Monday, June 30, 2008

What I'm Reading: Mark Strand

A surprising thing happened to me when I went to the bookstore last week. I found two books of poems that I liked.

Now, this wouldn't seem to be such as surprise -- I like modern poetry. However, in most visits to the bookstore they either stock books I've already read or books I already decided not to read. For example, I love Robert Bly's work, but I have more of his books than the bookstore does. Same goes for Charles Simic. On the other hand, I find the work of May Sarton and Mary Oliver boring and pretentious. (Ditto Stanley Kunitz, Donald Hall, etc.) And as shocking and titillating as Charles Bukowski can be, his poems are pretty shallow. After 2 or 3, the persona starts to grate on me. So I have no need to read or own any of his 20+ volumes that every store seems to make available.

But last week was an exception. I found two books of interest. One is not so surprising: James Tate's The Ghost Soldiers. I've been a fan of Tate's work for a long time, starting with his first book The Lost Pilot. However, I went through a period (or more correctly, he went through a period) that put me off his writing. Starting around Riven Doggeries he published a number of volumes that seemed more interested in poking fun at language (and by extension, the people who use such idioms) than illuminating the small actions and inconsistencies that make up our lives.

Not that every poem has to be instructive or informative. (Frank O'Hara has brilliantly proven that.) But at some point poetry -- serious or not -- has to have some touch points with the readers' lives if it is going to have any lasting impact. And Tate's work of the late 70's and 80's seemed to lose that connection.

But Tate's recent books seem to have brought him back from whatever jag he was on. His work is still irreverent (if not more so) and almost frightening in its ability to switch between the glaringly realistic and clownishly absurd within a single sentence. So finding a new volume of his poems was a pleasure.

The second book was more of a surprise. I read Mark Strand's books many years ago and despite my friends' fascination with his work -- and my own best efforts to like it -- I was put off. In fact, rather than growing on me, his work became more painful and annoying over time. To the point where I haven't read any of his work, except a stray poem here or there, for thirty years.

So I don't know what came over me at the bookstore but I picked up Strand's latest book, Man and Camel, and started leafing through it. Rather than flipping through a couple of pages, grunting disapprovingly and putting it back, as I expected to do, I found myself attracted to the poems I read. Why? They were recognizably Mark Strand poems with his spare, objective writing style. But something was different. Something held my attention, was speaking to me like his previous work never had.

Maybe it was just the one or two poems. Maybe I was in an overly receptive mood and tomorrow I would wake up and recognize the poems for the pretensions they ultimately were. Whatever. I was intrigued enough to take a chance and buy the book.

And a good thing I did. Despite whatever reservations I had, the book turns out to be one of the best books I have read this year.

But how did this happen? What makes this book different than the rest of Strand's works I read before? Did I misjudge the earlier ones?

Unlike Tate, where there was a clear change in style and content, Mark Strand's writing doesn't appear to have changed. Either there was a change in my perception of his work or something more subtle was going on. So when I got Man and Camel home, I not only read it but pulled out his older books and started looking through them to find out what had happened.

It turns out my tastes haven't changed, at least that much. I still have difficulty reading Strand's earlier work, like Reasons for Moving and Darker. At the same time, my suspicions are correct: that earlier writing and his recent book are very, very similar. Which baffled me further.

At first I suspected it was something specific but minute, like a change in verb tense or a switch from second to first person. Because the new poems at least seem more personal:

On a warm night in June
I went to the lake, got on all fours,
and drank like an animal. Two horses
came up beside me to drink as well.
This is amazing, I thought, but who will believe me?
from "Two Horses"

But looking back at his earlier poems, many of them are in the first person as well, like this poem from Reasons for Moving:

A man has been standing
in front of my house
for days. I peek at him
from the living room
window and at night,
unable to sleep,
I shine my flashlight
down on the lawn.
He is always there.
from "The Tunnel"

These poems demonstrate the consistency of Strand's style and tone over time -- a sense that you were reading the diary of a visitor from a strange but parallel universe. But at the same time, these poems hint at the difference.

