Beantin

James Royal-Lawson

Usability

Why IMD? Testing an advert in The Economist

IMD, provider of executive education programs, ran an advert in the printed version of The Economist. The advert encouraged you to download a special app to your mobile in order to decode the advert and view a video

advert from the Economist with a close up of the instructions

I thought I’d have a bit of fun and make a video of myself following the instructions in the advert. My initial reaction when I saw the ad was: this is a very long winded way of getting readers to view a promotional video. My video clip is 9 minutes long, and apart from some chat at the beginning, it took pretty much that long to get to IMD’s video clip.

Many people are complaining about QR codes being pointless. When implemented correctly and in a context where it helps, they can add value. Unfortunately time after time they are badly implemented and just become an obstacle.

This “see the page come alive” stunt by IMD is worse than a poorly implemented QR code. I say it is worse as you need to use a specific app for this specific ad. a 14MB monster of an app that requires (at least on Android) a whole load of permissions well beyond what it needs for its simple functionality.

When running campaigns that involve scanning or “reading” content, then you should always print a (simple to type) URL in the ad. This makes the content accessible to the reader/viewer even if, for whatever reason, scanning isn’t possible or doesn’t work.

Perhaps I’m being mean, and under-estimating the time and enthusiasm for such gimmicks that Economist readers interested in executive education programs have. Judging by the 10-50 downloads on the app’s page in Google Play, I’ve got a feeling I’m not under-estimating at all.

What do you think? Money well spent, or ill conceived gimmick?


James Royal-Lawson+ is a digital strategist and web manager based in Stockholm Sweden.

Lokaltidningen mitt i: minimising the user experience

I think pretty much everyone has an opinion about how the news industry should adapt in order to survive in the digital age. Even I’ve turned out a few blog posts on the subject.

Middle of nowhere

Local newspaper company Mitt i Stockholm publishes 31 newspapers here in the Greater Stockholm area and they have a rather peculiar puzzling terrible digital strategy which manages to minimise the user experience for a huge section of their target audience.

In this blog post I’ll walk you through a few parts of their digital presence and highlight some of the problems. I’ll also, in the spirit of free local newspapers, offer Mitt i some free advice.

Mitt i advert for their app on the Stockholm metro

Download our app!

In recent weeks Mitt i Stockholm has been pushing their recently launched mobile app fairly hard. There have been adverts in every Metro train, full page adverts in their own publications, plus other places, all enticing people to install the Mitt i app. The app promises you “piping hot news about everything to do with the capital city”,

I don’t think they thought things through from a reader perspective at all. I’m also not convinced that this idea has been built on clear business goals either.

What’s in it for me?

The adverts on the Metro system, and the full page adverts in all the editions of the printed newspaper give very little information. The app for iPhone and Android (but not iPad) claims to deliver a “unique news service about Stockholm” but fails to give any specific details.

Searching for “mitt i” and installing the app was pretty painless. Although reading the poor reviews didn’t give me high expectations. On Android it would appear the app didn’t work at all with the latest version of the operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich. It worked for me, usually. It did though crash and close itself on a number of occasions.

Everything needs to be tested and tested well. Use vistor data from your web site to help prioritise the devices and platforms you test. Make sure you keep an eye on reviews and comments to your newly launched app and make sure you’re ready to fix any bugs and quickly release an updated version.

Given that Mitt i is produced in 31 local variations, it was immediately puzzling that the app lacked any way of choosing my edition. You see news articles from all 31 editions of the newspaper. It may be harsh, but I don’t want local news from Lidingö, I want it from Enskede.

An article in the app comprises of a picture, a headline and body text. The only additional feature are buttons to increase and decrease the text size and next/previous article buttons. There are no links, and most significantly, no ability to share the article whatsoever.

The article is totally locked within the app. There’s no way of recommending it, or passing it on to a friend. Not even the familiar Android “share” menu appears. There’s no way an article could become viral, or be used in order to acquire more readers for the newspaper.

Make sure your content can be easily shared. Make use of standard share functions. Test sharing your content on relevant social networks to make sure it displays as you’d expect.

One of the features (not mentioned in the marketing for the app) is their restaurant guide with map and (editorial) reviews. There is, of course, no possibility to add your own comment or rating, or even to add a new review. Hardly a unique selling point for the app. Much better similar services exist.

Screenshot of the in-app map showing the locations of restaurants that have been reviewed

If the restaurant reviews are strategically important and must be included in the app, then why not enhance them with information and content from other services, such as Allakartor. Allakartor makes its data available via an API, making it relatively straight forward to include.

Website lacks content

The lack of any sharing in the app starts to become a little more understandable (but no more forgivable!) when you take a look at the Mitt i website. The content from the various newspapers is only available as e-zines. That is to say, a flash or image-based presentation of the content built from a PDF version of the newspaper.

It’s difficult to make content any less accessible then is achieved by publishing it in this way. Viewing this type of e-zine on tablets or mobile devices is hopeless. It also not very search engine friendly – and by that I mean not only unfriendly for Google but also for on-site search and the visitor. Searching the archive on Mitt i rarely gives a satisfactory result.

In addition, no article has its own URL. You can’t share a link to a particular story. The best you can do is link to a whole page from the paper . This is something I managed to do, but I suspect not something very many typical readers would achieve.

Avoid using ezine publications. They rarely deliver good user experiences. Make the PDF available as a download. Publish content in it’s own right on dedicated, shareable, pages.

What no start page?

As part of the campaign to promote the app, Mitt i has moved their normal start page and replaced it with a splash page. Splash pages are known to irritate users. A certain percentage will leave immediately on seeing a splash page.

Screenshot of a replacement start page for mitti.se advertising their app

Determined users will click on the “enter site” link as quick as possible in order to get on with the task they came to the site to complete. Trying to distracting visitors as soon as they arrive is rarely a good plan.

