Usability Testing – Kill Your Darlings

Last night was another interesting monthly WordPressDC Meetup. This time, the topic was on, “Users: Understanding and making features for them.”

Evan Solomon gave a really interesting presentation on usability testing for His slides don’t really do justice to his talk, which was filled with anecdotes on improving the usability of the WordPress home page. The objective was to increase sign-ups for this blogging service. They performed A/B testing using Optimizely. This type of testing is where you present half of users one version of your web page (the A version) and the other half another version (the B version). You then measure which page does better.

In the case of, the simpler version did better. Less text, fewer buttons and more white space meant more sign-ups. Evan said that there was a lot of interesting items on the original home page, things that the team really liked. But they got rid of them because they didn’t perform as well as the simple page.

There are a couple of lessons here:

  1. Simple is always better. Think Google or Apple – it’s about taking things out. People who work on web sites should read Strunk & White: The Elements of Style. It’s a little book about grammar but its lessons on clear, concise writing are directly applicable to web content.
  2. Listen to users. There’s a lot of resistance toward usability testing within organizations. They don’t want to give people what they want – they cling to the broadcast model of “we’ll tell you what we want you to know,” as if there’s not a billion other web sites out there.

There’s a saying among writers that you must “kill your darlings.” That means take out the florid passages that you love but don’t help the reader. Do the same with your web site.

"Software is Wrong, Not the People" Republished by Design Firm

My post, The Software is Wrong, Not the People, is the most popular thing I’ve ever written. It’s something I wrote after hearing Matt Mullenweg of WordPress discuss his philosophy toward software development. In short: if users are confused by something, then they’re right.

A design firm in NY republished it on their site (with my permission), since it explains why they use WordPress for their clients.


"The Happiest Man in Washington" Published in eFiction Magazine

My short story, “The Happiest Man in Washington” has been published in eFiction Magazine. You can read it below. If you roll over the pages, you’ll see backward and forward arrows. Click on the page and it will become a full-screen view.

This story was inspired by a homeless man I used to see daily at 17th and Rhode Island in DC. He was a neighborhood fixture, a happy face greeting commuters every morning. I wondered how he got there and if he ever thought about leaving the streets.

[issuu viewmode=presentation showflipbtn=true pagenumber=67 documentid=110801031002-b8529143d5464ccaafd9f5dd37e86a28 docname=efiction_magazine_august_2011 username=efictionmagazine loadinginfotext=eFiction%20Magazine%20No.%20017%20August%202011 showhtmllink=true tag=efiction width=600 height=776 unit=px]

Like this? Read more of my short fiction and my novel, Murder in Ocean Hall.

(For you WordPress geeks, eFiction is a magazine that was created using Issuu. You can embed and customize the viewer.  I used the Issuu “customize and embed” tool to get the code to paste into my site. I made the embedded viewer one page across (instead of two) and to start on p.67, where my story is, rather than at the beginning of the magazine. The WP Issuu plugin was also necessary to make all this work. It’s not difficult.)

The Software is Wrong, Not the People

It was a small moment at the WordPress DC Meetup. One of the creators of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, was in town. He had come to this monthly meeting at Fathom Creative to learn what the local community wanted in the next version of his web publishing software.

The media library in WordPress was discussed. Mullenweg admitted that it is confusing and gets difficult to manage once you have lots of images in the library. A man in the audience brought up a technical issue he had with the library. Mullenweg explained that you could actually do what the man wanted to in WordPress but stated:

The software is wrong, not the people.

This is a revolutionary statement. Mullenweg could have just told the man that “you’re doing it wrong” before telling him the “right” way to work with WordPress. Instead, the fact that users had problems with the media library told him that the software needed to be improved.

It’s a contrary notion. We all adapt to clunky and ever-changing software, relearning the basic tasks needed to accomplish our work – where’d they move the print button?

And we cope with this increasing complexity without complaint. Because no one wants to look stupid. You can’t figure out the ribbon in Microsoft Word? You must be the idiot, not the software.

This is especially true in the world of content management systems for web sites. I’ve worked on large-scale web sites for more than a dozen years as a web editor, producer and site manager. I remember when we did things in HTML. I have fond memories for Claris HomePage. Compared to the complexity of managing a large site in Dreamweaver, a CMS seemed like a brilliant idea.

Be careful what you wish for. Over time, I’ve had the fortune/misfortune to use nearly every major CMS out there.

The simple publishing tools that we used back in the 90s “evolved” into massively complex structures requiring expensive experts to install and administer. CMS like SharePoint, Vignette and Percussion are punishing experiences for the user, turning the joyous task of writing into a machine-led death march. You enter your content and then engage in a series of database programming tasks, with the hope that at the end of it, if everything goes well, your article will appear in the correct format on the web site at the next publishing cycle.

It’s no wonder that there’s so much bad writing online when the publishing tools are so lousy.

WordPress is different. Being open-source, and closely tied to the community (would Steve Ballmer listen to your feedback?), it has a different philosophy – “The software is wrong, not the people.”

Of course, it’s not perfect – the media library definitely needs some work – but it’s easy to use and adaptable. WordPress now powers more than 50 million web sites.