In Man and Camel, Strand the narrator is not so definitive, not quite so self-assured as before. In "The Tunnel", as in the majority of Strand's earlier work, the actions are absolute, unequivocal, as if the narrator controlled his (or her) own destiny, as bizarre as that might be. Later in the poem he says:

I weep like a schoolgirl
and make obscene gestures
through the window. I
write large suicide notes
and place them so he
can read them easily.
I destroy the living
room furniture to prove
I own nothing of value.

In Man and Camel, the actions are not so definitive, not so much like some magical incantation. But at the same time, they seem more realistic and more humane. Again, from "Two Horses":

The horses eyed me from time to time, snorting
and nodding. I felt the need to respond, so I snorted,too,
but haltingly, as though not really wanting to be heard.
The horses must have sensed that I was holding back.
They moved slightly away...

"From time to time", "as though", "moved slightly away". The language is approximate, like human perception is. And the reaction is equally based on assumption rather than fact; the narrator "felt the need" and the horses "must have sensed".

Now, not all of Strand's new poems are as equivocal as "Two Horses". Many still carry the absolute statements familiar from his early work. But the overwhelming feeling is that there is human frailty involved, even if it is simply the uncertainty of the narrator's own perception. This may be a small point, a tiny point, but it makes a world of difference in the poems themselves.

The absolutism of Strand's early work is what affords the poems their power, a sort of magical aura based on the incantations of the narrator. And it is that power that my friends saw and appreciated. The problem is that if you have any doubt in the narrator's authenticity -- if you don't accept the absolute statement -- the spell is broken and the poem fails and fails badly. It becomes unbelievable. My problem was that I didn't accept many of the narrator's absolutes.

The change I see in Strand's latest work as represented by Man and Camel is the narrator's acceptance of his own fallibility. This not only makes the narrator seem more human and more believable, it makes them more empathetic and powerful as a consequence. The narrator is not me, the reader. Strand's poems still take place in a world apart from reader. But now the narrator could be the reader, if the reader inhabited that world. And that makes all the difference.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Web Litmus Test

[Editorial Note: At first I was doubtful about posting a concept I developed ten years ago. However, just the other day someone called me looking for a designer/developer. When I suggested doing an architectural design for the site content first, he said "we have all the content. What my boss wants is to make sure the site is flashy and cool." I guess we haven't made that much progress in ten years....]

Web design is a tricky business. there are so many conflicting requirements to consider, as well as rapidly shifting expectations on the part of the users as the web grows and evolves.

On the positive side, there is no shortage of guidelines and recommendations for designing web sites to make them usable and functional. However, despite this guidance, there are still sites that are simply "unusable" at a higher level. Sites that aggravate, annoy, insult, confuse, or simply bore their users. Why?

The fact is that most usability guidelines operate at a rather low, micro level dealing with specific interface artifacts and interactions: the placement of buttons, the arrangement of forms, the structure and consistency of the navigation, etc. These attributes certainly impact the usability of web sites and shouldn't be ignored. But often when a web site fails it fails on a much larger, dramatic scale. It fails because it doesn't offer what the user wants.

It is not possible to provide a simple set of design rules that guarantee a successful web site. There is just too much variation in the intent and purpose of sites to cover all circumstances. But there are a few basic measures -- what I call the web litmus test -- that can fairly consistently tell if a web site design will fail or not. Passing the test does not guarantee success; it only means your site has a chance of succeeding. But fail the test and your site is toast.

As I say, the web litmus test can't be used to design sites -- there is much more skill and experience required to design the site right from the beginning -- and that is where the art and science of information architecture comes in. But the test can be a very quick and useful reality check that anyone can perform for designs before they get implemented or for existing sites planning a redesign.

