We are preparing to embark on a process to redevelop the HASTAC site with the primary goal of making the site easier to understand and to use. We are currently reviewing your excellent feedback on our usability survey, and would also like to hear from you HASTAC members about lessons we might learn from other web sites.
Today I am excited to officially launch several new features on the HASTAC web site, including Collections, Similar Content, Knowledge Base, and more. I think these additions will do a lot to help people connect with and utilize the rich and deep content of the site.
Just a couple weeks ago, I gave a talk at MLA13 on graduate student blogging in which I call for graduate students, like those of us on hastac and in our example, to blog more about what we do over the course of the years we spend training for our jobs and for publishing. This post is an effort to share my process of writing this talk, since it was highly dialogic and a new process for me.
While we can't rival the simplicity of an iPhone, we very much want HASTAC to be easy and enjoyable for you to use. To that end, we are surveying HASTAC members about how the site works for you. We kept the survey short and limited the questions to multiple choice to make it easy to complete. It should take less than 5 minutes and is completely anonymous.
We were pleased to learn that the HASTAC web site was recently listed in the Drupal Showcase. We're so proud of our site, which is built on Drupal Commons - an open source platform designed for collaborative communities.
[cross-posted from the Juxta blog]
As the Juxta R&D team has worked to take the desktop version of our collation software to the web, I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about the critical apparatus and its role when working with digital (digitized?) texts.
n the thumbnails above, you can see a page image from a traditional print edition (in this case, of Tennyson’s poetry) on the left, and a screenshot of the old Juxta critical apparatus output on the right. In the original, downloadable, version of Juxta, we allowed users to browse several visualizations of the collation in order to target areas of interest, but we also offered them the ability to export their results in an HTML-encoded apparatus. This was an effort to connect digital scholarship to traditional methods of textual analysis, as well as a way to allow scholars to share their findings with others in a familiar medium.
It has become clear to me, based on the feedback from our users, that this HTML critical apparatus has been quite useful for a number of scholars. Even though our output could seem cryptic without being paired with the text of the base witness (as it is in the Tennyson edition), it was apparent that scholars still needed to translate their work in Juxta into the traditional format.
In the meantime, scholars working with the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) developed Parallel Segmentation, a method of encoding the critical apparatus in XML. In her article, ”Knowledge Representation and Digital Scholarly Editions in Theory and Practice,” Tanya Clement describes the effectiveness of using parallel segmentation to encode her digital edition of the work of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Using a TEI apparatus along with a visualization tool called the Versioning Machine, Clement argued that her project “encourage[d] critical inquiry concerning how a digital scholarly edition represents knowledge differently than a print edition,” and illustrated the flexibility of working with full texts in tandem. Witnesses, or alternate readings, were not subsumed under a (supposedly static) base text, but living, dynamic representations of the social and cultural networks within which the Baroness lived and wrote.
Working with digital texts can make generating a critical apparatus difficult. One could encode your apparatus manually, as Clement did, but most users of Juxta wanted us to take their plain text or XML-encoded files and transform them automatically. The traditional apparatus requires exact notations of line numbers and details about the printed page. How does one do that effectively when working with plain text files that bear no pagination and few (if any) hard returns, denoting line breaks? Instead of hurriedly replicating the desktop apparatus online –knowing it would posses these weaknesses and more — the R&D team chose to offer TEI Parallel Segmentation output for Juxta Commons.
Any user of Juxta Commons can upload a file encoded in TEI Parallel Segmentation, and see their documents represented in Juxta’s heat map, side-by-side, and histogram views. Those working with plain text of XML files can also export the results of their collations as a downloadable TEI Parallel Segmentation file. In short, Juxta Commons and can both read and write TEI Parallel Segmentation.
However, we’re not convinced that the traditional apparatus has lost its functionality. We’d like to ask you, our users, to tell us more about your needs. How do you use the critical apparatus in your studies? What other kind of apparatus could we offer to streamline and enhance your work in Juxta Commons?
