Over to you

Pro tip: Never advertise something as part of a two-part series unless you have both parts already written.   Sigh.   You can triple this if Thing 2 is slightly harder to dash off than Thing 1. (It will come, but I’m in lockdown at the moment what with project deadlines and the upcoming End of Term).

I’m reviewing the blog and what I write here as part of a massive review of my online er, empire and so I’m interested: who are you? why do you read this blog?  Are there things you’d like me to write about more?

I could write more:

– anguished personal insights

– hints and tips and how to dominate the world

– srs research and usability insights

– random mix of whatever comes to mind

– something else! e.g. what is this science communication of which you speak?

…Hmm.  Hmm.  Has anyone in the whole history of blogging, ever replied to this types of desperate placeholder of a post?  Everyone is too busy working or coming up with their own plans to dominate the world.   This is occasional brain candy for the easily distracted. Or, fodder for the Korean spammers with their links to weight-loss sites.

Also, it’s Monday, when true blog commenters are blearily considering their to-do lists and wondering if it’s really lunchtime yet.


How to evaluate your website, Part 1

I have done shedloads of website usability in my time.  Some projects are straghtforward, others are very complicatedThis is my guide to thinking about your own assessment – you might still need to do user testing, but this should start to surface the glaring problems.

1. Define your website’s goals

Your goals may be many and varied.  List them all out before you start.

  • Enabling people to do their banking online
  • Informing prospective students about evening classes
  • Persuading visitors to come to your gallery
  • Providing up-to-date information about genetics research
  • Helping people find out about your company
  • Selling clothes/books/DVDs
  • Showing site visitors that you are cool and happening

Brainstorm them, and then group them roughly into the hard goals (the concrete things that you want people to do next, like order something or make a call, or bookmark the page); and the soft goals, like the image or values that you want to convey.

You might want to put them in rough order of importance.  Even now, you may be able to able to spot some obvious flaws. ‘We want people to sign up for our newsletter, but we’ve buried the link in tiny print at the foot of the page.’

2. Think about the typical website visitor’s journey through your site

This is usually called ‘the user journey.’  There will be a number of these.  Some of them will be very important to you, others might be less important or less obvious.

So.  What do people do here?  What different journeys can you identify?  Here are some to get you started.

  • Browsing for information (about products/costs/opening times)
  • Choosing something, or making a shortlist
  • Downloading a report
  • Buying or booking
  • Ordering a prospectus
  • (Often forgotten) Looking up your postal address
  • (Often forgotten) Finding travel instructions before a meeting

Also think about the difference between the journeys taken by the first-time visitor and the returning visitor.

3.  Check out your website’s performance on the basics

If the basics don’t work, you can forget about everything else.

Navigation (menus, tabs, headers, footers, links)

  • Can your visitors find their way easily around the site?
  • Does your navigation look like the navigation on most websites? (Hint: Horizontal scrolling is unusual)?
  • Can visitors find everything they want (products, Head Office, privacy policy, vacancies etc)?
  • Can they find their way back to the Home page? Even if they don’t know about the convention of the header doubling as Home link?

Navigation is often a real problem for visitors.  It can also be the hardest for site owners to understand, because they know where everything is.


  • Does everything work? (links, downloads, video)
  • Does it work across all the important browsers/platforms?
  • Does it work quickly? If it works slowly, does the process keep the user informed?
  • If it doesn’t work, does it degrade gracefully? (Hint: Have a look at your 404 page)


  • Is the language clear and appropriate to your users?
  • Are your instructions friendly or nasty? (Hint: Fill in your forms and leave out some of the fields. How do you feel about the error messages?)

Basic Accessibility

  • Is the text easy to read (reasonable size, good contrast, pleasant background colours)?
  • Is text size adjustable?


  • Do the colours, layout and images reflect the message you want to send to visitors?
  • Does it look…designer, professional, ordinary, folksy, edgy, homemade…?
  • Is that what you’re aiming for?

4. Assess how you are doing with the main user journeys

You can score them if you like. Nothing complicated: excellent, room for improvement, poor, entirely missing.

Focus in particular on what your visitors do when they come to look around, and then what happens when they take action.

5. Look back at your master goals list

You should have enough information by now to understand whether you are meeting some of those goals.   You may find that some are easily ticked off as excellent or circled as having problems that need solving. However, there will be a few left where you don’t have enough information to proceed.  You may not know how real users view the site (in which case you need to get some feedback from real people), or you may feel that the basics are in place but the site is underperforming.  Now you need to start the hard thinking about how to improve the website design so that you meet your goals.

In Part 2 (up early next week) I’ll run through my process on solving the thorny areas where the site is clearly underperforming.

Fighting on the Internet

I have a confession: I’m terribly fond of reading (mostly) American self-help blogs.  These are aimed at small businesses and entrepreneurs who want to develop their business.  There are some excellent people doing interesting work out there, even if they are a bit too devoted to the cause of Seth Godin.

