Drive-By Shooting Special: Black Bus

“What are we waiting for?” Harry stood on the curb, hands in pockets, watching his friend curiously.

“A bus.” James looked casually nonplussed as he hitched the backpack higher on his shoulder.

“A school bus? A Greyhound?” So far, he and James had been standing on the curb for close to a half hour. “What kind of bus?” Harry glanced at a passerby.

“A black one.”

A black bus. Okay, that explained…nothing. Headquarters hadn’t explained anything either, when the call for the hit had come in. “Can’t we take the car? James, I don’t get this. Public transport is-…”

And James held up his hand, cocking an ear. “Here it comes.”

Today’s hit is for Black Bus, the site of Peter Gulka. Here’s what the site looked like when we drove by:

“I don’t get it.” Harry stubbornly propped a knee against the back of a seat as the black bus pulled away from the curb, rocking on its wheels.

“Neither do I,” James answered, looking completely at home on the bus, just enjoying the ride.

The problem is, no one else is going to get it either. The domain name is easy to type, snappy and easy to remember. But what’s black bus about? Why black bus? Black bus doesn’t mean anything to us, and we have no idea what type of site we’re going to land on if we click. Is it about black buses? Buses with black people? Black buses for black people? Double-dutch buses?

When we do arrive and see the title “Blackbaud User Society,” we’re totally thrown off, because the site seems to have nothing to do with buses at all, unless bus is a jargon-tech term for something to do with… well, whatever it is the site is about.

The bus drove them downtown, and when it finally slowed with a ppsssht of air brakes, the doors opened onto the streets of the bowels of the city.

Harry felt a twinge of hesitation. He looked for some bright, welcoming color, some images, a sign… Anything that would tell them what kind of place they were headed into. Was it dangerous? Was it safe?

All that met him was his own reflection staring back at him from the glossy black paint of the bus as it slid by and drove off, abandoning them.

“Wake up, Sleeping Beauty.” James nudged him with his elbow. “What are you waiting for?” At least one of them felt confident about traveling blindly.

Harry frowned and leaned close to James, whispering, “This feels like a trap.”

James felt it too, the ominous grey darkness of the building belying the stripe of blue above it. He’d be damned if he’d let that show, though, and he hopped up the steps, taking them two by two.

It was an old movie theatre. Empty, dark and overly quiet. Harry found a lonely brochure cast aside on the ground, and he picked it up to see what might have been playing on the screens at one time.

Nothing that he could see.

People who might find your site through search results can’t see anything either – your meta description seems to be in need of some attention.

Meta description is the text that visitors see below your link in Google. It’s the first contact with potential visitors, and it tells them what this site is about and how it will change their lives – if only they click, of course.

That first good impression is important, because you want newcomers to be interested enough to click your link and visit.

Here’s what your description shows right now:

Blackbaud User Society – Home
Blackbus Marketplace Program … Blackbaud User Socie (blackbus) on Twitter. 3 Replies | 97 Views. Blackbus for iPhone and other mobile devices …
www.blackbus.org/ – 57k – Cached – Similar pages –

Well, that’s pretty boring. It doesn’t say what the site is about, nor what it offers or how it’ll change anyone’s life, if at all. In comparison, here’s our meta description:

Men with Pens – WordPress Blog Customization, Web Design and …
Discover the best freelancing tips to earn a decent living online or hire us for designs and copywriting to boost your business success.
menwithpens.ca/ – 41k – Cached – Similar pages –

Since this is a forum, it’s a little trickier to find where to insert keywords and descriptions. Your theme should have a file called “index.template.php”, and meta description should go before the tag.

Harry handed James the brochure and turned to the empty rooms. It was a like scanning over a bland, gray landscape. Maybe it was just the blackened walls or the dark movie screen. He tried to imagine this place with color, alive and thriving.

“Well, better get to work,” Harry stated, turning his focus towards figuring out the best places to plant the explosives for the biggest boom. This hit would be a cakewalk.