Seven Characteristics of Human Behavior that Affect Web Design

The problem is often not the design but the site itself -- what the site is doing or trying to achieve. It is not failure to implement, it is a failure of intent. The seeds of failure are planted early and concern the basic impulses that drive the creation of the site from the very beginning.

There are two separate sets of goals that control any web site: the goals of the visitors -- or audience -- and the goals of the owner -- or sponsor -- of the site. Those driving impulses are different for every site, but fall into seven basic categories.

For the visitor, there are only four possible goals:

  • Help me find something
  • Help me do something
  • Help me fix something
  • Once I have satisfied all three of the above, entertain me!

As I said, the specifics of what the visitor wants to find, do, or fix are different for each site they visit. (I wouldn't try to buy a vacuum cleaner from, but figuring out why my current vacuum is making so much noise is a likely goal for a visitor to With the exception of people simply "channel surfing" the web, the goals of all of your visitors fall into one of these four categories.

From the other perspective, the web site owner has only three basic intentions:

  • Let me tell you something
  • Let me sell you something
  • Let me impress you!

These three impulses apply to all websites, even non-commercial web sites. (For non-commercial sites, "sell" can be interpreted figuratively to be an attempt to persuade the visitors to take some action: sign a petition, join an organization, etc.)

Achieving Alignment

It would seem, at first glance that aligning the needs of the owners and the audience should be simple: you want to find something and we want to sell something! Unfortunately, in practice the priorities and order of importance are often askew.

Site owners often focus on their last impulse first: let me impress you. At this point, it is fairly well accepted that elaborate flash intros to web sites are more annoying than effective. However they are still very prevalent.

Similarly, the days of commercial internet sites proudly displaying a photo and message from the CEO as a home page are pretty much over. However, many corporate intranets are still littered with web sites that prominently display a photograph of the manager, an org chart, and list of "news" stories and other managerial announcements. How does this help their employees find, do, or fix anything?

But the real problem is that the web site needs to address all of the visitors' possible needs, not just the one or two that match the owners' goals. Even if you can get past the sponsor's desire to turn impressiveness into a requirement, there is still too often a narrow focus on what the company wants to achieve and not what the users expect.

Note that addressing the needs of the visitors is not the same as solving them. If you are a manufacturer, you don't have to sell online. But you can expect at least some of your site's visitors will be looking to buy your goods, so you better tell them where they can buy your items rather than leaving them to vainly search your site and give up in frustration.

How to Use the Web Litmus Test

So, how do you apply the web litmus test? It is simple. Try this 15 minute experiment:

  1. Pick a site on the internet. Any site. (If you have a commercial site on the internet I would suggest not starting with that one. It is hard to be objective the first time.)
  2. Take 2 minutes to make a list of the things that site's visitors would want to find, do, or fix.
  3. Spend 3 minutes trying to perform each activity from the web site's home page.

The key points to note here are that the web litmus test is in no way a complete analysis of a web site. Its goal is to test the site's main features against the visitors' main goals and nothing more. So don't try to go into too much detail.

Keep it short. 1-3 specific tasks for each of the visitor goals is more than enough. And if you can't complete a task in 3 minutes, you are already spending more time than the majority of visitors would before giving up in disgust.

Again, it is not a test of the entire site. It doesn't matter whether a specific function exists on the site, but whether someone can find it in an acceptable amount of time. This is why you should always start at the home page (as visitors are likely to do).

But the best way to understand the web litmus test is to see it in action, so let's try a few of examples...

The Web Litmus Test in Action

[Continued from The Web Litmus Test]

The best way to understand the web litmus test is to see it in action, so let's try three examples.

Example #1

Let's start with an example of a site that is known to be good: Amazon.

Amazon is a retail site, so the things visitors want to find are items to buy. Which means they want to find the item, find out more about it, and then buy it. Most of the finding is finding items for sale and most of the doing is buying. (You might want to add comparing items as an activity, but you don't really need to go into that much detail.)

is equally easy. Most visitors will be trying to fix a purchase gone wrong -- not arrived, wrong item, broken item, need to cancel, need to return, etc.

