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One of the Biggest Secrets in Meta-Data Delivery

by R. Todd Stephens
Published: January 1, 2004

 

Published in TDAN.com January 2004

Have heard of the secret Mickeys hidden inside of Disney theme parks? Hidden Mickeys started out as inside jokes among the Walt Disney Imagineers. A Hidden Mickey is an image of Mickey Mouse concealed in the design of a Disney attraction (ride, resort, etc...). Originally, it took the shape of a head and ears silhouette, i.e. one large circle with two smaller circled on top in the appropriate place, but Hidden Mickeys can take on many forms. Are their hidden Mickey’s in the world of metadata? Are their secrets that only a few top people know about and aren’t will to share?

The topic of this article may be one of the most important aspects of your metadata strategy. However, I can tell you that most people fail to address or even ignore this dimension until it is too late. The two most important metrics within the metadata implementation is content and usage. Content refers to the quantity, quality, scope, and dimensions of information held within the repository collection. Usage is the quantity of data used within the repository collection. One of the basic questions I would ask of any metadata applications is “Can the repository be used by the average business person without training?”. The answer in the vast majority of cases is no. Who is at fault for the failure? The simple answer is that we are to blame; we are the ones that get so focused on delivering unique value that we forget that people need to be able to use the information. People don’t want to feel stupid when they have trouble understanding the concepts or interpreting metadata results. We must make a conscious effort to simplify our repository applications and begin to understand the needs of the user base. The remainder of this article reviews six basic design elements that can increase the understanding, improve utility, and establish a level of trust (Stephens, 2004).

There are various schools of thought on which design elements make a successful web site. Scanlon, Schroeder, Snyder, and Spool (1998) collected qualitative and quantitative data on key design factors, which included: searching, content, text links, image links navigation, page layout, readability, graphics, and user’s knowledge. Each of these design elements makes an important contribution to a successful website. Websites are built to provide information or sell a product or service. Experts indicate that usability is about making sure that the average person can use the site as intended. Well chosen names, layout of the page, text, graphics, and navigation structure should all come together to create instantaneous recognition (Krug, 2000).

Becker and Mottay (2001) developed a usability assessment model used to measure a user’s experience within a web environment. The authors defined eight usability factors, which included page layout, navigation, design consistency, information content, performance, customer service, reliability, and security. Usability and design can play an important role within the electronic commerce market. Design consistency has been defined as the key to usability (Nielsen, 1998).

There are a variety of web design elements that can have a positive impact on a website’s image, effectiveness, and trustworthiness. Design elements like well-chosen images, clean and clear layout, careful typography, and a solid use of color can create an effective site. In addition, a solid navigation structure and continuity in design can provide the user with the control and access required within an electronic commerce interface (Andres, 1999). Although, design elements may take on the form of a visual queue, the true value comes from a combination presentation, structure, and interactivity. A solid website is a collaboration of design, content, usability, and a back end system that is integrated into the processes of the business (Veen, 2001). Krug (2000) defines a set of tools as location indicators, which are design elements of the site that tells the user where they are. This can be in the form of a page name, header, sitemap or page utility. The page utility should be used within a list type program, which allows the user to know where they are within the list of elements. Indicators like “Page 1 of 12” can be extremely helpful informing the user of their location. Nielsen (2000) describes the need for the user to know where they are, where they have been and where they can go.

Page Layout

The page layout is the visual presentation of the web page by means of background color, white space, horizontal and vertical scrolling, font size, color combinations, and other deign elements (Becker & Mottay, 2001). Graphical layout is a prime consideration in the design of a functional website. Designers must consider the font size and placement, scrolling versus hypertext linkage, sentence and paragraph lengths, and several other factors that are logically integrated into a structure (Palmer, 2002). Page layout is one of the strongest contexts used by designers today. These layout-based contexts have grown or evolved based on the experience of web designers and the current user base (Veen, 2001).

The majority of web pages can be broken down into the parts that make up the screen real estate. Nielsen (2000) indicates that the content of a web page should take up to around 80% of the screen real estate while the navigation structure should be around 20%. Nielsen’s description is at a very high level, by breaking down the contents of a page design we can see that the designer has many other elements to contend with. Table 1 provides a list of the most common elements used by today’s designers.

Table 1: Web Page Breakdown

 

Table 1 does not cover every possible element, but the vast majority of elements will fall into one or more of these categories. The web designer’s ultimate role is to place these elements into a page layout that works for the first time user, intermittent, and frequent users of the website. Shneiderman (1997) provides a clear understanding of the importance of design on these three categories of users.

