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In: Columns > DigiSect

By Stephen Van Doren

Published on September 24, 2001

Basking in the reverence of last month and Digital Web's tribute to communities online, it is with a joyous heart that this month I can talk about one of my favorite communities out there: The Ozone Asylum. I believe I got a much better deal on this than fellow columnist Peter Fielding. Not only do I have the opportunity to talk about something that I really enjoy (experiencing a site), but I get to do it with a regular pit stop of mine (and if useit.com is a regular pit stop for Peter, I'm afraid we'll need to talk more).

For years, Doc Ozone's name has been synonymous with Photoshop and the Web. When he created his Asylum, he did so with one thing in mind: to create a community that was based solely off of user input and experience. Nothing happens on that site that isn't 99% user-input.

Roughly stated, the Asylum is one of the best examples of user experience online today.

Picture yourself, newly transitioning from one form of marketing to the other, and you find yourself with a question that no one in your office knows the answer to. Hopping over to the Asylum leaves you trace few keystrokes away from finding the answer.

But this isn't just about a place for questions.

The moment you walk into the UBB-driven board, you are faced with many possibilities: Photoshop, DHTML, JavaScript, Site Reviews—and many other topics that host a wealth of answers for almost anyone in the field. These different forums are even separated into three distinct categories (though cryptic to someone that isn't thinking really hard about them) to avoid the "here's a whole bunch of content, SO READ!" paradigm that so often pollutes content-driven sites. Additionally, the usage of signatures in most members posts further breaks up the content and further customizes the look of the site through user input and experience.

As a long time user of the site, I can vouch not only for the effectiveness in which the Asylum acts, but also for the sheer volume of information contained in its archives. No valid question falls to the wayside; no interesting thread is ever lost.

But let's move on.

Function

At its most simple level, the Asylum is for the users. Doc doesn't get paid one red penny to do what he does (though he paid for the software, and he doesn't have any banner ads). So, the functionality of the site has to be very intuitive in order for the users to appreciate and utilize the wealth of knowledge that sits just beyond the login.

As with many Infopop boards out there (and there are several) the basic scheme of how the site should function is quite simple: List of the topics on the front page, plus user editing functions and logins. One level beyond that is the template for the thread pages, and one level below that is the actual thread itself.

Quite simple.

There are but five images on the main page and all subsequent pages: the logo, and four link buttons to other projects that Doc is involved with (such as the HandsOn Tutorials, which have proven to be useful for thousands of people looking to advance their abilities with Photoshop and web techniques, as well as the Gurus Network, which is another wealth of information, specifically geared towards handing tutorials out to users in need). This keeps pages relatively easy to load, save for the signatures of users that enjoy a certain amount of creativity to tag onto their messages.

The search functionality is also quite useful from a users point of view—another hat-tip to Infopop for designing such a good framework for interactivity and use. One only has to know a small amount about web functionality in order to understand its operation. This keeps the knowledge archives available to anyone, at literally just a click away.

Form

Besides the already-mentioned simplicity, the site takes on several key forms that few would've conceived of. Most importantly, it is a site that is a message board—nothing else. That sort of absorption and key use is rare in the web communities, which often feel that they must give the users a piñata of functionality and information to make the interactivity worthwhile.

Not so with the Asylum. The users create the interactivity—the way it should be, anyway. It's taking the phrase "content is king," to a completely new level—not only is it king, but it's also queen, a few jesters, and the prince that everyone seems to laugh at from time to time (because the Asylum is not beyond laughing at itself).

Tying the design together seemed like such an easy thing to do, but the genius behind it is not so much what we thought, but what we didn't think. The few tones of orange involved and the oscillating dark maroon colors tells us of Doc's simplicity and taste for it (though one would forget that the same designer also did ozones.com, the ever-changing soul of interesting interfaces). Images not being needed, he keeps the content in order and separated through the use of colors—another UBB holdover, but expertly implemented by Doc.

Typographically speaking, Doc chooses to use a long-lasting designer idea—tiny Verdana. Oddly enough, we're okay with this paradigm. As long as he uses CSS to do it (rather than the dreaded font tag, which he avoids like the plague), then we on Macs won't be sad with 8px fonts.

Summation

Just the name of the Asylum conveys just who is coming to this board. That being said, it is impossible to think of it as anything but a success. You enter the name, you login (or don't—the system is just as happy to be used that way) and you are greeted with over a year and a half of content. Each user has a small page about them (member list and profiles), and each member can be contacted through some form or another, driving home the idea that the users make the board.

And Doc has been so kind as to mention that from time to time (I have had the privilege of having direct contact with Doc in the past. I can only hope that my other half at ProDotCon hasn't been so lucky with Mr. Neilsen), reminding each user that he/she is integral to the success of the board—and all 1300 of the current members (growing every day) thank each other on a constant basis. The final punishing blow that the Asylum hands to all the rest of the message-board-as-websites out there is that Doc trusts the users with so much until they've proven him wrong in that. He's a humanitarian, and that theme sets the tone for the rest of the interaction. It is important to note that no one has ever been removed from the board. Ever. That speaks volumes about his standards, and the standards set by the user base itself.

And so, after being so effervescent and bubbling over, you are now prepared to visit with Peter to listen to some less-than-pleasant commentary about a less-than-pretty site. I have no doubt in my mind that his vengeance for this indiscretion on my behalf (this idea was made over 16 glasses of Scotch—perhaps we should've waited for a more sobering time) will be slow and painful coming. Next month, if I'm not wrapped in bandages and attempting to use my computer by the tap-tap-tapping of my nose on my keyboard, perhaps we'll have more words for you then.

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Related Topics: User-Centered Design (UCD), User Experience

 

Stephen Van Doren is a software developer and graphic designer from Denver, Colorado.

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