It’s been two weeks since the launch of Writer and it went off like a rocket. We sold almost 5,000 copies in two weeks. Of course, version 1.0 had some birth defects (1.01 is out now), but the feedback was overwhelmingly positive—with the exception of a few complaints, mostly about the absence of features and the price. Now the only thing more difficult than creating a simple user interface is setting the price of your product…
1. Absence of Features
1.1 Creating More Efficient Interfaces
The more you think about how you use your writing tool, the less energy you have to think about your writing. Building an app with fewer features is much harder than adding a bunch of settings and letting the user decide. You may call bullshit on whoever is trying to convince you that “the absence of a feature is as a feature”, but you however smart you are—you will have a hard time overthrowing Jef Raskin’s definition of the user interface:
The Interface is the way you accomplish tasks with a product; what you do and how it responds.”
What follows from this rule is that efficient user interfaces obey the basic rule of an interaction economy: Minimal input (“what you do”) with maximal output (“how it responds”). The logic consequence is that the less manipulations required by an interface to achieve its goal, the better it works. This is why we tried to avoid mouse interaction in the drafting process as much as possible. (Mouse interaction is expensive due to it’s find-point-and-click-model being less economic than keyboard interaction).
The downsides of trying to create a more efficient interface are that people will at first feel alienated, that it costs a lot to develop and that it’s success is not guaranteed. With iA Writer we deliberately took that risk by:
- Stripping away many of the features of common text editors
- Introducing three new features (automarkdown, focus mode, disappearing window bar).
- Investing a lot of energy into details like cursor definition (it took us months to make that cursor work), typographic definition, transitions, fades and tiny shapes.
1.2 Development Time
The absence of features, the innovation in input-definition and the attention to detail is what took us over a year to develop the software from the information architecture (started January 2010) to the implementation (October 2010), optimization (January 2011) and bug fixing (March). Almost everything in iA Writer is custom built.
“Custom built” is, as such, not a positive quality (in general you should stick to the standards), but every deviation we took from UI standards was conscious and necessary. However, the risk you take when you deviate from UI standards is substantial:
- Users get confused and frustrated when learned interaction patterns don’t work.
- Programs with custom-built elements require more computational power and are slower.
- You have to deal with an angry army of bugs.
- Deviating from common standards leads to higher development costs.
If you want to innovate, you have no other choice but to go in a new direction. Judging from the sales and ecstatic feedback, we did the right thing with iA Writer. We will very probably reach our sales objective within a month, and more importantly iA Writer will make lots of writers happy.
2.1 Product Value (the Client’s Perspective)
In the eyes of the customer the value of a product is not proportional to its production cost. A beef filet cooked for 15 hours by 30 cooks doesn’t necessarily taste better than a cheeseburger. The customer doesn’t care how long it took you to do something. What customers look at is the exclusiveness and direct benefit of your offer. Or as Neven put it:
Pay $20 if you think you’ll get $20 of use out of the app. That is the only meaningful criterion to use.”
If your offer is exceptional, your price can and should be. If you offer an exceptional product at low price it will be perceived and treated as a low value product, no matter how amazing it is.
That the value of your product is also going to be perceived through its price is a fact. But it doesn’t mean that you should sell your text editor at $5,000 no matter what. You need to be realistic. You need to know what it is and you need to compare it with the market value. But be careful with what and whom you compare::
You can’t compare the price of Pages with that of iA Writer directly because the two pricing strategies have vastly different goals.”
Before deciding on the price we looked at pretty much all writing software on the market and decided to position ourselves between the highest and lowest offers. There is considerably more expensive writing software out there; even in the sector of so called “minimalist writing applications,” we are not the most expensive.
We are in the upper region of that sector though. Why? Because iA Writer is a beautiful, powerful and efficient new product. It does not only do its job, it feels fantastic to use. The vast majority customers confirmed, “it’s worth every penny”. You need to earn your value, and you earn it by making people happy that they bought it.