First visual impressions of the site aren’t… well, as you can see, they aren’t good. The banner and overall design are bland. Blue and gray is fine as a color scheme, mind you – the colors match and don’t clash. The problem is that the greys are so close together in tone that everything gets washed out. We see nothing but blue and gray blocks and bars with very little else to break it up or make it interesting.

The bus logo in the banner looks dark and ominous, and the “User Society” in the title kind of gives us a “keep out” impression. A tagline would help. Explain the bus, and explain what readers will get if they stick around. What’s in it for them? The banners needs more than just a name, because when a reader lands on the site, people need to know right away that this is the right place for them and they should explore further.

Have some fun with it! Get people excited about your site. Make them say, “Yes! This is what I need!” We can already see some fun attitude and personality going on in the posts, so bring that up to the banner and design.

James stood there with his hands in his pockets, but Harry could see he was itching to explore. “Go on ahead. I’ll catch up with you. I’m going to wire this thing up and put on some fireworks.”

Now there was a thought both men liked. The light in Harry’s eyes told James the show would be glorious, and James grinned in return.

James slipped down a corridor and the confusion began. There were a few signs on doors that helped him know where to go, but oddly, there were two empty ticket booths.

That’s what this site looks like – a bit of directional confusion, nothing seems certain… The layout has all the basics, with a navigation tabs at the top, navigation links down the side, and content in the middle, and yet…

Let’s start with the good. The navigation at the top works well. The titles are clear and easy to read, and we know exactly what we’ll get if we click each. The change in color to help people know where they are is a nice touch too, and almost necessary with all the grey going on. The titles could be larger or bolded to be more easy to read – they’re quite small as is, though.

Now the bad. The big block of Google search does nothing for the site, especially so high up and taking up so much space as it is. The login to the right is also in our face, and you already have a login below, so why have two?

The font of the welcome bar is an issue, too. It’s hard to read and too grey – change it to black for easier screen reading, or darken it more. Also increase the size of font – we’re really squinting to read the text. It’s tinier than tiny and it’d be better to choose a larger size for easier reading.

We’d remove the search and put it somewhere else, and we’d remove the login section, as you already have one. Bring the descriptive content up to tell people more about your site (we found it – passed right over it three times, small and invisible as it was.), and put some appeal in that banner.

Another problem is that a white font on a blue background is very difficult to read, and so are blue text links on a white background. Increasing the size of font, choosing a darker color or going lighter with a darker font may all be better options.

James found an office marked FAQ – certainly an acronym for the Federation des Anonymes du Quebec. Ah, something from home. With a sigh of relief, he jiggled the handle on the door. Locked. He pulled out a small toolkit and picked the lock, then opened the door…

Nothing. The FAQ was empty.

“Hé!” James shouted at a figure at the end of the hall. The man in the blue vest looked around, a little surprised to see someone here. James caught up to him. “You work here, right?”

The guy nodded. “Uh huh.”

“What happened to this place?”

“Um… It’s the User Society.”

That’s not much help. There’s no About page around the place to tell us what this site is all about, and we really would have liked that, because we’re still not sure what we can find here or what this is all for. Your target market will be just as clueless, we’re afraid, especially first-time visitors.

Another problem is that first-time visitors don’t see that secondary navigation bar until they start clicking around. It literally wasn’t there until we clicked elsewhere, and then lo and behold, there it was.

Now that we have seen it once, though, it doesn’t go away, so that’s a good thing.

The sidebar is typical forum fare, though we’d like to see it on the right, not the left. Everything is neat, unobtrusive and where it should be, so kudos for that.

There’s more site navigation in the sidebar, and we’d usually say this is redundant, but since the tabs are easily overlooked and the secondary navigation wasn’t there when we landed, it’s almost a good thing that you have even more navigation for visitors.