The splash page itself is poorly constructed, with almost the entire content of the page contained in an image with no textual alternative. The links to the Android and Apple apps are made created using an image map, something that most of us avoid like the plague these days.

If you do deploy a splash page (which I wouldn’t recommend) then place it on its own URL. Redirect your index page temporarily to your splash page with a http 302 temporary redirect code. You may also want to make it no index. Take care to code the page correctly, making it as accessible as possible.

Search Engines

Splash pages are not only terrible for visitors, but also for search engines. Removing almost all the text-based content from a web page results in a very poor quality snippet. The title of Mitt i in Google at the moment is “Mitt i app” with a description of “to the mitt i homepage”. Hardly enticing.

Screenshot of Google search results showing how badly mitti.se appears

The Mitt i web site fails to follow even the most basic SEO advice such as unique page titles and quality meta descriptions. Mitt i search results take a further hit due to the amount of content only available as PDFs or as images. As mentioned earlier, none of the articles from the newspapers are available as specific web pages.

Make sure articles are published as web pages with their own distinct URLs. Make sure page titles are descriptive, unique and contain relevant keywords. Make sure a well written meta description is included on every single page.

Frustratingly poor

There is demand and interest for local news, and thousands of people take the time to read the paper editions of Mitt i. It’s frustrating how poor the digital strategy is for this local newspaper – they have the content, it just needs to be better utilised.

Rival free local newspaper company Direct Press does a much better job with their web presence. It’s not perfect, but at least the content from their publications is available online in a way which is accessible, shareable and findable.

It’s important to think holistically. Consider how every thing you do (both online and offline) fits together; how it is seen, consumed and interacted with by your customers (readers, members, supporters, or whatever you’d like to label them as).

With the revenue obtained from advertising in (printed) free local papers such as Mitt i in terminal decline, minimising the user experience of their readers is hardly a strategy that will help them innovate and survive.


James Royal-Lawson+ is a digital strategist and web manager based in Stockholm Sweden.

Tested: Java midlet QR code readers

QR Code readers are as easy as pie on smartphones such as the iPhone and Android-based phones. The ZXing barcode app for those platforms does a great job of decoding almost everything you can throw at it. The story isn’t quite as happy for owners of other types of mobiles who have to use J2ME/JavaME applications.

I’ve tested 7 different Java QR Code readers using a number of QR Codes (both on screen and printed) on my SonyEricsson C905. The C905 is a CyberShot telephone with an auto-focus 8MP Carl Zeiss lens. The camera is one of the best I’ve seen on a mobile. That said, scanning QR Codes with Java apps has, by and large, been an awful experience.

i-Nigma logo

i-Nigma – Best in test

Of the 7 free apps I tested i-Nigma was the only one that I can genuinely call useful. When I say useful, I mean it actually decoded every code I threw at it! It makes use of the auto focus, decodes quite quickly & keeps a history of what you’ve decoded. It didn’t made use of the phone’s flash, but it did manage to decode my low-light test code after a few attempts.

It also understood a number of different types of encoded data.

  • Contact details – offering to save the vCard to contacts.
  • Telephone numbers – offering to dial the number.
  • Email addresses – offering to send an email.
  • SMS – offering to send the SMS to the specifed number.

Everything it didn’t understand it displayed as text.

The application also offers a auto-power saving mode and the ability to recode the data back into a QR-code. You can also reasonably easily share the decode info on Facebook or Twitter. It is all in all a nice application to use.

Neoreader

It Auto-focused, and didn’t use the camera’s flash. It decoded as many codes as the test-winning i-Nigma, but what stopped Neoreader from being a joint-winner is that the application isn’t as nice to use, and it considered most things it decoded as a URLs and offered to open them – even if it was a vCard for example. It did though correctly deal with SMSes and telephone numbers.

BarcodeReader (ZXing)

This reader is the most common barcode scanner on Android phones and works really well on that platform. It auto-focuses and uses the built-in flash. There is a noticeable delay though from when you press the button to scan to when it focuses, and then to when it flashes, and then again to when it makes the shutter noise – and then finally, after what seems like a lifetime, it says if it found a code or not. A lot of time it said “no code found”. The way the user interface is designed makes you wonder whether it’s you that’s doing a bad job of taking the photo or the application doing a bad job of dealing with it.

I didn’t mange to decode any of my on-screen test codes, only the printed ones worked. This is probably due to the flash; but as there is no option to disable it, I couldn’t test that theory.

BeeTagg

Auto-focus, bit sluggish at times. Decoded most larger codes, but failed with smaller ones. It showed all types of codes as decoded text, scrolling across the screen – apart from URLs which it gave you the option of opening.

Kaywa Reader

First problem was a really long drop down list with phone models that was really awkward & slow to navigate, the second and ultimate problem was that I received an error when trying to download the software. Total failure.

Scanlife

No auto-focus. Never managed to get an in-focus scan, subsequently I never managed to get it do decode anything. Total failure.

UpCodeJava

Auto-focused but was incredibly slow at processing the picture. Most significantly it didn’t manage to decode any QR Codes at all. Total failure.

The Test Codes

I used 7 codes in my testing (although I have over a period of time tested all of the applications with more QR codes). 6 of them were generated using ZXing’s QR Code generator. 1 of them was my business card pined to the fridge in our kitchen. This code in this environment was used as my low-light test. I also printed out the MeCard contact details code.

Here are the codes, so you can test yourself:

Printed code in Low-light

Picture of a QR code in poor light

MeCard

MeCard QR Code

vEvent

MeCard

URL

MeCard QR Code

Geo-location

MeCard QR Code

SMS

MeCard QR Code

Phone number

MeCard QR Code

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