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Designing the Obvious Clinic:

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Robert Hoekman, Jr.

About Designing the Obvious Clinics

The goal of each Designing the Obvious clinic is to see how a particular web application measures up to the principles discussed in my book, Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design. To learn more about Designing the Obvious, visit my Web site.

Addictive And Fun, But It Needs Polishing recently entered its beta phase and has quickly picked up steam, even earning itself an article in Business Week. What is it? Well, it's essentially the YouTube of slides.

SlideShare members can do pretty much everything a YouTube user can do, but with slides. To share a slide deck (such as a Powerpoint presentation or PDF), simply upload it with a name, description, and some tags. To check out other decks, just hit the homepage and start clicking. To share a deck, either grab the URL and link to it from an email or web page, or grab the code to embed the deck into a blog post. Users can write comments, add slide decks to their "favorites" lists, and even flag a slide deck as inappropriate.

SlideShare is designed with proximity in mind. As in, instead of a carefully planned organizational structure that enables you to quickly find the exact slide deck you're looking for, SlideShare enables you to bump into things accidentally. And this is mostly what's so addictive about it.

Figure 1

Figure 1 A truly addictive interaction model comes from constantly bumping users into content they don't know they want to see.

Also like YouTube, anytime you view a slide deck, you're presented with a short list of related decks, many of which compel you to click through and start checking out the next deck. This makes for a very addictive interaction model, and the opportunities to see what other people are thinking about and how they organize slide decks and presentations is a lot of fun.

So, it turns out that emulating YouTube is a mighty fine idea, but so is following the principles of web application design outlined in the book, and it's here that SlideShare could use a little work. In this review, we'll take a look at how well SlideShare gets users up to speed, handles errors, and reduces clutter.

Turning Beginners Into Intermediates, Immediately

If you've read the book, you know that this principle is all about using instructive design to help teach users about a site and get them moving forward quickly. While SlideShare has a fairly low learning curve, there is at least one key area where it could do more to help its users advance.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Tag clouds are great, but only when users can derive meaning from them. Instructive design makes all the difference.

In the "Topics and Tags" section, SlideShare opted to use a tag cloud. And while I'm not against tag clouds—in fact, I’ve personally advocated their use—it's best to present them alongside some simple instructive elements that help users understand not only its purpose, but the purpose of the tags themselves. In this case, SlideShare shows its tag cloud on its own, with no explanation at all about its benefit, purpose, or usage.

Arguably, the simplest way to communicate the purpose and usage of a tag cloud is to accompany it with a single line of instructive text. Something like, "Bigger = more popular | Smaller = less popular" should be sufficient. Left on its own, though, a tag cloud can be a tad confusing.

A tag cloud is nothing more than a simple list of links, with popular tags given more visual weight than the others, but the display of a tag cloud is significantly different than what most web users have come to expect over the years. Most sites, most of the time, using typical three-panel layouts, show links either in long columns, often grouped into smaller chunks with individual labels, or horizontally as a row of persistent navigation at the top of a page. A tag cloud goes against both conventions, messily tossing a bunch of links in a mass with no organizational cues whatsoever.

SlideShare seems to be relying here on users' preexisting knowledge from sites like Flickr, but tags are simply not common enough yet that we can offer them without any hint as to why they're laid out like they are, or what tags mean to users. A little instructional text is all it takes to give meaning to the tag cloud.

SlideShare succeeds in another area, however, by solving the blank slate issue. Blank slates are empty screens. Screens where there will eventually be content, but currently have nothing to fill them up. SlideShare's blank slate is its My Slidespace page, which is designed to list the slide decks a user has uploaded.

On a page like this, a user with no uploaded slide decks would see an empty page. This would look bad, and it would leave the user with no clues about what to do. To alleviate this issue, SlideShare fills up the space with a call to action. Instead of showing a blank page, it shows a placeholder image and a link, labeled "Upload your first slideshow now."

Figure 3

Figure 3 A good blank slate helps get users up and running quickly.

Nice touch. This helps new users get up to speed with the application and keeps everyone from seeing an empty, useless page.

SlideShare also succeeds by leveraging the high-level design pattern established by YouTube. Anyone familiar with YouTube should find it relatively easy to understand SlideShare.

Handling Errors Wisely

When I originally signed up for SlideShare, I had a few problems. First, I couldn't get past the registration screen, which hung and eventually froze my browser.

After restarting the browser, it turns out that my registration info was saved, but the password was reset. I didn't know this, however, so when I tried to sign in, it failed. But instead of showing me a meaningful error message, the login page simply refreshed, leaving me with no clues about what happened.

Figure 4

Figure 4 There's nothing on this page to tell me my login failed.

Once I retrieved my password by having SlideShare email it to me, the placeholder image on the My Slidespace page never loaded. This made it appear that the page was missing an image and that my first attempt at uploading a new slide deck had ended in failure. The first few minutes simply did not go well at all.

Assuming SlideShare doesn't normally crash browsers or stall out when uploading slide decks (I have not had these issues since signing up), it still needs to take a look at the error page shown when an upload fails.

Figure 5

Figure 5 What the heck is a "camping problem"?

Reduction and Refinement

Overall, SlideShare is a fairly simple application to understand and dig into. It does a great job of focusing on what's most important to the user and keeping things simple.

That said, SlideShare can get a bit messy at times. The homepage, for example, includes a lot of information and links, and it can be difficult to tell which items are important and which are not.

Figure 6

Figure 6 Nothing in this section of the homepage stands out from anything else, making it difficult to tell what’s important.

The homepage could also stand a little organization and refinement, to help make things clear. The Latest Comments section, for example, highlights comments from particular slide decks available for viewing on the site, but here on the homepage, the comments are out of context and lack relevancy. For this reason, the comments don't help users understand the purpose of the site or help compel them to start looking around. They could be removed from the homepage entirely and the remaining space could be used to better organize what's left.

And again, the tag clouds lack any sort of instructive text. Simply naming the section Popular Keywords instead of Popular Tags would help clear things up, because most users will have a much stronger mental model of keywords than of tags. This section could also benefit from an inline Help balloon or something similar, perhaps triggered by a rollover, to help explain to users what the section is about.

Finally, the "What's new with SlideShare?" section could be moved to another page and simply linked to from the homepage, leaving even more room to highlight content instead of functionality.

Other screens within the application, however, are generally well organized and easy to understand.

Wrapping Up

Overall, SlideShare does a great job of designing the obvious. With a little work to the homepage, some instructive elements in a few key places, and some improved error handling, it could resolve some of the small user experience issues and make the whole application quite smooth and successful.