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

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Usability for Seniors, Part 2

Last week I took a heuristic approach to usability by comparing general look-and-feel of various CMS homepages. For someone who is ostensibly promulgating the use of rigor in assessing IT solutions, that seems a bit shallow (although still useful--first impressions count a lot on the Web).

Continuing with my look into features that are making it hard for seniors to use websites, I took a moment to track down Jakob Neilson's Alertbox, a must-read for anyone interested in usability. Sure enough, he has a very recent posting on aging and usability.

The bottom line is that his research shows a 0.8%/year decline in performance. That is, each year you need almost a percent more time to complete a given online task. In the span of a career (40 years) one can expect to need 32% more time. (Not 38%-- Neilson states that time-on-task degradation is a not a compound interest phenomenon.)

Neilsen points out that by the time someone born in 1990 is at the end of their career, they'll have had a lifetime of web experience. So 0.8% is probably not going to hold over the long haul. He estimates for long-term (>10 years) purposes a 0.5% annual loss in performance just on the basis of general cognative and motor skill slow-down.

Neilson also states that far better than attacking that 0.8% per year issue is to just make your overall site highly usable. According to one of his surveys, a 10% increase in development for usability results in an astonishing 83% increase in conversions. (A conversion is having the site visitor actually do what you want them to do--probably download, install, and use Plone.)

Increasing usability and touting the fact that Plone is senior-friendly taps into the fastest-growing segment of Internet users. Admittedly, seniors are probably not web portal developers, but they could be, and more importantly, they are more likely to be managers with decision-making authority over IT investments.

To continue to quote Neilson:
"Because so many sites are hard for them to use, seniors will shower you with business if you're the honorable exception who acknowledges their special needs. (And, those needs aren't even that special -- it's much easier to make sites usable for seniors than for users with disabilities.)"
Now back to assessing CMS usability, normally, one would conduct a functional usability study by taking a representative sample of users and have them complete pre-selected tasks. Metrics would be success rate and time to completion. One key take-home lesson from this is that site designers should clearly identify critical user tasks and make absolutely sure that those tasks can be carried out quickly and easily.

Since I don't have the luxury of a pool of users to measure, I'll take a different approach: I'll take each of Neilson's top 10 mistakes in web design and score sites against them. Here's his top 10 list:
  1. Bad search
  2. PDF files for online reading
  3. Not changing the color of visited links
  4. Non-scannable text
  5. Fixed font size
  6. Page titles with low search engine visibility
  7. Anything that looks like an advertisement
  8. Violating design conventions
  9. Opening new browser windows
  10. Not answering users questions
I'd like to emphasize that:

"Web site success is significantly associated with Web site download delay (speed of access and display rate within the Web site), navigation (organization, arrangement, layout, and sequencing), content (amount and variety of product information), interactivity (customization and interactivity), and responsiveness (feedback options and FAQs)." ACM, 2002 (Alas, the full text version appears to be gone.)

For now, I'll stop drinking the Alertbox coolaid and settle down. I hope to return with some examples and numbers in my next installment.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Usability for Seniors

I was visiting my parents yesterday at their new apartment in an assisted-living facility. Mom's broken hip last month has kept her from getting out much and so Carolyn did some online shopping with her. The excursion through the Land's End system had both of them lost in no time. Although it was clear to me, an IT professional, screens and menus had too many options and no clear overview of where you stood in the process and what was expected next.

We also checked out Dad's AOL e-mail account. The screen shot at left says it all--no wonder at 90 he can't navigate e-mail anymore. There are ads everywhere, dozens and dozens of links, multiple toolbars, multiple nested windows, multiple close buttons, lack of overall pattern, lack of focus, conflicting use of color. The interface tries to give you everything at once from a single screen. My company's internal webpage uses the same strategy and the result is that I hardly ever visit it.

I see the same thing with cell phones and note that some companies are producing phones with large numerals, simple interfaces, and clear access to the basic functions. With the folks, we stuck with a basic Verison phone and have not changed it in three years--probably never will. Same thing goes with TV remotes--some engineer thought that everyone of those 53 buttons was necessary.

Then there's Google, the epitome of simplicity. It does one thing and it does it brillantly. Given the comparison between AOL (or Yahoo!) and Google, it occurs to me to present a superficial look at CMS homepages. The following are all 1024x768 screen captures.

