As the Master of Publication application deadline fast approaches, we had the chance to interview Olivia Johnson, who is part of this year’s 2020/2021 cohort. Learn more about Olivia Johnson’s publishing experience and don’t forget to apply by February 1!
1) What was your background before applying to SFU’s Master of Publishing Program?
Before I was a student of SFU’s Master of Publishing Program, I majored in English literature at UBC. After graduating, I thought I was going to go into journalism and got accepted into the Ryerson School of Journalism. After one class, I realized that journalism was not a good fit for me. Instead, I switched to the publishing program at Ryerson because I was more interested in the editorial and marketing aspects of publishing. After completing the publishing program at Ryerson, I applied to the Master of Publishing Program at SFU.
2) Why did you choose to apply to SFU’s Master of Publishing Program?
I chose to apply to SFU’s Master of Publishing Program because it is Canada’s only master’s program for publishing. The publishing program at Ryerson was highly informative and interesting, but I wanted a more hands-on publishing experience. SFU’s Master of Publishing Program offers exactly that, where you get the opportunity to go more in-depth and have the chance to do an internship and more collaborative work. Also, SFU’s Master of Publishing Program was back in Vancouver, my home city.
3) What is the most valuable experience from SFU’s Master of Publishing Program so far?
I think the group projects are valuable because you get to take everything you learned in class and create something from start to finish. For example, in one of our projects, we created a business from scratch and learned about all the steps to develop and make the idea tangible.
One of the projects that Olivia worked on with her group was a catalogue for the Fall 2020 Book Project. Olivia’s group was an imprint company of Greystone Books, calling themselves Judith Press. Their catalogue includes all non-fiction titles they came up with and had to sell for their project.
4) What are some skills you have learned from SFU’s Master of Publishing Program so far?
I learned a lot about hands-on design and working with different software such as Adobe to create those designs. I also learned a lot about the different stages such as editing, designing, and business to create the final publication. For each of these stages, it is very in-depth, so you get a chance to figure out what you like. I also find that you can really have your own input in the program. You are definitely not lectured at but taught how to do things and be hands-on. The more effort you put in, the more you learn and take from the program.
5) Upon obtaining your Master’s in publishing, what do you aspire your future career to look like?
SFU’s Master of Publishing Program does a great job at allowing everyone to explore lots of different categories, so you know where your interests lie. For me, since completing the publishing program at Ryerson, I knew that I wanted to work in publishing. Upon obtaining my Master’s in publishing, I can see myself pursuing a career in a marketing or publicity position in literary fiction or nonfiction books.
6) Who do you think should apply to the Master of Publishing Program program?
People who are looking to learn more and become more hands-on in publishing should definitely apply. Publishing is not just about books all the time. You get to learn so many skills that you take onto different careers such as marketing, freelance, editing, and more. If this is something that you want to do, I highly recommend applying.
7) What is your advice for people who are applying to the Master of Publishing Program or considering applying?
I think this is a valuable program because you get to interact with so many industry professionals and receive advice or feedback from them. As well it is such a small cohort, so you get to always work closely with the same people who share the same passion as you. I highly recommend reaching out to the publishing team to ask any questions or concerns you may have because they are super helpful and kind.
I’ve worked in publishing for about 15 years, but every year I’m caught off guard by the January phenomenon of aspiring authors who’ve resolved that this is the year they’re publishing a book. Manuscript submissions and calls about the publishing process become more frequent, as do inquiries about how to get into the industry itself. When we field these calls at the Association of Book Publishers of BC, we direct these individuals to various resources and wish them luck, but in 2021, I’d also suggest they pay close attention to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic when pitching themselves to the industry, whether as an author or a publishing professional.
The year 2020 was tough: at the end of it, BC book publishers were projecting a 30 to 40 per cent decline in their annual sales, in line with what was being reported across the country. While many bookstores were reporting strong sales leading into the holiday season, store closures through the first and second waves continue to impact publishers’ cash flow, forcing difficult decisions about acquisitions, printing, marketing and overall business operations. It’s too early to say if the fourth quarter results of 2020 will indicate a gradual return to normalcy.
