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Smart Man Online: William Slawski

Today's Smart Man Online interview is with a new friend discovered through blogging! Meeting new friends online is one of the wonderful things Jane loves about blogging! We meet news friends weekly...from contact emails, from comments posted to notes she's written, and from trackbacks, or stat links. Along with those new friends, Jane discovers more interesting and useful places to find information that can help her in her business -- information that we think is useful to you, also, dear readers. Bill (William) Slawski has some insight into a blogging tool we know many of you use, but one that we didn't know much about until Bill gave us the scoop. Plus, he has valuable insight into web usability, something we can all benefit from learning more about.

This week's interview is a bit length, but we feel it's worth it. Let's see what Bill has to say about the online world...

Lip-sticking: Hi Bill. We see that your blog, A Nasty Bit of Business, is built in Blogger. You're our first interview witrh someone using blogger. Was Blogger your first and only choice for a blogging tool, or did you explore others?

Bill: Hi Jane. I want to start out by saying thank you for the opportunity to share some words with you and your readers. I consider it a real honor.

Blogger? The short answer is that it's free, and it's easy to use.

The longer answer has a few parts. I have looked at a number of the different blogging tools, and tried a few of them out. I contribute to a blog that uses pmachine, and it has a few more features than blogger, such as the ability to put entries into different categories, create and display trackbacks and ban people by IP addresses. I've been impressed by the capabilities of moveabletypes software and if I was starting now, I'd be very tempted to use wordpress.

But when I started using blogger, hosted on blogspot, there weren't as many alternatives. I also knew some of the people who were involved in the early days of Blogger from their participation on Metafilter. It's been interesting hearing about the development of the software from the people who helped build it, and watching the changes taking place after Google purchased Pyralabs, which developed the software. The latest news is that the last of the original founders of Pyra announced this week that he was leaving Google's employment. I found myself fascinated by what Google might do with Blogger, and by how Blogger will grow in his absence.

Another reason that I've remained with Blogger is that I've helped a few other people set up blogs on Blogger. I'm often called upon as technical support when the software has changed, or if they want to make alterations to templates, or try out RSS feeds. Remaining close to the software gives me the chance to warn them when changes take place, or to know how to solve problems when they try out new settings and don't like the results.

It's a little like being the only guy your friends know who has a pickup truck, and they rely upon you to help them move large, bulky objects.

Also, did I mention that it's free, and easy to use? [You did...good point!]

Lip-sticking: In reviewing some of your recent blog posts, we came across The Web Credibility Project...this goes hand in hand with web usability, which you seem especially knowledgeable on. Could you tell our readers more about the Credibility Project, and then mention the importance of web usability from the standpoint of design?

Bill: The Web Credibility Project was a joint effort by the Stanford Persuasive Technologies Lab and Consumer Webwatch, which is funded by the nonprofit Consumers Union, which puts out Consumer Reports Magazine. I'm not quite sure that the people engaged in the research would consider this study to be under the umbrella of the many different subjects we consider usability. The Stanford folks apply the label "Captology" to their discipline - it's short for the "study of Computers as Persuasive Technologies." They started a blog not too long ago, the Captology Notebook, which points out new research on the subject.

What Captology shares with what most people think of as usability is that both look at the experience of people and their interactions with computers - with web sites. Captology focuses a little more on how people can be persuaded to take different actions. Part of that, when it comes to a web site, is how believable the message being portrayed is. One of the main forces behind Captology is Stanford Professor B.F Fogg, who has also written a book on the subject - Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. I like the example which he uses to kick off a chapter on Credibility and Computers, which I'll share with you.

Scenerio 1: A man wearing a suit knocks at your door. His face is familiar and he says, "You've won our Sweepstakes!" He hands you a big check, and the TV cameras are rolling. Outside your house, three reporters compete for your attention.

Scenerio 2: You receive a letter in the mail, sent using a bulk mail stamp. The letter inside says,"You've won our sweepstakes!" The letter has your name spelled incorrectly, and you notice the signature at the bottom is not an original.



