November 29, 2003

From Page Views to People

One of the ways in which doing business online is radically different than the real world is a remarkably simple fact that on the web you don’t see your customers. All you see is statistics: unique visits, page views, conversion etc. which say nothing about what your customers are experiencing on the site. Whether they’re smiling all the way through it or pulling their hair out.

Invisible customers

Unless you make a concentrated effort to find out, when you do business on the web your customers remain invisible. User research is the most obvious way to connect to them, to understand what they are doing, what they want and how they feel on the site. Of the several methods to conduct user research in the context of the web, I’d say the most reliable ones are: usability testing, user metrics and user feedback.

These are really simple tools and techniques to understand the user experience – usability testing shows you how customers might be using your site, a thorough analysis of user metrics gathered from log files and other tools help you understand how they are really using it and user feedback tells you what they have to say about it.

The most inexpensive and the most empowering [from a customer's standpoint] of these tools is user feedback.

Each one has its own limitations and advantages. But the most inexpensive and more importantly, the most empowering [from a customer’s standpoint] of these tools is user feedback. It is also the most direct. It doesn’t require finding test subjects, creating test conditions or interpreting the data - it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.

The Amazing Amazon

Most websites talk in monologue, there’s hardly any scope for a dialogue on them. This is particularly true of online retailers with product pages that look like right out of a machine. however, is a rare shopping site that recognised early on the importance of real interaction with the user – today, the most valuable information on their product pages are customer ratings and reviews.

It comes across as saying: "Would you like to change something here? Please let us know, we are listening."

Amazon never ceases to surprise me. After launching that remarkable search-inside-the-book feature few weeks ago, they quietly added a small feedback comment box on each product page of their site through which users can send a message to folks at Amazon. It comes across as saying, "Are there any problems with this page? Is anything broken? Would you like to change something? Please let us know, we are listening." This is tremendously empowering.

At the same time it is also a great way to save money. Consider how many places Amazon can cut costs. It fixes whatever's broken faster, it needs to scan lesser number of user comments as customers write in reporting violations and it generates invaluable feedback on whether users are having trouble in product selection. The best part is, it requires zero investment in an expensive technology.

Give Voice to Your Customers

I’m ending this post with a call to action by Seth Godin. The excerpt below is from a recent interview in which he discussed his upcoming book- Free Prize Inside - that will succeed the current best-seller - Purple Cow. The book will talk about how to implement those innovative ideas. When asked if there’s a common thread running across all his books - Amazon lists 110 of them - he gave a gem of an answer.

Number one is that treating people with respect always works better than not treating them with respect.

"Yes. If there are threads, number one is that treating people with respect always works better than not treating them with respect.

Then number two, I believe as a corollary of that, smart individuals always do things better than dumb organizations. And so if we can empower the smart individuals and organizations to move things forward -- especially if they can do it in a way that respects all the constituencies without kowtowing to them, but just respect them -- then everything works better. Our jobs are better, our companies are more productive, the products that get made are the products that should be made, and everything just turns out for the best.

The other thing is, there's a large class of people who want to read about ideas but don't want to do anything about them. So, my thought would be to say to those people: Look, you can read about this, but you can also try it for free.

So why don't you do that? Why don't you send an e-mail to a hundred people who do business with your company and ask them a question?

You can fire up Outlook Express and have an e-mail relationship with hundreds of your customers before the hour is up. So why don't you do that? Why don't you send an e-mail to a hundred people who do business with your company and ask them a question and see what they write back?

Then, have a dialogue with a hundred people for a week and see what you learn. Why don't you get your staff together for lunch and tell them that the last person who comes up with a crazy idea is fired and see what happens? There are lots of things you can do that don't cost anything, that aren't particularly frightening, that can start this process unfolding in a bunch of different directions.

But if you just keep reading about it, nothing's going to happen."

To begin treating your customers with respect start today by giving them a chance to interact with you by adding a feedback text box on every page of your site. It comes for free and it still provides enormous value. On a previous occasion, it has helped me make friends with my customers.

Related Links

Adaptive Path's Mike Kuniavsky's book: Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner's Guide to User Research
Story on Amazon's new search feature and how it's impacting sales
Don't misss the Seth Godin interview
His inspiring article in FastCompany: In Praise of The Purple Cow and his Blog
And of course, the book: Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable

November 27, 2003

MSN: a Copybot

Last week MSN launched Newsbot a news aggregation service in competition with Google News. I'm astonished that Microsoft had the audacity to use exactly the same design as Google. Admittedly, the look and feel is different but the page structure is an exact imitation. I previously mentioned a quote by Google's Marissa Mayer that it took them a good 64 iterations to finalise the Google News interface. Now Microsoft is reaping the benefits by making a simple copy and paste. It seems that the only thing that has changed is the stylesheet.

A few months ago Google served a "Cease and Desist" notice on Amazon Light - an associate that utilises Amazon's API technology for its own user interface - asking it to drop its imitation of Google's search interface. As a result, the site had to alter the design to comply with the demand.

Will Google protest against Microsoft? It's doubtful. Pushing Microsoft isn't easy. But should Google at least take it up with them? Absolutely. Microsoft's Newsbot clearly represents a blatant disregard to its intellectual property. It's a propreitary design developed at Google so they will be within their rights to lodge a protest. However, since the legal route for contesting an interface design copyright is a bit slippery, it's unlikely that it'll happen.

