Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Blogs: User Friendly or Simply Confusing

A recent study done by the Catalyst Group about blog usability called "Net Rage" gives insight on the confusion that is still out there regarding blogs. Overall, the gist of the study is that, to the "Common Joe", blogs and bloggers are neither as mainstream nor as easy of a concept to grasp as is typically preached by the web savvy.

At times, blogs & bloggers have even been referred to as a cult of sorts. This misidentification could be due to the terminology, writing style and method of formatting that blogs entail. From those factors, terminology could be the main factor that alienates people from utilizing this medium. Relating new terminology to familiar terms and putting things into a relatable perspective is suggested to help move blogs into the mainstream. In other words, clarification and a little 'Blog 101' might help.

An excellent summary regarding the Catalyst Group's study is by David Coursey, who has written an op-ed, in which he sums it up by stating that "We are all in a learning-by-doing stage" where blogs are concerned.

Below are the major points that Coursey extracted from the "Net Rage" study:

1) The participants looked at the site and were surprised to find out they were on a blog. Whatever "fuzzy ideas" the participants had about what blogs are, they didn't match what they found.
2) Nearly all of the participants said there was no clear distinction between the blog and BusinessWeek's online magazine. The blog pages didn't identify themselves as such, and the style of writing (short items) and format (categories, archives) didn't communicate "blog" to the subjects tested.
3) Participants didn't understand what would happen when they posted a comment, whether all posts appear or just an edited selection. It was not clear why the subjects might want to post.
4) The concept and mechanics of RSS "failed utterly with test participants," the executive summary said. While frequent blog users see RSS feeds as a central part of a blog's value, the test participants didn't understand that at all.
5) XML and RSS buttons, even brightly colored ones, didn't attract the subjects' interest. Terms more common to newsletters and e-mail (subscribe, update, etc.) would be more easily understood.
6) You cannot underestimate users' privacy and security concerns.
7) None of the participants understood trackbacks or trackback pings, which makes me (David Coursey) feel better since I've never paid any attention to them.

So, how can this confusion about blogs be clarified? One way would be to go on a campaign to educate the public on what a blog is and how to navigate, identify and make use of them. Another much more practical way, is peer to peer relay. And for the most part that is what has been done. Blogging has come to the attention of people via other people.

And as the numbers of bloggers are increasing they will inevitably turn to avenues that produce subscribers/readers. After all, what good is writing if no one is reading? So evolving naturally, thru the people involved and the desire to be read, avenues that get the word out and also educate users on the medium will be found.

But maybe all the concern about the "Common Joe's" confusion is being over hyped. After all, necessity is the mother of invention. And if it's necessary for the "Common Joe" to have the information blogs provide then a way to easily deliver that information will be invented. In fact, we may already be witnessing it in the integration of RSS readers and web browsers.

So, while this report provides some keen insight, let's remember that most people probably still don't know what an ISP, an OS, or even a URL is yet manage to use them every day.