Some web sites are as believable as the first scenerio, and a good number are as credible as the second one. The reports on the Web Credibility Project describe studies with thousands of participants who viewed different sites, and tried to gauge the credibility of those sites. Trustworthiness and Expertise are two elements of how credible someone will perceive a site to be, and the design of a site can impact how someone reacts to your site. I'll get into this a little more with the next question.

Lip-sticking: Wow! To think trustworthiness and expertise are important...even on the Web! What a concept!

On to the next question...we also noticed a post on Privacy Policies. A friend of ours thinks privacy policies are overrated. Mostly because they're written in "legalese" or a language very like it. What do you think? Are they vital to a website's credibility? Does anyone actual read them?

Bill: I think that privacy policies are essential to a website. And I think that most people should throw their privacy policies out, and start all over again. Three years in law school is an interesting experience. I earned a Juris Doctor degree back in 1991 (Widener University School of Law), and if a love of the web didn't save me from a career as an attorney, I'd probably be churning out legalese on a regular basis.

A privacy policy can add to the credibility of an ecommerce site. But it needs to be written in language that people understand. It needs to be credible, and help your visitors feel that they can trust you. A friend of mine wrote a script using php to determine the readability of a passage using Flesch-Kincaid Reading Levels, and I supplied him with some text to use as an example. I liked the way he phrased the results of running the snippet of legalese through his program:

This scores an incredible -1 on the reading ease scale. The Grade Level required to read it? 22. This is what you could widely consider the most unreadable text you could add to a web page.
In that instance Jane, your friend is spot on. A privacy policy written in similar language might chase away potential clients.

On the other hand, I've had someone call the office and explain that the reason he placed an order was because of a privacy policy I wrote. It was easy to read and understand, and it told people exactly how we would protect their privacy.

I mentioned above that the design of a site can be persuasive. The right link, at the right time, is an example. When someone is facing an ordering form, one of the things foremost in their minds is if they can trust the people whom they will be sharing information with. One of the first things they should see, as they are looking at the form is a link at the top to a privacy policy.

Lip-sticking: We clicked over to your web page, Bragadacchio, and enjoyed it a lot. One thing we noticed right away was the larger font size. In usability terms, we should all be using a larger font, shouldn't we? What should the standard font size be, in your opinion? In the case of your web page, the larger font does present one problem...to our eyes...it makes your page scroll all the way to the ocean! Isn't this BAD usability? We're confused. Can you clear this up for us?

Bill: Why the large font size? Because my mom visits every so often, and I want to make sure that she doesn't have to squint to make out what I've written. [Good answer! We LOVE Moms!]

In many ways, that's the key to usability - knowing who your visitors are, and what your objectives are. With my personal site, I wanted to make sure that people could read the pages easily, and used percentages so that they could increase the size of the font if they need to.

It's easy to think of usability as a set of guidelines. But that can be a mistake.

When I first found myself interested in usability, back in 1997, I started visiting Jakob Nielsen's website, and reading his Alertbox columns every two weeks. There are some great articles there, and I learned a great deal from him. But...

Dr. Nielsen isn't the only one who writes about usability and shares the results of his work online. I started noticing articles by another usability expert which sometimes disagreed with Jakob Nielsen. Jared Spool's User Interface Engineering group also has some great articles online. I had the chance to travel to Philadephia last summer and attend one of his seminars. He puts a different spin on many of the same topics that Dr. Nielsen discusses.

I found another site about usability by Kim Krause, which was geared towards helping small business owners improve the usability of their sites, and helping them promote their web sites. I wrote to her to tell her how much I liked, and appreciated her site. We've been online friends since, and finally met in person a few weeks ago. I joined Kim as a moderator on a forum hosted at Yahoo, and a little over two years ago, we moved it to it's own domain (Cre8asiteforums where I'm one of the site's administrators.

We've been discussing topics involving usability for the past four or five years, and helping other people make their sites more usable.

One of the lessons learned during all of that time is that usability guidelines are flexible. Sometimes they clash. When you make the font on a page larger, you increase the length of a page. One of the guidelines you've probably heard about making a site usable is that people don't like to scroll. But, you also want them to be able to read the text in front of them.

