Usability will first be discussed according to the three primary principles set forth by Jenny Preece in her book Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability (2001). These three principles are users, tasks, and software. First the the users needs will be explicated. Second, the tasks that the site enables will be explicated. Third, the software used to enable these tasks will be explicated. Then finally, the site will be critiqued to see both how well it follows the usability guidelines set forth in Chapter 9 of Preece's book and how well the supported tasks meet user needs in general.
Without a proper evaluation of user needs, it is difficult to build a site with decent usability. Consequently, a thorough analysis of user needs must be completed before critiquing the site. The target audience of 43 Things is anyone who has a goal who has access to the internet. This includes users of every possibly combination of age, sex, culture, experience, etc. Consequently, when evaluating how well this site meets user needs, the site will have to be both accessible and easy to use.
43 Things also must support user needs related to the purpose of the site. We will now explicate some of those needs. It appears that the developers of the site had user needs in mind when developing the site. From the main statement of purpose of the site, it can be argued that 43 Things is designed with the following three primary user needs in mind:
Enabling users to list up to 43 of their goals. They explain that writing down one's goals can be helpful for:
- Clarifying existing goals
- Prioritizing goals
- Discovering new goals.
Enabling users to view other users goals. They explain that viewing other peoples goals will help users by allowing them to:
- Discover a shared goal.
- Inspire a new goal.
- Get help answering the question, "What do I want to do with my life?"
- A user can get psychological satisfaction from the fact that other people are working towards the same goal.
- A user can get psychological satisfaction from the fact that other people are working towards goals that he or she has already completed.
Enabling users to share their progress reaching their goals because:
- Sharing your story with other people pursuing the same goal will help others along.
- Sharing that you completed the task with someone pursuing the same goal will help them along.
- Keeping a record of ones personal progress towards a goal can make task completion easier.
- Shared empathy with other users working towards the same goal can be psychologically satisfying.
- Seeing how other people are working to complete their goals can give a user ideas for how to complete the goal themselves.
- By discussing the process of completing a task with others, a user can get both emotional and practical support needed to encourage task completion.
This section will list the tasks supported in 43 Things. Currently, all computer mediated communication that is supported is asynchronous. The following is an inventory of all of the supported tasks this reviewer could discover. They are grouped loosely into primary functional tasks and the subtasks which support those tasks:
- Allow users to find other peoples goals.
- Allow users to adapt the same goals as others.
- Allow users to create original goals.
- Allow users to "give up" on completing a goal.
- Allow users to see what other goals users with a matching goal are pursuing.
- Allow users to view a visual representation of the relative popularity of a random subset of goals.
- Allow users to perform keyword searches on goals.
- Allow users to view a list of the most recently "cheered" goals.
- Allow users to view goals of users from a specific city.
- Allow users to remove a goal along with all entries and comments made about that goal (irreversible).
- Allow users to reorder their list of goals.
- Allow users to opt-in to viewing goals that contain "mature content".
- Allow users to invite other users to complete a goal.
- Allow users to invite other users to complete a goal and be your teammate towards completing that goal.
- Allow users to find and mark similarities between how they state their goals and how other people state their goals ("Report a very similar goal").
- Allow users to ask questions about completing their goals to those who have already completed the goal.
- Allow users to tag their goals.
- Allow users to view how other people have tagged their goals.
- Allow users to browse goals by tag.
- Allow users to view a visual representation of the relative popularity of the most popular tags.
- Allow users to perform keword searchs by tag.
- Allow users to search for and view flickr and del.icio.us tags alongside 43 Things tags.
- Points users to Technorati tags.
- Allow users to view other peoples progress towards their goals.
- Allow users to comment on other peoples progress towards their goals.
- Allow users to "cheer" other peoples entries on their progress.
- Allow users to list 43 goals they have completed.
- Allow users to create entries about goals they have completed.
- Allow users to view other peoples entries about goals they completed.
- Allow users to comment on other peoples entries about goals they have completed.
- Allow users to "cheer" other peoples entries on their completed goals.
- Allow users to state whether a completed goal was "worth doing" or not.