Industry consolidation also presents challenges for independent publishers, who invest in new and diverse voices. The pending sale of Simon & Schuster, announced in November 2020, to Bertelsmann/Penguin Random House, will create a behemoth that dominates market share. Books written by established and bestselling authors, and published by well-capitalized multinational companies, have a competitive advantage in a changed marketplace, where booksellers and, in turn, consumers may gravitate toward safer bets. Authors will also find a narrower market for their work, which may mean lower advances.
So where are the opportunities for change in book publishing in 2021 and beyond? The pandemic hasn’t really highlighted how much is possible so much as it has underscored what should have been happening already.
Nothing will replace in-person book events. That said, online events have increased accessibility, and I expect these will continue in a hybrid capacity, even when social gathering restrictions are lifted. Some of the best virtual events I attended in 2020 were those in which the audience could interact via the chat or be present on-camera.
Publishers also got creative, reinvigorating their sales and marketing strategies. They offered higher discounts to independent bookstores, experimented with digital licensing for schools and libraries and creatively engaged readers online. In BC, Orca Book Publishers’ digital class sets, Rocky Mountain Books’ Think Outside podcast and Arsenal Pulp Press’s author Twitter takeovers and @arsenalpups Instagram account are examples of successful adaptations.
Publishers are well-equipped to work from home, and many are meeting their operational needs by hiring more remote staff. While these are still early days, we may observe that publishing begins to decentralize from major urban centres with higher costs of living, better positioning West Coast companies to compete for and retain talent.
I taught in the SFU Master of Publishing program last fall, working with a brilliant cohort of emerging publishing professionals. While they’re understandably anxious about their job prospects, they’ve recognized that their experiences working independently and resourcefully in a remote learning environment are an asset to prospective employers. Up-and-coming authors and publishers alike will need to be comfortable using collaboration tools (not just Zoom!) and to hone their skills as thoughtful and efficient communicators.
Finally, we can’t let the pandemic overshadow our need to grapple with the industry’s diversity problems. Just as the deeply rooted societal inequalities that were further exposed during the crisis will not be undone simply because anti-racist books sold well in 2020, neither will book publishing’s own lack of diversity. There are numerous initiatives underway in Canada to hold the industry accountable for its lack of diversity, and to change who and what gets published, including the BIPOC of Publishing in Canada collective. The pandemic presents a watershed moment for publishers to re-evaluate outdated practices and to expand their communities and their impact.
Whether you are hoping to get published for the first time, move into a career in the industry or stay the course, publishing in 2021 and beyond is going to require more of all of us. I hope we’ll answer the call.
It’s been around a month now since the classwork portion of our Master of Publishing degree wrapped up, and now that I’ve had some time away from the intensiveness that was the last few weeks of school it seems like a good time to talk about the Media/Tech Project.
In the fall semester we devoted six weeks of our lives to starting fictitious publishing companies complete with a detailed list of books. But what to do in the second semester of a publishing degree?
In the spring, the program moved away from books to focus on media and technology (in the past, the program focused more heavily on magazines). As the publishing industry changes, it has become clear that in order to for publishers to remain relevant, they must understand how technology impacts all aspects of their business. It’s not enough to focus on print and traditional forms of publishing. We have to look ahead to what publishing could become. And so, our class became Media/Tech Project guinea pigs.
While we started off the semester working on the Media project and finished with the Tech project, for all intents and purposes they were the same thing—the second was simply an extension of the first, which meant the project ran the entire course of the semester.
On the second day of class after the holiday break, we were divided into our groups and told to form media companies based on direction we pulled out of a hat. One group was assigned B2B (they pivoted and become NFP2NFP instead), another group got arts and crafts, and the final group pulled politics. From there, the groups were tasked with building a media entity from the ground up.
How do you build a brand? How do you become financially viable? How do you grow sustainably? What gap in the market are you meeting? What will your product be?
In our groups, we began to answer these questions and sketch out our business plans. Nearly every week, groups met with instructors to pitch their updated businesses, which evolved as we completed more research and received more feedback. At the beginning of the project, it was stressed that our start-ups would need to be agile, and that became our mantra as the semester progressed and the work piled up.
And every week, we were given additional pieces to complete. Brand guidelines. Marketing and advertising plans. Financials. Websites. Podcasts. The list went on.
Halfway through the project we were divided into additional groups with specific skills (this is where the Tech project came in). The Web Development, Analytics, Media Production, and Ebook teams provided focused support to their media entities following a series of mini lectures aimed at providing them with hands-on skills. Of course, all students were invited to attend the other teams’ lessons.
