Monthly Archives: November 2009

Yesterday’s webinar – learning the hardway

Stressed out bride to be, tearing her hair out

It wasn’t exactly hidden in the fineprint. The guidelines for running a mini-conference session clearly included something called a back-up plan. Most of my other classmates on the Facilitating Online Communities (FO09) course referred to some sort of alternative should things go astray during their session.

Based on intermittent access to Elluminate, the online learning environment, during the course and numerous technology hiccups with software on a weekly basis, I should have realised the importance of a back-up plan.

Yesterday, during the session I facilitated on using online tools for conservation planning I didn’t have a plan. So when things went wrong I was out on a perilous limb.

At 1.55pm I saw new people trying to enter the meeting room, but not gaining access I got a sense something was not quite right. Several emails alerted me to a message people trying to sign-in were receiving: the web meeting room is full.

Quickly searching the web I quickly realised I’d exceeded the limit of the trial account. How could I have not looked into that!! In hindsight, I know more indepth reading of the terms would have uncovered this basic condition.

Without a back-up plan I wasn’t really able to juggle the dozen things that needed to happen simultaneously. With some swift action by our tutor Sarah I did manage to find an alternative meeting space using Elluminate. My guest presenter Caroline Lees (co-covenor of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group) not only was able to login in, but she very quickly adapted to unfamiliar software.

The supportive words from my classmates and Caroline’s insightful presentation meant I feel we salvaged something. A recording will be available soon.

However, without a list of email addresses I wasn’t able to contact people who hadn’t been able to join in. Unfortunately, I lost many participants along the way.

Somewhat humbled by the experience, wistfully wondering if perhaps I was somewhat overconfident, it’s a true understatement to say I’ve learned a few things. I’m going to note a few reflections here.

  1. Have a back-up plan. Not just some notional one, but a properly tested one. In this case having quick access to the list of email addresses so I could notify people would have helped.
  2. Try to have a second facilitator or support person. When things went wrong, I just didn’t have a enough time to send emails, communicate in the first software programme, set up Elluminate, coach Caroline on the new software, etc. This is a good idea even if when things go well. It’s quite a handful keeping an eye on the chat thread for questions, noting down URLs, contributing follow-up questions with a guest, and technical problem solving.
  3. Practice. Practice. Practice. Learning in this space takes more than reading or listening to good advice. Take every opportunity to learn.
  4. Have guidance on likely technical hiccups on hand, eg how participant’s can connect their microphone. An instruction document or screenshots would be a big help. If it’s really important to have all participants join in, coach people through this before the meeting proper through one-to-one sessions. This is something Caroline said was relevant to the mala online workshop process.

I’ve been really been fortunate to make a stumble running my first webinar within the supportive environment of the FO09 class. The encouraging comments and joint problem solving means a lot. A thread running through our discussions, made very visible last night during a session hosted by Catherine, is that making mistakes is a learning strategy.

Despite this rather stressful formative experience I still believe online learning has a lot to offer community and voluntary groups. I’m going to quietly look into running a series of webinars in 2010 about using technology powerfully for good causes.

Photo credit: Brittney Bush.

No excuses – budget usability testing

Ignore website visitors at your peril. That was the message Natasha Lampard gave participants at the Engage your community conference last week.

Nathasha, former head of user experience at TradeMe and web usability advocate, says if your website isn’t designed with your users in mind it’s simple: they’ll leave.

Ostentatious descriptions of usability are common, but don’t be put off. The idea at the heart of usability is removing friction visitors encounter when they’re trying to achieve something on your website. Whether it is donating money, signing up to a newsletter, comparing prices or any other task, Natasha says people should not be made to feel stupid or fail.

It’s a mindset as much as a technical challenge. Natasha likened it to inviting people over to your place. As host you proffer tea, solicit conversation and show people where the bathroom is. Online it is curiously similar where website owners or custodians want you to come to their place. Regard for others by displaying courtesy and manners is crucial.

Building usability into a website development process isn’t just about talking to users when you’ve almost finished building your website. It can be included along the way, as the step-by-step usability guide produced by usability.gov shows.

When it comes to usability testing Natasha suggested a guerilla approach. Even simple, DIY testing with 4-6 people can bring dramatic improvements to your website.

This idea is not a new one. Web writing sage Rachel McAlpine shared her thoughts on DIY usability testing in about 2002 (see The Hey, You! user-test in action, Web site usability testing: recommended procedures and Rough and ready website usability testing).

I’ve used this guidance, which includes coaching on how to set up sessions, elicit feedback with prompts and decide on priorities. It works. As a result of testing I’ve addressed problems with terminology, the location on a page of key tasks and a lack of contextual information.

An added cheap tool in the usability toolkit was introduced by Nathan Donaldson, who was a guest speaker in my “Getting the quality website your organisation deserves” workshop.

Boost New Media, which Nathan runs, wanted a way to simplify the collection of user feedback on websites as works in progress. IntuitionHQ provides a tool to track where users actually click on a pages in response to instructions to complete key tasks (eg click where you think you sign up for the e-newsletter).

Whether the tasks are completed by 10 or 200 people, the results show where clicks cluster and the outliers. The heat maps, which are like abstract splatter art, can then be analysed to identify improvements.

Anyone can trial IntuitionHQ for free, with each test costing just US $5.

Regardless of the methods you use to garner feedback, it’s important to plan usability in from the start. Some of the testing you may do yourself, other parts may be included in the brief for your paid or volunteer website designer, or you may contract a specialist service. Just remember, as Natasha says “lets give people a break and give them what they want”.

PS: I will be running the “Getting the quality website your organisation deserves” workshop in 2010. Watch this space.

PPS: Natasha is Senior VP of Webstock, two days of standards based web design, good coffee, conversation and trends 18-19 February 2010 in Wellington. Early bird registration ends 4 December.