“First-time users need an overview to understand the range of services and to know what is not available, plus buttons to select actions. Intermittent users need an orderly structure, familiar landmarks, reversibility, and safety during exploration. Frequent users demand shortcuts or macros to speed repeated tasks, compact in-depth information, and extensive services to satisfy their varied needs.” (p. 10)

By structuring a web page into a familiar convention, the user will be able to scan the information more easily and faster. Every publishing medium develops conventions and continues to refine them and even develop new ones over time. The web already has several conventions derived from newspaper and magazine standards (Krug, 2000). Generally speaking, the top section of a web page is used for branding and site navigation. The left-hand side navigation section is also used to provide the user a more detailed navigation structure than can be provided within the top sections. The use of a blue font color and underlining for external links is a convention that most web pages use. These are a few of the page layout conventions used today and with the newer technologies and additional designers these will no doubt change over time. Another convention is the differences in the home page and the other informational pages within the site. The home page is the most important page on any website, getting more views than any other page (Nielsen & Tahir, 2002). Designers should understand the differences and needs of the users for both of these page layouts.

Navigation

The concept of navigation covers a broad spectrum of concepts described in the current literature. Eismann, McClelland, and Stone (2000) describe the navigation structure as a framework for providing viewers the information required to know where they are and a method of getting where they want to go. In addition, navigation quickly becomes intuitive when you use consistent treatment, placement, weight, and behavior of navigation web elements. Navigation is a goal-centered and action-oriented activity that revolves around the user experience. A navigation system should be easily learned, consistent, provides visual feedback, appear in context, offer alternatives, and provide an economy of action and time (Fleming, 1998). Nielsen (2000) defines navigation as the basic user interface by which users click on navigation links or icons in order to move around the site. Navigation in this context should be able to answer the questions:

  • Where am I?
  • Where have I been?
  • Where can I go?

A solid navigation structure is important since it is easy for users to get lost in web applications because there is less structure than in other applications. Page design can help a user keep track of where they are. As a best practice, Meehan and Shubin (1997) indicates that the use of clear and consistent navigational aids like page names, logos, banners, icons, background color act as visual clues for the user. Morville and Rosenfeld (1998) published:

“The foundation of almost all good information architectures is a well-designed hierarchy. In this hypertext world of nets such a statement may seem blasphemous, but it’s true. Hierarchy is ubiquitous in our lives and informs our understanding of the world in a profound and meaning way.” (p. 65)

A web application is a series of nodes that are linked together. These web applications can also be linked together and the combination of all of the web network nodes make up the World Wide Web (WWW). Within the web environment, four key information structures exist. Figure 1 provides an example of each of these structures.

 

Figure 1. Major Types of Information Structures

The hierarchy structure is by far the prevalent structure on the web. The reason for this is because human beings naturally order their world by establishing categories and subcategories (Farkas & Farkas, 2000). The navigation system should be constructed in order to replicate this structure and provide a cognitive approach to the information architecture defined within the web. A navigation scheme that works should be consistent. Users who rely on the navigation framework will begin to predict the location of the navigational elements and performance will improve over time (Fleming, 1998)

Consistency

As Fleming indicated, navigation should be consistent as well as the design of the entire web application. Shneiderman (1998) defined eight golden rules of interface design. The first rule is the designer should strive for consistency. The actions of the user should be very consistent as related to specific activities. Identical terminology should be used in the navigation, menus, help screens, and prompts. In addition, the designer should be consistent in the selection of color, font, layout, and the use of headers. Every major button, icon or navigational instruction, should have only one meaning. This meaning or function should not change within the web application. When designers fail to develop consistency in the application, user confusion, and frustration will follow (McClain & Sachs, 2002).

Design consistency is the consistent placement of page components within and across the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) pages. Various components of a web application require a level of consistency. These components can range from the textual descriptions and labels to the error messages that are presented to the user. A level of consistency with the links, background, and text give the impression of a professional designed web application (Becker & Mottay, 2001). Consistency influences learnability positively when a design is consistent within the web application. A consistent application will impact the performance of the end user. The main source for improving the consistency of an application is the design knowledge of the developer (Eliens, Veer, & Welie, 1999).

