The new site design has engendered an unprecedented level of feedback, good and bad, so we thought hey – let’s blog about it so people understand the thinking behind it.
Thank you, all of you who took the time to send feedback. It is a good thing, even if it stings. It means people are visiting Novell.com and care enough about it to comment. The kudos were energizing to us, and the complaints provided valuable insight. We wanted to start this blog so we could open a dialog with you to discuss the principles at play on our website.
Take design, for example. People have been commenting about design like mad since we rolled out the new site. We know that design preferences are intensely subjective and personal, as in the old “I don’t know anything about Art, but I know what I like.” So we don’t really expect to sway your opinion about the site’s design. If you hate black, for example, no amount of explanation is going to change that.
But we do hope you find it interesting to see the web through the eyes of professional designers. If nothing else it might help you appreciate the nuances of design that you see in your favorite sites, and gain a new-found respect for the creative process behind the well-designed web pages that you use every day without thinking.
There are five common complaint themes running through the site feedback (gathered from the webmaster Feedback link, the TTP list server, the NGW list, openSUSE, the Support Forums, Cool Solutions, direct emails sent to executives, and Novell’s bugzilla.) Some are solely design-related, and others are more technology related (but feel like design issues because they affect the layout and user experience). And some are entirely the result of technology – but we’ll lay them out here just so you know.
These themes are:
- The site is not performing correctly
- The language and country selector is awkward
- Too much use of Flash and glitzy pages
- I hate the login page, with the animated star field background
- I hate the way the black header menu works and looks
The performance issues you wrote in about were all about technology. Novell Electronic Marketing uses an open-source CMS tool called Plone, and as with all open source projects, it is in a constant state of development. We decided to create dynamic pages that would pull different page elements from various places in Plone so we could serve up not only language-specific content, but also country-specific. This caused some very wonky behavior. The complexities were crazy – since we served up our site on day-one in eight languages using this new dynamic model. Our Plone developers are working on all of the issues, and have unwonked most of them.
As for the weird behavior of download.novell.com – that was a separate issue altogether. They upgraded their tool at the same time we went live, and the upgrade outages made people think the redesign had broken Download.
The browser issues were all related to caching. If you usually visited Novell.com in Firefox, the style sheets for our old site were cached on your machine. When you accessed the new site for the first time in that browser, the old style sheets dutifully loaded, the new content tried to fit in, and the site looked like The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum.
The remedy for that is to clear your cache, or use another browser. (This explains why Firefox fans believed we had designed for IE – when they opened the site in their infrequently-used IE browser, it worked fine.)
We had to implement the language and country selector the way we did for two big reasons: to enable us to offer geo-specific content, and to improve SEO. Our International pages had a Page Rank of bupkus, making them virtually unfindable for Google searchers worldwide. The new selector model fixes that by allowing the Google Juice to flow from the English pages to the localized ones.
First and foremost: our high-level pages are created for marketing. We are presenting Novell to business decision makers, and we are competing for their limited attention span. Our challenge is to keep them on the site – to engage them in site elements, guide their exploration, and ultimately get them to request a call from us.
Most of our negative feedback came from long-time Novell customers who were accessing data stores like the Knowledgebase, Download, etc. (And aside from the new header and footer, we left the technical information areas pretty glitz-free.) The Flash seemed gratuitous to them – and distracted them from the task at hand.
The truth is, the marketing pieces on our site are not aimed at converting our installed base: they are already customers. The marketing pieces are designed to catch the attention of our prospects.
Why we use Flash:
Flash allows us to animate things dynamically, quickly, and inexpensively. With Flash we create little video-type commercials on the web that explain concepts and help sell solutions. People are drawn to moving things, and respond favorably to information presented in this style.
Flash is superior to video in that it is very small and lightweight – 1 minute of video = 10-20 MB. 1 minute of Flash = 40K. It is also dynamic, and you can link from within the Flash to other things. It is XML-fed, so you can localize it more easily and cheaply than video.