From our perspective it feels good that we don’t need to compete on price and can price our product at the level we matches its value. Not everybody has that luxury, but the more apps thrown out for the price of candy, the harder it gets to make good software. Therefore:
Let’s kill this meme that software priced lower than a large pizza is somehow “expensive,” and let’s not fall into the trap of comparing third-party apps to Apple apps based on price.”
A nice side effect: Pricing iA Writer higher than the average makes it possible for our competitors to go up with their price. And, believe it or not, we want healthy competitors that fight on a higher level.
2.2 Production Cost
We figured that from the 80,000 people that bought and loved iA Writer for iPad, we can get at least 10,000 in the first three months to cover the initial development costs. Our goal is not to get rich, buy a yacht, sail to Fiji and drink cocktails at the beach. (Well maybe it is;).
In the mean time there is nothing more exciting we can buy for ourselves than investing in better work conditions, designing better products, improving the quality of our work. All of our work.
2.3 Know How Benefit
iA Writer for iPad has given us highly valuable insights we can use to improve our client services (only a few other agencies have direct experience designing, making and selling successful iPad apps). Switching perspective and becoming our own client made us understand a client’s perspective much better and this directly improved our service. In return the client business has helped us understanding how to create successful products.
Within our company, iA Writer is an independent entity. To secure it, we first need to guarantee that the development costs are covered in a short time span, so we can move forward with the project. Otherwise, we will shut it down. (We have no investors, and I’d like to keep it that way.)
Now, again, this is just the business side, and, again, as far as customer perception goes, this is still irrelevant for the product price. But it is our perspective and it is important as an economic base for the existence.
2.4 The Right Price
As mentioned above, from a customer perspective the relativity of price and the perceived value are intertwined. If we sell iA Writer for $10 we might sell double the amount (or even more), but the perceived value goes down.
Now who cares, as long as we make more money with it, right? Wrong! If you sell a product at a low price, you’ll have to deal with more support questions and not only are you less able to provide answers for products that cost –.99 (you need to stay economically viable or go bankrupt), customers will also see you as a desperate little shop and not as a serious software provider—which doesn’t make the discussion easier.
One thing I learned with the dynamic pricing experiment we did a couple of years ago is to be patient. If the price varies a lot and people are aware of price changes, then they will jump on it when it’s cheap and wait when it’s expensive. If you keep your price at a spot where it is affordable and fair (in relation to other comparable products) they will eventually buy it at a higher price. The main lesson from being in business for five years is: the right price for a product is the highest price you can ask for, but with one condition: that your customers remain happy after they buy it.
2.5 Why was Writer for iPad so cheap? iTunes vs App Store
One problem with the different App Stores is that the rules change depending on the platform.
1. iPad: The best chance to get an iPad user to download your app is when he finds you on his iPad, that is: through iTunes. And the only way to be found in iTunes is to be featured in the top ten. And there are only two ways to stay in the top ten: by cheating (which is nasty and stupidly dangerous) or going down with the price. It’s that simple.
2. OSX: The chance that someone reads about your app when he’s on his desktop is statistically higher than being found with an iPad. With a desktop app there is some probability that you can lead people directly from the Website to the App Store. But beware, there is still the web to App Store gap. Having a strong presence in the store is not completely irrelevant.
If we could, we would price iA Writer for iPad closer to iA Writer for Mac. But alas, we need to be realistic and realism has forced our price down to the minimum –.99 cents for quite some time. Here is why:
- Desktops are work devices, iPads are leisure devices. Even though iA Writer for iPad is a professional’s tool, it is sold in an amateur environment at amateur prices.
- The highly competitive iTunes store (prices are generally lower on iPad, and even lower on iPhone) sets the tone.
- The impossibility to translate desktop and mobile attention into iPad sales forces you to compete on iTunes.
