Summary

Innovation is the process of continuously improving the usability and quality of the web to meet and exceed user expectations.

Innovation involves finding creative or unique ways to improve the elements of the web or engage the web's audience.

Key Innovation Practices

  • Continuously and creatively work for improvement to meet user needs.
  • Based on analysis, user testing, and focus groups, identify new user needs.
  • Identify new technologies that may help you meet user needs better.

Key Innovation Resources

  • Spend some time exploring the entries in The Top of the Web to get an idea of some interesting and innovative webs.
  • Information Quality: Quality, Guidelines & Standards for Internet Information Resources, edited by Dr. T. Matthew Ciolek. This document provides pointers to information about good procedures and practices in building Internet-based information resources.
  • APQC: The American Productivity & Quality Center and International Benchmarking Clearinghouse. This resource includes public and membership information about quality and process improvement.

Discussion

A web is not usually a static product that can be deployed and then abandoned. New information, users with unique needs, and opportunities for additional services constantly are introduced to the online world. Therefore, you'll need to use a process of continuous innovation to improve and expand your web's service, usability, consistency, and the integration of the web with all your organization's communications systems.

An Innovation Overview

The innovation process works closely with the other processes of web development. In fact, innovation is a complement to each of the web-development processes; it draws information from them about the current web and identifies new needs for the web to serve users. No one person on a web-development team is designated as the single web innovator. Instead, all the team members participate in innovation.

Innovation involves using a variety of techniques and strategies that evolve as web developers gain experience. This chapter describes techniques that relate to the characteristics and qualities of the web as a medium and the needs and experience of users. These techniques should help web developers creatively meet the needs of users, continuously improve the web's quality, and use technological innovation to increase the web's usability.

Web Innovation Techniques

Innovation is a creative, dynamic process that can't be fully encapsulated in a series of how-to steps. Instead, innovation is a repertoire of skills in creatively monitoring and understanding user needs and developing web structures to meet those needs.

Because the World Wide Web is dynamic, highly enmeshed, competitive, and often a continuously available, global service, developing a web never stops. The information space in which a web operates constantly changes, and, possibly, the domain information of a web changes. The amount that a web changes depends on users' needs, the nature of the domain information, and other factors such as the growth of competitive webs. The key to approaching this need for continuous development is to keep all web-development processes operating. After plans are made for a web, those plans should be reevaluated and adjusted to new conditions. People working on the planning, analysis, design, implementation, and promotion of a web need to communicate with each other, work together to accomplish many tasks, and continuously strive to improve the web for the good of the user.

Monitor the User's Information Environment

Web developers should keep informed of similar or competitors' webs that may share the web's purpose and audience. If appropriate, developers might consider collaborating with competitors' webs so that each organization can focus on a specialization and share the benefits of greater user service.

Web developers also should be aware of their audience's professional societies, trade shows, conventions, periodicals, related Net resources, and changing interests. Web developers may have to accomplish this through off-Web channels (on the Net) or through print magazines, journals, and newsletters. Knowing what information the audience is involved with and how its members' interests and pursuits are changing can help identify new needs that a web may serve.

Web developers also should be aware of how their users perceive the web. Building a web's reputation for quality, comprehensiveness, and user service can help increase a web's value in the audience's perception. A continuous process of defining what value means for users can help a web improve. How does a web's objective statement imply a definition of value for the user? Do the users share this definition? Innovators can consider how to integrate the user's definition of value into the planning and analysis processes. In this way, innovators can aggressively meet the defined audience's needs and purpose, and identify new services before competitor webs.

Continuously Improve Quality

Web innovators should seek to creatively meet and exceed user expectations and needs by improving the web's value, accuracy, currency, competitiveness, and user interest. Increasing these aspects of a web is a multiprocess effort: the techniques described here blend with and borrow from the other processes of web development.

What Is Quality for the Web?

Quality is a difficult term to define specifically for a particular domain or product. Total Quality Management, derived from W. Edwards Deming's principles, includes ideas such as continuous, measurable improvement and multidisciplinary responsibility for improving a product. Information quality has much in common with product quality. Like a physical product, information should meet user needs (satisfy the customer). Meeting this principle in specific information-development practices and web-design features, however, is not so straightforward; the type of needs a user has varies greatly from application to application. A general statement for web information quality can be made, however.

Web Quality
Quality as a goal for web information involves a continuous process of planning, analysis, design, implementation, promotion, and innovation to ensure that the information meets user needs in terms of both content and interface.

The definition of quality that appears here can be useful as a touchstone for developing specific practices.

Quality therefore is more a process of continuous improvement than a set of characteristics of a finished object (a web). Due to the dynamic nature of Web information and the context in which it exists, any outward sign of a web's quality can change over time even if the web itself doesn't change.