Also, it gives us control over what the person sees. We can control the entire user experience. It is not dependent on your browser settings. (This is the same reason you use PDF – you can control the fonts, the colors, the layout, and everything, without the user settings interfering.)
There are some misconceptions about Flash that persist in the marketplace, and we saw that in our feedback.
Here’s a typical rant:
… the continued and ever increasing use of Flash for no technical reason is a problem. Flash is not only proprietary to the highest possible extent, which looks odd on a website of a company that claims to be about open standards and open source, Flash also is a CPU hog (just leaving your homepage open eats over 30% of my laptops CPU cycles when I disable my flashblocker), which totally contradicts any attempts to save power. But to make it even worse, Flash also is a constant source of security problems due to it’s proprietary nature.
We are a mixed source company – open and proprietary – we use whatever is the best tool for the project at hand. We use Adobe products too. And Macs. And Linux. The point is, we need to market Novell on the web, so we will use whatever is most effective. In this case: Flash.
True, Flash consumes CPU cycles. But a lot of stuff on the web consumes CPU. It doesn’t use any network resources, if that’s any consolation. And it would only suck your power if you left your browser open at a Flash page for long stretches of time.
As for security, it’s true that older versions of Flash could communicate freely with programs on your computer, so you had to be careful what kinds of things you used it for. The latest version – used by 96% of the web in the US – is highly secure. Macromedia/Adobe have spent a great deal of time hardening it against security risks. In any case, we don’t ask for personal info via Flash – all of our personal contact data gathering is done via HTML. We use Flash to present concepts, show how products work, and generate interest.
For more on Flash Security, see this page.
The Flash animation on the login page caused problems for people in some environments (and a few headaches as well) so we took it down and the Login page now stands still and black. Just FYI, the Flash portion of that page was only the animated star-field – not the username and password entry fields. The use of the star-field graphic was a retro homage to the trekkies in our user base (you know who you are), and we always intended to change that image periodically. In fact, we have a contest running in Cool Solutions for the new one. Jump in if you want to try your hand at it.
The new Novell.com site follows a form of the International Typographic Style, also known as the Swiss Style, which is a graphic design style developed in Switzerland in the 1950s that emphasizes cleanliness, readability and objectivity. Hallmarks of the style are asymmetric layouts, use of a grid, sans- serif typefaces like Akzidenz Grotesk, Helvetica, and Swiss 721.
For formatting it tends toward flush left, ragged right text. The style is also associated with a preference for photography in place of illustrations or drawings. Many of the early International Typographic Style works featured typography as a primary design element in addition to its use in text, and it is for this that the style is named.
Novell is an international company dealing with worldwide technology issues, and we felt that a clean, international style would best compliment this reality.
Black is a sophisticated color that has many positive associations. It connotes power, sophistication, and elegance to some. (To others, as we quickly learned, it connotes death and mourning — one correspondent called it “terrifying.” Sorry…) It also showcases our Novell logo. It is being used effectively by many well-respected sites. For example:
- IBM’s header is black with a white logo.
- All of Apple’s PRO application pages have black backgrounds.
- Industrial Light and Magic uses a black background throughout their site.
- Audi.com uses black and gray.
- Nasa.gov uses a black background.
- Microsoft’s site has two black/ dark charcoal bars on their home page. (The header and the News Section)
- Linux.com has black background.
- Linux.org uses a Black and Red gradient in all of their home page buttons.
- The Sundance channel, Fox, and ABC use very dark backgrounds.
Of course we want our site to be usable and readable, so we didn’t put long stretches of reading material in white on black.
As always, we are watching our site metrics like a hawk. As we monitor traffic patterns on the new marketing sections, and measure our key indicators like time spent on page, next-page flow, and conversion rates, we will continue to make adjustments and tune the pages so form and function work together to deliver leads.