Having both iPad and OSX has allowed us to go up with the price because now there is traffic and sales synergy between the two. If you compare units sold to revenue you will see that now we make more revenue with less apps, which we couldn’t do before:
Once we have an iPhone app in the market, we’ll be able to close the circle (at least for Mac users), and the price of the iPad might go up further. In any case, to really close the circle, we’ll have to release Writer for PC! But let’s first see how things develop on the Mac.
3. Test Version?
One reason why we went for the App Store is that Apple will handle all the transactions, updates, and be a neutral middleman in case of a refund. With the expected sales we simply couldn’t manage everything through an open source e-commerce system.
Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t offer test versions. This has, so far, been our greatest challenge. Many people claimed that iA Writer is too expensive without trying it. All software that relies on as much interaction as a text editor cannot be judged without using it.
I was irritated when I read the first blog post of someone “evaluating” iA Writer at length and deciding it to be overpriced—without actually buying (and that is: using) it. To judge a bicycle you need to ride it! I now think that’s actually quite a funny post, since many critical of its price have overcome their initial resistance and decided to try it, and after trying it they regularly admit that “it’s worth every penny.” Of course not everybody will be a fan. (But that’s understood.)
Now, as an old UXer and blogger, I know that if there is any form of user anger (there is a difference between users and customers: clients pay, users use), there is often a good chance for improvement, no matter how irritating the complaint might seem to be at first.
I know that what is missing is a test version. Since so many people converted from hater to lover, confirming our own experience using the program, I’d really like to offer a test version. Or, at least to give a test version a chance. But:
- iA Writer will only work if it is fully functional (functionally limited test versions are a no go)
- We use a licensed font
- Our test version needs to be of the same quality as our software
- iA Writer has a small initial learning curve: If you buy the program you’ll get over that in 30 seconds because you want to. If you just play with it, you might drop it 10 seconds too soon.
Since this is the first desktop app we produce in house I will be very careful about how we approach this. I know that there are frameworks that can be used for this purpose, but I want to test them thoroughly before throwing a test version on the market. In my experience, most test versions make me feel bad. Here are some of my (selfish stupid) feelings when testing trial software (usually cheap rationalizations for not buying):
- “It’s very cool but I have it already, why do I need to buy it?”
- “I need this, they force me to buy it! I’m being held hostage!” (Adobe Syndrome)
- “How dare they just turning the key on the software that runs on my computer?”
- “What only 4 days left? Oh you cheap bastards!” (!)
- “Yeah, I got enough software on my computer. Now that I have it I don’t need to try it.”
- “Ah, now I need to learn this interface. Dude! Ah next time…”
- “Aren’t these free trial guys kind of desperate? I don’t support desperate people.”
We want to release a test version where people are looking forward to buying it because they get something more without being limited in testing it. But how would such a trial work? We want to excel in the concept of a test version as we try to be a step ahead in creating every other aspect of our product. Right now we don’t need to have a test version. But we want one because we know that many more will learn to love iA Writer once they try it. It’ll be only a matter of time until we figure out how to do this properly.
4. Next Updates
We just upgraded to 1.0.1 addressing the main bugs and uncool 1.0 limitations. iA Writer now has:
- Auto markdown shortcuts for CMD+B and CMD+I
- HTML export
- Word & character counts plus reading time in fullscreen
- Open and save using different file formats (.mkd, .text, etc.)
- Bug fixes for full screen, the title bar, printing, a.o.
There are still a couple of issues that we couldn’t address in the 2 week time span, but more updates will come soon. Future versions will include text zoom +/-, more languages, QuickCursor compatibility, better file handling, curly quotes, remembered spelling settings and window size and some very cool stuff that I don’t want to talk about just yet.
I had a perspective changing talk on the subject of pay walls with the chief executive of a big publishing company (no, I can’t tell you who). He asked me what I think about pay walls. I told him what I always say: The main currency of news sites is attention and not dollars and that I believe that it is his job, as a publisher, to turn that attention into money to keep the attention machine running. He nodded and made the following, astonishing statement:
I can’t see pay walls working out either. But we need to do something before we lose all of our current subscribers. Sure. It’s a tough business environment, but… But the flight industry is a tough environment too, and they found ways. So tell me: Why do people fly Business Class? In the end, an airplane brings me to the same place regardless of whether I fly Economy or Business Class and the massive price-increase I pay doesn’t compare the difference in value.