And just like the fall book project, we made it through to the end of the semester, presenting our launch-ready companies to panels of industry guests. Some of the most rewarding feedback we received was that our final companies were even pitch-worthy to potential buyers. And some of the best presentations I’ve ever seen were on that final day as well: one group even “recorded” the beginning of a podcast as part of their presentation.
While the Media/Tech project will undoubtedly look very different by next spring as our field continues to evolve and the skills that are in demand change, what I hope future classes also take away from the project is the importance of being flexible and ability to find creative solutions.
I’ve talked to a handful of Master of Publishing alumni lately, and somewhere in the conversation I always ask what advice these accomplished, successful women have for the next generation of publishing professionals. Their answers have been strikingly similar: work hard, accept opportunities, ask questions, and seek out mentorship.
And it’s that last point that I want to focus on today, both from the perspective of the mentees (Shirarose Wilensky from Arsenal Pulp Press and Paula Ayer from Greystone Books), and a mentor whose name has come up again and again (Nancy Flight from Greystone Books).
Ayer and Wilensky’s stories are similar in a lot of ways. They both completed the Master of Publishing program at SFU around 10 years ago; they have both done freelance work and have worked for independent publishers in Vancouver; and they are both local editors who have recently transitioned into roles with substantial responsibility.
Wilensky just took on the position of Editor at Arsenal Pulp Press after freelancing for the past few years; while Ayer became Editor at Greystone Books in the fall after spending nearly a decade working at Annick Press. As a current student in the MPub program, it’s been both reassuring and exciting to get a glimpse of where my career could also take me within the next decade when I talk to alumni.
“Take every opportunity that might be offered to you, talk to as many people as you can, go to events, and volunteer at the Writer’s Fest,” Wilensky suggests when I ask about nurturing your career path. Ayer lists all of the same things, and adds that you should also showcase your special skills.
And of course, they both speak to the value of mentorship, and cite the value of the connections they made in the MPub program.
“I can’t overstate the importance of mentorship. If there is a specific person you really admire, approach them,” Wilensky encourages, saying that a good way to find a mentor is to find someone who is doing what you’d love to be doing in the future. “Recognize and appreciate how important, valuable, and rare these relationships are.”
She highlights how mentors can share both professional and personal advice, and can give you those always important job recommendations. In return, she says, make sure show your appreciation for your mentor, who is likely very busy with their own career.
Ayer echoes her advice. “Use the connections you make—don’t be shy to send them an email, go to industry events, keep nurturing those relationships, and show people you can do good work.”
The editors are quick to highlight the mentors who have played significant roles in their careers. Ayer thanks long-term MPub instructor Mary Schendlinger from Geist Magazine and Colleen MacMillan from Annick Press who she says gave her opportunities, believed in her, and were brilliant teachers. Wilensky mentions Nancy Flight, also a past MPub instructor and current Editor Emerita at Greystone Books, whom many other alumni, Greystone employees, and MPub faculty have highlighted as being a VIP in the Vancouver publishing industry.
After hearing so many great things about Nancy Flight, I wanted to talk to her about the essential role she has played so many people’s careers over her own 45-year career in publishing (around 24 of those years were spent at Greystone).
“I love doing what I can to help foster their skills,” she explains, adding that it is always exciting to meet others who are passionate about publishing and show aptitude in the industry, pointing out the that the MPub program is ripe with talent. “And it’s wonderful to see people blossom, and see where they’ve gone with their careers.”
“It’s really important to me to encourage woman that they can do both [have a successful career and fulfilling home life],” Flight continues. “It’s wonderful to think that there are all of these young people who are more than ready to take on the challenges [in publishing].”
As a mentor, Flight notes the importance of mentees making their goals and interests known so that the mentor can tailor their advice to the individual relationship. However, she is quick to clarify that mentorships can be as formal or informal as you’d like—there is no one right way for the relationship to work.
Mentorships are a win-win for both parties: people like Wilensky receive great advice that helps them advance in their careers; while people like Flight are able to cultivate talent that they can later hire or recommend to another publisher.
Reflecting on the BC publishing industry, Flight confirms what we’ve been hearing from our many guest speakers all year: that the publishing community is very welcoming and friendly. “There is a feeling like we’re all in this together and we want to help each other.”
