Interview: John S. Rhodes

Summary    Last week John S. Rhodes and I interviewed each other about blogs and usability. You can read my interview on his consulting site, but first take a few minutes to read how John responded to questions about platform choices, usability issues, how his blog, WebWord, has impacted his consulting business, Oristus, and also why I am a really cruel guy.

Give us the history of WebWord. When did it start, why did you start it, etc.?

In the summer of 1998 I was doing some usability work at US West in Denver, Colorado. I had a jolly good time. The weather was fabulous and my colleagues were wonderful. On my way back home by car to New York, I wrote the first four or five articles for WebWord. By the end of August, I had a web site built and the articles were posted. WebWord was born!

In the early part of 1999 I realized that I needed to keep posting fresh content. I kept writing articles and reports, and conducting interviews, but I also noticed that many other people were posting good content. So, I started manually updating the home page of the site. I edited the HTML by hand and sent the updates via FTP. Nothing magical. At this point, it wasn’t a blog, but it was damn close.

In the later part of 1999 I started regularly posting comments and links.
I followed a blog format, at least in terms of layout (e.g., most recent
news at the top of the home page). WebWord was definitely a blog by the
end of 1999, although I was not using any blogging software.

So, that’s how WebWord started. I guess you could say that I knew a lot
about usability because of my education and experiences, and I wanted to
share my knowledge with the world. It was an itch that I wanted to
scratch. It wasn’t about fame or fortune. At least not in 1998. ;-)

Has WebWord contributed in any way to your consulting business? Or vice versa? How?

Because WebWord is a popular blog, a lot people know that I really care
about usability. They also know that I am not a complete idiot and that I understand the raw power of usability. Back as early as 1999, I was doing consulting because of WebWord. Let me stress that again. I am a usability consultant because of WebWord. It is unlikely that I would have been a consultant if I did not have a blog. If that
isn’t a crack over your head, I don’t know what is!

I don’t think it is possible for most people to make much money through
their blogs. You need insane traffic and willing advertisers. I earn
several hundred dollars per year with Google AdWords. I can feed the cat
and host my web site, but not much more. The blog isn’t the business. My
advice to people trying to make money directly from a blog is quite
simple: Don’t bother. Blogs don’t make money, people make money!

Let me explain. The WebWord blog has established me as one of the most
well known usability specialists in the world. Please understand that I
run the blog to be seen as one of the experts. And now, in return for
years of hard work, I am seen as an expert. I have a place to write. I
have a place to express my feelings and ideas about the intersection of
humans and technology. In turn, it gives me the opportunity to make money
as a consultant. That is a beautiful thing, my friend.

You have two main sites, and, your blog and consulting site respectively. Why is there a split? From an industry
perspective they appear to be similar. Are you trying to keep the WebWord
brand “clean,” or trying to create a new brand in Oristus, or…?

This is a great question. WebWord is a strong brand in the world of
usability. However, WebWord is a focused blog. It is not a business web
site. It is a place where I write what I think, and I tend to focus very
narrowly on usability and related topics. It has many rough edges.
Furthermore, I think to most of the world, WebWord is a dirty, nasty,
confusing place. “What the @$*%$#% is usability?”

Let me explain it this way. If you know anything about usability, human
factors, information architecture, user-centered design, ergonomics,
human-computer interaction, user experience, customer experience, and so
on, and so forth, then WebWord is a fun place to hang out. But the truth
is that most people don’t understand usability and WebWord isn’t the best
place to figure it out. It is a fabulous place to keep on top of usability
and such, and it is a place to drink deeply. Of course, if you visit all
the time, well, then you will learn a thing or two from WebWord. It is a
fertile learning ground, yet it takes time to adjust.

Regular business folks definitely get lost in the WebWord jungle. (I have
data on this.) If business folks don’t “get it” then I won’t get clients.
That’s bad. I like clients. Clients are good.

In light of this, I put together Oristus. Where WebWord mostly talks about
the problems of the world, Oristus is the place to go if you need
solutions. WebWord is the rough draft, Oristus is the clean, final
version. WebWord talks about usability itself, whereas Oristus talks about
how to answer business questions with usability in mind.

I guess the short answer is that you are spot on the mark. It is indeed a
branding thing.

After the meltdown in September 2003 of the previous platform on which WebWord ran, why did you choose PostNuke? Good decision, bad one,

For the record, I’ve always had insane problems with servers and software.
At least once per year I face a major technical issue. I fear that I’ve
been cursed by the God of Dead Web Sites. “Thou shall have no site!”

As you state, in September 2003 my web server melted down. The core
database running the site went rotten and I lost thousands of postings,
and thousands of excellent comments. The site was dead for months. It was
a terrible loss. The memories are so painful! My eyes are filling up with
tears. Hold on a minute, I need to grab the box tissues. I’ll be right
back. You hurtful, hurtful man!

