Tag Archives: usability

nate silver and the rise of analytics: what it means to you.

As the election drew near, many political and stats junkies (like me) became fans of Nate Silver, aka @fivethirtyeight, the shrewd political number-cruncher and blogger for the New York Times. His way of aggregating the most reliable presidential polls into megapolls, and factoring in those polls’ historical accuracies, was considered by some to be as revolutionary as the introduction of “Moneyball” — or use of undervalued stats — on baseball.

Like anyone who develops a following, Silver soon drew his shares of detractors. Newsmen, pundits and politicians alike scoffed at his methodology, and Silver tended to respond quite intelligently with an unrivaled grasp of statistics. Even as the news networks hyped the election as anyone’s game last week, Silver said his estimations “represent powerful evidence against the idea that the race is a ‘tossup.’ A tossup race isn’t likely to produce 19 leads for one candidate and one for the other —  any more than a fair coin is likely to come up heads 19 times and tails just once in 20 tosses.” And, yes, unless Florida reverses course, he will have called 50 of 50 states correctly. That he even triggered the briefly popular Is Nate Silver A Witch? website tells something about his crossover success.

But let’s forget politics for a moment (please!); what’s impressive here is the rise of analytics writ large. Silver succeeded by keen understanding of statistics, willingness to discard dubious assumptions and eagerness to innovate. In higher education, we always talk about working smarter not harder and trying innovative things … then everyone rushes to “best practices” and well-plowed ground and research (like that on “Millennials”) based on questionable assumptions.

It all starts with data. Working with the web and social media avails us to a wealth of analytics and metrics via Google and other methods. But as Silver cautions, it’s about looking for the right data, not necessarily the most obvious or easiest. Avinash Kaushik, perhaps one of the top experts in web analytics, jokes that “hits” is short for “how idiots track success” … i.e. the number of visits to your website tells you only surface information. Instead, he says, look at things like bounce rates (how many people visit one page and immediately leave), average number of pages per visit and what paths and tasks users complete while on your site.

Google’s In-Page Analytics (seen above) is one of my favorite tools for seeing where visitors go after hitting a page. Those orange tags are click-through percentages, which you can roll over for numbers. I look at our home page using this tool very frequently to see what is and isn’t working, and regularly check other key pages. It’s interesting to see that sometimes switching out a picture or changing wording can have an impact on click rates. Among the most basic tips:

  • Pics of students work better than anything else. (Except maybe sunsets, but that’s a whole other story.)
  • Pics of logos and/or clip art are virtually useless. The only logo anyone ever clicks is the Oswego logo at the top left to get back to the home page.
  • Don’t overpromise or mislead with link names. I’ve seen pages where users think they are getting one thing because of a page name, only to realize the info they seek is not there. In cases like these, a user is more likely to leave our site entirely than go back. (We’ve seen this fixed by merely changing a link or page name.)
  • If your page has an embedded video but a very low average time on page, it’s pretty clear that video isn’t getting watched much. You can correlate with YouTube views — there’s a chance they’re watching it on YouTube — but you can often spot a dog quickly. This also ties into our data that shows videos about students and/or made by students tend to do much better than any other videos.

Another great Google Analytics feature is event tracking, which lets you see microtrends. With our new megadropdown headers and Popular Links, developer Rick Buck inserted a Google event tracking code to get a finer picture of who clicks where. The Academics part of the header rules, as it does in breakout tracking. This underscores our longtime push that good academic content and information architecture remain key to a college website’s success.

In addition to looking small, we look big. We recently completed our third month of compiling, filing and sharing a monthly web and social media analytics report, which has provided clues into what works and what doesn’t. We will learn even more as we add and hone various measurements and see trends in longer spans of data.

On a related note, you should also look long-term and not be so hasty that you change things too quickly. Silver’s data worked because he had large sample sizes. You need to track a page for at least a month (maybe more) to ensure you have a good enough sample size to judge user activity. A day or two is too small a sample size to glean a full picture.

Some colleges are showing a need and desire to invest in data. Ithaca College, for example, recently hired Colleen Clark as a full-time marketing analyst, and Colleen describes what that entails in this interview with Karine Joly of Higher Ed Experts. Not all colleges are in a position to hire full-time web analysts, but institutions should ensure that at least one (probably more) people in their organization have enough training, knowledge and — importantly — time to look at stats and trends.