- Allow users who have completed a goal to assist those who are working towards that goal.
- Allow users to get updates on the most popular goals.
- Allow users to get updates on the most recent goals.
- Allow users to get updates on the most recent entries about a specific goal.
- Allow users to get updates on the most recent entries about all their personal goals.
- Allow users to get updates on the most recent comments on their entries.
- Allow users to get updates on all of their own recent activity changing goals, writing entries and writing comments.
- Allow users to get updates on all of their own and their teammates recent activity.
- Allow users to get updates on the most recent activity of any other user.
- Allow users to list 43 original or shared ideas for improving 43 Things.
- Allow users to create entries about their ideas for improving 43 Things.
- Allow users to view other peoples ideas for improving 43 Things.
- Allow users to comment on other peoples entries about ideas for improving 43 Things.
- Allow users to "cheer" other peoples ideas for improving 43 Things on their completed goals.
- Allow users to vote on whether an idea has been implemented.
- Allow users who have completed a goal to assist those who are working towards that goal.
- In certain instances, users are directed to email the administrators for assistance.
- Allow users to post comments to the Robot Co-op Blog.
- Allow users to post comments to the goals of the Robot Co-op team
- Allow users to add a link to a personal site from their profile.
- Allow users to incorporate the functionalities of 43 Places and 43 People into their 43 Things user experience.
- Allow users to connect flickr images to goals.
- Allow users to have their entries on 43 Places show up as postings on the users blog (currently works with Blogger, WordPress, Movable Type, Live Journal, and Type Pad).
- Allow users to place their list on their personal site.
- Allow power users flexibility for how their blog and 43 Things interact using this API.
- Allow users to view a visual representation of the relative popularity of the most popular places.
- Allow users to upload pictures to the 43 Things server.
- Allow users to create a profile.
Tasks primarily supporting users in listing their goals:
Tasks primarily supporting a user towards the completion of his or her goals:
Tasks primarily related to the tagging of goals:
Tasks primarily enabling users to check other users progress towards goals:
Tasks primarily enabling users to list their completed goals:
Tasks that primarily allow users to monitor changes in the site:
Tasks that allow users to offer feedback to the site administrators:
Tasks that primarily enable the integration of 43 Things with other sites and services:
In the FAQ, it is explains that the backend of 43 Things is run using FreeBSD (operating system), Ruby (object-oriented scripting language), and MySql (database). This all comes together using the Ruby on Rails framework. It is beyond this reviewer's technical expertise to review these choices. However, it is worth noting that the Robot Co-op collaborated with and received praise from 37 Signals, the Ruby on Rails developers, in the development of this project.
Preece discusses software in a somewhat different way. She explicates different types of "software" according to the genre of the technique that a given tool falls into. For example, the integration of email, discussion lists, or blogs into a site would be considered a software choice. While 43 Things is built on its own, some key techniques can be determined.
Similarities to a blogUsers post entries and comments in the same way as in a blog. This mechanism is very barebones and simple for what it is in that it allows users to perform only those tasks relevant to 43 Things. For example, trackback functionality is not included because task discussion is supposed to exist within the 43 Things environment. However, because the posting and commenting tools were designed with blogging in mind, it is possible to connect one's 43 Things entries with one's blog entries, or to develop further integrated services, using the previously mentioned 43 Things Web Service API or the tools developed specifically to allow users to post to their blogs from 43 Things.
TaggingOne of the more original aspects of 43 Things is its use of tagging to develop folksonomies for both finding new goals and connecting similar goals. Their use of tagging was designed to resemble the established models developed by Technorati and del.icio.us and later flickr. Furthermore, early attempts were made to integrate 43 Things tags with these sites. One technique that was both borrowed and then adapted from these sites was the use of tag clouds to display not only tags, but also goals. In fact, goals themselves can be considered a specialized type of tagging, making 43 Things a social networking site based almost entirely off the concept of tagging.
RSSRSS feeds are offered extensively throughout 43 Things. This enables users to perform the monitoring task listed above. RSS can also be used to monitor the company site/blog. This again conforms to Dan Gilmour's suggestions from We The Media (2004). The use of RSS will be discussed further in the critique below.
