Wednesday May 14, 2008

Sharing Your Opinion

I just had a call with Ben, Mr Usability, regarding some work we need to collaborate on as part of our web feedback program. We've been looking into the user experience across our feedback systems on various venues and trying to simplify and standardize a number of the interactions. This effort has been really quite specific in focus for sun.com, based on the nature of how we gather feedback there through our contact forms, but we really do a whole lot more than just ask you to point out broken links and typos.

You may have noticed that we've rolled out the 'floating math' feedback widget across sun.com. In fact, the widget, in various formats, is rolled out across a wide range of Sun web venues and is gathering mightily useful data from those sites. Well, aside from the comments about how we suck particular parts of primates anatomy, of course, but, in general, specific, constructive and informative.

The whole thing is powered by lovely people at OpinionLab, and I was lucky enough to have Ben walk me through the administration interface to give me a better understanding of the capabilities of their templated comment card system and the deployment of widgets and embedded components. There was a time when we would take a look at a system like this, kind of like it, and then build our own. On Solaris. Using vi. Thankfully, we're much more ready these days to let folks who really know what they're doing provide these services (yes, I know we have to pay), and work out how they interconnect and communicate with our own systems. In the case of OpinionLab, is seems this is an exercise that they are more than happy to work with us on to get right, which is good, because now they'll have to work with me to try and get it right, which is a user experience I can't possibly comment on.

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Listening Post: Bloc Party: Atonement

Tuesday Apr 08, 2008

Ad Server Finger Drumming

It is quite possibly a consequence of my patience becoming inversely proportional to my age, but recently, waiting for ad servers to respond in order to complete loading a page is really ticking me off. I'm not bothered about about ads which take a while to load while I'm actually reading the page I requested, but what really gets my fingers drumming on the desk and puts my laser mouse in imminent danger of being crashed unceremoniously against the woodwork with accompanying cries of "c'mon! C'MON-AH!", is ad server code that halts a page load mid-stream until its finished its business. I'm sure the page owners have bought into the most efficient geo-located edge-based web service out there, so why is it increasingly the case that while pages get faster, ad servers seem to get slower? Perhaps it's a deliberate interaction feature, I mean, nothing grabs your attention more than a broken page, but from a customer experience point of view, I don't think that's a journey I would normally care to continue with.

I'm aware that we deploy our own ad server across sun.com, and that's not always bulletproof, but, as you might imagine, I look at as many sun.com pages as any other commercial/consumer sites, and I never have noticeable ad server lag on sun.com. I'm not exactly co-located with the sun.com servers either, being on the free internet in the UK, so I don't get any special treatment. Maybe because we own the deployment of our own ad server, we're in a much better position to monitor performance and make adjustments - I can't pretend to understand the technology behind it (well, ok, I can) - whereas, as is the case for any web service you buy into, if you get your ads delivered by a 3rd party, you can't do much about the external reference issues. That's been true of any page you care to publish since html 1.0 - once you include external references as core components of your page, you're really asking for trouble, notwithstanding any service level agreements you might have in place (and they're always great, right?).

Even as I write this, I'm looking at Facebook and waiting for a hair loss ad to appear in the left-hand navigation. It doesn't actually break the rendering, but it does annoy me all the same - the delays, not because it's targeted me for hair loss products. Although, that is pretty annoying...

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Listening Post: Spiral Vertigo: What I'd Really Like To Say

Thursday Mar 13, 2008

Sun.com Works of Art

Not my words. Those good folks at siteIQ conducted a regular, in-depth, web site best practice review of sun.com towards the end of last year, and there were some great highlights. There were plenty of lowlights too, of course, and we're already figuring out our way forward as we try and resolve some of those, but, as I have my trumpet out, I'm about to blow it.

We put a great deal of effort into how we support customers through the buying cycle. In the past, we've not had great success with integrating ecommerce activities into our product pages. Product buying has always been something of an uncomfortable appendage on sun.com - a kind of strange distended web version of the dead people in the Sixth Sense - but, in recent years, we've evolved our ecommerce capabilities into a compelling, well-rounded customer experience. Its very satisfying to see that the latest siteIQ report picks up on this and singles out the 'Get It' tab on our product pages for singular praise. From the report (referencing the Sun SPARC Enterprise T5220 Server):

"Kudos to Sun.com for a 'Get It' page that is truly a work of art. This page starts by putting SPARC servers in multiple contexts for visitors, including price, compute power and scalability."
"This page leads to a short and well crafted e-commerce clickstream that allows buyers to quickly configure additional options and purchase the product in two additional clicks."

The fact that this whole experience hangs together so well is due to some supercool customer experience and interactive design work in the web experience team, and some key collaborations with our publishing and engineering teams and ecommerce vendors. What we're actually talking about here is the seamless integration of of the ecommerce platform, that drives the transactions, with the sun.com environment, where we're supporting your decision making process. That Get It tab is part of the sun.com information architecture, of course, and navigating between tabs on a product page is a consistent and coherent design experience and all that, but its not actually on sun.com at all. Toot!

That last bit was my trumpet, by the way.

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Listening Post: Beth Orton: Someone's Daughter

Friday Jan 18, 2008

Social Share and Subscribe Shortcuts

I'm sure, as usual, I'm way behind the curve here, if way behind the curve is a valid expression for being slow on the uptake, but I've just found the useful social bookmarking widget button things at addthis.com. I've opted into our beautifully crafted Sun template on this blog (which you probably don't see anyway, because you're using a feed reader), and out of hacking roller templates and html, so I've not added them here, but I have added them here.

I had, in a previous bout of template shenanigans, tried to add all the delicious, digg, facebook, etc. links in my permalink and day entries and that worked fine, as long as nothing changed and I didn't need to add any other web services. But, of course, I do. So when I spotted the addthis link on Martin's blog, I figured I would get me own. I expect it'll work perfectly for six months, like Natuba did, and then they'll try to monetize the service and turn it into some cracked up social information troll device selling wallpapers, but, for now, it does what it does, which is takes all the hard work out of keeping track of all the bookmarking, sharing and feed/subscription services out there. Not that anyone will actually share or bookmark anything where I've used it, but that never stopped me spending hours on top-aligning an RSS icon for the same purpose.

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Listening Post: Doves: Sky Starts Falling

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The Sun Web Experience Design team is a group of user experience professionals committed to making the online experience with Sun the best it can be.

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