Because as Nate Silver showed with this election, relying on conventional wisdom and erratic statistics get you results that are only as good as their flawed data. The more data you have, the better you understand it, the more effectively you implement what it shows, the higher the chances you can start achieving some real wins … whatever you do.

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sitewide refresh and responsive design: teamwork, usability and action.

At the end of Friday, we officially launched a new look for key pages of oswego.edu, with goals of improving three things: 1) navigation, 2) aesthetics and 3) usability via responsive design.

The oswego.edu homepage, October 2010 to November 2012.

New oswego.edu homepage, launched Nov. 2, 2012.

The first thing users will notice are a megadropdown menu (seen open below) where key pages under our various sections (About, Academics, Admissions, Student Life, Alumni & Supporters, Athletics and News & Events) will now be available from anywhere on our site. Also quite notable is a new Popular Links feature on every page, where users will be able to access our 10 most-visited sites — such as email, the MyOswego student and faculty gateway, Angel online learning, A-Z Index and Penfield Library. In short, users should be able to access most top actions from anywhere on our site. Hard to improve a site’s usability more in one fell swoop.

Homepage with dropdown navigation drawer open.

We’re also quite pleased with what we consider a more eye-friendly look. Switching the font to Droid Sans with a better point size produced greater legibility. With the pagewidth going from 950 to 1170 pixels, we also have a wider field to compensate. The homepage takes advantage with larger photos in its various levels of information, which puts a premium on impactful photography and content that lends itself to this magnified stage.

What may be least obvious, but the biggest accomplishment, is the site’s transition to a responsive design that detects browsers or viewports — desktops, tablets and smartphones — and adjusts accordingly. Rick Buck, our very talented developer, coordinated the back end work, with Devin Kerr, who has been teaching graphic design at our college, using his design and CSS skills to create the look of the templates. Before he graduated, stellar student worker James Daniello (who’s available for hire!) added some fine coding work. The content, direction, design and development were a team effort as we bounced ideas and information off one another throughout the process.

Since I’ve endured two full redesigns at Oswego, doing something more in-between — a refresh, as we call it — was both (somewhat) less stressful and reflects the incremental redesign concept promoted by eduStyle‘s Stewart Foss. Rick and I are big fans of incremental and iterative redesign concepts, as well as agile project management. So plenty of theory and technical know-how went into this project.

But in addition to know-how, we also pulled out some can-do. Many talk about this kind of thing, but we were blessed to be able to take action. It did take more than a bit of lobbying, creative approaches, presentations, proofs of concept and old-fashioned teamwork … but in the end, we think all that work paid off.

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goodbye, google places. hello google+ local. but does it matter?

In its never-ending quest to revise and renew to provide (apparently) desired services, Google has bid adieu to its Places feature and replaced it with Google+ Local. Given the large leverage any Google property has, it technically has potential. But it currently has stumbling blocks, with content being the main one.

Image

If you’re a G+ member (I won’t go for the easy joke), Local will appear as an option in your left-hand sidebar. That’s about the only easy thing I’ve found so far. Clicking it gives me the following screen dominated by an Outback Steakhouse. In Liverpool. More than a half-hour away. When I happen to live in a city with lots of eateries already that are dwarfed by this promoted location.

Of course, I can just scroll and look through a number of options such as Pizza Restaurants, Steak Restaurants, Bookstores, Motels, Pubs, etc. Most of the locations have either no or few reviews, which doesn’t particularly help with decision-making. I checked the Pubs option (near and dear to my heart) and discovered several of the listed establishments had closed. A local power plant was also listed as a pub, so I wondered about data hygiene … i.e. who vets or confirms listed information. And with any system, up-to-date accurate content is a huge consideration!

To make it even stranger, I can’t find any way to use Google+ Local on my iPhone … but I can download the old Google Places. For a geosocial platform, you’d sure expect this to be easier.

So other than being neither easy to use nor updated with accurate content, what exactly does Google+ Local have to offer that makes it a must-have platform?

Let me know if you figure that out, because I have no idea.

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review: does icerocket blast away other social search engines?

Fig. 1: Twitter search.

