Should web usability standards be applied to blogs and wikis?

Clancy's blog entry on Heather James' entry on Wiki navigation (which referred to Mark Hurst's articles on web navigation and was trackbacked to a discussion by Randy Brown, to which I added a nostalgic comment) started me thinking about whether or not we should apply to blogs and wikis the usability standards derived from observing web page users.

Should a blog be usable? If so, by what standards?

A blog is, after all, a website, so shouldn't conventional web design wisdom be adequate? A recent search for "weblog" on yielded 7 results, none of them very specific about blog design or usability. ("Wiki" references on useit: 0).

Sadly, the Nielsen industry (and most usability pundits) see no need for separate guidelines for bloggers. Sadly because the usability model is frequently inappropriate for the blog readers. This model derives from simulating the behavior of "ordinary users" on commercial web sites. Blogs, on the other hand, are more akin to collections of personal essays, to be browsed by the curious reader whose last thought is to make a purchase or unearth a specific bit of data. And a wiki user may go to a wiki site to contribute or redefine--not discover--information. When applied to blogs, usability practice overestimates the centrality of the designer / information architect and underestimates the role of user choice.

Usability Assumptions

  • Web page usability = software usability; navigation shouldn't call attention to itself.
  • The web designer herds naive users past volumes of information to a specific fact or task. A successful user experience means finding the desired information quickly and avoiding confusion. Users know in advance what they want in a web site. (Mastery, Mystery, and Misery: The Ideologies of Web Design, Alertbox, Aug. 2004).
  • Web sites should conventionalize design to provide users with a consistent experience.(See Sept. 2004 Alertbox, "The Need for Web Design Standards.")

  • Blog Realities

  • Blogging is expressive, self-reflexive. The personality of the blogger is often an essential component of the blog.
  • Blog visitors may be driven by curiosity ("What's this blogger's take on x?") rather than the desire to find a fact or download a ringtone.
  • Blog visitors need not be passive consumers. Frequently, they can change a blog's content or navigation by adding a comment or trackback, viewing a syndicated form of the blog, and even selecting the syndication format (RSS 1, RSS 2, Atom).

  • Implications

    Bloggers can learn from usability gurus. But these precepts shouldn't restrict our explorations of what's possible with blogs, wikis, and other more open formats. We should develop practices that encourage exploration and insight, that foster creativity and freedom. For example, some blogs and html pages allow the reader to choose a particular style sheet and personalize the look of a page. Why not use xslt to permit users to transform and adapt content to their needs? (Example: a link to "East Timor" in the user-selected "fact" mode could lead to an entry in the Wikipedia (where I notice an undefined entry for Robert Wyatt's song of the same name, and make a mental note to supply a review); the same link in "activist" mode could link to a political group's action page.)

    Novelists have been ceding navigation to readers for some time (Cortazar's Hopscotch or Around the Day in 80 Worlds; Sapporta's One; the work of Milorad Pavic). Practically any DVD provides alternative endings or deleted scenes. Mogwai's "Hunted by a Freak" on Happy Songs for Happy People CD and The Flaming Lips' Zaireeka allow listeners to create their own mixes. Why shouldn't bloggers and wiki creators encourage visitors to define their own experience?


    Yes. Blogs and wikis should follow converntional understanding of usability, except when, as you explain above, "these precepts shouldn't restrict our explorations of what's possible with blogs, wikis, and other more open formats." But we need to be making conscious choices, not merely ignoring usability for the sake of saying, "I'm a blogger. I'm doing my own thing" or "This is a wiki. It doesn't work like that."