An overall principle such as this can guide an information developer to view quality as something emerging from processes. More specific characteristics describing the quality of products resulting from these processes can be stated, however. Quality Web information is:

  • Correct. Within its stated scope, purpose, and the context of its presentation, web information should give the user cues as to its purpose, scope, and status. Developers should ensure that the information presented in the web stays consistent with these stated characteristics. Web information must not only be factually precise (to the degree that its users require), but it also should include cues that help the user know the web's particular definition and scope of "correctness" as well as appropriate use.
  • Accessible. Although information presented with a web, when viewed with multimedia equipment, can present a rich experience for the user, web developers must ensure that these bells and whistles don't make important information inaccessible to some users. The scope of where critical information should be encoded is part of the planning process. Web developers should know their audience's requirements, but they don't need to abandon the use of graphics or sound to conform to the least capable browser. If significant segments of the target audience don't have multimedia capabilities (or want such features), however, the web should be designed so that important information is not masked behind features the users can't or won't access.
  • Usable. From the functional perspective, the web should deliver the information that users need with a minimum amount of clutter, in a design that captures the information and takes full advantage of hypertext. This means that text is not in one monstrous file. Instead, the pages in the web should aim to capture a single unit of user attention-not with so little information that the user has to thrash through multiple links in the web to find meaning, but not with so much information that the user is overwhelmed by a single page.
  • Understandable. The web should contain cues and employ composition principles that build and shape meaning. Web developers can use techniques for writing methodologies used in paper and other media-audience analysis, rhetorical devices (for example, parallelism and analogies), and technical communication techniques (for example, chunking information, cueing the reader, and ordering information). Hypertext is not constrained to be linear; however, in local doses and at surface particular layers, hypertext is linear prose. More accurately, hypertext can be thought of as text that isn't constrained in a single expressive object (such as a web) or to a single perspective for meaning. Web-based hypertext is unbounded text that derives meaning from its links that endlessly branch into Web space. Creating meaning at a local level within hypertext, however, still involves crafting prose (or using visual or aural elements) to create meaning. To do this, a developer needs to use effective composition principles as opposed to forcing a user to construct meaning by decoding unorganized pieces of information.
  • Meaningful. Within its stated scope and context of presentation, a quality web somehow should reach for a significance beyond itself-a meaning that can help a user form new relationships among information. From these new relationships, new knowledge or insights may form. For example, Le WebMuseum (http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/) is an online art gallery containing online exhibits and a tour of Paris. As Le WebMuseum shows, "meaning" is not purely a transfer of information content; instead, it emerges as a result of encountering that information. A web should not merely present information, but it should assist users in analyzing and interpreting that information within a larger context. In fact, this contextualizing aspect of meaning is one of the strengths of the Web itself.

What Information Providers Can Do to Increase Quality

Specifically, the growth of Web information challenges information providers to increase quality in the following areas:
  • Content. Draw on domain experts to judge and critique information, and to suggest content development and improvements. Tirelessly work for authoritative sources and fresh links to them in the web. Use the power of collaborating experts to fuel content development and improvements.
  • Presentation. Use techniques to cue users to the purpose, offerings, status, and usability of web information. Use HTML design techniques that exploit the power of hypertext. Chunk information into manageable pieces. Use links to refer to concepts and information instead of reproducing it. Keep graphics, multimedia, and other features serving the best interests of the users. This includes minimizing where necessary and including where appropriate.
  • Discovery. Remain aware of subject-oriented collections as well as indexes on the Web. Publicize a web's information so that it is included in appropriate indexes and subject trees.

    Be aware of schemes for keyword indexing. Design document hotspots, titles, and other features to provide the best information for keyword searching tools.

    Provide a web's information within the context and communities of its intended audience so that the users (and potential users) know a web's offerings and new developments.

Innovation

Unceasingly work for innovative techniques used for a web's presentation and content so that it meets and exceeds the users' changing needs. Creatively experiment in nontraditional expression to exploit new hypermedia features and techniques that meet the users' needs. Adjust a web's development processes to allow for new ideas, approaches, and techniques, so that creativity can flourish.

Information Quality Web

As part of an effort to gather information about information systems quality, the Coombs Computing Unit of The Australian National University has created a page that points to some good ideas about improving the quality of networked information (see Information Quality).

Testing and Evaluation

During the analysis process, the existing web was evaluated for its usability. During the innovation process, these same evaluations can be done to invent something new or to identify a need for users that hasn't been met before.

Testing and evaluating user experience of a web is a way to monitor the web's overall health. If users get the information they need, the web is doing a good job. Maintaining a web at a high level of service, however, is not easy. A web innovator needs to make an effort to anticipate how to keep a web relevant to the audience's needs and to keep it accurate and complete.

To develop the quality of a web, results from the analysis process of the existing web can be a first step. The access logs of a web might show patterns of user interest that may be at odds with the planner's intent in building the web.

