Friday Apr 04, 2008

You Know, Like CNET

Before you even get to the point where you ask 'what is your content?', there's an apparent understanding that you need to work out how it surfaces all over your site. Since the very early days of sun.com, one of the biggest goals, as far as maintaining a healthy visitor profile goes, is just how to make things sticky. I'm not talking sticky as in the stuff that makes you go eeuw, but sticky like the invisible elastic brain rubber that compels you, against the gravity of your free will, to revisit those places online that have already visited. It's the same reason you go back to Fry's every so often, just to see if there's any new technology stuff to dribble over, or why you ping last.fm or iTunes to keep up with released, related, and recommended. It might also be the reason you visit Gap every Friday lunchtime - you're just checking it out to see what's new.

But how do you know what's new and where do you expect to find that out? When you're looking at something the scale of sun.com and trying to determine customer behaviours for a given page type, it's not alway a simple task to predict. You might be the kind of visitor who would casually visit the sun.com home page and, not unreasonably, expect to see anything newsworthy enough, that you might be compelled to actually invest time in, to be present right there. You might be more specific than that. You might be the CTO for an SMB or some other suitable market research defined acronym pairing, in which case, you'd probably know that we've got a place just for you, where you'd expect announcements, deep-dives and news to appear, relevant to your needs. You might even have a large propeller sticking out of your head and be interested only in what's going on with Sun Virtual Desktop Infrastructure and how that relates to your development requirements for your linear accellerator or something. Either way, when we've got news for you, we want you to find it. And we want you to come back again. And again. And again.

So that's why we're currently investigating new approaches to surfacing the bestest, most currentest, content around, that's relevant to you, in a way that's going to make you want to come back often, but not take all day to consume when you're engaging with us. One of the ideas we're floating around (or select another flagpole/envelope/conceptualization buzzword bingo term of your own there) is content channels. You know, like CNET. We could funnel these content streams into various containers on product pages, gateways, category pages, etc., so that what's most relevant to you is right there, where you want it, on-demand, so to speak. In terms of web design, this a quite a nice proposal, as we can have the content live elsewhere and suck it through a virtual 'news pipe', which spits it into, for instance, the servers container. Which would probably be quite sticky. Of course, someone, somewhere, needs to be owning, managing, publishing and maintaining the channels, but on the assumption that that would be possible, then a modular approach to deploying those channels where it makes most sense would be, um, neat.

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Listening Post: The Who: I Can See For Miles

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

Wednesday Mar 12, 2008

Unified Web Feedback

If you really want to let us know what you think, there's any number of ways you can let us know, but these days, we should expect you to chose the web as your primary channel. In other words, we should support you pretty well on Sun's multiple web venues if you want to provide feedback on our products, services, or simply to let us know that the x4100 page has an apostrophe in the wrong place (which was probably something Iv'e done).

The truth is rather more sobering, as it is for many large-scale web sites. That's not to say we score badly. Its just that there is room for improvement. In the last year, there has been a team at Sun dedicated to resolving all our customer interaction issues, whether it be from first contact on a sales phone line, or a click on an email link, or even when you get your hands on a piece of Sun hardware and open the box. They're even looking at the box. One of the key components of that work is understanding the customer journey from first contact through to resolution. That might be manifest as a phone tree, or telesales lifecycle, or as a web feedback system.

One of our biggest tasks in understanding how to design a web infrastructure to support the wide range of web feedback we receive at Sun, is to map the customer journey from first contact, through task filtering and into an internal feedback system. Broadly speaking, this customer interaction can be categorized in three distinct phases; invitation, submission, confirmation. Within those phases, there are a number of related subtasks and subsystems that actually make the thing run (technical term there), but from a design perspective, we're really considering how to seamlessly manage the transition between phases and ensure a satisfactory conclusion for our customers. In addition, of course, the whole experience should be simple, consistent and concise.

Its a challenging task, and we're trying to accommodate multiple feedback types across multiple venues, and, naturally, tight project deadlines (which means I should probably be building wireframes instead of writing this). Where we're focusing our efforts right now is on just how far we can go with contextually-driven feedback. If we're able to categorize the invitation in terms of the customer task and the current context, we should, in theory, be able to cut a swathe through a task filtering navigation path and drive straight to the submission phase, where any options or forms are specific to the task. However, we can't be completely confident that our invitations will always be contextually clean. We'll often use a global navigation component to host a persistent link, and it wouldn't be enough to simply assume that because a customer clicked on a link labeled 'feedback' in a footer on a product page that they are necessarily wanting to provide feedback on that product. They might just want to tell us the site is very slow today. It may also be true that even though they may have accepted an invitation to feed back on a particular product, what they really want to say is that we've actually speelled the product incorructly, which we might call a 'typo', which as everyone knows, goes straight to the jitterbug queue labeled 'null'. Only joking.

Why is it unified web feedback? Well, feedback systems evolve, much like web sites evolve. In fact, feedback and venue, in a multi-venue operation such as we have at Sun, are inextricably linked, so we've nurtured distinctly different feedback systems on venues such as sun.com, developer.sun.com, java.sun.com and others. As we try to align operations across venues and increase efficiency for our customers, we're just trying to get to a place where we can synchronize activities more effectively. As far as design goes, unification, even though I''m cursorily referring to it here, is a sizeable problem, so I'm hoping nobody notices that I haven't cracked that nut yet.

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Listening Post: Aphex Twin: Flaphead

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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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