It was also around this time that our conversations with industry leaders, which took the form of keynote lectures, panel discussions, workshops, and one-on-one mentorship sessions, began to change. At the beginning of the week we talked data, marketing, trends, and growth. But as we began to talk diversity, inclusion, and responsibility, we discussed not just the problems in publishing, but what we can do to make a positive difference.
Discussions centered around how to create space for marginalized groups, the importance of mentorship and support, and ways in which we can make our industry more representative and balanced—both in terms of who works in the industry and what is published. These things matter so much.
“It was intense…it was daunting and overwhelming at times,” said MPub student Jesse Savage. “It was great to have everyone come out and hear everyone’s stories, and gain some perspectives and start conversations. I think after hearing everyone talk, I’m really interested and excited to see how things are going to change…it’s pretty clear that things have to change.”
Industry leaders from a variety of publishing backgrounds (including Simon & Schuster Canada, Penguin Random House Canada, Indigo Books and Music, Rakuten Kobo, Theytus Books, Orca Book Publishers, and a variety of smaller publishing houses), along with academics and authors, also noted the impact the week of listening, discussing, and learning had on them. The deeper conversations have inspired MPub students, external participants, and professionals alike to get back to their important work with a renewed sense of fidelity and responsibility.
As Digital Broadcaster Ryan McMahon said, “We’ve made this connection, and now we’re all going to continue to work together on this conversation, and that’s a really amazing offer by everyone who participated.” McMahon also gave a special public talk on the Wednesday evening, where he problematized Canada’s recent race to Indigenize everything, and challenged people to really think about how thoughtless actions and platitudes will only further harm Indigenous Peoples. He also talked about how we need to be aware of who is in spaces—and who is missing; why the conversation about colonization needs to happen before we talk Indigenization; and why building relationships needs to be at the centre of all we do if change is going to happen.
Much of what he and other guest faculty shared led to the MPub cohort looking at publishing with fresh eyes. We leave with the language to have these hard conversations, a better understanding of what needs to change, and ideas on how we personally can affect change. I hope that moving forward from this week we will continue to not be afraid to ask hard questions, push for better representation in the industry no matter our positions, and break down barriers within the publishing industry.
As promised, the week was one of transformative change and learning.
Faculty guests included: Dave Anderson (Rakuten Kobo), Kristin Cochrane (Penguin Random House), Gregory Younging (Theytus Books), Hazel Millar (Book*hug), Will Ferguson (award-winning author), Noah Genner (BookNet Canada), Kevin Hanson (Simon & Schuster Canada), Robyn Harding(bestselling author), Rania Husseini (Indigo), Jónı́na Kirton (Indigenous author), Ruth Linka (Orca Book Publishers), Janice Lynn Mather (Bahamian author), Nita Pronovost (Simon & Schuster Canada), Felicia Quon (Simon & Schuster Canada).
Next year Emerging Leaders in Publishing will be held February 4-8, 2019 and is open to everyone interested in learning more about the publishing industry in Canada.
This February, Publishing Unbound is coming to Vancouver (February 9-11, 2018). This event came about as a way to bring together authors, activists, scholars, and publishing professionals in Canada to discuss inclusivity and accountability in the publishing industry.
Over the last year or so, many necessary conversations have taken place in the world known as CanLit. We have talked about the structural role racism, sexism, and colonialism play in the publishing industry; now we need to talk about what concrete steps we can take to change this industry for the better.
Publishing Unbound spans two and a half days, organized in conjunction with the Simon Fraser University Publishing Program’s Emerging Leaders Symposium (a weeklong event which fosters connections between MPub students and industry professionals). It begins on Friday, February 9 with en evening of readings and talks open to the public. Registration for this evening is currently full, but there is a waitlist in case of cancellations.
Speakers on the Friday night panel include Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, an Anishnaabe writer of mixed ancestry from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation and founder of Kegedonce Press; David Chariandy, Associate Professor of English literature at Simon Fraser University and 2017 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize winner for his novel Brother (McClelland & Stewart); Jordan Abel, a Nisga’a writer from BC pursuing a PhD at Simon Fraser University and the winner of the 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize for his third book, Injun (Talonbooks); and Vivek Shraya, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Calgary, founder of Arsenal Pulp Press’s new VS. Books imprint, and an award-winning artist whose body of work includes several albums, films, and books. The panel will be hosted by Erin Wunker, Assistant Professor of English at Dalhousie University and author of the award-winning Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life (BookThug).
