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Voices That Matter Interview with Building Findable Websites Author Aarron Walter

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Michael Nolan, senior acquisitions editor with New Riders Press, interviews bestselling author Aarron Walter, one of the speakers for the recent Voices That Matter Web Design Conference in Nashville. Read to the end to download a free findability checklist.
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Michael Nolan: Now that you're done with your book Building Findable Websites: Web Standards, SEO, and Beyond, what are you working on?

Aarron Walter: One of the chapters in the book is on email marketing. For years, I've used a really cool web app called MailChimp for my clients, and in the book I wrote about MailChimp's API, how to use Ajax with MailChimp to create mailing list subscription forms on your site, and so on. The MailChimp people liked what I was doing and ended up hiring me! I'm the lead user-experience designer, and we've been working on a total rebuild of the MailChimp app. We redesigned it to make it as fast and easy to use as possible. It's a cool app with a really fun personality—a chimp compliments you each time you log in. So that's been consuming a lot of my time. We have a new version coming out shortly, and we're pretty excited about it.

Michael: Are you still teaching as well?

Aarron: I'm teaching part-time. This quarter I'm teaching my findability class at the Art Institute of Atlanta. It works out great, because I wrote Building Findable Websites for this class, and we're using the book in the class. We talk about different findability strategies, how to use markup and web standards for search engine optimization, how to use things like microformats to make content portable. We recently spent quite a bit of class time talking about social networking and how to create content strategies to connect with your audience.

Michael: What are some of the ideas that came up in these sessions?

Aarron: We broke into small teams, each with a different scenario. For instance, one team talked about how to create content that would attract the target audience to that team's hypothetical eCommerce site. One of the concepts in the book is "content karma," which means avoiding the "hard sell" approach and instead creating content that solves a problem, entertains, or helps people. When you do that, people are grateful, and want to be associated with your service, product, or whatever it is you're trying to promote.

Another group was assigned a site for an urban clothing company. They were talking about creating podcasts, connecting with different audio musicians and DJs, and creating an RSS feed of samples of great music. Their idea was to cross-promote with artists and provide interesting content that relates to the lifestyle of the products being sold, which creates a way to connect with people.

Michael: Wow, lots of interesting thinking going on in Atlanta!

Aarron: We talk about lots of different and interesting strategies, but the idea is to think from the user's perspective. We often talk about usability and information architecture, but what about the content itself? What can we create and put together and connect with other organizations to create content that's relevant to the audience?

Michael: In your estimation, is content the number one element of findability?

Aarron: It's the foundation, certainly. Whatever findability strategies you might pursue—search engine optimization techniques with markup and code, server-side optimization stuff—all of those things you do are great and important. Make your content machine-readable, have a clear information hierarchy that makes sense to search engine spiders, and use social networking services to reach your audience in different ways. That's all good, but once you've connected with the audience, if you don't have something that's of interest to them, it's all for naught, a waste of time. You've got to have content that's interesting, relevant, useful. Not only will that create traffic to your site; it will get people talking about your site, blogging about it, creating inbound links to your site (which helps search engine rankings as well). And it will generate repeat traffic.

Michael: What will you be talking about at our "Voices That Matter" conference?

Aarron: I'm going to be extending the ideas from my book, and talking about findability from the design perspective. What sort of design techniques—color, typography, contrast, repetition, alignment—could be used to direct the user's gaze to different areas within a design, to help us achieve certain findability strategies? Maybe we want to direct the user's attention to the RSS feed, so she'll subscribe. Because if she subscribes, she'll keep track of and revisit your website. Statistically speaking, the more often someone visits your site, the more apt she is to perform some sort of business objective—buy a product, support your nonprofit organization with a donation, get involved with an event. [At the conference,] we'll talk about how to create design that achieves findability goals. We'll also look at some code strategies: Okay, I've created this design. Now how do I translate this design into code that facilitates findability and search engine optimization?

Michael: So you're going to match your topic to our audience of designers and really stress the design aspect of findability. I like that.

Aarron: I want to take a holistic perspective on the topic. I definitely believe that our craft of web design is experiencing sort of a Renaissance time of thinking, where we need to bring together both hemispheres of our brains—logic for strategy and code and that sort of thing, and creativity in the way that we think visually. I really think that, to be successful in our field, you don't necessarily have to be a master at both [logical and creative thinking], but you definitely have to be aware of both.

Michael: What other presentations at the conference interest you?

Aarron: There are lots of really interesting thinkers at this event. I'm really interested in hearing what Curt Cloninger has to say. A lot of us got excited about his book Fresh Styles for Web Designers: Eye Candy from the Underground [New Riders, 2002]. It was the first time that anyone had looked at web design trends and created a taxonomy: "Here's how we categorize that." I'm curious to see what he has to say about what's going on several years after that book.

Michael: He's revising the book now—taking a fresh look, if you will—and creating a whole new taxonomy. The new book is due out in the fall. Hey, talk a little bit about the checklist that we've been working on.

Aarron: As I was preparing to write the findability book, I asked students in a couple of my classes, "If you were trying to learn everything you could about how to build findable websites, what would you want in a book?" One thing they suggested was having a quick reference; instead of having to read through the whole book when working on a project, you could just consult a quick summary. My checklist summarized many of the key topics in the book, with references to every place in the book where that key topic is discussed in detail. We had planned to publish it in the book, but I was so excited about the topic that I wrote too much, and we ran out of space.

So we want to give it away for free—a really great checklist reference that anyone can use when they're working on projects. It just kind of sums up all of these ideas from markup strategies to server-side strategies. (If you're changing the location of pages, how do you make sure that people can still find them? By creating 301 redirects.) We're releasing it as a PDF that people can download and use in their projects.

This is a transcript of an audio interview that was conducted with author Aarron Walter just before the Voices That Matter Web Design Conference, which took place in June 2008 in Nashville. For more information about the Voices That Matter conferences or to listen to the audio version of this interview, visit our Voices That Matter website.

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