Double-click on an image to see the full-sized screen capture.

(Continued below after the mysterious gap. Gotta figure out what Blogger is doing with table tags and vertical spacing.)

Plone.org has a pastel palette without a strong focus, spreading common functions out evenly without distracting (or focal point) graphics. The box at the bottom of the page captures key Plone features with useful but not over-powering icons without pulling away from the key material above.

Contrast that with Drupal.org: deeper colors, clear focal point ("send money!"), a lot of space devoted to downloads, and most content "below the fold" just a news feed. Not much space given over to a rationale for choosing Drupal. The pale orange panel in the center almost apologizes for its collection of links.

Joomla! has also choosen the deeper palette of dark
blue with orange and green accents. Heavier use of graphics provides focus and the stark black download box works reasonably well for being tucked away in the lower right. The "Contribute" link scared me with its connotation of $$, but it goes to a very well done community activism page.

WordPress (not truly a CMS IMHO) has a large graphic
image that doesn't "do" anything and draws attention away from the download link. WordPress for Dummies jumps out due to its black-and-yellow thumbnail. A collection of three top-flight WordPress sites is lost off-screen at 1024x768.

DotNetNuke goes with what I found to be strangely washed out color scheme despite the use of red. That's probably due to the use of the oddly meaningless background image with the pale red gear and faint grey swirl. Lots of space given over to sponsors, who take the focus away from anything DotNetNuke-ish.

In closing, here's one of my favorites, Plone.net.
Comfortable colors, four well thought-out functional areas, simple navigation, and artful use of the Plone logo in the background make this very attractive as well as usable.

I'll come back to this topic soon for two important reasons:

  • As baby-boomers age, usability for the elderly and accessibility for the disabled and disadvantaged will become more important (as if we shouldn't be watching out for those populations no matter how small their demographic footprint).

  • As the world, especially developing nations come to rely more on cell phones, simplicity of operation, clarity of function, i18n features, and ease of use on mobile devices will become increasingly needed.

Next week I'll go beyond simple first impressions and dig into the
numbers that capture some aspects of usability. Stay tuna'd....

Sunday, January 18, 2009

CMS and Blogs

CMS Wire had a short bit about what technologies are popular amongst the top 100 blogs on Technorati. Not unexpectedly, WordPress ran away with that. One could argue (I would) that blogging tools are not full fledged CMS. Shouldn't be surprised that blogs are mostly run by blogging software.

Of note though, was this comment on more general tools:
Wider scope Web CMS technologies are not used much by the top blogs. Drupal scores 5 sites, with Plone used by 1. Other popular Web CMS platforms are conspicuous only by their absence.
Based on a tiny sample of only 100 blogs, ordinal rank might be more interesting than the raw number of sites run by a particular framework. In this case Blogger (powering this blog, for example) was 8th, Drupal 9th, and Plone 10th. (BTW, uThink was the Plone site that made it into Technorati's top 100 list, although one can't tell just by looking at the uThink source.)

To continue with my occasional data mining of Technorati, here's the blog stats on a few top-flight CMS.

CMS Posts Blogs Posts/Blog
SharePoint 35,015 1,290 27
Joomla! 39,018 1,475 26
Plone 2,339 105 22
DotNet Nuke 2,021 114 18
Drupal 29,806 2,192 14

Interestingly, Plone's posts/blog value has dropped from a runaway high of over 50 last April to a middle-of-the-road 22. All the CMSs are now within a couple percentage points of one another.

Quite unrelated to blog stats, another item to mention in passing is that World Plone Day has been nailed down and formally announced on Plone.org. Wednesday 22 April is the date for the 2009 event. Be there... worldwide.

Also unrelated to blog stats is of note here in the United States. President-Elect Obama has called for a national day of service and volunteer contribution tomorrow, January 19. One easy way to help is to give some time to your favorite open source project. Open source software is one of the most egalitarian efforts on the planet and everyone, everywhere can participate. Watch Darcy Hanning's Top Ten Ways to Get Involved with the Plone Community for ideas even (and especially) for the non-developer.