We’d remove the calendar option in the forum, unless this forum creates a tight-knit group of people who get to know each other – it’s usually used for birthdays but very little else, so unless everyone’s wishing each other a happy birthday, you can safely remove that feature without anyone missing it.

The worker could have been removed and not be missed either. He didn’t have a clue about the place or its history. He just did his job. Great. Just great. The guy tried to offer explanation, but it didn’t make any sense. So he took a card from his pocket and shoved it into James’ hand.

“Contact him. He’ll tell you everything you need to know.”

James glanced at the card. It had a garbled string of illegible text.

One note on the Contact page – drop the Captcha. It’s a pain, it’s a barrier to communication, it’s often hard to read and it isn’t helping you. They’re a hinder to people who want to get in touch with you, so make that easy for them. You’re not going to get bombarded by spam if you opt for something like, “Does fire burn?”

“James, you there?” Harry’s voice crackled through the earbud. “I’m almost done. We good?”

“No. Give me a few more minutes.” He eyed the glass case he’d just spotted in the lonely corridor. “I think I’m onto something.”

The glass case held a map of the city. James ran a finger over the surface, tapping it twice when he found what he wanted and then he took off down the hall.

Out the back of the building, down a path and over to a smaller building across the street. A library. He headed straight for the computers and sat, his face lit up in the glow of the monitor.

One quick word. That was all he tapped. And then… “Calisse, so that’s what it’s all about. Why didn’t they say so?”

Indeed, that’s a great question! A quick search on Blackbaud gained us the knowledge that they create software for fund raising and non-profit organizations. That’s very cool, so why not show that off on your site? “Bussing you around Blackbaud products with all the support you need.” Or something like that.

What we’d like to see most is that dreary grey stripped off and replaced with more color and fun that gets people interested and excited in sticking around. Clear up the confusion about the URL and the site name, clarify why there’s a bus involved in all this and put some life into the place.

Black Bus had bought out the old movie theatre a while back. They’d hoped to create a community of users, a fantastic society all focused on managing non-profits. But they’d forgotten that one key was missing from the puzzle.

Life. And now, bringing the building down would be a favor. Black Bus could rebuild, start over and hope the insurance cheques paid for the renovations. It’d be grand, spectacular even! And the place would come alive, just like it had back in the days of its movie screenings.

James could see it all now. He told Harry his thoughts while they sat outside on the steps, and the man rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then nodded. “You’re right.”

Then Harry pulled out the remote that had one big button on it. “All clear?”

“All clear.”

And Harry’s thumb hit the button – just as James leaped up with horror on his face. “The worker!”

He was running towards the explosion before he knew it, panicked at the potential headlines. Innocent man murdered, they would read.

And then a hand caught him by the neck of his shirt, hauling him back just in time. The explosion rumbled through the building and it blew in a shower of debris. The two men were knocked back, and after the burning ash and broken planks stopped raining down on them, James lifted his head to meet a pair of laughing green eyes.

“You twit,” Harry offered. “He left for lunch 15 minutes ago…”

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. Good to see the drive by shootings are alive and kicking.

    Thanks to Peter as well for taking the plunge and letting these two into your “home”.

    I see someone’s added a tweetmeme button. Let’s see if it works…

    Marc – WelshScribe´s last blog post…Why Keeping Busy Can Stall Your Freelance Career

  2. Great to see the drive-by shootings back – that really brightened up my lunchtime after a hard-working morning!

    As ever, I learn a heck of a lot about usability/design from reading your critques of other sites (the story always grips me, too. I’m ever concerned that James is about to blow himself up. Harry, watch out for him, won’tcha?)

    Just a thought … have you guys ever considered compiling all the drive-bys into a book? I’ve not read much in that area (though enjoyed “Don’t Make Me Think” a year or two ago), but I think you’ve got some great material for a series of usability/design case-studies, which could also be arranged to fit common themes/points (eg. I notice that navigation is a perennial issue, as are unwelcoming colours and unclear taglines/About pages). The story elements give it a great twist, too.

