Monday, April 11, 2011

Lessons learned from an internet cafe

Internet Cafe
I often get asked by people to explain what makes me different from all the other web designers out there.
I tell them my first business was an internet cafe.

Ok, not the type of answer they were expecting, so I elaborate.

Firstly, I tell them that running and managing a service-based business, often working long hours on the front lines in a sales and customer care capacity, has enabled me to better understand the day to day concerns and needs of the small/medium-sized business owner in a way my competitors never can. This experience, added with my years of experience as a designer, both as an entrepreneur and also in the corporate environment as an employee, has broadened my perspective enormously.

But that's not the best part. See what makes me different is not simply that I used to run a brick and mortar business, but the nature of the business itself. Back when I set up DSL wasn't always available and wireless and mobile internet were still embryonic and so, to fill the increasing demand for internet access, cafes like mine were popping up like mushrooms all over the world. I had gotten into the game quite early which was why my internet cafe swiftly became the primary communications hub for an entire town. It kept me quite busy. And it was also a laboratory of sorts where I could freely study the habits, patterns and preferences of a wide range of customer demographics. Invaluable information as I began to expand online into the field of web design, consultancy and internet marketing.

Since starting that business I've seen more websites than most mortals and helped hundreds of customers navigate them correctly, even when, for example, the website in question was in Arabic, Cyrillic or Chinese. When it comes to knowing the difference between good and bad site navigation, I'm your man.

Owning and operating an internet cafe is an interesting experience to say the least. You'll meet all sorts of people, from all walks of life and of every nationality, culture and creed. You'll meet some colourful characters, some very perplexing and/or unsettling ones and a fair few poker-heads, FPS game junkies, fanboys and sundry obsessives. Some customers you remember, others fade with time but the ones you'll never forget are the ones who rampage through the cyberverse like a rhinoceros through a minefield. They don't know what they're doing, they don't have the patience to learn and get snotty when you try to explain what they're doing wrong. Their tactic, therefore, is to click on things frantically until they find what they want. And because they never do, they spend all their time sighing, clicking, hissing and cursing under their breaths.

For example there's Angry-Hates-The-Internet-Guy, who wants instant information and/or gratification and to whom every button, field and mouse click is an enormously irritating ordeal. He tends to huff and puff a lot, makes unmercifully loud noises when typing and regularly bangs the mouse on the table with frustration. Using the internet literally makes this guy sweat.

Or Terrified Granny, who's 84 years old and doesn't quite understand what the Internet actually is, other than it's something to do with computers which, itself, is some vague, abstract concept to her. To date the sum of TG's knowledge about the Internet and computers has been gleamed from tabloid newspapers, so, preparing to take her first step online to book an airline ticket, she's expecting all manner of viruses and perverts to start lunging out at her from the ether. She's also terrified of pressing any buttons whatsoever and regards the whole process as something like trying to defuse a ticking bomb. Her eyesight is also terrible, which is why she can't see the links but always notices those obnoxious Yahoo banner ads and clicks those instead. Ten minutes and 40 Internet Explorer popups later she gives up until finally, ten visits and ten abortive attempts later, she comes in with a younger relative who eventually helps her purchase the ticket.

These are just two prime examples. Over the years I've catalogued plenty of these classic internet cafe archetypes and found them invaluble from a design perspective. When creating a site I try to look at the big picture, the navigation, the site operation, search functionality, headers, text, colour scheme, density of information and so forth, not just from the accessability standpoint, but through the eyes of Terrified Granny.

Other days I like to pretend I'm Angry-Hates-The-Internet-Guy, and so I run through each site trying to find specific information and, in so doing, locate those weakpoints that might make AHTI Guy blow his top. Then I eliminate those by simplifying the site's design and structure.

So with this process in mind I’ve decided to start a series on website design and development no-nos. The sort of mistakes that can cost your website traffic and your business money, that will cause AHTI Guy to bust a blood vessel and turn Terrified Granny into a gibbering wreck balled up on the floor.

Some of these are obvious omissions still to be found on an alarming amount of websites, others are additions such as a Flash intro page or some other cheesy gimmick which some guilty party decided to add because he/she/they thought it made their website look really important. Then there the baffling design decisions; the bewildering buttons and Escher-esque navigation, the illegible fonts and the horrendous colour schemes. Last but not least are content issues such as having reams of incomprehensible text, obvious spelling and grammar errors, indecipherable translations, unclear instructions or, in some cases, no useful information whatsoever.

In fact I think everybody has at least one, possibly 50, things about websites that make them want to throw their computer through the nearest window. I’m going to list some of mine in this series, starting with issues related to search and navigation or, more to the point, a lack thereof. After that it’s time for stupid and annoying design and finally web development disasters.

I’ve already started compiling the lists and will be publishing them shortly. In the meantime please, by all means, feel free to list your own particular bugbears here in the comments section. I’ll be happy to put together a compilation of some of the best user suggestions which don’t already get mentioned in the upcoming articles.

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iPhone Apps Development said...

Really Great Lesson. I think this is really helpful for those who are lazy?

Injury Attorney Fort Lauderdale said...

Thanks for sharing this information because it is very interesting. Indeed, you can meet people from different walks of life and hence, learn various traits from them which may help you to become a better person.

freight audit said...

Such an interesting eyes you got, you really observed while running you business. Well I think you're business gave you a lot than the usual. Fortunately, its your advantage and may you share this all to your colleagues, less the drama in the article.

US travel guide said...

A cafe is a perfect place to 'research' on people. And the fact that yours was an internet cafe means you can do research in actual internet users and not only through monitors and statistics, but LIVE.
I believe you must have a lot of priceless knowledge about users and user interfacing and am looking forward to see more of your writing.

wireless site survey said...

Very nice, this gives me some new ideas to break away from my usual navigation techniques.

Costa Rica Traveler said...

I used to work in an internet cafe at the end of the 90s, and I remember the Angry Hates the Internet Guy (or girl) better than I wish to. I see how putting yourself in the position of these people helped you see the weaknesses of certain websites, but I think that these people are not what most internet users are like today. Or at least I hope so, because I haven't been in an internet cafe in over a decade.

Where's the Any Key!? said...

Of course yeah, things do change, technology moves on and internet cafes themselves tend to be either in large cities or tourist areas, and are not as ubiquitous as they once were.

But Angry Hates the Internet Guy is a meme that's never going away, he's timeless. As the internet continues to grow and develop he just discovers new and innovative ways to hate the internet even more.