Finally, to close out this week's posting, I'd like to put in a plug for a concept I'll try to get off the ground next month: the Great Backyard Plone Count. It is a shameless knockoff of the Audubon Society's Great Backyard Bird Count and has largely the same goal: collect Plone site statistics from citizen observers. The concept note is over in the Plone Marketing section of Open Plans. An initial draft of the data collection spreadsheet is over at Google Docs, as is a draft one slide presentation/poster. Please feel free to provide feedback and critical thought.

And don't forget to check out the real Great Backyard Bird Count-- its powered by Plone.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Plone "Industries"

I was building a spreadsheet for a nefarious purpose tonight and needed a list of the types of domains within which Plone is used. So I went over to Plone.net's site listing and viewed the page source. There I was able to cut-and-paste the tags for the "Industry" pull-down list. A few moments with a text-to-columns tool and I had my list.

While I was at it, I took the time to count the number of sites listed within each category. I offer these not as absolute numbers, but as relative frequencies. After all, Plone.net is a self-reporting site.

Industry Count
Accounting 5
Aerospace and Defense 8
Agriculture and Forestry 13
Arts and Entertainment 101
Associations 54
Automotive 20
Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals 13
Business 36
Business and Society 16
Business Law 15
Business Services 41
Business Travel 13
Chemicals 1
Classifieds 1
Construction and Maintenance 24
Consumer Goods and Services 30
Cooperatives 7
Customer Service 19
Dictionaries 4
Directories 8
E-Commerce 28
Education 60
Education and Training 203
Electronics and Electrical 15
Employment 7
Energy and Environment 22
Environmental 30
Financial Services 20
Food and Related Products 24
Government 185
Healthcare 67
History 7
Hospitality 14
Human Resources 14
Industrial Goods and Services 20
Information Services 30
Information Technology 61
International Business and Trade 16
Investing 6
Libraries 13
Major Companies 16
Management 14
Marketing and Advertising 39
Materials 10
Military 7
Mining and Drilling 2
News and Media 42
Non-profits 258
Opportunities 1
Publishing and Printing 20
Real Estate 21
Regional 40
Resources 3
Retail Trade 15
Science 57
Small Business 36
Software 41
Telecommunications 10
Textiles and Nonwovens 3
Transportation and Logistics 12
Wholesale Trade 7

The big winners are non-profits (258), education & training (203), government (185), and arts & entertainment (101). Rounding out the top ten are healthcare (67), IT (60), science (57), associations (54), and new & media (42).

Its interesting that both non-profits (often non-governmental organizations) and government rank high. Also note that if one combines education & training with education, their total (263) exceeds even non-profits.

The total of 1925 does not equal the 1480 sites listed on Plone.net. That's because entries can choose to be associated with more than one industry. On average, each site is associated with 1.3 categories.

One final statistic--I ran the numbers for a frequency distribution, the number of industry categories that have a count within a given range.

Range Number of industries
0-25 41
26-50 11
51-75 5
76-100 0
101-125 1
126-150 0
151-175 0
176-200 1
201-225 1
226-250 0
251-275 1

Graphically displayed, this shows that there are very few categories with large numbers of sites and numerous categories with just a handful of sites. This, I believe, is an example of the "long tail" phenomenon. More on that in another post, but its probably key to a part of Plone's success.

Friday, January 2, 2009

CMS Matrix, Part Three

Every now and then I've poked around at the CMS Matrix numbers and found them interesting. I first did this last January and then again in June. Seems like I'm on a bi-annual cycle, so I'll open this year's metrics with another look at the stats there. There are over 1000 CMSs listed with CMS Matrix, so obviously content management is still a hugely important application arena. Equally important, thousands of people turn to CMS Matrix to get a quick take on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the many products listed there.

Just glancing at the Plone page shows things to be very well off. Plone answers almost all desired characteristic with either an affirmative or with a free add-on available. The weak spots where Plone sports a "No" are:
  • SSL pages (Security)
  • Certification Program (Support)
  • Site Setup Wizard (Ease of Use)
  • Matrix Application (Built-in Applications)
  • Web Service Frontend (Built-in Applications)
  • Affiliate Tracking (Commerce)
  • Wish List Capability (Commerce)
CMS Matrix groups each of its characteristic features into one of nine major functional areas and those are shown in parentheses above. Of these, then, here are the number of features in each functional area, the number of features Plone is "lacking," and that lack as a percent of total features in each functional area.

