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Teaching, rebuking, correcting & training in righteous web design.

Where worlds collide: J. Nielsen v. E-Zekiel’s 2006 award winner for usability

Looking over E-Zekiel.com’s 2006 award winner for the most usable site, I had to ask myself, what would Jakob do – or anyone else without the most recent version of Internet Explorer equipped with the Flash player?

E-Zekiel 2006 usabiity award winner

Catching up on some old ideas for posts, I came across a link where Nathan Smith writes in a post entitled ‘Fleecing the Church:’

“I’m sure that the E-Zekiel guys think that they’re doing their best. I mean, there’s no definite wrong-doing going on, other than the fact that for a fraction of the cost, you can get a much better setup …”

Indeed, after visiting E-Zekiel.com’s 2006 ‘First Place Winner for Best Usabiity‘, I had to ask myself “what were the guys at E-Zekiel thinking?” Well, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, they answer that question for me over on yet another page:

“The Best Usability category sought easy-to-use and well-thought-out E-zekiel sites that offered visitors a logical means for obtaining information. Creative and smart use of navigation, panels, body copy links, and imagery were among the factors considered.”

Compare the above to what the epitomical preacher of usability polity Jakob Nielsen has to say on the topic:

“Usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word ‘usability’ also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process.”

Okay, the differences in what both parties said isn’t so glaring, so let’s dig a bit deeper using the following metrics the good Doctor offers in his already quoted article entitled “Usability 101: Introduction to Usability” where he defines usability by five quality components:

  1. Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  2. Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  3. Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  4. Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  5. Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

Taking these above metrics and running them against E-Zekiel’s 2006 ‘First Place Winner for Best Usabiity’ (ahem): the First Baptist Church of Lubbock, Texas.

Learnability:

Hmm … right way, I’m having a problem accomplishing basic tasks for the first time I encounter the design … it appears that much of it was built to heavily leverage the use of Adobe Flash player on an Microsoft Internet Explorer browser. Not so entirely bad, had there been more conspicious warning up front rather than having to scroll down to about pixel 810 (in a 1024×768 browser resolution mind you) to find this light gray warning in small text against a dark and light gray checked background:

FBC Lubbock's not-so-learnable error message

Efficiency:

I’ll admit, I guess it should be immediately learnable that something is wrong when I set out to discover the church’s theology by virtue of their sermons – which although the latest and greatest is podcasted, I’m still unable to find the in print archives.

For the even simpler and even more common task of determining the service times, I guess I should have known to have clicked on the link of the same name – rather than the bolder and brighter link to “Visiting with us?” just above. And though both give me similar – but not the same – not so scannable text describing the services and times, it wasn’t until I scrolled down my still common among church folks 800×600 setting on the former page that I got the more recognizable and easy-to-read service day/time enumeration that most individuals are expecting to see.

FBC Lubbock's elusive service time listing

Memorability:

Speaking of more recognizable elements, I have to speculate on how intiutive and memorable “get connected” is versus something more basic and well-known, such as “calendar” or “events?” Not that I had an easy time reading through the Javascript-heavy drop-down menu not-so-efficiently obscured by unrendered flash objects, as I found some of the navigational choices colluded acronyms and member-speak:

FBC Lubbock's missing events menu

That said, once I efficiently lock-n-loaded my MSIE, Flash enabled browser, no lie on the first try, I was treated to this memorable experience that proves the aged aphorism “a picture is worth 1,000 words:

FBClub - very memorable indeed

Errors:

Well, aside from the aforementioned Flash-snafu, there are other navigational nuances I found, that if not an error, at least in need of recovery:

FBC Lubblock website not-so-obvious error message

What else is there to say about a site whose markup threw-up 46 HTML 4.01 Transitional errors?

Satisfaction:

If you want satisfaction go back and click on the image under ‘Memorability‘ … otherwise, I offer this personal opinion of said creative, smart use of navigation, ‘body copy links‘ (whatever those are) and/or imagery … go ahead … go to the website and click on the first two links of the classic E-Zekiel icon help and see how far they take you:

FBC Lubblock website not so satisfying E-Zekiel icons

So what’s my point in all this commentary? I think I have to agree in some degree with Nathan’s original point in the article initially cited. For the money multi-tenant software as a service companies such as E-Zekiel are charging, it is my humble opinion that they should perhaps rethink their definition (if not the spelling) of ‘Usabiity’ … perhaps either by re-factoring their widgets and what-not against various free, easy, and sometimes government sanctioned, ‘Step-by-Step Usability Guides‘ and/or ‘Reader-Friendliness Checklists.’

Either that – and again depending on what you charge versus your return on investment – just open up an account with BrowserCam to test one’s canned ‘navigation, panels, body copy links, and imagery.’