Related Links
Amazon Light describes the Google episode
Google's actual e-mail to Amazon Light
Current design of Amazon Light

November 17, 2003

What America Reads recently released its list of Top 50 Best-selling Books of 2003. I scoured the list looking for patterns and other facts of interest. Here's what I found.
  • More and more Americans are reading about politics. The list has ten books on the subject as opposed to eight from the previous year and just two from 2001 in the top 50. A clear evidence of how things have changed post 9/11. One out of every five best-selling books sold at Amazon today is of political nature. Most are commentaries on left-wing and right-wing politics. Other categories are: govt. policy, international relations, current events, communism, democracy and intelligence.

  • The second most popular category is Mysteries/thrillers with seven books. The count would be eleven if we also include two children's books and a couple of sci-fi and fantasy books.

  • Another popular category is self-help with as many as four books within the top fifteen. Three of these are on diet and weight loss.

  • No technology book made it to the list and there is just one on business and investing. It's Seth Godin's Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable at #35.

  • Non fiction books outscored fiction by a wide margin. There were 35 non-fiction books and 15 books on fiction.

  • The #1 book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the most discussed book on the list with a whopping 4647 customer reviews. For some reason, Natural Philosophy which only has a single review and an Amazon sales rank of 79,643 still made it to #33 in the list.

  • Customer ratings do not necessarily represent the popularity of the book. Crossroads of Twilight, #31 in the list has the minimum customer rating of 1.5 stars from 1680 reviews and Natural Philosophy has 5-star rating from a single review. Average customer rating of a book is 3.93 stars.

Fiction - 15 books

Mysteries / thrillers [7] Rank: 2, 6, 17, 19, 27, 43, 46
Children's books [2] Rank: 1, 14
Sci-fi and fantasy [2] Rank: 31, 45
General-contemporary [2] Rank: 39, 49
Religion- Christianity [1] Rank: 37
Entertainment [1] Rank: 48

Non fiction - 35 books

Politics - 10 books
General [4] Rank: 4, 9, 16, 26
Govt. policy [1] Rank: 15
International relation [1] Rank: 21
Current events [1] Rank: 28
Communism [1] Rank: 29
Democracy [1] Rank: 50
Intelligence [1] Rank: 40

Self help - 4 books
Diet and weight-loss [3] Rank: 3, 8, 12
Personal change [1] Rank: 13

Biographies [4] Rank: 5, 18, 20, 22

Sports - 3 books
Baseball [2] Rank: 11, 30
Golf [1] Rank: 34

Education [3] Rank: 7, 10, 32
True Accounts [2] Rank: 24, 42
Religion - Christianity [2] Rank: 23, 25
Cooking [2] Rank: 44, 47
Philosophy [1] Rank: 33
Business [1] Rank: 35
Dictionaries [1] Rank: 36
Publishing [1] Rank: 38
Earth Science [1] Rank: 41

The complete list of Amazon's Top 50 Best Selling books of 2003.

Best-selling by Location or Company

Browsing through the above best-seller lists, I stumbled onto a useful new feature - Purchase Circles. Amazingly, it allows you to sort best-selling books by a geographic location, company or an institution.

You can now read what they are reading in New York, Seattle or for that matter in the heart of the Silicon Valley: Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Palo alto and Los Altos.

Take a peek inside MIT, Stanford and Yale. And check out Oracle, Microsoft and Apple.

If you ever wonder what those big time consultants or ad agencies read. Here's your answer: Best-sellers at Accenture, Pricewaterhouse, Booz Allen and O&M.

I don't think many people from India buy much from Amazon, because of the high shipping costs - I usually get friends in the US to send me books. But the list of best-selling books from India is still interesting to look at.

By the way, even the U.S. Military is reading Harry Potter!

Related Links
Purchase Circles Home
Purchase Circles FAQ
More Best-sellers for: Interface Design, Web Development and if it interests you - Linux


November 15, 2003

Search Log Analysis

What terms users search for on your site, how relevant and how many results they get, what are the top queries, which queries return no results, how frequently users resort to search and whether or not they iterate their queries are all very important questions that you must answer if you want to optimise your internal search engine performance.

A very useful discussion on Search Log Analysis is going on over at Lou's blog. Here's a quote by Walter Underwood:
Query logs are gold, because they show the terms that your visitors use, instead of the ones that you use. Every other measurement on your site describes your links that use your words. This is where the visitors speak.

Related Links
How to create your own search log analysis tool in MySQL.
B&A article: What Is A Controlled Vocabulary?
Richard Wiggins explains Thesaurus and Best Bets search results. View in HTML or download Detailed PDF[612kb].
Papers presented at CHI 2003 on Search including this one on Search Log Analysis.

November 09, 2003

Tangible Computing at MIT

Sorry for the lack of updates on my part, but has this been a busy month, or has this been a busy month...

Anyway's I was making a post on my blog that seemed quite relevant to this one too. So here's shared posting...

James Patten is PhD candidate with MIT Medial Lab's Tangible Media Group and his work on the physical object based interfaces is truly amazing to look at.

But are these 'Tangible Interfaces' really intuitive? They look very cool though. I'm sure this will have its own learning curve. But with the number of Sci-Fi movies featuring such futuristic interfaces, I'm sure they will be all too familiar by the time they move from fiction and research labs into reality...
originally posted by Navneet