Consistency is nothing new in the world of design. A newspaper is an excellent example of design consistency. The name of the newspaper is located at the top of the page with the lead stories taking the front page. The front page will also contain a table of contents, which can lead the user to additional sections of the newspaper. Like a newspaper, the consistency built in the web application can help the reader understand the content as well as the information architecture.

Web Style

A web style guide is a collection of principles, guidelines, and conventions brought together into a single medium and present a consistent look and feel (Ohnemus, 1997). Although style has a history in the documentation field, in this context the researcher will be focusing on the formatting, structure, graphics, color, and fonts. These are some of the broad categories defined by Forsythe, Grose, and Ratener (1996). The objectives of a style guide are to promote visual and functional consistency, promote good design practice, and reinforce the organizational brand (Gale, 1996). The Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) is one of the technologies on the web that helps to enforce a certain style. Although HTML encompasses font and layout, keeping the level of consistency needed in good design is difficult. The CSS is a powerful tool for specifying how the content should look. For example, the CSS can specify the size, margin, font, and type for header text (Veen, 2001). This look and feel for the header text will be consistent throughout the site unless overridden by a browser or the HTML code. Style sheets have two main advantages over HTML only based applications. First, CSS separates the content from the design. The content markup reflects the logical structure of the information and the style sheet provides the presentation instructions. Second, the style sheet provides efficient control over large document sets (Horton & Lynch, 1999).

Graphics

Faulring, Morrison, Pirolli, Rosenholtz, and Woodruff (2001) provided research comparing search engines where the results were presented in text and enhanced images. The enhanced image view provided the best and most consistent performance. Nielsen (2000) indicates that the use of graphics should be minimized due to the download requirements. However, users want to see images of the products to get a sense of the context in which they are being offered. In order to determine which graphics are important and needed within the website, McClain and Sachs (2002) provide the following principles:

  • Does the graphic highlight a feature on the page and does the graphic draw the attention of the user?
  • Does it make a feature more usable, for example, illustrating how to use a specific function or color combination?
  • If associated with content, does the graphic enhance the user’s understanding, similar to the way photos are used in articles?
  • Does it reinforce the brand?

If the image does not fit in these criteria then the graphic should be removed in order to increase the download speed. Good design and usability indicates that images should be reused where appropriate, sized based on function, and alternative text-only methods of access provided (Siegel, 1997).

Content

The main reason customers will come to the repository is for the information. The content of a website is not limited to the subject, product or services provided. Rather, content includes the solutions and strategies employed to make it easy for the user to accomplish important tasks, such as information retrieval, search, and navigation required in making a purchase, and obtaining feedback (Calongne, 2001). Becker and Mottay (2001) define information content to include timely and correct error messages, prompts, button labels, textual description, help, and customer service information. For a global perspective, web designers should be careful not to lose specific meaning in the translation or the use of specific symbols such as the shopping cart. The website gives an organization the ability to present almost limitless information on their product or service. This information or content should include the product and service quantity, quality, and relevance to the customer (Palmer, 2002).

Writing for the web is an important aspect of web-based content. Nielsen (2000) defined three core guidelines for writing for the web. First, information content should be succinct. Information provided on the web should be about 50% less than the information printed in a document. If additional information is required the user should link to a document or another web page. Second, the designer should write for scannability and not require the user to read long continuous blocks of text. Morkes and Nielsen (1997) reported that 79% of users simply scanned web pages versus actually reading line by line. Based on this research, articles should be structured with two to three levels of headlines. Finally, web designers should use hypertext to break up information into multiple pages. Keevil (1998) indicated that users prefer writing that is concise, easy to scan, and objective in style. In addition, the following guidelines can enhance a users experience within a usable website:

  • Adding tables of content and section summaries;
  • Adding bullets, numbered lists, and headings;
  • Using boldface and colored text to highlight keywords;
  • Writing shorter paragraphs, and
  • Removing buzzwords and marketing objectives.

Effective content writing is one of the most critical aspects of all web page design. Most users will simply scan online content, rather than carefully reading each line (Nielsen & Tahir, 2002).

From a content perspective there are several core utilities that should be included in the basic repository setup. These content pages include the basic asset hierarchy, an internal and external search utility, contact information, glossary, context help, and an overview user guide. Each of these should be set into context of the organization, asset type and implementation. You will notice that I specifically stayed away from the meta-model and business functionality, since these are implementation specific requirements.