Preece explains that a system with good usability, "supports rapid learning, high skill retention, low error rates, and high productivity (Preece, p. 276)." Preece proceeds to list a number of guidelines for good usability. 43 Things conforms well to most items on her list. One area that the site performs very well on is consistency. Practically every function is based on the user making a list of 43 things. For each list, people are able to add entries, cheer, and comment in the exact same fashion. Because of this, once a user learns how to perform the core tasks of making a list, adding entries, commenting, and cheering, they are well equipped to handle most other tasks.
One area where the site performs very poorly is its failure to have a central area to provide support and documentation about the site. This reviewer was unable to find either an "about us" section or a "help" section. The FAQ was very limited. While the site explained to users how to perform complicated peripheral tasks such as integrating 43 Things' entries into ones' blog, it failed to explain simple core tasks like cheering and teammates. The only place it offers information about cheers is the "Edit Your Account" page. This page is very limited. So limited in fact that, under normal circumstances, this reviewer would never have gone their unless he wanted to close his account. It took this reviewer close to 20 minutes to find out what cheers were and how to use them. Worse yet, was teammates. This reviewer only discovered this concept BY ACCIDENT while reading someone's comment about his teammates. It then took the reviewer another 20 minutes to figure out what this was. The answer was first found in an entry to a goal about getting teammates where someone explained the process to another confused soul. The only significant mention of teammates is when a user clicks on the "Invite people to do this" link. Even their, it is only an inobtrusive checkbox ("Invite to do this with you as a team") that this reviewer missed. Furthermore, there was no explanation of what it meant. These two significant documentation problems made it very obvious that there was no central help section. Under normal circumstances this reviewer would have never gone through the trouble to find out these definitions.
One other blatant usability problem was language options. On the home page, there is sometimes what appears to be an advertisement to 43 Things in another language. However, there is no place to set language as an option or to view what languages are available. This is a major problem for accessibility. Similarly, this makes it difficult to know whether the site supports other character sets. This and the above issues make one wonder what other tasks and options are allowed, but hidden?
There are a few other areas where accessibility may be a problem. That RSS is the only way to receive updates on changes could be a technical barrier to many users as this technology has yet to be widely adopted. If email notifications were also offered, this would increase the number of users who would use this feature. The site does point users to a place to find out more about RSS. However adopting RSS requires a user to either download third-party software or register at a third-party site. However, given the sites similarities to the blog format and the developers focus on making their site compatible with blogs, it can be assumed that the developers are targeting bloggers as the primary users. Bloggers are early adopters of RSS, so this decision is good for them. Bloggers are also early adopters of tagging making them a likely user group.
There is what looks like a big search box in the center of the home page. It is clearly labeled as a box to create a goal and adds whatever is entered into the box to one's list. The first time using the page, this reviewer confidently typed a term in hoping to find similar goals. Instead, an original goal was created. There is an actual search box at the top of each screen. However, this reviewer still accidentally types search terms into the create a goal box because of its prominence on the screen. When running searches on the site, it is very obvious that multiple wordings of common goals are listed. Given the ease of finding existing goals using the search bar, it is possible that these redundancies are because it is easier to create new goals than to find existing goals. This is a problem because redundancies prevent critical masses from forming around individual goals.
The above issues aside, 43 Things is mostly very user friendly. Users are frequently greeted with offers for more information about topics such as RSS (users are sent here) and Tags. Responsiveness to user feedback appears also appears to be very good. That users are encouraged to list 43 things about the site that they have problems with is a creative and unique way to encourage user feedback and monitor popular requests. A number of entries from the Robot Co-op blog also indicate that user suggestions have been integrated into the page. In fact, that so many services are available for bloggers and people using other tagging sites is largely a response to user requests. Unfortunately, some less experienced users needs may be getting ignored because of their minority status in the 43 Things user community.
This discussion has focused solely on the usability of the existing features of the site. In the next section, additional features will be suggested that may improve the sociability of the site. Now that usability issues have been discussed, we will examine how well 43 things has been designed to foster sociability.