the new design is the larger and now animated adverts dancing about in the header, sidebar and even in the body of the home page.

I’d be lying if I tried to defend these. The dancing chicken that filled this space on the first day wasn’t a great start, and the fact that there were some early bugs which meant that ads were in some cases overlapping with other content only made it worse.

Up until now Trade Me has been one of the few sites of any scale that refused to host animated adverts. There was a simple reason for this, as explained by Sam a few years ago when he said: “Users don’t like them, so we don’t have them”.

For similar reasons the ads used in the old design were smaller than the industry standard dimensions and had strict size requirements in order to ensure they were fast loading.

MG from Trade Me had this to say on an IAB forum just over a year ago:

“The best results we are seeing from flash placements within Trade Me are those with input fields for valid consumer benefit (mortgage calculator, airline departure/arrival locations, etc). Practical usage wins out over gratuitous animation. Movement doesn’t not [sic] necessarily lead to increased click-thoughs but can be relevant for brand positioning. A case of working out what you’re trying to achieve and developing a suitable ad & placement schedule to deliver to your objectives.

That said, from the industry results I’ve been party to, Trade Me’s [click thru rate] from Tab & Tower static gifs have out-performed their flash equivalents (from other publishers) on a [cost per impression] basis every time. But I don’t get to see the full campaign results from too many advertisers … is anyone prepared to present any campaign results that dispute this claim?”

I don’t think that users like slow and distracting ads any more now than they did back then, so it would seem brave to reverse that position.

It would be interesting to see the impact on what people actually do in response to these. Do they click on these annoying ads more? Does it change at all the way they engage with the site?

This is my newly formed general theory about animated or otherwise intrusive ads: the annoying-ness of the advertising on any given website is inversely proportional to revenue growth.

Perhaps the first derivative is the explanation in this case?

Something for everybody

They say a change is as good as a holiday. But there is also nothing worse than hearing about how great somebody else’s holiday was!

It seems to me that the biggest mis-step with this change is that all of the obvious benefits are internal.  There really isn’t anything in it at all for all of the people who use the site.

In fact, some small features have been removed, such as the ability to customise the sidebar links and the ability to search within a single region (actually you can still do this, it’s just one click further away).

I’m a fan of removing under-used features, to avoid a bloated application. But, in the absence of anything new to compensate, the vocal minority who did use those features which have been dropped will naturally be annoyed.

It’s a shame that there weren’t some new features included in this release, as a bit of Fire & Motion.

Fact vs Opinion

The team at Trade Me has changed a lot since the last major re-design in 2006.  I have a lot of respect for all of them, and I think it’s good to see them start to stamp their own personality on the site.

Will any of these changes make a material difference? I’m not sure. They will take a while to get used to, and hence give people something else to think about, other than using the site, until they do.  But, I’m sure most will manage and life will go on.

I’m sure that the team will be listening to all of the feedback, and keeping a close eye on the numbers.

The rest of us can but watch and throw stones from the sidelines :-)

What do you think of the changes? Are they growing on you yet?

Visualise your audience

I love the buzz of a big crowd.  It’s exciting to soak up the atmosphere created when lots of people are all in the same space at the same time.

If you’re lucky enough to be the band, or sports team or speaker who is the focus of the crowds attention, then that is quite powerful.

(Or terrifying, I suppose, depending on their mood!)

If you design or develop software it’s much harder to get feedback like this.

But, it’s still useful to think of crowds to help you visualise the audience of people who are using what you’re building.

This was the idea behind the photo I use in the header this site.

Another from the same shoot is below, for those of you reading via my feed:

Idealog Stadium

These come from a 2006 article about Trade Me in Idealog, and were taken at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington on a wet and wild day (hence the slightly damp windswept look and the Icebreaker jacket).

The stadium seats about 35,000 people when it’s full.  At the time there were about that many people online at once every evening on Trade Me.

(As I type there are over 80,000 online, showing how much it has continued to grow since then!)

When you think of that many people all in one space together, and the noise and activity they generate, it changes the way you think about the people using your site.

One of the things that software developers do all the time is dismiss a percentage of their audience as unimportant for one reason or another, without thinking of them as a distinct group of people.

If you don’t think you need to worry about people stuck using IE6 (for whatever reason) or a dial-up connection, or people who struggle to read small fonts, or people who are colour blind (or completely blind), or people who don’t know how to use a command line, or people who are still nervous (paranoid or otherwise) about entering their credit card details into a website, or people who want help from a real person, or people who use Firefox on a Mac … because on a percentage basis they are not that many … calculate just how big that group is (take your unique visitor count and multiply by the percentage, however small), and then imagine standing up in front of that group and telling them to their face that they don’t matter to you.