He asked whether I knew of a way to apply this logic to online news. What would a Business Class news site look like?
People pay for Business Class because they don’t want to be tortured in Economy. They get faster lanes at the terror check. They get an extra glass of champagne. The stewards are more attentive. They get off the plane more quickly. They get the feeling of a higher social status.
And he added that he wished that there was a way to lead each reader through the business class to Economy again and again to show him what he misses.
Limiting Information is not Economic
Say what you want, but he has one point for sure there. Reading news online feels like flying Economy. Loud distracting banners, cheap stock picture material, sloppy typography, a lot of useless comment noise, machine generated reading tips, no human service, and a claustrophobic information design make the reading experience a torture.
If you’ve been designing online newspapers as well, of course, you know that designers cannot solve this problem by themselves. Newspapers need to make money. And most newspapers look the way they look because the design briefings are the way they are. The following comparison demonstrates how much space and attention that marketing strategy needs to pay for the product, and how small the space is for actual content:
Now with all this noise, online news still doesn’t make enough money it seems. Some newspapers try to tackle the financial problem by erecting pay walls. “You want information? You pay!” But, as many have noted before, that’s a tough sell in a medium where information exists in overflow. The strategic problems with pay walls have been discussed back and forth:
- There is no information shortage online—if I can’t read this article, I’ll read another.
- Pay walls weaken the main attractor (content) of your site and complicates the user experience (login on different platforms). Some leave social media back doors for pro users, but that’s not a good long term strategy either, as more and more people are using social media to find content.
- Often pay walled news sites feature the same amount of marketing noise as free sites. Paying customers of course are more attractive clientele, but… Paying for news and then dealing with a silly blinking bonanza while reading doesn’t seem like a fair deal.
To be clear: content pay walls are not what we are suggesting. Remember, whether you fly Economy or Business: the result is the same (you travel from a to b), and only the experience differs. And likewise Business Class and Economy class seats on news sites should deliver the same content.
The idea of creating a business class for online news where is not about buying information, but buying better experience, it’s about service and customer experience. That’s right: Customer (paying), not user (free).
Same Information, Different Experience
The idea of creating a business around the terrible online news experience is not that extravagant: Instapaper, Readability, FlipBoard & Co. are already profiting from the terrible reading experience of current news sites. (Actually, Jay Rosen has suggested just that: That publishing houses should compete FlipBoard [and with news.me the NYT is just doing that].) All these reading interfaces have one thing in common:
- Design-focus on content
- No blinking obnoxious advertisement and space filling noise
- Personal relevance
…and they have the advantage of collecting news from different sources. What they don’t have, but publishing houses could provide:
- High end picture material (often too expensive for a broad audience)
- The immensely powerful brand and social network of news sites
- Human service through qualified news professionals (for premium accounts only)
Now, wouldn’t it be at least worth a try to add a business class version to your site instead of leaving that business to the booming reader industry?
Sounds Good but How Does it Look?
How would a business class version of a news site look in detail? We are currently working on a behind the scenes consulting project dealing with that problem, and, as far as we can see, it’s not as impossible as one might think. For obvious reasons, we can’t show you the actual designs, but to give you an obvious example of just one aspect. Here is what happens to the New York Times if you get rid of the noise:
Which one would you rather read? What if you could get the loud one for free and pay for the nice one? Would you be tempted? And would you be tempted to use the same interface for other news as well?
No, you don’t need to make the free one ugly on purpose (apparently, they purposely torture us in Economy class). The traditional CPV/ad model design requirements will do the job for you.
It is understood that it’s difficult to make a business class version for the New York Post; you need a brand that fulfills the promise of Business Class. The Business Class idea would only work for titles like The New Yorker, Die Zeit, Il Sole 24 Ore, Le Monde (Le Monde actually has a similar concept in place but there the upsell is tied to more information, not better experience–which, again, is not what we’re suggesting).