This week, I swear that Mercury must be in retrograde.  These are people who usually spend their entire professional lives being relentlessly upbeat (and charging you at least $47 for an ebook on how to improve your life).   However, this week I have already read two major tirades about the horror of internet marketing programmes (written by internet marketers in the same circle, generating screeds of impassioned comments); and now today, one of my favourite small-business bloggers has written a whole piece about being dissed by one of her clients who reacted badly to an appointment that was missed.  Commenters soothe the ruffled OP until the Client Scorned shows up to put her side of the story, and boof, we’re off.     Fight fight fight.  (And then comment deletion.  Sigh.)

…It’s like Livejournal, or Techcrunch just after Steve Jobs has launched something.  I mean, I know internet drama.  I just don’t expect it on a WordPress clone.

I suspect this is what happens to people after slightly too long spent Being Really Positive.  On the  plus side, it clears the air. On the negative side, well, it’s bad for everyone.  There is a huge amount of trust involved in buying coaching services online.   People are not always confident.   And in this context, seeing a blogger or indeed a commenter go off on someone can really give one pause for thought.

Personally, I am not sure that  modern business relationships are going to survive the Twitter Search function. Or, OMG, trackbacks.

Fluffy frameworks


Scaffold, by kevindooley on flickr

I gave a brief presentation at the 2010 Science Communication conference yesterday, talking about the work that I did with the Sanger Institute on professional development in science communication.  You can download the report here.

The very concept of a framework was quite worrying to some people, for all sorts of reasons.  In bureaucratic-leaning organisations, things on paper can often take on a life of their own.   Personally I like frameworks because they help organise my thinking, but they shouldn’t stand alone.  They are not the Thing Itself, they are support for the Thing.   I am now pondering a picture of a fluffy, marshmallow-like framework.  A see-through skeleton perhaps: fine and strong, but not terribly visible to the naked eye.

Backstage peformances


Backstage by DanielaNob on flickr

I’ve been re-reading Erving Goffman, who wrote a seminal wee book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which Goffman wrote about our daily life as a series of performances – and indeed, a constant shifting between formal performances on the big stage, and informal ‘backstage’ chitchat.

I’ve been working on a social media project for the last few weeks, and one thing that strikes me is the loss of backstage in internet-mediated conversation.    It used to be that you had a bad day and you moaned about it to your sympathetic friends over a pint.  Job done, and no (particular) danger that your friends will tell all their other friends.

It’s getting complicated now.  Whether you lead an online life in public, or pseudonymously, or buried under 130 Facebook privacy settings, your online buddies can often check out what you said unguardedly 6 months ago.   I think we’re aware of this, that there is a large audience who may read our artless thoughts on Lady Gaga or Seth Godin and who may not always approve of our critical stance. ^^

Beyond the response of our known online audience, there is the business of large-scale analysing, scraping, searching, mining, and aggregating.     I link to your post (moaning about your unreconstructed opinions), you read your pingbacks and come over to complain.   Perhaps Seth Godin and Lady Gaga get bored one day and hunt down our complaining reviews, and set their internet pack-dogs free.   Someone finds our angry, stupid comment and complains to the police.   Maybe our social network helpfully allows our text to be searched and aggregated, so that the world can know  what we think of our boss.

We know this, I think.   Perhaps we learn it painfully.  We take care of our public performances, even when they look private.  We might look like we’re merely chatting idly to the make-up artist, but we’re also keeping one eye on the mirror.

Our unvarnished opinions aren’t even backstage.  They’re in the interstices, the cloakrooms, the whispered conversations.    And if you’re analysing free-flowing conversation openly available on the internet, you’re looking at a hell of a lot of minor performances.

Some thoughts on learning new science

I’m now half-way through my Higher Certificate in Genetics.  The course is run by the redoubtable Institute of Continuing Education at Cambridge, and every Tuesday evening for the last two terms, I’ve been knuckling down with about 15 other mature students to learn about DNA and modern evidence for evolution.

It’s been interesting.  I was a straight-arts student at school, fairly steeped in language, literature and history, who went on to do experimental psychology at university.    To my friends in Art History or German, I was Nearly A Scientist (Although Weird).   Of course, to those studying Biochemistry or Physics, I was merely doing one of those Mickey Mouse social ‘sciences’.    Still, by the time I studied speech perception, I was imperceptibly moving slightly further along the path of greater purity summed up by the classic XKCD cartoon.

I have been working on the edges of the science communication world for about the last 10 years.  I came in through a fascination with media panics about health issues such as vaccination, and a job with DuPont which involved, among other things, talking to molecular biologists, industrial marketers and the occasional NGO about public perceptions of agricultural biotechnology.     I’m not a science communicator, but what constantly interests me is working out how to narrow the communications gap between scientists and non-scientists.