Assistant Professor in Publishing Dr. Hannah McGregor, who was instrumental in organizing Publishing Unbound, said, “The inspiration for [the event] came when I was trying to add readings to the PUB 800 [Text & Context: Publishing in Contemporary Culture seminar class] syllabus. I was new to the [Master of Publishing] program and I wanted more readings on the syllabus that spoke to race, class, gender, disability, and sexuality.”
She put out a call on Twitter, expecting to be inundated with papers and articles and assuming there was lots of work that she just hadn’t heard of.
Instead, she received an underwhelming number of responses and was struck by the realization that there is a significant gap in publishing studies as a field that speaks to the systemic barriers to access in the industry.
While the second day and a half of this event consists of closed roundtable workshops (no audience), Publishing Unbound will be disseminating the results of the discussions to the public at a later date.
For those unable to attend the Friday night session, the event will be recorded and shared publicly.
It’s been just a few weeks since Jennifer Croll transitioned from her role as Managing Editor to Editorial Director at Greystone Books. And it’s been around 14 years since she was a grad student in Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Master of Publishing (MPub) program.
Although she’s more than busy running Greystone’s editorial program and publishing a few of her own books on the side, Croll was happy to chat one rainy afternoon about the value she got from the MPub program and the path her career has taken.
Like many in people in publishing, Croll’s career path has been both meandering and unexpected. After completing her undergraduate degree in psychology, she decided to take a year and live abroad in London.
“I’ve always been very interested in books and in writing, and I wasn’t sure that it was something I could turn into a job,” she said. But she applied for an editorial assistant position anyways, and on day three in England she had a job.
Realizing that this was career she wanted to pursue, she returned to Canada to complete the MPub program.
“One of the things I found most valuable in the MPub was the people I met while doing it. The MPub provides many great contacts, and many of the people who were in my class I still know and they still work in publishing.”
She highlights Laraine Coates, the Marketing Manager at UBC Press. Then there’s Iva Cheung, who is now a doctoral student whose research centers on how plain language affects people’s health. And Kathy Sinclair, who went on to become both the Executive Director of the Kamloops Arts Council and a Kamloops City Councillor.
And Croll? After graduating from SFU, she spent six years working in the magazine industry and few years in online media before transitioning over to books.
When she interviewed for her first position at Greystone, the interviewer was none other than Nancy Flight, who was one of her instructors back in the MPub program (and the woman whose shoes she is now filling).
“A great thing about it being a small company is that you get to do bits and pieces of whatever you’re interested in,” Croll says of Greystone. “We’re very collaborative.”
She also has a couple of other books coming soon: Free the Tipple (Prestel Publishing, Fall 2018) and Bad Boys of Fashion (Annick Press, Spring 2019).
“I think a lot of people have an expectation that they will immediately have their dream job, but career paths can be winding and can take a little while to evolve,” Croll says. “Ten years when you look back, it can be amazing to see how far you’ve come and where you’ve ended up.”
In the Master of Publishing program, it has always been the goal to be both current and relevant—both within the publishing industry and in how students are taught. And education is changing.
As guest lecturer Keiron Simons said at the start of the second semester, “School is supposed to be about social connection and personal empowerment.”
And so, while students can still expect to write multiple research papers, lead lectures, and complete extensive group projects, they can also expect class to run a little differently than traditional lectures as instructors experiment with active learning methods.
Active learning is a way of teaching wherein students take responsibility for their learning. They work together to explore, explain, and exchange ideas. They research what interests them. They all participate, because equality is built into lessons to make classrooms safe, engaging spaces.
In PUB 802: Technology & Evolving Forms of Publishing, we were asked to come to class having read the syllabus. We were asked to give serious thought to what we wanted the course to be about, and about what we wanted to learn.
After some discussion in our first class, our professor left for 20 minutes and instructed us to continue the discussion without him about what we wanted to learn. We were also supposed to decide who was going to be responsible for leading each class. It was up to us to mobilize ourselves. Even though we are well-educated adults, it was still difficult at first to break free of deeply ingrained institutional norms and embrace the autonomy we had been given. And guess what? We managed just fine.
