"Count what is countable. Measure what is measureable. What is not measureable, make measureable." -- Galileo

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Usability of CMS Home Sites

Color in the News

An interesting article on color and cognition turned up in Science today and its making its way into the mainstream media. The long and the short of it is that the color blue unconsciously enhances the performance of creative tasks. The color red unconsciously enhances the performance of detail-oriented tasks.

I think the take home lesson in terms of home site usability is that, all other things being equal, one should emphasize blue on those pages whose purpose is to elicit a positive decision about a CMS product. I believe that evaluating software and making a go/no-go decision is a creative task. Detail-oriented tasks (which would involve red pages) are in-depth analysis and feature comparison, more like reading and digesting CMS Matrix results and such.

Usability, Part 3

I'm continuing with my review of CMS and usability, triggered by my elderly parent's difficulties with accessing information on the web. I certainly can't survey hundreds of various CMS implementations and I don't have a handy panel of users to conduct timed usability tests, so I'm looking at something a little less ambitious (and a good bit less rigorous). I have scored each of the parent sites of a few top-flight CMSs against Jakob Neilsen's "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design."

For the moment, I've limited my study to plone.org, drupal.org, joomla.org, and dotnetnuke.com. The results are displayed in two tables, again due to my CSS not displaying wide tables. Italics are simply to visually separate rows. The snippets of text are to help readers link a particular score with a discussion item in the paragraphs below.

The results have been enlightening and they mirror my earlier heuristic look-and-feel analysis. In the tables below, I've scored a point for the presence of each of Neilsen's top ten mistakes. Half points were given where the flaw was not deemed egregious or of minor impact. I urge readers to go to AlertBox and get the full description of Jakob's top ten mistakes.




Bad search

PDF files for online reading

Not changing the color of visited links

1 #0062A0 and #027AC6
Non-scannable text 0.5 No "F pattern" 1 Walls of text everywhere
Fixed font size

Page titles with low search engine visibility 1 "How to" 1 "Join"
Anything that looks like an advertisement

1 True advertisements
Violating design conventions

Opening new browser windows

Not answering users questions 1 "Market-ese" 1 Reverse chronological listing on homepage

Plone. The homepage is mercifully uncluttered, but doesn't display information in the highly scannable "F-shaped" pattern that eye-tracking studies have shown is common when users are looking for something. Page titles in the documentation could be better and its often difficult to find a specific article unless you remember the exact wording. Try to "lock down your site" so people can't "join as users?" You have to search for "Close your site." Plone also has far too many items that start with the phrase "How to...." And finally items in the marketing box at the bottom of the page use catchy phrases that don't necessarily fit with the questions or concepts that a prospective new user might have. None-the-less, Plone.org had only 2.5 of Neilsen's baddies.

Drupal. Meanwhile, the heaviest hitter among CMS has a much weaker home site. Visited links barely change color, large walls of unscannable text are everywhere, and true advertisements are prominent. While it has an obvious simple search box, trying to "lock down your site" so people can't "join as users" results instead in hundreds of items about using "join" in queries. The lengthy reverse chronological listing of news items only serves to obscure important, basic information that first-time site visitors might be looking for. Drupal comes in with a disappointing 5 out of 10.


Bad search 1 No search box

PDF files for online reading

Not changing the color of visited links

1 No change at all
Non-scannable text 0.5 Mini-walls of text 1 Icons scattered; menu bar; "toolbar"
Fixed font size

Page titles with low search engine visibility 1 No "How to" 1 No "How to"
Anything that looks like an advertisement 1 "Contribute" icon 1 True advertisements
Violating design conventions 1 No "Home" 1 Pulldowns interfere with toolbar icons; no "Home"
Opening new browser windows

Not answering users questions 1 "What is?" 1 Questionable relevance; Where is the documentation? "Downloadable files"


Joomla! This was the only home site that lacked an obvious simple search feature. When I finally found a search box one level down, its advanced search was useless to an outsider. How would I know to search a "chunk talk," a "transwiki," or a "JDOC?" Its first page text areas were reasonably deployed, although not in an "F-pattern," but each was a monolithic mini wall of text. The look-and-feel of the documentation area was completely different from other pages. The "Contribute" link looked like a pitch for money, and their was no explicit "Home" link on many pages nor easy to recognize bread crumbs. It took some getting used to the non-standard nav menu with its confusing "Main page" and "Main" links that went to different places. Finding "How to" documents was frustrating. Perhaps worst of all, there are things like the "Getting Started" link, which takes you to a "What is" section where the download link is buried below many column-inches of scrolling text. Joomla's site was beautiful and balanced but inconsistent not very usable with a score of 5.5.

DotNetNuke. This site had a number of Neilsen's sins. Visited links didn't change even slightly, icons were scattered across the page in both a panel of images and in a toolbar-like menu. The text menu bar expanded down and interfered with seeing the icons below and was awkward to clear. Finding "How to" information or any documentation at all was difficult. Why would I look under "Downloadable files" to find documentation? When I did search for items, the returned set was of questionable relevance. My question about "locking down a site" returned results that were absolutely off mark. The presence of true advertisements detracted from the main purpose of the site, unless the main purpose is to generate revenue for sponsors. DotNetNuke came in at the bottom of our four sites with 6 critical mistakes.

Summary. Clearly and not unexpectedly, all four CMSs have some weaknesses. Surprisingly, Plone comes out ahead of the pack while the other three had 5 to 6 of Neilsen's top ten usability mistakes.

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