6 Comments

  1. test comment (& note to self): yo dean – usability means putting comment link at bottom of post on main page

    make that happen

  2. I was looking for the comment link. (Obviously) I found it eventually.

  3. Yeah Troy, I mentioned that in the 1st comment in my blackberry-induced love note to myself.

    New template, going to be some shake-out – but it is a testement to the “deploy light – tweak to perfection later” approach practiced by some of the huge software as a service companies that I’ve recently adopted.

    I’m thinking a link at the bottom is a bit more appropriate – any thougths?

    Bah, feh! How about too and bottom though I usually don’t think is usable to offer the same choice ‘two’ many times in such relatively close proximity? Just with the front or multi-article oriented page, perhaps with the too offering a count context in relation to the post date; the bottom a login requirement reminder/note? Hmmmm…

  4. Thanks for taking the time to try to help churches improve their web sites. As the Vice President of Technology and Engineering for Axletree Media, providers of the E-zekiel web solution, I would like to clear up a few misconceptions for your readers.

    Our announcement of E-zekiel awards winners is not an endorsement of the web sites that won. There are two reasons the web site won despite the significant usability issues you have identified:

    1. Only nominated sites were judged; and
    2. All of the other nominated sites were equally incompetent in the area of usability.

    The winner was, in the minds of our independent judges, the least broken of the web sites nominated.

    Axletree Media provides software capable of generating clean, standards-compliant web sites. From out-of-the-box separation of content and presentation, to automatic alt and title tags for system generated images, to system generated input labels and alt attributes, to easy-to-read print style sheets, to advanced section 508 features like a skip navigation link and table scope attributes, we have built a number of usability features into our standard content management system offering.

    We do not provide design or information architecture services nor can we be responsible for how clients or their design firms choose to implement their sites using our software. In this case, the client’s design firm was allowed to design and build the site outside our system managed code generator. All of the problems you pointed out are related to client choices or the design firm’s implementation.

    1. We do not recommend or encourage the use of Flash or specific browsers.
    2. Designs created using our Design Manager are standards compliant and cross-platform, cross-browser compatible. The customer’s design was created outside the Design Manager and was coded by the customer’s design firm.
    3. We do not approve or deny customers’ information architecture or check their content quality.
    4. The error you experienced was not there at the time of judging and was not a system error. It looks like it was generated by an erroneous include url.
    5. In July 2006, we released a new design management system. All of the designs we provide for customers and all of the designs created using the Design Manager are XHTML 1.0 and CSS 2.0 compliant (with the exception of customer sites that choose to use Mozilla’s proprietary opacity or Microsoft’s proprietary filter attributes).
    6. The “system” icons in the customer’s site are copies made by the customer’s design firm; our system only displays the first two icons if the visitor is using Internet Explorer.

    Although our customers are ultimately in control of their own content, information architecture and design choices, we also recognize our responsibility to help them succeed as they attempt to publish the good news of Jesus Christ. Immediately after the E-zekiel awards contest was held, we identified the need for our customers to understand the importance of usability and have been developing a usability-related training course for the past few months.

    Finally, as I explained to Nathan when he accused us of “fleecing the church,” unlike bargain hosting companies like 1-and-1, we aren’t just selling basic web hosting services at an inflated price. In addition to hosting and content management services, we are selling customer support for organizations that don’t have developer volunteers and need someone to hold their hands. Most companies only provide support for their applications, but our support team often finds themselves helping customers understand how to complete even the most basic non-application-related web publishing tasks. Look at our competition and you’ll find that companies selling comparable services to churches and non-profits are comparably priced.

    Sincerely,

    Todd Cotton
    Axletree Media, Inc.

  5. Thanks Todd for the information – and if you have addendums or additional information, feel free to post it. It is my policy not to edit nor censor comments that disagrees or is contrary to what I’ve written as it is good for the dialog process – so I mean it when I express my grattitude for your input (though I did add a hyperlink to your comment and formatted your enumerations as ordered lists to enhance their clarity – if that’s a no-no, just say so and I’ll revert it back to the original).

    All that said, your points above do sound somewhat as if you are throwing your customers – and said independent judges – under the bus a bit …

    … as well as taking poetic, if not at least marketing liberties with the well established and well documented term of (web) usability by picking the least broken of the bunch.

    Meaning, people will still percieve it as an endorsement because it was awarded … at least that’s my perception holding a similar position as yourself (though in a vertical that is in no way related to church web site ventures, SaaS or otherwise).

    Perhaps it would have been better just to list honorable mentions w/out a winner as a marketing means to get more E-Zekiel users into your ’07 usability initiative?

    All that said, I’m glad to hear your company undertook a re-factoring effort, I know how expensive, difficult and even unrewarding said expenditure can be. I look forward to your 2007, xhmtl 1.0 compliant award winners next January.

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