Now in my other life, I work for a school board. We are big advocates of active learning, and I write about our innovative successes on a regular basis. But to be on the other side of it so completely was an eye-opening experience. By being given autonomy over our education, our class felt empowered and listened to. We knew that we mattered, and that our instructor truly cared that we got as much out of our education as possible.
It was a win for him as well, because he knew that by using active learning methods we would be more engaged in his lessons and encouraged by the knowledge that dialogue would flow in both directions. If a kindergarten teacher comes away from a similar teaching experience telling me how she learned alongside and from her students, I have no doubt that a university instructor will have similar things to say. In active learning, we all come away from the lesson with greater knowledge and understanding.
Of course, active learning goes beyond letting students have a say in what they are learning. It can be about creating a safe space for all students to speak, such as by using the annotation plugin hypothes.is to allow students to take notes on online articles as they are reading, or having them write out feedback (One Minute Essays) on cue cards at the end of each class. Or is can be about working with them as the Magazine Project evolves into the more relevant Media Project, and giving them the flexibility to design an agile media entity that will evolve throughout the semester. All of these are real examples of things taking place right now.
It’s a different way of learning for sure, but that’s a good thing. We are more than competent, and after this semester, we will be more confident too.
If you are considering applying to the Master of Publishing (MPub) program at SFU (and you should), then you have probably come across the Admissions to the MPub Program webpage which details everything you need to include in your application. Admission to the MPub program is highly competitive, and so in this post we’ll share some tips on how you can take your application from good to great.
Statement of Aims and Objectives. This is perhaps the most intimidating step of the application process, especially if you are uncertain about what you want to do with your degree when you are finished. No matter where you are in your career, you should highlight why you want to apply to the program and what you will bring to it. Also, what brought you here? How does the MPub program fit into your career path? What have you already done, both professionally and academically? What areas of publishing are you interested in? This is the area where you can showcase your passions and personality.
Prerequisite Knowledge What courses did you take in your undergraduate degree? Get syllabuses from past marketing, accounting, publishing, and Adobe CS courses and to highlight what you have previously learned. Note that the while you should have a basic background in these areas, if you don’t have the exact courses or their equivalents there are other ways to meet the prerequisites before the course begins. You can describe your professional experience in these areas, and just like in a job interview you should expand on your answers with examples of different times you have used different skills and what the result was.
References Contact people well in advance of the application deadline, and make sure you provide them with background information on the program as well as your future goals so they are able to tailor their answers accordingly. While three references are required, contact a few extra people in case the first people you approach are unavailable. You can also include reference letters in your portfolio.
Portfolio The portfolio should be a clear demonstration of the skills and abilities you will bring to the Master of Publishing program. Many applicants submit a cover sheet listing the contents of the portfolio and noting how they created or contributed to the creation of the contents. Portfolios can include, but are certainly not limited to: examples of design work, desktop publishing samples, newsletter and/or brochure samples, articles or books (for those who have experience in editing), samples of photography and examples of academic writing. Go for breadth, and show the range of things you’re capable of. If you don’t have many portfolio pieces, you could complete mock projects to submit. Portfolios are to be uploaded to the graduate online application unless previous arrangements have been made with the Program Advisor (email@example.com).
Make your application really stand out by branding yourself and using the same design treatment throughout each section. Of course, your application should also be well written and free of errors.
Best of luck, and if you have any further questions that aren’t answered in our FAQs, please contact:
Design a usable website. This is undoubtedly a lofty goal, but one that is increasingly crucial to business success in publishing. Web usability is really a form of mind reading. First ask: what do users want and need to do on a website, and then follow those answers toward designing content that presents information in a way that guides users to the appropriate end goals. The International Organization for Standardization (1998) defines usability under the following metrics:
Efficiency: the level of resource consumed in performing tasks
Effectiveness: the ability of users to complete tasks using the technology and the quality of output of those tasks
Satisfaction: users’ subjective satisfaction with using the technology
These focus areas provide a simple place to start when evaluating any website. If a business goal of a certain company is to have a visitor sign up for an email newsletter, the web design must address the process the user undertakes to do this.
1. Is it efficient: does it exclude unnecessary steps like entering a phone number or other irrelevant information?
2. Is it effective: once they complete the online form, have they actually been signed up for a newsletter they want to receive?
