Congratulations! You have a blog. It has a catchy name. You’re amazed at the inbound traffic. The ads in your sidebar are paying your mortgage. People recognize you on the street. Next year, you plan to retire to a tropical island because your blog’s success is like winning the lottery. Or not.
Focusing on the usability of your blog can help create a happy picture much like the one I’ve described (well, maybe not everyone will be on that tropical island next year). Like many endeavors, it all begins with a vision.
What is the purpose of your blog? The ease and availability of blog software makes blogging an option for nearly every website. You can entertain. Inform. Sell products. Offer opinions. Perhaps you simply want to write from your heart and your personal blog is your journal.
What do you want readers to do on your blog (if anything)? Do you want them to buy your book or learn more about you or your business? What would you like them to do after they leave your blog? Can they recommend it to others, order services from your other website, click to other blogs, read your resume, or contact you?
If you have multiple goals (e.g., providing news, teaching, and selling your latest book), communicate your objectives in the blog description or About page. Attempts to hide your true purpose or “fake out” readers may injure your blog’s credibility. Readers determine the usability and purpose of your blog based on the layout and content.
What is your blog’s value to readers? Are you writing for yourself, your industry, or your company? Will your blog benefit readers? For example, if it is part of a resort’s website, do you offer reviews of local attractions to help readers choose which to visit?
Who is your target market? Professionals? Peers? Strangers? Friends? Customers? For example, if you’re an artist, you may hope to inspire someone to purchase your artwork or attend your next show. What writing style works best for your market? When blogging industry news, should you use simple terms or technical jargon? Don’t forget to consider demographics such as age, gender, computer experience, location, and education.
By now, you have probably realized that your blog isn’t just for you. Requirements gathering is an exercise in organization and better planning for your blog. Try to do this before you start searching for the perfect blog template. Better usability will result from your close attention to small details and a greater understanding of what you want to create.
Use the results of your vision quest to decide your blog’s main purpose or function (your “parent” requirement). There may be more than one. Examples include:
- Website feature (part of a larger website)
- Marketing services
- E-commerce (selling products)
- Personal or family communication
- Professional individual (author, actor, sports figure, etc.)
- Medical advice
- Character blog
Next, brainstorm ways to support your blog’s purpose. These are your functional and non-functional requirements – the “children” of your “parent” requirements. In the world of web design, children support the parents.
All requirements must be traceable to your “parent(s).” Don’t toss in something just because you saw another blogger use it. It should serve a logical purpose and support your vision. If you add an element that cannot be traced back to a high-level goal, it will likely be a distracting or unnecessary addition.
Functional Requirements (often online applications)
- Google AdSense
- Online order (sales)
- Photos or album
- Multimedia presentation
- Downloads (free, trial, PDFs, documents, etc.)
- Discussion boards or forum
- Wish list
- Affiliate signup
- RSS/email feed
- Refer-to-Friend form
- Search function
- Submission links to social network sites
Non-Functional Requirements (User Interface Elements)
- Well-placed “call to action” prompts to generate revenue
- Affiliate links
- Links to other blogs
- Permanent link to each post
- Humorous, conversational writing style
- Creation of community (via comments or a forum)
- Link to sources
- Quotes from industry
- Invited partnerships, guest writers, comments, story ideas
- Press releases
- Linkedin link
- Your photo
- Images of products
Most bloggers choose templates that work well with their blog software, but attractive designs may not pass usability requirements. Choosing an interface that keeps visitors content and satisfied increases traffic and conversions, particularly if you compete with similar blogs in an industry.
Items to include:
- An About page. Who is behind the writing? Any contributing authors?
- An easy-to-locate Contact page
- Links to recommended blogs
- Chicklets (see http://www.toprankblog.com/tools/rss-buttons/)
- Blog search function
- Sitemap for large blogs
- Logo with alt attribute
- Tagline. Keywords in a text-based tagline identify the topic of your blog
- Categories. Keyword-descriptive categories define your blog’s purpose
A common complaint in usability studies is text that is too small or difficult to read. Let readers change font settings in their browser or offer a CSS font-switch option.
The growth of “splogs” or fake blogs to spam search engines makes it vital your blog makes an immediate positive impression. If you seek subscribers, links, or wish to be mentioned in Digg, Sphinn, and other social networks, you need a legitimate blog with credible goals and authentic marketing.
Some usability heuristics to support your claims include:
1. Indicate on the home page how you differ from the competition or what sets you apart from others (i.e., what makes your blog unique?).
2. Make it easy to discover who you are, where you are, what your blog is about, why you are blogging, and how to contact you or purchase products. The less mysterious you are, the more credible you become.
3. If you are well known, a popular speaker, or a company executive desiring a personal touch, add your photo or links to videos and podcasts of you in action.