A web innovator also can directly contact users to find out what they think of a web with a survey form or through a voluntary email list. Here are some other specific innovation checks:

  • Usability testing. Observe audience members in their own settings as they use a web. This might be difficult, particularly if the users are geographically dispersed. This might be more feasible for studies of company webs, in which there are groups of co-located users. Observe how users interact with the web to accomplish their work. Note any ways that the web fails to meet their needs in accomplishing the task(s) for which it was designed. For some webs offering very specialized services, the work that a web accomplishes might be a very particular task-just one part of a series of activities performed by audience members. How can the web's service offerings expand to possibly meet the needs for these other activities?
  • Feedback. If a voluntary registry of users is available, send a survey to a random sample of users and ask about their overall levels of satisfaction and use of the web. When the users voluntarily register, inform them that they might receive such a survey. Provide a forms interface to elicit user feedback. (Note how this is a self-selected means of getting feedback versus a direct questionnaire sent to a sample of users, as suggested previously.)
  • Iterative analysis. The analysis checkpoints for a web defined in the analysis process check on various aspects of the integrity of a web. As a web developer, work closely with the web analyst (who might even be the same person!) to improve on these checkpoints and possibly add more. Devise other checks and tests, particularly for troublesome issues such as a large database or low use of a resource that is identified as critical in a web.

Content Improvements

In the course of improving processes for information retrieval, selection, and presentation, web innovators also can work on the following:

  • Accuracy of sources. In the early days of widespread use of the Net, any information on it or about it was welcome. Today, the variety of information sources requires users to seek out only those sources that are the most accurate and useful.
  • Link freshness. Because Net resources constantly change, keeping links updated is a constant task. Using link verification tools, the web analyst can identify stale or broken links and direct their repair.
  • Reducing redundancy. If outside links to resources are made in the web, developers should seek the highest-level, most stable, most comprehensive information sources for the given topic.
  • Improving annotations. The language in a web is used in keyword databases to index its information. Therefore, annotations of external links and well-written descriptions of a web's offerings might be key to bringing a web to the attention of users.
  • Providing alternate views. Because of the multipath nature of hypertext, higher level and alternate views of a web can be made. Different segments of the user audience might have different needs for information. Creating expert or beginner layers over a web's domain information might help users get what they need more quickly or with more help.

Advances in Technology

The excitement of the Web still is very much married to the glitz of new toys: new browsers, graphics techniques, integration with VRML systems, and advances in HTML features. These technological changes often can be very helpful to better serve user needs as well as to create or sustain interest in a web. Technical innovation should never be equated with progress, however. Improving a web sometimes can be accomplished best in redesign or more careful wording of the language on pages. Technological change also shouldn't be an end in itself; new technology sets up monetary as well as social barriers to access and has a risk and a cost associated with it.

One cost of technological change is web developer training and knowledge. Changes in HTML, possibilities for VRML, and other languages such as Java make training developers an ongoing process. Although web developers might grasp the technical operation of a feature in a short amount of time, the deeper integration of that feature into the design and delivery of meaningful service to users can take longer or might never occur. The hollow use of technical features for their own sake results in design problems such as K00L design that may stray far from user needs.

Other costs of technological change are passed directly onto the users of a web. If new multimedia features are added, users might need to have new hardware, software, and training in how to understand and use them. Already frustrated with installing upgrades and new releases of existing software, users might stop following a web into new technological areas and instead seek other webs that meet their needs at a lower cost.

As part of the strategic-, systems-, or policy-planning process for a web, planners might have made a decision about technological change rates for the web. Choices for proven technology give users consistent service and give web developers a chance to improve on their strengths, talents, skills, and artistry in working with reliable tools. A plan to build on proven technology follows a stable migration path for adopting new technological innovations.

A choice for cutting-edge technology might propel a web into the attention of audiences who are concerned with always having the latest in gadgetry. This path might turn off those who just want to get their work done or want to use proven technology to obtain information or interact. A path to follow cutting-edge technology might involve much risk and usually higher prices for the human talent and skills needed to work with these technologies.

A choice even beyond cutting-edge technology-for bleeding-edge technology-is the most risky. Bleeding-edge technology involves systems that are just in the early development stage and not even ready or proven for reliable work. In-house development of bleeding-edge technology is extremely expensive. Although it might interest the earliest innovators in a field, practical users might be turned off by the unreliable service it offers. Web innovators should be aware of such bleeding-edge technologies that might be of interest to users, but should use them only if users need what they can offer, and they can balance it with the risks and costs.

Overall, innovators can turn to the original plans for the web-its purpose and objective statements, audience, and domain information-and should question whether proven, cutting-edge, or bleeding-edge technological change is best for the audience.

Wrap-Up

The dynamic characteristic and the competitive quality of the web drive the need for constant innovation to meet the needs of a web's audience. With all processes of web development operating continuously and working together, an innovator can monitor the users' information environments to identify users' new needs.

An important technique for web innovation is continuous quality improvement. Quality web information meets users' needs for correctness, accessibility, usability, understandability, and meaningfulness.

Testing and evaluation by observing users or feedback from users plays a large part in analyzing as well as identifying the new needs users have.

A web's content can increase as a result of accurate sources, fresh links, reduced redundancy, improved annotation, and alternate views of information.

The choice to employ new technology in a web must consider the trade-offs among user needs, cost, and risk. Choosing fast-breaking, bleeding-edge technology often might not be the best course.

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