3. Are they satisfied: does the user feel like they accomplished a task?
Asking these questions about efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction of experiences is the first approach to usability. Let’s take a look at each of these factors in more detail.
Efficiency: Better Make it Quick
Soothsayers and divining rods were once used to understand the world and human behaviour, but thankfully, modern science provides other more reliable solutions. Neuroscientists have come up with different ways of actually reading the human mind. The most common mind reading device in the field of web usability research is eye-tracking, which involves a camera following the eye as it moves around a display (science 1, soothsaying 0). Sirjana Nahal (2011) measured first impressions of websites using one of these eye tracking programs, and Nahal reported the following conclusions. The first is that users spent less time on websites deemed “unfavorable” (Table 4.8). Perhaps this is not a shocking revelation, but it underlines an important principle of web design and usability. People know what they are looking for, and if a website does not offer it, they will go elsewhere (and quickly, no more than the time it takes to hit the back button). The conclusion that users spend less time on “unfavorable” sites also reinforces the importance of connecting people with the content they are looking for. This idea will be further explored in the following section on effectiveness in web designused commercial water slides for sale.
Nahal also looked at the ways users prefer to view web content, and these preferences are broken down by design categories. The following table outlines those conclusions.
The information in the above table is in keeping with basic principles of design that apply to print materials like magazines, newspapers, and others. Where those print technologies have traditionally had barriers to access that require a relatively sophisticated knowledge of print production to make a viable product, the online world is a democratized, open-source environment that encourages access for all. This generalization is certainly debatable, but at the same time, how useable a website is can be directly correlated with how much attention is paid to these principles of design.
Another resource from Dahal (2011) is an assessment of how much time users fixated on different areas of a simple website during the visit. That information is summarized in the table below.
There are two things worth paying particular attention to in this information. The first is just how little time is spent on any one element of the webpage. 6.48 seconds is the most time a website can expect to hold the attention of an average visitor. 6.48 seconds. Given this minuscule window, it is crucial that websites are built with absolute efficiency in mind.
Effectiveness: Help Me Help You
Steve Krug offers a very succinct guide to best practices for web design in his 2006 book, Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (2nd Edition). The underlying argument Krug makes is that users will not do things on a website that take extra mental effort. Krug offers that users like obvious, mindless choices. A big part of what makes some choices more obvious than others is how they are labeled, and how the navigation of the site is laid out. Krug (2006) argues that the lack of physicality on the internet makes a webpage’s navigation system absolutely crucial to a user’s experience.
Website navigation should:
Help us find whatever it is we’re looking for
Tell us where we are
Give us something to hold on to
Tell us what is here
Tell us how to use the site
Give us confidence in the people who build the site
(adapted from Krug, 2006, p. 59-60)
With so many important tasks placed on the shoulders of navigation, a great amount of attention should be paid to how the elements of navigation (menus, sections, and utilities as a start) are designed and communicated. The application of conventions that communicate physical space and direct user actions is a major factor in how effective a website is from a usability standpoint.
Krug’s model also suggests that users scan websites instead of reading them. He compares them to the billboards we pass on the highway at 100km per hour. If it the information on the site can’t be read at that high speed, it is not an effective communication tool. One way to achieve quick and effective readability is to reduce the number of words on the page to focus user attention on exactly what you want them to do.
Krug describes how users interact with instructions on webpages: “The main thing you need to know about instructions is that no one is going to read them—at least not until after repeated attempts at ‘muddling through’ have failed. And even then, if the instructions are wordy, the odds of users finding the information they need is pretty low” (Krug, 2006, 42). Anyone who has tried to sift through an online help or FAQ page (here is an example of a wordy instruction page from the SFU Library) knows that this is absolutely true. It is a lightning-fast scan of the material, a quick attempt to click around and see if you can intuit your way out of your particular issue, and then a jump back to the help page for another nugget of information to try. Krug’s emphasis on the speed in which users can access the information they need mirrors the findings of Dahal, and many other usability experts and researchers. Milliseconds will dictate whether or not a person is going to use a website to do a task.
