Genii Weblog

Focus - Building a smarter website

Tue 3 Feb 2004, 11:13 AM

by Ben Langhinrichs
I'll be honest up front: I am not a great web designer.  The Genii website looks OK, especially if I keep my hands off the UI, but I am not a brilliant JavaScript expert or CSS expert.  I honestly don't want a lot of flash and sizzle, because this is a serious, business oriented website, and flash tends to distract rather than focus.

So what can a guy like me do to improve the website?  I need to focus on content, but the more content I add, the harder it is to find the information you may need, which is just a subset of the available information.  It seems to me that the key difficulty is getting the website to focus on what the user wants.

How can we know what the user wants?  We can always ask, and that is a great way, but we also have some other clues.  How did the user get to this page?  Let's say the user searched for "Generate HTML with Midas LSX" on  Google or Yahoo or some other search engine.  The first result points to our specific Midas LSX page, but the Midas LSX page doesn't have a lot of information about HTML generation, as that is just one of many topics of interest to those looking at Midas.

Or it didn't until today.  If you did that search now, you would find a box on the left hand side called "Focus on HTML Generation" with links to sample databases that can be downloaded, Help topics that are relevant, weblog articles that are relevant, and on-line samples that are relevant.  The UI isn't perfect yet, and I need to fill out a number of these focus charts for different topics, but the concept is cool (imho).  Of course, this assumes that I have good phrases that I can recognize, but I have another trick up my sleeve.

As some of you know, I answer a lot of questions about rich text on the Gold forums.  Occasionally, the answers refer back to my products.  When they do, I can use the unid of the answer to identify what focus the user might have.  If a customer asks a question abotu a specific topic, and I answer with a recommendation for Midas, wouldn't it be slick if the response link to the Midas page also focused on the area they were looking at.  If the answer is about dynamic tables, let them see the information about dynamic tables right there up front.

One great thing in this age of blogs and word of mouth is that you can track hits from specific pages of other people's sites.  For example, in the Fixing links article from Jens-Christian Fischer's blog, he mentions Midas and puts a link to the Midas page.  Wouldn't it be great if anyone reaching the page from that article saw specialized information on creating and fixing doclinks?

Of course, this idea is extensible for anyone providing a range of information linked by lots of other sites.  My design may be too convoluted for others to use, but once you think of it, it isn't too hard.  I just do lookups based the HTTP_referer field and a series of phrases, URLs and unids and then pull in a computed subform. 

Now, the one question remaining is should I always put a focus on... topic, and just randomize it if the user didn't come from a known site or use a known search phrase?

Update: See the first three focus topics and see what you think - Focus on Dynamic TablesFocus on Doclinks and Focus on HTML Generation.

Copyright 2004 Genii Software Ltd.

What has been said:

108.1. Jens-Christian Fischer
(02/03/2004 01:31 PM)

Interesting thoughts you spin Ben... It reminds me a bit of the fabled Xanadu project that Ted Nelson was developing, where a link actually could contain a lot of information. I think this is one of the sad facts about HTML: The anchor tag has lost value because it just links, but contains no information about WHY it links.

108.2. Richard Schwartz
(02/03/2004 11:34 PM)

Very cool, Ben. I'll be interested to know how, over time, you think the effort to maintain this stacks up against the gain in utility.


108.3. Ben Langhinrichs
(02/03/2004 11:49 PM)

It will be interesting to see. For the moment, even the process of collection the information for each focus topic is very useful, as it allows me to see gaps and identify a lot of content that could be valuable to someone looking at particular feature. I am also trying to figure out how to monitor its use so I can figure out whether (and how) it is helping.