I “chose” PostNuke for a very good reason. A friend of mine over at Mobile
Gadget News
offered to get the site up and
running again on his server for free. He missed WebWord! I took him up on
the offer and decided to get WebWord rolling again. Given time
constraints, and because I did some research on the topic, I decided that
PostNuke would be fine.

Am I happy with PostNuke? In terms of stability, I guess so. It has been
pretty stable for me, although the server itself has some minor issues for
other reasons. In terms of usability and general simplicity, I cannot
stand PostNuke. I think for most purposes, including basic blogging, it is
very nasty. Don’t misunderstand. It is powerful software but I can’t
recommend it for people who want to set up simple blogs. Stay away from it
unless you are a geek, or you have geek friends with a lot of time. If you
are a geek, dive in my friend. Enjoy!

You’ve done a couple of podcasts, how has that worked out for you? I remember you saying, during your second podcast, that you learned a lot from the first go’round. Do you have more planned for the coming year, or
perhaps vidcasting/vlogging?

I really enjoy podcasting and I think it has a lot of potential. I even
wrote a couple of simple usability articles on the topic:

I will definitely do more podcasts in 2005. I have a lot to talk about and
based on listener feedback, they are appreciated. When they are done right
I think they are quite valuable. In case you are wondering, my favorite
podcasts are being generated over at Doug Kaye’s IT Conversations. If you want great audio content, skip WebWord and check it out.

By the way, I don’t think that podcasting itself is important. I think
that too many people are focused on the technology. That is, they are
focused on the delivery (e.g., RSS) and the reception (e.g., MP3 players,
iPods, etc.). That is a huge, huge mistake. The key to podcasting is much
more subtle. It is all about the content. Until now, audio content didn’t
make much sense. The world of audio content generated by “average folks”
just didn’t exist. However, the podcasting infrastructure is in place now
so content from new sources is going to be generated. People will be
tempted. Most of it will suck big rotten eggs, but some of it will be
amazing. Give it a couple of years.

I don’t think podcasting will ever be as big as
blogging. Sorry, but podcasting suffers from Three “T” Issues. It requires
time, talent, and technology to produce a podcast. To do a quality podcast
you need at least 1/2 hour. It really takes a lot more than that. You also
need a reasonable speaking voice. It takes time to learn to speak well. It
also takes technology. In other words, it takes more than a browser and
fat fingers to create a podcast. You need to record, edit, and mix. You
have to master several more tools and some new software too. It isn’t
point and click. It isn’t easy enough for a monkey.

Overall, the user experience of podcasting is just plain awful. It needs
to get better, and it will. But right now it stinks. Foo!

Speaking of the coming year, what are your plans? For WebWord, for Oristus, or anything beyond.

My plans are very simple. This is my year of extreme focus and regularity.
The purpose is to grow Oristus. I’m going to write a lot of articles,
publish the Oristus Newsletter, and do a lot of networking. I love
usability and I truly want to help companies succeed. (Business is fun,
kids!) I love talking about the intersection of humans and technology. It
is my passion.

On a personal note, I plan on getting better at juggling. I want to be
good enough to juggle flaming objects. I also plan on skydiving and
getting a motorcycle. I suppose this is a year of taking risks. I want to
live my life full throttle this year. I’d like to look back years from now
and say, “Holy crap, I did some really cool stuff!”

By the way, in 2004 I ran a marathon. It was tough as hell but I ran the
entire way without stopping. I want you to know that just a couple of
years ago I could barely run a 5K. My point is that you should grab life
by the balls. Do yourself a favor, go out there and kick some ass.

Lastly, and since you asked me this question… What do you think is the biggest usability issue regarding blogs?

I feel that the biggest issue with blogs is that most people can’t write
worth a damn. Once again, the problem is people, not technology. People
always blame technology. It drives me buggers. I’m a usability guy saying,
“Blame yourself!” That has to mean something.

Most people post and run. They don’t take much time to think about their
words and links. They don’t proof their work. They don’t think about their
audience. I suppose if the blog is truly for personal use then this isn’t
a usability issue. However, most blogs are meant to be read by other

My advice is simple. Have some empathy when you write.


  1. John’s observations that “the blog isn’t the business” and the real ROI of a business blog comes indirectly are valuable. In fact, I blogged about them here and wanted to let you know via a comment, in lieu of a trackback.

  2. Hey John, for a year or so, WebWord was actually a group blog. At least till the server meltdown… :)

  3. Actually, it was more nostalgia than anything else.

    Despite being out of the usability biz now, I still like to keep updated on these issues. I dream of finding some spare time to give a spanking new design to WebWord and re-energise it so it returns to the days when there were so many active people commenting. (sigh)

  4. I seriously need a redesign. If nothing else, I need to get away from the clutter and confusion of PostNuke. I think I’ll be doing something in 1-2 months, especially given my consulting push.

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