Has learning about genetics helped me to do my job better? Yes and no.   My understanding of the scientists has gone up several gears.   As a non-specialist, I can also spot the kinds of developments that are exciting or alarming for the general public.   At the same time, I’m aware of how basic and narrow some of my new knowledge is.  It doesn’t help me understand physics or astronomy or engineering any better;  it’s simply one specific field.

While I’ve never been a fan of the ‘deficit’ model of communication, I think it’s also fair to say that greater understanding of the science does indeed lead to a different perception of some of the associated ethical debates.  I’ve seen this in deliberative conferences, too, where the audience assimilates the technical information.  Understanding some of the technicalities changes the debate, to some extent.   Yet at the same time, I’m anxious at sacrificing Outsider status.  Being an outsider allows you to ask basic (stupid) questions, to represent the untutored external view.

Learning also involves being taught.  My tutors play card games, show simulations, engage in Socratic dialogue, and mark dreadful essays.  I’m seeing first-hand what works, and what styles of teaching seem to create real breakthroughs.   In our study of Darwin for example, we zigzagged between study of genetic processes at work in evolution, to discussions of the man, his life and times that would not have seemed out of place in a history lesson.   Every partial view helps build a more complete picture.

Finally, I realised I have a tendency to downplay all that psychology as not especially worthy of the ‘science’  tag.  Yet it was all those clever experiments – in vision, hearing, cognition, you name it – that really drew me into psychology.  I still get a visceral thrill when I learn about a really nifty experiment, except now it’s Lenski’s E Coli flasks rather than the brilliant one about Gorillas in Our Midst. And it’s the amazing teaching I received on statistics and experimental design that turned me into the evidence-sifting uber-sceptic that I’ve now become.

Do geneticists glaze over when chemists start to talk? Is there an invisible bond between all these disciplines, a feeling of belonging to the same clan? Or are sciences a disparate collection of silos with major barriers between them? I’m interested.

Quick overview of Research 2010

I attended the MRS Conference in London this week, invited by Ray Poynter to perform (there’s no other word for it!) a five minute piece at Tuesday’s Ideas Rush.   I have not been to this conference for absolutely ages.   Met quite a few people from former lives and it was great to see them (shout-outs to Anna Cliffe,  Yvonne Burr, and Ann Morgan), not mention putting faces to more of the Twitter names.    There was more going on than I could possibly catch, and the parallel sessions meant that I ended up running from one room to another to try to catch things.

There was a mood of high anxiety about online research and social media: a strong sense that things are continuing to change very fast.  Rosie Campbell brought some perspective to the sense of being deluged by text, pointing out the importance of analysing discourse.    John Griffiths gave everyone palpitations all over again by talk of research bots gathering information, and  Ray Poynter put up a chart mapping online methods that I bet will be seen in every meeting room from here to Swindon.

I enjoyed some of the Day 1 novelties: as an Armando Iannucci fan, the interview with him which opened the conference had very little to do with the topic but was a delight.  Stephen Sackur showed us the skill of journalistic interviewing, with a panel that was pretty incisive given SS’s relatively unfamiliarity with the industry.   One panelist commented astutely that ‘there are several industries represented here’, and I think that’s very true.

Day 2’s set-pieces were more disappointing (although Dragon’s Den had some terrific performances).   The cynical forecaster was, well, cynical.  I was impressed to see him down the front afterwards selling copies of his pamphlet for a cool £5 (cash only) to a huddle of interested takers.

What can I say about the panel on cultural evolution?   Well.   Mark Earl’s initial party piece, about errors in transmission of gestures, made for wonderful theatre and had the most genetics in it of all 3 pieces.    We then had a piece about the evolution of objects, and a piece about patterns of adopting new objects…

I had joked to someone that there should be a bleeding-edge paper about the application of genetics to market research, but actually this wasn’t it, and I am going to be forced to write that one myself.   It will definitely include the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, as well as a discussion of founder effects.  Heh.

General thoughts:  although I love online research and think it can be rich and illuminating, I caught myself wondering whether the present climate represents the bubble for online involvement.  Communities seem to represent the best of online methods, giving the opportunity to talk to groups in quite a different way; yet there is a great deal of self-selection going on here, and in the online world, as everywhere else, the most desirable groups may be hard to pin down.   Sometimes it’s faster to pick up the phone.

The Research Magazine team did a brilliant job of interviewing and rapid blogging, and I particularly appreciated the Armando Ianucci interview in terms of the amount of preparation required (although repeat viewing of Malcolm Tucker is always rewarding).

The sessions were quick but a lot of delegate yakked on beyond their slot, leaving no room for questions. So, lots to see but could do more to be interactive.  And in the name of heaven do please give delegates a proper lunch.