  3. James,

    Good hit. I’m guessing that Blackbaud is specialized enough that if you search for it at all, you’re halfway to understanding the forum before you even look around. Which I suspect is why Peter didn’t include much explanation, figuring if you have to ask it’s not for you, maybe.

    *But* it sounds like something that could be bringing in a lot more members, with some happy-people-pictures, something showing non-profits in action and benefitting from… whatever you learn here—and with a lot of your suggestions implemented. There’s plenty of potential in this Black Bus!

    As I hopped around: Some of the nav (top, tabs) did nothing. Home, Forum, and FAQ at least, all led to the same place. As I used the tabs in the top nav, the “Forum” tab stayed lit except when I tabbed to RSS, so I kept thinking I was on the same page even when a couple of pages did change.

    The nav below the banner changes—sometimes there sometimes not, as you mentioned, but also has different things in it on different pages. At one point I got “rules” and all that below-banner nav was gone, and when I used the back button I couldn’t even figure out what I’d clicked on to get there so I couldn’t do it again to test it!

    Some of the tabs above the banner and the navigation below the banner are repetitions, like the sidebar nav. Very confusing.

    Also way too much info is “below the fold”—has to be scrolled to see it—so that even on a few pages which were different, I thought they were the same thing until I investigated more.

    I couldn’t see any color changes as you described (I wonder why?), but that would have been very helpful.

    I sound a bit down on it but I’m really impressed with what a massive job putting a forum together must be. With clear architecture and lots of clues to help people get around smoothly, some great copy to draw folks in and type/colors that are easy on the eyes, it’ll be rolling along smoothly very soon. Good luck Peter!

    Regards,

    Kelly

  4. Ack!

    Didn’t realize I went on and on! :)

  5. @ Kelly – Oh, good comments. We don’t click around a great deal during drive-bys, as interior usability isn’t the main focus, but yeah, we had issues with navigation as well.

    And on and on is good! Means you care!

    @ Ali – We’re already working on that, because as you, we realized there are common themes that recur. With a quick ebook that basically tells people “what not to wear”, they’d be able to do more themselves to have a better site. We’re all about that.

    As for blowing myself up… um… well… there’s a reason Harry’s around. Yes.

    @ Marc – Peter was great, agreed! I’m sure he’ll be around today, as he was very interested in the feedback from readers and commentators, so don’t be shy!

  6. I totally forgot how much I enjoyed these. When I had my drive-by, it was the most helpful online advice I could’ve hoped for. Many of the suggestions I was able to implement immediately and some I had to shelve for later, but I never forgot a one.

    Playful and informative = terrific post.

    Writer Dad´s last blog post…The story garden

  7. Aw, I’ve missed these! Good to see you guys are still doing them.

  8. The meta tag thing really bugs me. It is supposed to be an automatic function of the vBulletin software but for some reason it isn’t working. I also have a tool called vBSEO handling some automatic SEO functions which is also supposed to be beefing that stuff up. I suspect the /forum/index.php will have better meta information in it.

    Marc – I know the site isn’t what it could be and I came here for fearless criticism. Let me have it.

    Kelly – Awesome notes – thanks! The site exists to serve people who work at non-profit organizations who use Blackbaud fundraising software. The software is best-in-class, but very expensive and most orgs only use 5-10% of what it can do. I started the site to try and help people work with each other to squeeze more life and value out of the software. We are not affiliated with Blackbaud at all. If you don’t know who Blackbaud is or what they do then the site isn’t for you. It’s a very niche market we serve.

    All your other observations are casualties of a couple platform changes over the last 3 years. The site is a hobby more than anything. I’ve never made a concerted effort until now to get all these things set up properly. The site has always been about the forum more than anything. I slapped a front page on with a derivative of the forum software as an afterthought. The site is getting enough traffic now that this needs to be revisited.