Basic Asset Hierarchy

Each asset should be set into context with the utility or function it provides. There may very well be multiple hierarchies, just as there are multiple views of data. For example, a hierarchy for data may look like: Legacy Applications, OLTP, ERP, HR, Operational Data Stores, Data Warehouses, Data Marts, etc. Perhaps the hierarchy is based on the content categories of Customer, Product, Order, Procurement, Supply Chain, and Employee. A hierarchy is used to take the customer from an easily understood business concept and drill down into the utility they desire.

Search Utilities

There are two basic search utilities that should be included in the repository. The first is the internal repository search utility that will search within the asset collection and return the list of assets to the user. This allows the user to stay within the context of the repository in order to gather information about the particular asset. The second search engine moves outside the repository and searches the entire collection of assets regardless of the type of integration or repository architecture.

Contact Information

In a recent study done by the Princeton Survey Research Associates (2002), 81% of the respondents indicated that it is very important for organizations to provide email address, street address, and phone number. Users need to believe that if they have problems, they will have the opportunity to speak to someone to resolve the problem quickly. An organizations willingness to rectify any problem arising from customer satisfaction and honor its commitments can be presented to the user as visual queues. Traditional but familiar communication systems like faxes, phone numbers, and physical address indicate that the product line is backed up by a viable fulfillment facility (Ang, Dubelaar, & Lee, 2001). Egger and Shelat (2002) identify information content as the most important contributor to trust in an online environment. Over a third of the respondents indicated that information like company address, phone, staff, and policies are critical in the development of trust. The web should serve as a strategic information center for the organization. Key information, such as physical locations, key agents, new products, and services should be posted on the site as well. The content will build the customer’s knowledge of the company and provide a level of relationship management for the organization (Gilbert, Powell-Perry, & Widijoso, 1999).

Glossary

The repository group should ensure that a glossary is included with each repository. Every user has a different level of knowledge of the technology community. Providing a glossary is a smart way to get everyone on the same level of understanding and perhaps can eliminate a phone call or two.

Context Help

As with the glossary, the help page provide answers to some of the basic questions about the application. Context help allows the user to press help on a specific field or function and only that information is presented back to the user. The help text can aid the user in understanding what the defined utility.

Overview and User Guide

The final content element is the user guide. The user guide is a document that describes the utility and function of the repository. The user guide will also describe the particular class of asset being described within the repository. Details of the meta-model, hierarchal structure breakdown, sitemap, and style guide are excellent examples of information that can be useful for the user. Certainly, the business and technical functionality should be explained in detail along with sample screens shots and data.

Conclusion

If the statistics are true then the vast majority of metadata implementations will be cancelled within the first 5 years. The most referenced reason is the lack of use. This is one of the primary reasons that metadata vendors and consultants push to get metadata placed into an active role within the SDLC. If you can accomplish that then metadata’s longevity is insured for the life of the development methodology. Although, I might argue that methodologies change as frequently as every five to ten years. Still, repositories, interactive development frameworks, and all other information management mechanisms must be built upon the concepts of usability. Many vendors will stand and claim they have the best scanners, a standards based meta-model, and a robust collection of assets. I have not heard one vendor approach the table saying “We have the most usable and understandable product in the market today”. It is time for usability to move the forefront of the product lifecycle and take a seat at the head of the table.

Recommended Reading

The best news is that usability testing is real inexpensive and there are a ton of books out there that discuss usability. Here are just a few of my favorites:

  1. “Design Ways” by Bowman and Willis
  2. “Web Style Guide” by Lynch and Horton
  3. “Designing Web Usability” by Nielsen
  4. “The Art & Science of Web Design” by Veen
  5. “Don’t Make Me Think” by Krug

Each book is easy to read and contains some excellent real world examples. Whether you are building your own or evaluating an application, these books can get you up to speed very quickly .

References

Andres, C. (1999). Great Web Architecture. Foster City, CA: IDG Books World Wide.

Ang, L., Dubelaar, C., & Lee, B. (2001). To trust or not to trust? A model of internet trust from the customer’s point of view. Proceedings of the 14th Bled Electronic Commerce Conference. Bled, Slovenia: Macquarie University.

Becker, S. & Mottay, F. (2001, January). A global perspective on website usability. IEEE Software, 18(1), 61-54.

Calongne, C. (2001, March). Designing for website usability. Journal of Computing in Small Colleges, 16(3), 39-45.

Egger, F. (2000). Trust me, I'm an online vendor: Towards a model of trust for e-commerce system design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI on Human Factors in Computing Systems. The Hague, Netherlands: The Association of Computing Machinery.