Functional Area
Number of

in Plone

Security 19
Support 15
Ease of Use 17
Performance 15
Management 7
Interoperability 9
Flexibility 5
Built-in Applications 40 2
Commerce 9

Of course, Plone would probably like to be able to answer affirmatively to all of CMS Matrix's features (and I know many are the subject of current development), its clear that the Commerce category takes the biggest percentage hit. Then again, its one of the smallest categories with only 9 features.

On the other hand, support and usability issues probably have a bigger impact on all users, whereas commerce is perforce a smaller subset of users. I personally am looking forward to improvements in site setup and the possibilities for rapid and easy installation in cloud buildouts. I also think that a certification program may be a useful thing for the Foundation to look into.

Now back to features per functional area, let's compare Plone with some other top-of-the-line CMS. I've chosen the ten CMS who have Packt titles that are also listed in CMS Matrix. Then I've run the "compare" feature to generate a huge feature comparison table. Finally, I've counted the number of feature per functional area that are listed as not available, of limited availability, or only as an extra cost item. (The italics mean nothing; they are there only to help visually separate the columns. I've split the table in half due to width limitations in my CSS.)

Number of features "lacking"
('No', 'Limited', or 'Costs Extra')


e107 eZ

Security 6 7 7 3 8 9
Support 1 1 7 0 3 3
Ease of Use 4 7 7 4 7 8
Performance 1 2 2 0 2 3
Management 3 4 6 1 4 3
Interoperability 1 3 4 2 4 3
Flexibility 1 1 2 0 0 2
Built-in Applications 28 8 12 10 6 9
Commerce 4 1 8 3 0 1

Number of features "lacking"
('No', 'Limited', or 'Costs Extra')

OpenEdit Cms

Security 4 1 0 8
Support 3 1 0 6
Ease of Use 2 1 0 3
Performance 0 0 0 2
Management 2 0 0 9
Interoperability 1 0 0 2
Flexibility 1 0 0 4
Built-in Applications 11 2 1 14
Commerce 3 2 2 9
27 7 3 57

Only TYPO3 surpasses Plone and both of these are far ahead of the others with eZ Publish running a distant third.

Continuing with our plumbing of CMS Matrix depths, there's a handy little table on their home page showing which CMS are best rated by users.

Best Rated By Users
System Requirements 7.02/10 Jaws
Security 6.72/10 Jaws
Support 6.54/10 MySource Matrix
Ease of Use 7.18/10 Jaws
Performance 6.60/10 e107
Management 6.62/10 Jaws
Interoperability 6.44/10 eZ Publish
Flexibility 7.00/10 Plone
Built-in Applications 6.54/10 Xaraya
Commerce 6.88/10 OpenEdit CMS, eCommerce, Digital Asset Management

Of these CMS, Jaws appears to be a newcomer to the CMS scene (first beta only in May 2008) yet it has over 800 evaluation responses. MySource Matrix has been around since 2004 and is making points down under in Austalia. e107 seems reasonably mature and stable. Both these have more than 100 evaluations making up their scores. eZ Publish has about 80 evals while Xaraya has less than 40. Similarly, OpenEdit etc. has about 40 reviews with the disadvantage that many important add-ons are at cost. Plone BTW has 113 evaluations at CMS Matrix--feel free to hop over and add to the score.

Plone appears to be in the senior bracket of these "Best Rated" systems in terms of years of service and current version. That not withstanding, it has captured top honors for Flexibility. I'll have to do some digging to find out what's going on with Jaws and its highly elevated position in so many slots. Given its relative immaturity compared to most of the others, I'm surprised is has many hundreds more reviews. The suspicious mind might think that someone is stuffing the ballot box.

That aside, what can we conclude? If we want to "game" CMS Matrix, a high priority should be given to filling in the blanks in their feature lists. However, letting someone else's list of CMS features drive development seems like a bad idea in principle.

My personal favorite is to setup a certification program for Plone consultants, trainers, and companies. This seems like a natural area where the Plone Foundation could set standards and provide objective, professional certification. For someone to sport a "Certified Plone Professional" badge or a company to have a "Certified Plone Provider" rating would assure prospective clients that consultants or companies have guaranteed minimum qualifications.

I realize that the topic of certification is a touchy one, especially within an open source project, where individual initiative is highly valued, so I welcome comment here or over on the boards.