One of the main reasons why Bragadocchio's front page right now is so long is because I reprinted a couple of articles from a magazine from 1896 on the first modern Olympics, and I didn't break it up into quotes, lists, and use other strategies to make it more readable. The articles were pretty long, too, which added to the seemingly endless scrolling on the page.

Another friend, who had her Mom in mind, wrote a pretty good article on making a web page more readable - Improve the Readability of Your Web Page. She links to some pretty good pages on usability in that article, and I'd definitely recommend Usability.gov, which was written by people from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It began as a set of helpful suggestions for all of the treatment providers they work with who have web sites, so that those sites could communicate better with their clients. It turned out so well that they decided to share it.

The article is filled with guidelines. If you approach the issue of guidelines with the notion that sometimes you have to choose amongst them, while always keeping your visitors in mind, chances are you'll make a good choice. And, if you can find someone who might be amongst the audience you built the site for, and can watch over their shoulder as they vist and move around the site, you can get a good idea of whether or not your site is usable.

Lip-sticking: So, do you shop online? If so, what was the very first thing you ever bought online, and why? What as the very last thing you bought online, and why? Will you do any of your holiday shopping online...assuming you do any holiday shopping.

Bill:The first thing I bought online was a radiator for that pickup truck I mentioned above. The company I bought it from was located in California, and I'm in Delaware, but they have warehouses they work with around the country. It shipped overnight without shipping charges, and the price is what I would have paid if I bought it locally. Plus, it was delivered right to my door.

The last thing I paid for online, about three weeks ago, was a rental car from an agency that's a three minute walk away from my house. The online ordering offered unlimited mileage over a wider area than the office did. I wanted to drive up to Boston, and they were going to charge me $50.00 more if I reserved the car in person.

I will be doing some shopping online for the holidays. I've come across a number of small shops from visitors to the forum who offer some pretty unique items. I like the idea of helping to support smaller businesses who make things available that you can't get anywhere else. [hear, hear!]

Lip-sticking: Your blog tagline really speaks to us: Sometimes business isn't too pretty. That's true. So, what would you do to pretty it up?

Bill: I wanted something short and pithy in a tagline. As you can see from my previous answers, that's something I struggle with sometimes.

I see a lot of people blame corporations for the ills of the world, but I can't bring myself to agree. Corporations are filled with people, and people have an obligation to act responsibly, to recognize that their corporate existence relies on how they treat others. The web is allowing people to communcicate with each other over much broader geographical areas, and to share complaints and to consider alternatives together. It also enables businesses that open lines of communication with potential customers to deal with them at arm's length, and to benefit from that communication.

The tagline was intended to get me to think about and write about some of the bad things that happen in business. Somehow I end up writing about volunteering with nonprofits, or how to teach your children about money. I guess I start thinking about things like sweatshops and white collar crime, and my first impulse is to try to find something positive. The web gives small businesses an opportunity to have a more equal footing to compete with large businesses than they've ever had before.

So, if I write something about how to increase the credibility of a web site, it's for the people behind those small businesses who can't afford to spend enough for a commercial during the superbowl, or a team of designers and marketers and usability consultants who can tell them how to make their web site more effective. And I try to help other people who want to do something similar start up blogs, or discuss their web sites in a forum. Bill_slawski2

When you can reach out and help someone else, it makes a difference. And, When you watch them reach out to help someone else, the world does seem like a prettier place.

****************************************************************

If we didn't know better, we'd think Bill was a girl! But he's not. He's just a terrifc modern man... insightful to the nth degree, and full of helpful qualities Jane is finding in a lot of the Smart Men Online she interviews. We like that he mentioned his Mom.

What's not to like about that?

Comments

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Ben Wilks SEM

Smart Man alright, go Bill!

Bill Slawski

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in your interview series, Yvonne.

You did a great job of picking out questions that I felt comfortable answering.

(And thank you Wayne and Kim, for your kind words.)

Kim Krause

What a fantasic interview! Well done. Bill deserves the honor, and am also thrilled to be introduced to your wonderful blog.

Wayne Hurlbert

Bill Slawski is one of the really nice people of blogging. I was delighted to see him as one of the Smart Man interviews.

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