Eismann, K., McClelland, D., & Stone, T. (2000). Web Design: Studio Secrets. Foster City, CA: IDG Books World Wide.

Eliens, A., Veer, G., & Welie, M. (1999). Breaking down usability. Proceedings of Interact 99. Edinburgh, Scotland: British HCI Group.

Farkas, D. & Farkas, J. (2000). Guidelines for designing web navigation. Technical Communication, 47(3), 341-358.

Faulring, A., Morrison, J., Pirolli, P., & Woodruff, A. (2001). Using thumbnails to search the web. Proceedings of the SIGCHI on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Seattle, WA: The Association of Computing Machinery.

Fleming, J. (1998). Web Navigation Designing the User Experience. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly & Associates.

Forsythe, C., Grose, E., & Ratner, J. (1996). Characterization and assessment of HTML style guides. Proceedings of the SIGCHI on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Vancouver, Canada: The Association of Computing Machinery.

Gale, S. (1996). A collaborative approach to developing style guides. Proceedings of the SIGCHI on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Vancouver, Canada: The Association of Computing Machinery.

Gilbert, D., Powell-Perry, J., & Widijoso, S. (1999). Approaches by hotels to the use of the internet as a relationship marketing tool. Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, 5(1), 21-38.

Horton, S. & Lynch, P. (1999). Web Style Guide. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Keevil, B. (1998). Measuring the usability index of your website. Proceedings of the Special Interest Group for Documentation. Toronto, ON: The Association of Computing Machinery.

Krug, S. (2000). Don't Make Me Think. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing.

McClain, G. & Sachs, T. (2002). Back to the User: Creating User-focused Websites. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing.

Meehan, M. & Shubin, H. (1997, November). Navigation in web applications. Interactions, 4(6), 13-17.

Morkes, J. & Nielsen, J. (1997). Concise, scannable and objective: How to write for the web. Retrieved November 26, 2002, from www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/writing.html.

Morville, L. & Rosenfeld, P. (1998). Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. Cambridge, MA: O’Reilly & Associates.

Nielsen, J. (1998). Introduction to web design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Los Angeles, CA: The Association of Computing Machinery.

Nielsen, J. (2000). Designing Web Usability. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing.

Nielsen, J. & Tahir, M. (2002). Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing.

Ohnemus, K. (1997). Web style guides: Who, what where. Proceedings of the 15th Annual International Conference of Computer Documentation. Salt Lake City, UT: The Association of Computing Machinery.

Palmer, J. (2002, July). Designing for website usability. Computer, 35(7), 102-103.

Princeton Survey Research Associates (2002). A matter of trust: What users want from websites. Retrieved November 13, 2002, from www.consumerwebwatch.org/news/1_abstract.htm

Scanlon, T., Schroeder, W., Snyder, C., & Spool, J. (1998). Websites that work: Designing with your eyes open. Proceedings of the SIGCHI on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Los Angeles, CA: The Association of Computing Machinery.

Shneiderman, B. (1997). Designing information-abundant websites: Issues and recommendations. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 47(1), 5-29.

Shneiderman, B. (1998). Designing the User Interface (3rd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Siegel, D. (1997). Secrets of Successful Websites. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing.

Stephens, R. (2004). A Framework for the Identification of Electronic Commerce Design Elements that Enable Trust within the Small Hotel Industry. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Nova Southeastern University, Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

Veen, J. (2001). The Art & Science of Web Design. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders Publishing.

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R. Todd Stephens -

Dr. Todd Stephens is the Technical Director of the Collaboration and Online Services for the AT&T Corporation. Todd has served as the technical director since 1999 and is responsible for setting the corporate strategy and architecture for the development and implementation of the Enterprise Metadata Repositories (knowledge stores), Online Ordering for internal procurement, and the integration of Web 2.0 technologies utilizing SharePoint. For the past 24 years, Todd has worked in the Information Technology field including leadership positions at BellSouth, Coca-Cola, Georgia-Pacific and Cingular Wireless. 

Todd holds degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science from Columbus State University, an MBA degree from Georgia State University, and a Ph.D. in Information Systems from Nova Southeastern University. The majority of his research is focused on Metadata Reuse, Repository Design, Enabling Trust within the Internet, Usability and Repository Frameworks. In addition, Todd has co-authored various books on Service Oriented Architectures, Open Source, Virtual Environments, and Integrating Web 2.0 technologies.

Todd can be reached at todd@rtodd.com