    I’m going to start to get the site functionality tweaked up (broken links, etc) first and then hopefully find some cash for a redesigned template for the vBulletin forum software.

    A question – If the site is primarily a forum is having a front page a help or a hindrance?

    Peter Gulka´s last blog post…Importing Recurring Gifts

  9. @Peter: Having run a few forums in our day we know they’re very niche oriented and the people that use them usually already know what’s going on before they get there. What we’ve done with our creative writing forum is we created a main page with at the very least a brief explanation as to what the forum is about and then a link to the forum itself in the main page navigation. James would have stats on whether it works or not, but from what I’ve seen, I believe it does help.

  10. Hey, I wish you’d drive by my hood and shoot up my site! I’m thinking of putting nonsense pseudo-pithiness on my welcome screen–stuff I can steal from the internet, like
    she sat there with her legs ajar…
    he fell ten stories and his body hit the pavement like a hefty bag full of vegetable soup…
    she grew on him like a colony of e. coli

    what do you think?

    On SEO–I think the whole SEO thing is hyped up. Google has giga-bucks and their smart engineers’ primary job is to relate content to search strings…content is it. Still, I do use all-in-one seo etc., just in case…

    I always learn something here. Thanks!

    Kaushik´s last blog post…Over on…

  11. Dear Men,

    Bloglines does not appear able to find you and ihelplessly displays only an exclamation point. If I click on your blog title, however, I am brought directly to your sight. Hence, the URL would seem correct.

    ::throws up hands::

    Mer, stalker friend of Amy’s

    Mer´s last blog post…In His Own Defense, Cheney Requests Classified Torture Memos That Appalled Others

  12. It’s a secret bus. If you know what it’s for you’re allowed on. I like the bus.

    Paul Morriss´s last blog post…Update on Sign Language project

  13. Having just started running a forum myself, I can tell you that

    http://www.vbulletin.org
    http://www.vbseo.com/f2/
    http://www.vbadvanced.com/forum/

    is a godsend (and that James’ advice is always spot-on!).

    To add a more descriptive title, go to your AdminCP and select:

    vBulletin Options -> General Setting

    You’ll see a spot to add your Meta Description. Mine is,
    Income Fitness – The Definitive Resource for being successful online –
    http://www.virtual-coach.com/forums/

    The folks at VBSEO, VBulletin.org and VBAdvanced are helpful beyond belief (vbulletin.com support is also quite good). Feel free to ask me any questions about fine-tuning it – will be happy to help out.

    It’s character-building indeed to run them,

    Barbara

    Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog post…How can I tell if a Work at Home Business Opportunity is a scam?

  14. Another courageous soul braves the tell-the-truth-it-will-be-good-for-you honesty of the Men. As with Simon Cowell’s comments on American Idol, the truth is what helps most, but it isn’t always as palatable as a friendly nudge. I hope the blogger will survive the bombing. :-) And I’m relating to Harry a lot.

    As usual, this one was very entertaining. I got the “bus” when I saw the blog title and the initials were b-u-s, but I still didn’t know what Blackbaud was.

  15. Wow,
    What an incredible way to get the point across about design. i have never taken the time to really look at a site like that before. I’m going to visit mine right now like a first time visitor and see what I think.
    Thanks for the insight into design. It is like pornography, I know it when I see it but I can’t describe what it is.

    Andy with network marketing´s last blog post…MLM Network Marketing Success with Network Leads

  16. Hey everyone. It’s been a few months but the new Blackbus.org has been launched. I’ve been focusing on the functionality and backend over the last week and now its time to review the dive by and get some of the design elements and site basics implemented. I welcome everyone to pop by and have a look.

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  1. […] Men with Pens Drive by Shootings have made a welcome return. Yay! Their hit this week was…a black bus. Yeah Harry doesn’t like public transport, he much prefers vehicles of the two wheeled […]

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