Learning about new websites and services would rank among the best parts of attending gatherings like the Canadian Post-Secondary Education Web Conference (#pseweb). When JP Rains of Laurentian University mentioned real-time social-media monitoring site Icerocket.com in his presentation, I knew it was worth checking out. My two-word review: Whoa! Cool!

Fig. 2: Facebook search

I like Icerocket for its very fast search, usability and clean organization: The top bar provides options for Blogs, Web, Twitter, Facebook, News, Images and Big Buzz. All those options are self-explanatory, with the exception of Big Buzz — which compiles all of the above plus video on one page (you have to scroll, occasionally past banner ads, to figure this out). It’s strange that Video is not an option on the top bar at this point, but otherwise their sense of organization is logical and user-friendly.

As a bonus, Icerocket offers services including an RSS Builder, a Blog Tracker that invisibly can provide analytics on your blog(s), its own RocketMail service, a Blog Trends search and an IceSpy tracker that shows top searches by Icerocket users. They also welcome you to add your blog to their search results in a one-step process if it isn’t in already. That’s a lot of functionality all under one roof.

Fig. 3: Image search

It stacks up very favorably vs. services I’ve been using:

Icerocket vs. Addictomatic.com: Long-time favorite Addictomatic offers a nicer interface in terms of the layout aggregating various searches onto one page. But as a result, the search returns are shallower and send you to the native search page for each application, from which you have to use the back button. Addictomatic offers more surfaced search options, but some of those are for obscure services. The ability to quickly toggle to long, comprehensive lists of each search tool gives Icerocket a clear edge.

Icerocket vs. SocialMention.com: My main problem with SocialMention has always been its slow-as-molasses serving up of searches. Icerocket blasts SM out of the water by providing nearly instantaneous response. Icerocket’s search via media category is more logical and has a better signal-to-noise ratio than SM. This matchup is a no-contest.

Speed and ability to search within one site prove especially important if, say, half your audience calls your college “SUNY Oswego” and the other half uses “Oswego State.” Did I mention this is a free service? Like I said: Whoa! And: Cool!

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our new economy: social, integrated, authentic.

An example of how the new social economy works:

Given my new interest in roller derby, and learning more about it, I keep a #rollerderby tag feed in Tweetdeck, which I check for interesting advice and folks to follow. Saw a tweet there by @vancougarband, an intriguing sounding outfit hailing from one of my favorite cities.

Followed their link on Twitter to the Vancougar MySpace page. Liked their catchy retro-rock/pop girl-band sound. Went to Amazon. Downloaded their MP3 album “Canadian Tuxedo.”

And realized how many things they did right along the way to make the sale.

1) Good use of Twitter. If you think making money via Twitter is about spamming people by keyword or shouting about what you’re selling, you’re 100% wrong. Vancougar’s tweet was authentic: They mentioned supporting a friend of theirs who is a rollergirl and included the #rollerderby hashtag. So immediately they and I share an interest. And their name was catchy, so I wanted to learn more.

2) Having quality content readily available. OK, I make fun of MySpace, but that I could go there and listen to their music streaming goes so against the old record industry tactic of creating scarcity by limiting demand. Vancougar freely offered quality content — i.e. their songs were catchy. And they could next funnel me to where to buy online.

3) Tying it all together. I could go from discovering the band’s existence to buying the album in five clicks (Twitter page > MySpace Main Page > Music > Albums > Buy Album). FIVE CLICKS! That’s fairly astonishing, and with a better MySpace layout it could have been four clicks. But the lesson here is that everything along the way was integrated, interconnected, relevant, accessible and user-friendly.

… and they even found time to thank their newest fan! The new social economy is a wonderful community!

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SCVNGR hunt: using geosocial gaming for orientation and education.

In the arena of geosocial apps and gaming, SCVNGR may represent one of the top potential challengers. For end users, SCVNGR offers a rich experience combining the best features of Foursquare and Gowalla. As an app for higher education and business, it provides immense potential for created user experience.

Our college used it to implement a scavenger hunt at all eight freshman orientation sessions where incoming students formed teams and followed clues that allowed them to meet people while gaining more information about college functions and facts. The collection process involved points for texting correct clues, with bonus points for the first teams done. With the prizes being Oswego hoodies for top teams, students threw themselves into the competition with great gusto.