So here is our question for you: as a regular reader of Le Monde, NYT, or Die Zeit, how much would you be ready to pay for a Business Class version of your news site? I’m guessing that it should be a yearly fee. It doesn’t hurt to pay 99.- once a year, but it hurts to pay 10.– per month. Keep in mind that the above design is just a quick mockup and that the benefits go beyond a better design.
So. How much? 0.–, 5.–, 9.–, 49.–, 99.–, 299.– per year? What if in plus you could read other news sources through the same interface as well? We’d be happy if you could send us a tweet with the price you’d be ready to pay.
Blog post composed with Writer for iPad
The server is being hammered. The reactions on Twitter are intense and surprisingly positive. So far, it seems like the average user is willing to pay is $99.- to become a client. Several tech sites have reacted:
There’s no question that Reichenstein is onto something with this approach. Many newspaper pages and websites look hideous…
I love this idea from Oliver Reichenstein: a premium “business class” level for news websites. Stop trying to figure out ways to block the flow of information with paywalls. Allow everyone the same access to the content — in the way that every passenger gets transported from A to B on an airplane — but allow people to pay for a superior experience.
Perhaps as well as the layout, the “business class” service could also include better (and more immediate) forms of discoverability and curation to help with the above, or even the ablity to create filters (so I could block out all political or environmental stories, say). [by user petercooper]
Internally, since its introduction in 2003 we have always talked about our Edition Abonné as our “classe affaire.” And indeed it is more about a better experience and better services than content. Our subscribers get an almost adfree website and get in the “club” which allows them to comment, to run a blog on our website, to be greeted with a personalized summary of the news if they haven’t reached the site for more than 3 days… etc…”
Some(including GigaOm) have noted that the news business is not like the airline business, meaning: They can force us into Economy, because we have no choice. The argument was not that the news business is like the airline business. Of course not. The argument is precisely that news should learn to upsell their readers to a better experience, not to more or better information.
It Already Exists!
Twitter user @mrjohnsly has noted that Ars Technica already has a similar model in place. And indeed they do. One particularly nifty feature of their model is that they offer full RSS feeds for paid subscribers. I’d be cool to know how well it is working for them.
Reader or not Reader
As briefly mentioned in the article, the offer would be even more attractive, if the Business Class environment allowed the use to not only find articles from other publications but also read articles from other publications. Some say that this is strategically impossible (even though FlipBoard proves that with enough negotiation skills it is possible), others suggest that this could be a model for a strategic cooperation among different publishing houses.
I wont elaborate on that matter at this point (there is more to say about that than fits within an H3 title), but one thing is pretty clear: The success such a reader would be much more likely if it is built platform independent.
Last year I wrote a post leveraging the new analytics data we’d begun keeping for NINES, breaking down our site activity based on new members, tagged and collected objects. When starting a tradition such as this, one always hopes that each year will be better than the last — and I’m happy to say that 2010 was an active year for NINES. Much of this activity is due to the new Classroom section, which streamlines group discussion and exhibit building for teachers.
- New users: 643
- Objects collected: 3,453
- Objects tagged: 1,117
Our most active sites in 2010 were commercial providers, who allow NINES users to search their material freely but require subscription for full access. Project MUSE’s Victorian Poetry had the most objects collected, with JSTOR’s American Literary History as the runner-up.
As of this month, we also have a full year of Google Analytics information for NINES, which tracks the visitors to our site who do not have accounts. We had an average of 300 visitors to our site every day, with September -December 2010 as our most active months (roughly 500 visitors per day). Google is by far the largest traffic source for NINES, with The Rossetti Archive, Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, and Facebook also sending large numbers of referrals. Most of our users come from the Unites States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but India and Australia also seem to be quite active.
Thanks to all of you who helped NINES grow this year! As always, we welcome your questions and feedback (inquiries at nines dot org).