4. Keep your copyright year up to date.
5. Ensure content is grammatically correct with no spelling errors.
6. Provide proof that you are knowledgeable on your topics.
7. Link to sources. Referenced material lets readers judge the accuracy of (and insight behind) your statements.
8. Purchase a domain. Free blog hosting may signal a brief stay on the Internet or a brand-new blog.
9. Politeness and courtesy are strong credibility factors. Offer a comment disclaimer (e.g., “Because I value your thoughtful opinions, I encourage you to add a comment to this discussion. Please don’t be offended if I edit your comments for clarity or delete off-topic comments.”
11. Include off-site citations, references, and source material.
12. Provide a mailing or business address.
13. Note memberships in organizations, clubs, business networks, etc.
14. List your credentials and those of guest writers.
15. Update frequently with original content. Blogs that scrape content from others clearly aren’t interested in being read or followed.
A business blog home page should be designed for everyone – someone who knows exactly what they want, the “maybe I know what I want” browser, and the “accidental tourist” who lands by mistake. A glimpse of a striking image or riveting post title may inspire further reading.
Personal blogs have more creative leeway. Some are angry, opinionated, or delivered with sarcasm or crass language. A blogger may argue with those leaving comments disagreeing with a point or opinion. While there is some entertainment value in this, it can also be a way to lose readership. Does your blog meet the emotional needs of your visitors? If someone finds your blog from a search engine, does the home page confirm they arrived in the right place?
Here are some ideas to help hold interest, invite links from other blogs, create momentum to complete tasks, or persuade readers to subscribe to your RSS feed.
1. Post titles should contain keywords, be descriptive, and interest those receiving RSS feeds.
2. Your blog should be a pleasure to visit and easy to learn. Avoid “widgets gone wild.”
3. Don’t allow distractions to interfere with content flow (which may mean eliminating text ads between posts or flashing images).
4. Aim for a presentation that creates confidence, community, and expertise. Don’t frustrate readers with tiny text, poor contrast, and large, unbroken chunks of text.
5. For product sales, sales leads, or informational blogs, include incentives, specials, links to RSS feeds, allow comments or feedback, and add illustrative images.
6. Provide evidence of customer satisfaction with testimonials and invitations to submit feedback. List business hours and provide easy, non-invasive contact forms.
7. Invite conversation by permitting comments and responding graciously to them.
8. Improve readability in the following ways:
- Write short paragraphs
- Indent or highlight quotes
- Use headings and subheadings
- Be conversational
- Link to or note source (“hat tip”)
- Be original
- Invite other blog authors
- Update content regularly
- Either vary or stay on theme with content (depending on reader preference)
- Add photos
Navigation and Accessibility
Navigation is as important to a blog as any other website. Large blogs may need a diagram of the entire information architecture for proper flow. Pages can become cluttered and difficult to scan with the inclusion of tags, ads, widgets, and related blog post links.
Include a global navigation scheme. For blogs, this is often in a header or sidebar. Static pages in blogs can be several levels deep, and sidebars offer a consistent way back up to top levels. Be keyword descriptive and consistent with navigation link labels. Text that creates user confidence about where you’re guiding them works better than “click here” or “more.”
Blogs are naturally well organized, with archives and categories. Readers may appreciate a section for “Favorite Posts” and “Recent Posts.” Descriptive subheadings for sections help readers determine what you’re showing them. Suggest where to click by taking readers to another day’s post or back in time by category.
Most blog templates contain footers – modify it to include links to the contact page, RSS feed, and sitemap. Be sure to indicate the difference between links and subheadings with underlined text or hover colors. Remember that colorblind readers and those with poor eyesight may find hover colors or no link decoration difficult. Adding the link attribute to text links is a nice courtesy. Avoid loading up on feed buttons by using Feedburner.
In determining your target reader, you likely weren’t thinking about senior citizens, teenagers, and disabled users who rely on assistive technology to use the Web. Even men and women may use the Internet differently. Cognitive abilities vary. Some readers remember everything once viewed; others need reminders and guidance in the user interface. Cluttered pages are a hazard for those with reading difficulties such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorders, while diseases that cause hand tremors make using a mouse impossible.
Basic accessibility practices offer the same advantages to humans as they do to search engines. Writing up an accessibility statement for your blog can assist special needs visitors. An example is found at http://diveintoaccessibility.org/accessibility_statement.html.
Make the site structure clear and obvious. Screen reader users scan with their ears and do not listen to every word on the page, just as sighted readers do not read every word. Most will not use a “text version” or “screen reader version” – they’ve learned these are less likely to be updated.
When all is said and done, the vital life force of your blog is you. By completing the finer points of usability design, you can look forward to a long, rewarding relationship with your readers, putting your blog in its happy place once and for all.