Satisfaction: Ahh. That’s the Stuff
The subtitle of Seth Godin’s 1999 book Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends And Friends Into Customers has become almost cliche in the internet marketing canon. The principles laid out in Godin’s book still hold, and point to a fundamental shift in marketing that came about because of how the internet changed how we talk to each other. Godin argues that in order to make a sale online, a company must ask permission using accepted web practices. If a business is serious about making an impact on their bottom line through a website (this impact is not restricted to sales of goods, and should be thought of any way that an online presence can enhance customer experience), serious attention to design and web usability is a good place to start. Providing a satisfying customer experience is about more than just giving them the product they want. Now, more than ever, it is about getting people involved in a community (that lives online, primarily), asking them to participate in the community, and having them help build a brand reputation on behalf of the business. This ability to engage in and with a community should absolutely be considered when designing a usable website.
Research into the factors that contribute to user satisfaction on websites helps point the way toward what a business should do to keep their customers. Kincl and Strach (2012) studied user satisfaction on 44 different educational institutions’ information-based websites by documenting satisfaction levels before and after the use of the websites. The researchers found that content and navigation were key areas in determining overall satisfaction, and that “users perceive high-quality websites if they achieve what they visited the site for. This success in user activities is subconsciously reﬂected in website assessment” (Kincl and Strach, 2012, p. 654). In short, people are satisfied when the website they visit does what they expect it to do. A simple sentiment that is anything but simple to implement. Another interesting finding from this study is the fact that users care less about what the researchers term “trivial” data like the colour of the site than “non-trivial” data like the content (Krug and Strach, 2012). That is to say, an average user would still rate their satisfaction of an unpleasantly-coloured site highly if they found the information they needed. This serves as a reminder that while attention to the look of a website is certainly important, in the end, users want substantive content (and to be able to find it).
The 3 Most Important Things to Remember about Usability
If you were scanning this article like a billboard, this is where your eyes should stop scanning and start reading.
1. Your website needs to communicate really, really quickly. In under 7 seconds.
2. Your website needs to be easy to use. It should be obvious where a user should focus, and then what action they should take at each step (and there shouldn’t be many steps).
3. Your website needs to give a user exactly what they think they need. A website is a promise, and it is up to you to define that promise and then to deliver on it.
Dahal, Sirjana. 2011. “Eyes Don’t Lie: Understanding Users’ First Impressions on Website Design using Eye Tracking.” Master of Science, Missouri University of Science and Technology.
Garrett, Sandra K., Diana B. Horn, and Barrett S. Caldwell. 2004. “Modeling User Satisfaction, Frustration, and User Goal Website Compatibility.” Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting Proceedings 48 (13): 1508-1508.
Godin, Seth. 1999. Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends, and Friends into Customers. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Green, DT and JM Pearson. 2011. “Integrating Website Usability with the Electronic Commerce Acceptance Model.” BEHAVIOUR & INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY 30 (2): 181-199. doi:10.1080/01449291003793785.
International Organization for Standardization (ISO). 1998. Ergonomic Requirements for Office Work with Visual Display Terminals (VDTs), Part 11: Guidance of Usability. Geneva, Switzerland.
Kincl, Tomas and Pavel Strach. 2012. “Measuring Website Quality: Asymmetric Effect of User Satisfaction.” Behaviour & Information Technology 31 (7): 647-657. doi:10.1080/0144929X.2010.526150.
Krug, Steve. 2006. Don’t make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. Berkeley, Calif: New Riders.
Morris, Terry (Terry A. ). 2012. Basics of Web Design: HTML, XHTML & CSS3. Boston: Addison-Wesley.
Snider, Jean and Florence Martin. 2012. “Evaluating Web Usability.” Performance Improvement 51 (3): 30-40. doi:10.1002/pfi.21252.
Somaly Kim Wu and Donna Lanclos. 2011. “Re-Imagining the Users’ Experience.” Reference Services Review 39 (3): 369-389. doi:10.1108/00907321111161386.
Other things to consider and discuss:
There are many institutions that attempt to categorize the “Top Websites” in the world at any given time, and Alexa is one of them. In addition to statistics on the most visited pages, Alexa provides information on category-specific website usage. For 2012, the top websites under the category “Publishing” were:
This top ten list show varying degrees of attention to design and usability. The standouts are the two Wiley websites, which both have a clean look and a clear path for users to follow, and the Audible website, which does works well to present a product, give key information about the product, and direct the user to an action (to “Get Started” using the product). Audible is a subsidiary of another company that is very good at directing user flows in a publishing environment (Amazon, of course).