How to Improve the Web

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A handful of Web heavyweights offered tips for businesses and Web designers trying to entice customers to their sites, along with offering their visions of the next big opportunities online, at the closing of the Webstock 2009 conference.

The line-up included Tom Coates from Yahoo Brickhouse, science fiction author and internet critic Bruce Sterling and Damian Conway, known as "the mad scientist of Perl." The five-day event in Wellington, New Zealand ran from February 16 through 20.

Wanted: Better Design

The Web still sucks for mortal users, said Conway. His presentation aimed to deliver "a service pack for the whole damn Web." The problem, basically, is web designers, he said. Web designers need a new ideal, where they view themselves more as practitioners rather than "demi-gods," he said jokingly.

Conway suggested Web designers should follow five basic rules. The first is to help customers find you, he said. Search engine optimization is not enough.

"We are crap at naming things in the Web 2.0 world," he said, citing names with "oo" and Zs in them, but which do not necessarily describe what the Website actually does. The second rule is to help customers quickly and easily find information on the site. How about a sitemap on the first page, he suggested. Third is to help customers read the information -- don't keep interrupting them with, for example, talking people popping up on the site. Fourth, help customers understand the information by finding the right balance between color, information, and structure. A Website with too little information and too much structure is as unhelpful as a site brimming with unstructured information, he said.

The fifth, and perhaps most important rule, is to help your customers buy products from your site, or download information, or whatever else the purpose of your site is. Conway says 60 percent of online shopping carts are abandoned. Why? Often because of a complicated, tedious pre-registration process as well as error messages that kill consumers' confidence in the site, he said. Optional post-buy registration might be a better idea, he suggested.

Conway also told the audience to break out of the Web 2.0 thinking patterns and put their sites under some pressure, for instance testing how the sites do with your least favourite colors, or without images and links. A well-designed site will still be robust under reasonable, and unreasonable, perturbations, he said.

Sharing is the Future

Tom Coates told Webstock attendees there is a big future opportunity in helping people capture, manage, access, and share information about themselves and their location. The capturing, exploring and recombining of social data will lead to many new possibilities. "It is the new data sources that are driving the creation of new products, not technology," he said.

Coates is involved in developing Fire Eagle, a Yahoo service designed to make it easy to build and use location-aware applications and services. The service lets users store and manage information about their current location that trusted applications and sites can update or access, he said.

Another presentation that stood out, captured the audience and received enthusiastic applause was online performance artist Ze Frank's talk about his wish to create a dialogue with the online audience and the "social resonance" some of his projects have led to. Ze Frank has, for example, developed Flowermaker, where people can create their own flowers and name them; and Young me now me on Twitter, where people posted pictures of themselves as children and then created a similar picture of themselves now with hilarious results. He also came up with the Earth sandwich idea, with the first example being created by a team in Spain and a team on the opposite side of the world in New Zealand. The teams placed a piece of bread on the ground on each side and created the biggest sandwich in the world.

Down With Web 2.0 -- Maybe

Bruce Sterling did his best to rip the concept of Web 2.0 to shreds by reading to the audience a beautifully written, non-stop satirical essay that criticized just about everything that Web 2.0 -- a term coined by Tim O'Reilly in 2004 -- stands for.

But it is debatable whether his message hit home. A quick look around the room during the talk revealed that many were busy doing work, e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter applications on their laptops. Halfway through the presentation, the signature "hades" twittered: "I imagine webstock09 peeps are trying to decide which of the 2 camps they're in -- those who get Bruce Sterling's talk and those who don't."

This story, "How to Improve the Web" was originally published by Computerworld New Zealand.

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