Students on a dead sprint = throwing themselves into a scavenger hunt with great gusto.

Students on a dead sprint = throwing themselves into a scavenger hunt with great gusto.

Brandi Ostrander, who coordinated our scavenger hunt, said the technical part was not difficult — somewhat easy compared to finding 20 offices/partners to participate (including web communication folks getting feedback on a new website). She created and put in tasks, locations and the point system, guessing about a “50/50 split” with what SCVNGR developers did for the project.

Scavenger hunters on smartphones downloaded the easy-to-use free SCVNGR app; those with older phones could text SCVNGR (728647). The game started with receiving directions to their first location, and those with the app had the added benefit of a Google Map. Completing tasks and earning points could include inputting a specific keyword, inputting any response (for an open question) or posting a photo. After the task, the program sends the next location, which can be randomized (we preferred this as opposed to all hunters converging at once, although smartphones could see a linear menu). Incorrect answers could lose points, though players could advance after a number of tries.

As an administrator, you can use most SCVNGR features for free, but if you need a lot of development help or something highly customized, you can contract at various price levels. Our Orientation Office bought a year-long unlimited plan, with the huge advantage being nearly instant support — otherwise, you have to post a question on a message board or browse the site FAQ. With our extended support, we plan to implement a similar game during Opening Week to help students learn even more about the campus.

As far as everyday end-user experience, SCVNGR is robust and impressive. At any time, users can create venues, write tips and post photos (and get points for all of the above). You can create your own scavenger hunts and point systems fairly easily, and play existing games or hunts others have already designed. Unfortunately, like Gowalla, you can get stuck with poor data hygiene if the information is wrong. And like Gowalla and Foursquare, you can find duplicates of the same venue, but with the exception of more controlled apps like Yelp, this seems a common challenge to geosocial platforms.

Did the students enjoy the scavenger hunt? “They had a blast with it,” Ostrander said. “They thought it was a lot of fun and met a lot of people.” The most important thing, she suggested, is the game coordinator needs to be very organized, have everything set well in advance and know how to do with unexpected results — like when students lost service inside our cavernous Campus Center and had to repeat some steps (they remembered the clue words, and Ostrander had them re-enter them).

“We wanted to keep it simple, but you can also do multimedia messages, like photo or video clues,” i.e. find this building or person, Ostrander said. “I don’t think we tapped into its full potential.” It is that potential — as well as perhaps the best usability of any geosocial app I’ve seen — that could turn SCVNGR into a huge player in the market.

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users don’t want to “click here.” they want to take an action.

image of Pantene bottles on Wegmans shelves

If you want to be reminded about good web writing and usability, sometimes a trip to the supermarket helps.

While browsing the aisles of Wegmans over the weekend, I saw that Pantene (the official shampoo of TimsHead) was on sale. Being a fan of convenience (and cheapness), I gravitate toward their combined shampoo/conditioner options. You can tell this clearly by a 2-for-1 logo on these offerings. And I thought about that differentiation in comparison to web content.

One of the most outdated, but alas persistent, web phrases is “click here.” It predates when researchers knew anything about how users employ the web and what motivates them. Remember that people don’t read as much as they scan, looking for actions they want to take. They’re scanning for actions or phrases of interest like “apply,” “course information,” “schedule a tour,” “financial aid” or “student organizations.” So a “click here” phrase is superfluous and countervenes their hunt for information. I prefer phrasing desired actions into a contextual link: “Apply to SUNY Oswego,” “Schedule a visit,” “Browse our majors and minors,” etc.

Back to the Wegmans example — could you imagine if, instead of pertinent information, all the bottles simply said “buy me!” Sure, that — like “click here!” — is the desired outcome, but it’s irrelevant to my selection process. And remember it’s less about what you (the web writer, the college, the supermarket) want a user to do; it’s ultimately about what the user wants to do, and cues you can offer to help.

Or consider that moderately successful website known as The Facebook. There’s no “click here!” polluting the content; it’s almost all about driving action. You’ll see phrased links saying “Add as Friend,” “View Photos of Tim,” “What’s on your mind?” Navigation is self-explanatory: Messages, Events, Friends, etc. Nary a “click here!” used — because the phrase is, quite simply, not necessary. Users have moved past being treated like Pavlovian dogs … they know, and look for, the actions they want.

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