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Know Thy Users

AlbertIQ and WebWowser disappeared around the time that the DotCom bubble burst. Was it because they didn't know their users? You can decide for yourself after you've read this article.

Software developers are often tempted to design for themselves rather than for their users. It is just plain easier that way. But experienced developers point to the holes burnt in their asbestos suits as proof that breaking the "know thy users" commandment can be painful.

I recently learned of a Web-based tool that goes overboard in its efforts to abide by this commandment. The tool is WebWOWser, a product that's promised to be "a whole new way to create Web sites that's as natural as word processing, as simple as e-mail, and as fast as drag-and-drop!"

WebWOWser is being developed by an Internet startup company, AlbertIQ. On the AlbertIQ Web site you'll learn that WebWOWser "takes the mystery and hassle out of Web site publishing once and for all." It is said to be "the first real solution for everyday people who want to get their stuff on the Web their way."

WebWOWser is definitely not a tool created by developers for developers. Here are some more quotes from the AlbertIQ and WebWOWser sites. They reveal just how carefully the tool was targeted to appeal to novice users:

  • "...one-step answer for everyday people who want home pages and Web sites that are fun to build, simple to publish, and easy to maintain."
  • "...fast and friendly wizard that will walk you through the few short steps necessary to create your initial site."
  • "...helps you get the word out to friends, family, and colleagues and reports back to let you know who's been visiting."
  • "...provides you with the kind of activity reporting, security, and control that only sophisticated businesses with professional Webmasters have enjoyed until now."

OK, you have my attention

When I first learned of WebWOWser, I couldn't help but be intrigued. The designer in me was captivated by the promises to make it simple for novices to create, publish, secure, market, and track Web sites. The developer in me was fascinated by the whiz-bang technology.

The technology behind WebWOWser is definitely hot stuff. The page editor is a Java control that uses dynamic HTML to render changes to Web pages. Use of COM allows users to drag-and-drop and copy-and-paste local resources into the WebWOWser page editor. Only necessary changes are uploaded to the server, where the developers have put ASP, COM, and XML technologies to use rendering dynamic pages that reflect the latest changes made by the user.

WebWOWser is currently at a pre-beta stage of development. About two weeks ago it became available for preview in a Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0-compatible form only. Future versions of WebWOWser will support IE 4 and Netscape, AlbertIQ says. To use the preview version of WebWOWser, you'll have to enable cookies, Java, and JavaScript. And you'll need build 3,167 or later of the Java Virtual Machine installed.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid the AlbertIQ folks may lose a significant share of novice users by specifying these requirements. Such a user isn't likely to have a clue what version of what browser he's using, much less what techno-features are enabled and what Java VM builds are installed.

Put to the test

How close does the preview version of WebWOWser get to its goal of making it easy to create exciting and attractive personal Web sites? I put it through its paces to find out.

I discovered that creating an initial, attractive Web site was as fast and easy as AlbertIQ promised. First I filled out a bit of personal information. I read the terms of use and privacy policy statements -- which, I am happy to report, were written simply, clearly, and with hardly a word of legalese. Next I used a simple three-step wizard to choose the type of site (gardening or family, for example), name and describe the site, and personalize some preliminary content. Next...well, next nothing. That was it. The site was created and available for viewing on the Web.

The site was laid out neatly and written in the brief, friendly, and straightforward style that works so well on the Web. Kudos to AlbertIQ for showing novice users, by example, how to write prose for the Web.

After checking out my new site, I decided to edit it to make it more personally mine. At this point I had to wait a bit for the Java control to download. A clearly written dialog box explained the wait and told me what I could expect to see next. Then my browser showed the page editor loaded with my new site and primed for editing. The following screen capture shows a selected element (named an atom in WebWOWser terminology) ready to edit, move, or resize.

Screenshot: Home page ready to customize online.

I ran into a number of bugs, but that's to be expected with software labeled pre-beta.

Breaking the commandment?

The page editor was easy enough for me to use, but I'm far from a novice user. If I were AlbertIQ, I would definitely conduct usability tests with target users. I wouldn't expect novice users to understand, for example, anything about image formats. They would likely not know that browsers work best with small JPGs and GIFs. The WebWOWser page editor allowed me to drag-and-drop a large TIF image from my hard drive to the page without warning me that it was not a good idea.

The on-line media center is another area where novice users are sure to get confused. The media center allows users to upload graphics or select ready-to-go images and art from the WebWOWser collection. In order to upload an image, the user must first change the gallery dropdown box to My Media. That causes some extra buttons to appear, including the Add Media button. Users must click the Add Media button to reveal additional controls for browsing the hard drive and uploading the selected image. 

To add to the confusion, drag-and-drop works from the page editor but not from the media center. Any user who gets the bright idea to drag-and-drop an image, rather than hunt-and-peck to find the necessary hidden choices, is in for a surprise. The Web browser will display the image on a new page, totally dissociated from the previous media center page.

Because the page editor and media center offer the most complex features, they also present the greatest opportunity to confuse novice users. The other functions (visitor stats and "promote it," for example) are quite simple and straightforward. Even novice users should have no trouble using them.

The AlbertIQ team has made a valiant attempt to bring Web site publishing to the masses, and for the most part they appear to have succeeded. Judicious application of usability testing, focused on the most complicated features, should help the team honor the commandment: Know thy users for they are not you.

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