Thursday, January 31, 2008

How many webmasters does it take to change a light bulb or fix a tap handle?

Sign on library tap. Photo by  Paul HagonThe January meeting of the Web Standards Group in Canberra today featured discussion of light bulbs and the design of the tap handles in the National Library of Australia toilets.
Geoff Dibley talked about the design of search facilities for the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF). He was previously at Geoscience Australia and brought an insightfully analytical approach to the issue.

Geoff started by relating the problems of finding a specific sort of light bulb on a home shopping web site. It turned out that products for the sight had been categorized according to where they were located in a physical supermarket, which did not help the online shopper.

A little humor was injected by one audience member commenting they were from Customs, where "internal search" had a very different meaning from the web use of the term.

Paul Hagon, talked about the redesign and search analysis of Picture Australia's site. He started with a photo of the instructions above the tap handle in the toilets at the library. This is the same tap handle I photographed, commented to NLA about and used in my web design lectures at ANU, as an example of what not to do. The point of this, as Paul pointed out, the large set of instructions indicate that the interface needs to be made simpler: be it a tap handle or web search facility.

Paul had useful advice, backed up by statistics. Most users only enter one, two or three keywords for a search, they do not use advanced searches. The experts who ask for complex search facilities only make up a tiny fraction of users, make them a specialist search page, if you must. About a third of referrals come from public search engines, so make sure they can easily index your content. Items in the news suddenly become popular and you need to be able to direct readers to these. The topics may come from the international media, not just local.

One surprise was that one quarter of queries on the DAFF web site were about jobs. This is something agencies usually hide away in a sub menu, but perhaps need to make more prominent. It may also suggest that the Australian Government should take a more coordinated approach to providing job information.

ps: I asked Paul if his tap handle photo was indexed on Picture Australia. He said not yet, but may be in a few days as it is on Flicker and that is now included. But there are some tap handles already in the database.

1 comment:

Paul Hagon said...

Tom - hope you enjoyed the talk. I've added the tap photo to Picture Australia so it will appear there soon.