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ISSUE 12 - Q4 2004

Server side usability
How to make web servers behave


Most usability professionals don't have a driver's licence to servers and are not aware of the steps that can be taken to make them behave in a user-friendly way. In this article, we'll take a look at how to avoid that server technology becomes an obstacle to usability.

Successful design pays attention to detail, since small matters can ruin the user experience. But some of the more technical aspects of running a website are often overlooked, forgotten, or ignored by usability professionals, because it's way out of our league.

In the following, you'll find a number of tips on how to improve usability on the server side. I won't dive into the technical details on how to set up servers to behave in a more user-friendly manner, since it differs from server to server. Most of the tips in this article require basic server settings, and server administrators should know how to do it.

Make the "www" prefix optional

When you type a domain name such as "www.guuui.com" into your browser's address line, you can mostly leave out the "www" part and just type "guuui.com". But sometimes it doesn't work. Instead you get an error message saying that the page cannot be displayed. Some people blame their browser for this error, but actually the server administrator is to blame. To support the domain name shortcut, the server has to be told to resolve to "www.guuui.com", whenever a user asks for "guuui.com". Be sure to support the "www" version also.

Support "www" prefix typos

A common error when typing a domain name into the browser is accidentally typing "ww.guuui.com" or "wwww.guuui.com". Again our server administrator can contribute to the user experience by spending a few minutes setting up the server to accept "w", "ww", and "wwww" typos.

Support domain name typos and spelling errors

The domain name for a company such as Bang & Olufsen is hard to guess and hard to spell. Is it "bangandolufsen.com", "bangolufsen.com", "bang-olufsen.com", or maybe "bando.com"? And is it spelled "olufsen", "olufssen", or "olufson"? Even though I'm Danish and should be able to spell the name, I always get it wrong.

As far as I can see, B&O managed to register "www.bang-olufsen.com" and "www.bangolufsen.com". Lots of other close variants have been registered and populated with substandard content (I can't recommend visiting any of these sites). The lesson here is that professional organizations should register domain names that people might type by accident, when trying to find their sites. Otherwise, someone else will take advantage of the fact that people make typos and spelling errors.

Support erroneous country codes

It's also common to mistype country codes. Danish people are used to type ".dk" in the end of a domain name and do so by accident when trying to reach ".com" sites. Professional organizations should register their domain name with all available country codes. If they don't, others will.

Use tidy URLs

URLs are often very long and littered with strange and extraneous characters. Apart from being ugly and intimidating, such URLs are hard to read, hard to type, and impossible remember.

In printed material, you may want to direct users to a product section, an advertising campaign, or a newsletter. This is practically impossible with long dirty URLs.

The only purpose of messy URLs is satisfying some tedious technical requirements of the underlying systems. But the mess can mostly be stripped from the URL by setting up servers properly.

Large companies, such as Apple, Macromedia, and Microsoft, use short, guessable URLs to direct customers to the main sections of their sites. If you want to know more about Macromedia Dreamweaver, type "macromedia.com/dreamweaver" in your browser, and you will be taken to the Dreamweaver product section. Type "macromedia.com/download" or "macromedia.com/downloads" and you will be taken to the Downloads section. This way you don't necessarily have to start your navigation from the front page, and it makes it possible for the companies to promote the sections in printed material.

Don't leave users in a dead end when a page cannot be found

A survey by 404 Research Lab reveals that 40% of users "weep uncontrollably" when they encounter a "page not found" error. 37% hit the back button. To comfort unfortunate users, and help them find what they were looking for, you should design a custom error page. Guide people in the right direction by providing a site map, a search form, and other means of helping them out of the dead end.

To minimize page not found errors, you should monitor your server logs. If you notice a lot of failed requests to nonexistent pages, make sure to fix it. If the requests are caused by bad links from other sites, contact the sites' webmasters and ask them to correct the links. If the requests are many and from multiple sources, consider setting up the server to redirect people to the correct location.

GUUUI was originally developed on a Microsoft platform and had the ".asp" suffix at the end of every page URL. It was then moved to a PHP platform, where page URLs end on ".php". It would be disastrous if all links from search engines, other sites, and peoples' favorites would result in a page not found at guuui.com. Therefore requests for ASP pages are redirected to their PHP ditto.

Alert users when a server error occurs

What can go wrong, will go wrong, and sometimes servers encounter serious problems. When they do, we should tell people that the site is experiencing technical difficulties and apologize for the inconvenience. The only advice we can give users in this situation is to try again, and return later, if the problem persists. Server errors are often temporary and will be alleviated after a short delay.

Servers run into problems for a number of reasons. But since the directions we can give users are the same and we don't want to bore people with technical details about why the error might have happened, it's adequate with one generic server error page.

As with page not found errors, you should monitor your logs for server errors. Look for response codes beginning with the digit "5" (e.g. 500, 501, 502, 504, and 505). If you notice a sudden increase in the number of server errors, make sure that someone looks into it.

Have a "We are updating" page ready

Sometimes a server error doesn't happen by accident, but because the server is down for maintenance. Instead of showing a server error, you should have a "Sorry, we are updating the site" page ready. Redirect all traffic on the site to this page during the update.

Text: Henrik Olsen

 
 

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