If you don’t think it’s a big deal for your site to be broken or off line while you make changes … think of all of the people who happen to be visiting at that point and imagine what it would feel like to have them all in the room with you while you flick the switch.  No matter how small the number it would probably feel like a lot of people.  And, you might be motivated to get the site back up more quickly if they were all standing behind you impatiently looking over your shoulder.

You can use the same technique to help put other numbers in perspective.

It’s amazing the difference it makes when you start thinking of your metrics as real people.

For example…

  • 2 people = your mum and dad!
  • 5 people = a car full
  • 15 people = a rugby team
  • 30 people = a school class
  • 100 people = a bus full
  • 120 people = a parliament full of MPs (actually 122, to be precise)
  • 380 people = all of the passengers on an Air NZ 747-400
  • 550 people = the audience at Webstock earlier this year
  • 1,500 people = capacity of the Aotea Centre in Auckland
  • 2,500 people = all of the students at Auckland Grammar school
  • 6,000 people = capacity of the TSB Arena in Wellington
  • 10,000 people = population of Gore :-)
  • 12,000 people = capacity of the Vector Arena in Auckland
  • 18,000 people = all of the students at Otago University
  • 20,000 people = population of Levin
  • 25,000 people = the crowd at Augusta National each day this week
  • 35,000 people = capacity of Westpac Stadium in Wellington
  • 60,000 people = capacity of Eden Park in Auckland, post-renovations
  • 100,000 people = capacity of MCG in Australia (also, incidentally, approx. the number of people who voted for NZ First at the last election)
  • 250,000 people = capacity of St Peter’s Square in Rome
  • 475,000 people = population of greater Wellington region
  • Etc, etc.

Help me out with some more examples…

Two Small Email Improvements

On the surface email seems like a mature application, without any obvious ways to make it better.

At least that’s what everybody thought until Gmail came along, with a bunch of excellent innovations: threaded conversations, automated archiving and labels rather than a folder structure, etc, etc.

So, what would you do to improve email even further?

Here are two simple ideas that would make email much better for me:

1. Hide until

This would simply allow me to “hide” a selected message until some date in the future.  Then on that date the message would re-appear in my inbox.

I try and keep my inbox empty.  In practice, that means at any given time my inbox contains a handful of messages which need a response.  It would be nicer, where I’m waiting on somebody else, or need to respond, but not straight away, to be able to get that message out of the list temporarily.

This seems like it would be pretty easy to implement.

2. Auto-scan for forgotten attachments

This would scan each message when I click “send” and if the body of the message includes the words “see attached” or something similar and there is nothing attached, it would stop and confirm that I didn’t forget to actually attach the document.

If I had a dollar for each time I had to follow-up with a “doh – actually attached this time” message …

Likewise this doesn’t seem that hard (famous last words, those!)

What do you think?

Would those be useful to you too?

Perhaps they already exist?

What other little ideas do you have for improving email and some of the other tools you use everyday?

Related:

Where do I find Google?

Google has published their list of the top search terms for the year:

Top 10 searches on google.co.nz in 2008

  1. games
  2. bebo
  3. youtube
  4. trade me
  5. lyrics
  6. google
  7. map
  8. hotmail
  9. tv
  10. weather

Half of these are site specific brand names (in bold) – meaning that rather than using Google the person doing the search could have simple added .com or .co.nz to the term and entered the URL directly into their browser and found the site they were looking for directly.

(the same trick would actually also work with most of the other terms too, but it’s not so obvious that people searching for these things were after the corresponding .com)

The one that will really surprise many web developers, I suspect, is “Google” itself – the sixth most popular search this year.  

How do you explain that?  What’s the mental model those users have of the web and of search engines specifically?

Most technology people will, I suspect, find it difficult to understand the sort of person who does this sort of search, but that’s exactly what we need to do if we’re going to build products these people will like to use and will tell their friends about.

Now Hiring: Web Designer

Interested? Check out the job description.

Credit, where credit is due

I was quick to complain about Contact Energy when I found their online billing frustrating.

How about something more positive …

Here is an email I got recently from Telecom:

The best thing about this? 

I don’t have to visit the website because the email contains all of the information I’m most likely interested in – the amount I owe and the date that the payment is due. 

As long as that looks right, I’ll delete the email and move on.  If not, the most prominent link takes me straight to the online bill, rather than dumping me in a maze of a marketing site.

The email is also signed by a real person, which is nice.

If I wanted to be really picky:

  • They could use fewer words – i.e. the first sentence only needs to say “Your latest online bill has arrived”. 
  • The URL for the link to the bill could be more human-readable – interestingly the link they provide direct to the bill at the bottom of the message is much nicer, so why not use that I wonder?
  • They could include the standard text that appears on the bill to explain that a direct debit is setup for this payment.

But, those are all small things. 

This is a much nicer user experience.  Full credit!

And, what’s really interesting about this … I’m now much more likely to be receptive to appropriate marketing messages that might be included in the future in this sort of email, or on the associated web site.