And, most importantly of all, it’s software that people want to use. No one feels passionate about SharePoint. But they do about WordPress. This enthusiasm will lead to its greater adoption. Over time, the users will prevail.

WordPress as a Platform for Journalism

My notes from the March 8, 2011 WordPress DC Meetup on WordPress as a tool for journalism.

Ben Balter at Fathom Creative
Ben Balter at Fathom Creative


March 8, 2011: Personal Branding and Lessons from Journalism, with local WordPress enthusiasts Ben Balter and Greg Linch.

Greg and Ben will be sharing best practices and how you can take the next step with WordPress as a platform. Pulling from their wide-ranging experiences in journalism, publishing, government, and development, they’ll be discussing how you can use WordPress to craft your personal brand, and what lessons that can be learned from how journalists use WordPress.

We’ve invited the DC Hacks/Hackers group, a meetup for journalists and developers, to join us this month. You can learn more about them at

Here’s their cheeky bios:

Since 2007, Greg Linch hasn’t had a journalistic job or project in which he hasn’t thought about using or — in most cases — used WordPress. His current job at The Washington Post is the only exception, but it’s only been a few months, so give him time. Most notably, Greg led The Miami Hurricane’s migration to WordPress in 2008 and co-founded CoPress to help other student news organizations do the same. (Twitter: @greglinch.)

An aspiring attorney, a coder, and an all around geek, Ben Balter is a J.D./M.B.A. candidate at the George Washington University and a member of the FCC’s New Media team. When not working or in class, he enjoys tackling otherwise-impossible challenges to sharing information using nothing more than WordPress, duct tape, and occasionally a pack of bubblegum. (Twitter: @BenBalter.)


Andy Nacin introduces and thanks sponsors for the beer and space.

April 12 next meetup. Format: lightning round. Looking for speakers.

Greg Linch

Used WP on multiple projects, including Miami Hurricane. NYT using it for blogs. Davis Enterprise using WP for content, then imported into InDesign for print. It’s web to print. (I am skeptical of all-in-one solutions, having seen balky print-to-web systems pushed by journalists who hated the web back in the 90s.)

EditFlow: assign stories, set status for newsrooms. It’s a WP plugin.

AssignmentDesk: interact with community, an open assignment desk.

NPR’s Argo Network uses child themes for local blogs.

WordPress goes well with a delicious IPA.

WP Courier is an email newsletter plugin. (I need that.)

LivingStories is an interesting experiment in online storytelling.

Good question: how to get reporters to use? Show em how simple it is.

Washington Post is getting a new commenting system. (Yea!)

Ben Balter

Using WP to craft personal brand, take back Google results. Dynamic speaker but then goes into brandspeak, i.e, “what is a brand?”

You’re the Chief Marketing Officer of your brand. Search engine management needed for professional reasons. They show pics of modems.”This is how people used to connect online.” Everyone laughs. I feel old.

No longer defined by a company, you need an online brand (like!). Your content online is your brand, including the embarassing pics. It’s like your college transcript.

73% of recruiters Google you.

WP makes it simple to tell your story.

Grab a domain (key in google searches), describe yourself on your site, setup a basic WP site, start a blog for credibility and engage others, use Google Reader to find things to blog about. It’s like an online brochure about you.

Use Google Analytics to discover your most popular posts.

Be social. Use Facebook, Twitter, etc to promote your posts.

Establish a Board of Directors for your brand.

Update: here’s Ben’s presentation.


Every journalist should have a web site. Every potential journalist should have a site. Every job-seeker should have a site, if only so that your embarrassing Facebook photos don’t show up in a Google search.

I’ve met writers and editors before who don’t have web sites. They don’t want to learn HTML and still look at the web as a lesser medium. That’s short-sighted. WordPress is not difficult. If you can use Word, then you can create a site in WordPress.

WordPress DC meets monthly. It’s a nice mix of developers, writers, bloggers and other creative and technical folk.

WordPress DC: Introduction to Themes and Theme Development with Thad Allender

This month’s meeting of WordPress DC was an introduction to themes and theme development.

WordPress DC is a monthly meetup group of WP developers, designers and bloggers. The meeting was held at Fathom Creative, in a beautiful second floor space overlooking 14th St. With hardwood floors and track lighting, it’s pretty enough to be an art gallery. And it has been – just last month, this space was host to Instant DC, an exhibit of amazing photos taken by cellphones. (It’s hard to believe but just a few years ago this building was an auto repair shop.)

There were about forty people in the audience, most of whom were WP developers, though there were also designers and bloggers, like me. And since developers were present, there was, of course, free beer. That seems a requisite for geeky meetups. Continue reading “WordPress DC: Introduction to Themes and Theme Development with Thad Allender”


I wrote a little piece on making your blog look good on the iPhone for FlackRabbit, my friend Margie Newman’s blog. FlackRabbit is filled with useful thoughts on social media and PR. She’s a communications professional who really gets the web – there’s not many of them out there.

Technically, I’m not in PR. But I’ve worked long enough in web strategy and communications to have strong feelings on the subject.

Look for more articles on FlackRabbit in the coming months!