Category Archives: Journalling

The Map Defines the Territory

Information architecture (IA) is a fascinating and compelling part of information organisation. Search is not a solved problem. Indeed, searchability and findability are among the most nagging problems facing information professionals. Findability—or lack thereof—is one of the defining elements of user experience. Unfortunately, it is also a source of endless frustration. It has the worst usability problem on the web. User needs and goals are obstructed by systemic failures in findability, and a website that is not easy to navigate is functionally useless.

My own experiences with technology have taught me that developers do not necessarily have the perspective to design usable systems. What they may think is an effective system is designed to only support an aspirational, best-case-scenario for navigation. What looks elegant from a coders perspective may not provide an optimal—or acceptable—experience.

Examining the council websites of the cities of Melbourne, Hobart, and Perth highlighted some of these elements. Melbourne and Hobart both demonstrated integrate, sensible designs that kept the same standard layout for the overall navigation of the website, and loaded pertinent content into a dynamically updated frame. Perth, however, insisted on having new subsets of menus and navigations for different sections, many of which had no visible ties to overall structure and obfuscated access to content. Intuitive architecture should provide universal navigation with no ‘orphaned’ avenues of browsing. Every page of the website should be able to function as a landing page with a completely accessible hierarchy of menus demonstrating where the user is, how they got there, and where they can go. As with physical architecture, information architecture relies on firm foundations to build anything stable. Logically relevant parent categories, proper meta-tagging, and a well-represented taxonomies form the bedrock on which any information-rich website should be built.

It is unforgivable for large entities such as a city council to build sloppy websites. All websites—especially those in the public sector—should be doing the right thing by default. Ease-of-use should be rigorously tested through prototyping and wire-framing, and consistency of style and standards should be paramount. Coders hate redundancy, but having logical replication of data facilitates how users really make use of websites—often in a meandering, scattershot approach.

The core thing I have taken away from information architecture is that it has to be—like a building—designed from the ground up. Every element must have a strong foundation of accessibility and functionality that relates to how people are actually using something, rather than designing with your own plan in mind then instructing people how to use it. IA relies wholly on taking an objective approach to design that Isn’t self interested. Developing good IA habits demands stepping outside your own perspective and engaging with that subjective, user experience of using a website.

Six Degrees of Web Navigation

The pseudo-game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ is born from the idea that any actor in a feature film can, in six-or-less ‘hops’ via other actors be connected back to the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon.

I like films. I like watching them, I like collecting film trivia, and I like talking about films. I am fairly indifferent to Kevin Bacon as an actor, but have become fairly adept at this game over time simply by force of circumstance and watching too many films.

For this week’s activity I invited a friend who is only passingly interested in film to use the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) to play this game against me. I asked that he navigate the connective web of actors orbiting Bacon while speaking to his decision making processes and the usability of IMDB as a tool for finding out what he needed to know. I chose to examine this scenario specifically as it gave my observed user a compelling motivation for performing complex searches (beating me at the game) and it offered a wide variety of approaches to navigating a resource (IMDB).

Through a combination of observation and direct, focussed question I arrived at some understanding of his needs when using the site. He was extremely helpful in keeping up a running commentary of his navigation through the site, and gave me a great set of talking points that resonated with what I had been reading about UX design. Many of his searches fell apart immediately with poor choices of searching methods, but the fact that almost any meaningful piece of data (names, dates, titles, genres etc.) had fully realised, relational links to every other piece of data made recovery a breeze. Rarely did the interface or tools of IMDB inhibit his progress, and he candidly offered that he liked how it ‘just worked’.

The first thing that struck me was how similar many of the concepts in good UX design were to those praised in good writing: Explicit is better than implicit, concise is better than verbose, constrained is better than unconstrained. At every step of this process, my observation was finding that IMDB had nailed the basics — search was simple, intuitive, and unobtrusive. The site had set out to do a specific thing and that focus on simplicity had allowed it to be great at something. Prompts were clear and consistent, default options were well-configured to reduce effort, and the various toggles and actions favoured punchy, active verb use such as ‘Remember my search’, and ‘Enable additional fields’ rather than less-friendly, subtractive alternatives.

Queensland University of (Frustrating) Technology

Cross-posted from my INN540 Blackboard-based Journalling blog

My experiences with technology at QUT have been both profoundly transformative and profoundly disappointing. Participating in mixed-delivery classes that provide external students a presence in the classroom via Collaborate is meaningful and cool in a way I would not have anticipated before experiencing it myself. However, as part of Blackboard, Collaborate suffers from the most egregious of issues with the QUT technology base.

Everyday I find a new way to be frustrated by the disparate, disconnected nature of the elements of QUT virtual, Blackboard, and the Library. Nothing works the way you expect between the platforms, and the level of interoperability is non-existent. Links from one area to another will time out, die, or get stuck in endless redirects. Trying to access readings via Blackboard will often leave you at the landing page for a journal service without first authenticating via the library. Direct links will frequently be incomprehensibly obscured by the Blackboard wrapper and need to be manually extracted. Enrolling in units of study or training modules on Blackboard essentially doesn’t work, and requires multiple approaches through non-obvious pathways to navigate. Everything is just that little bit more frustrating and convoluted than it needs to be, and it can be wearying.

I don’t want to come off as a malcontent, QUT’s online services are incredibly diverse and feature rich. They just lack a meaningful coherence that creates a ‘whole’ integrated experience.

(Addendum: The ‘walled-garden’ approach to internal QUT blogs has no way of cross-talking with other blogging platforms, which leads me to manually re-purpose and re-post these journal entries.)