Starting at the Amazon home page, you will see that finding and doing are well covered. The top of the page includes a set of tabs for browsing goods by department and a search box (which can also be filtered by department). Having found an item, the description includes many different pieces of information to help the visitor assess it's suitability (such as the vendor description, customer reviews, etc.) They even include information of items that other visitors purchased after viewing this item as a form of comparison.

Fixing is also easy on Amazon. It is not the primary activity for the site, so it is less prominent. But to make up for that Amazon provides at least three ways to reach it. Both "My Account" and "Help" on the top control bar provide information on returns, cancellations, and other changes. The most common fixes ("where's my stuff?", "shipping & returns", and "need help?") are also provided on the footer of every page. Barring all else, the help pages have a "Contact us" button.

Note that Amazon provides many, many more functions to support these and over activities. The goal of the litmus test is not to test everything; just the most obvious. And in this case it easily passes the test.

Example #2

On the whole, large retail sites will all pass the web litmus test. As well they should considering the money spent on them. If nothing else, they tend to learn and copy from each other as functions and capabilities prove successful. But smaller sites and non-retail sites are a different story. As our second example, let's look at a site that misses the mark.

Just to set the record straight, I did not pre-select this example. I thought about sites that have interesting usage models and randomly chose the United Nations.

So, why would people visit the United Nations site? What do they want to find, do, or fix? The quick list I came up with was the following:

  • Find: find out what the UN does, find out who is in the UN
  • Do: visit the UN building in New York, participate in one of their programs
  • Fix: Contact the UN delegation for your country

(There would be a separate list of activities for people who are in the UN. But my suspicion is that they have a separate intranet for those individuals. So it would not be fair to assess their public website on those functions.)

So let's look for the primary tasks. After selecting a language, there is a home page that covers a number of topics: "development goals", "news centre", "about".... One's first reaction is that the majority of these items are telling -- what the UN wants you to know -- not focused on the visitors' goals. But "about the United Nations" certainly sounds like it might cover our two finding goals. And sure enough, the first three headings on the left are "background information", "main bodies", and "main documents" (including the charter and other documents).

> > >

Unfortunately, the first link under "background information", (labeled Basic Facts About the UN) is an advertisement for a hardcopy book you must purchase. So, trying to find out what the UN is about starting from the home page and following the most meaningful links takes three clicks and leads to an offer to sell you a book. (Note the following links under "background information" do lead to meaningful information, but it is not clear that any but the most persistent visitors will find it.)

Our second finding goal is a little more successful, since the "About..." page also includes a link labeled Member States on the right-hand side. The resulting page is slightly odd since it is labeled "useful tools and documents" and does not mention the member states until halfway down the page (in reference to a press release). However, there is a link close to the top of the left-hand menu that provides a list of UN members. So it takes four clicks, but you do find the information.

> > > >

The site doesn't do nearly as well in the doing. There don't seem to be any links on the first few pages that would help you visit the UN. (In fact, I had to visit the site twice to find the appropriate information.) However, if you are persistent and visit the About the United Nations page and scroll down (it is not visible at first) you will find information on tours of several UN buildings, including the headquarters in New York.

When it comes to participating in UN activities, things get even worse. I did finally find a site that portends to help you "get involved" called UN Works. But by then I was far beyond the three minute limit, on my second visit, and found little more than ways for me to donate money.

Finally, as one might expect from the difficulties just doing, fixing is even more challenging. Although I was able to find a list of member states (during the finding task) the list is static and contains no links! There is no way to find out more or to contact the individual delegations. However, if you back up a page and ignore the body of the text, lower down on the left-hand navigation menu is an option for Permanent Missions > New York > Home Pages. this leads you to a form that lets you select a member state and get redirected to the US mission home page. If you select the United States, their home page does have an option to "contact us".

So it is possible to complete the fixing task, but it takes an unreasonable amount of detective work and far exceeds the 3 minute limit. What is worse, if you give up in frustration (which all but the most ardent visitors are likely to do) and look for a way out, some pages have a Comment link in the left-hand menu. However, rather than provide a way to provide feedback to the UN, the first two links on the comment page focus on feedback for the website only. The last link is for "comments" to a generic email account. But even that is tempered with the warning that "we may not be able to reply individually to all e-mail".

So, in essence, the site fails all aspects of the web litmus test. For sites with so many problems, the test isn't really necessary for uncovering issues. However, it can still be useful if you are trying to fix such a site. Since the number of individual problems can quickly overwhelm any repair work, you can use the test to stay focused on the primary themes and not get distracted. (Being able to see the forest for the trees, so to speak.)

Example #3

The preceding examples demonstrate the extremes. But most sites fall somewhere in the middle. Particularly for small to medium size business sites, the web litmus test can help you quickly identify gaps and dead ends.

As an example, let's look at a business site that is focused on products but not necessarily commerce. For this example, the appliance manufacturer Maytag.

Maytag makes home appliances. I suspect their primary income is generated from third-party sales -- through department stores such as Best Buy and Sears or through local appliance stores. I would further surmise that, like other manufacturers, they do not want to undercut their existing vendor relationships by competing with online sales. However, their website is very ambiguous about this.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's get back to the test.

  • What would visitors to the Maytag site want to find? What appliances and models are available, as well as more detailed information about the products.
  • What would they want to do? Buy an appliance or compare models.
  • What would they want to fix? Repair their Maytag appliances or get replacement parts or manuals for said equipment.

Now that we have identified the key activities, let's see how the site fares.

The Maytag website is very handsome. The home page has the obligatory flash animation and focuses on telling you about their latest products. However, this can be forgiven because the site overall is well structured with consistent presentation and navigation, making it easy to move around.

The primary navigation gives you three tabs: Products, Accessories, and Support, which fairly closely map to the visitors' needs to find, do, and fix. However, as attractive as the site is, its looks are deceiving.

Finding Maytag's current products is well supported. The Products tab categorizes the products by location (kitchen and laundry) and then by type. Within each type you can further filter the results by various features (such as color, size, etc.). Selecting a specific model then lets you see details concerning its features, available colors, and so on.

Doing is a little more confused. Maytag's catalog of appliances looks striking like the product catalog from a retail site such as Amazon. They even have the shopping cart and "My Account" in the top left corner. But wait... when you click on a specific model, there is no "Add to Cart" button. So, can I buy an appliance here or not?

Even more confusing, if you click on the Accessories tab, the accessories do have "Add to Cart" buttons. So, do they sell appliances or not?

If you look closely, the controls in the top right contain not only a shopping cart and account, but also a link to a "store locator". This is a common interface element for sites that sell primarily through brick and mortar retail stores. So the site -- as attractive as it is -- confuses the user by presenting contradictory interfaces. Is it online or retail sales?

This often happens because the site's sponsor is well aware they can't sell online but forgets that visitors may not know. There are any number of simple solutions to this dilemma once it has been identified. For example, you can add a "Find a Store" button on the appliance page right where the "Add to Cart" button appears for accessories. This clearly tells the visitor they can buy the item but need to do so through a retail store.

Finally, Maytag has tried to support fixing as well. And in general they are successful. But again, the missing features that the sponsor takes for granted are not apparent to the user and can cause confusion. The Support tab provides access to online copies of the manuals. (Which are also available from the individual product's details page -- well done!) It also provides a FAQ and "Service & Parts".

However, Service & Parts is really only "Service". Despite the name of the link, the page only lets you schedule a service call or find a qualified repairman. There is no way to order parts. So the site only gets 50-70% for addressing our presumed visitors' expected fixing actions.

Again, the solution is simple once the problem is identified. Adding a single sentence on the Service page stating that parts can be ordered through local service franchises (if that is the case) would be sufficient. It is not necessary to do everything the visitor needs, just provide a way to get it done.