November 2008 Archives

Beta Release: Almost..Kind of..Done.

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Here is the "final" rough draft of my website, my Beta Release.  I tried to covey a general understanding of the SHU World Affairs Forum; I wanted to appeal to students who knew little or nothing about the organization and as such I wanted to inform them of what and who WAF is and what we do. 

The only way to know if I really accomplished this is, of course, is to test my site out on others.  So please, take a minute...check out the site and give me some feedback!  The site is fairly small; a homepage and three interior pages.  All suggestions are welcome.

These are just a couple questions I have, but feel free to comment on anything.

Do you understand WAF?

Are you left with any questions about the organization?

Does anything seem unnecessary or wordy?

Is anything about the design/format distracting or ineffective?

 

Thanks!  If anyone else is looking for a tester, I'd be happy to return the favor.

Growing Pains: Alpha Report

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Today in class, I struggled with my Alpha release.  Because my term project is a website (for the SHU World Affairs Forum), my alpha release contained a complete draft of my homepage, and the frame work for three interior pages.  One interior page (on "events") was partially completed, one was completely finished ("about us") and one was yet to be started ("sister organizations"). 

I had Chelsea Oliver review/test my alpha release.  Her suggestions were primarily on the design/lay out of the site, and she gave positive reviews for the actual "web writing."  Some of her suggestions included:

·         Taking away the menu link for "SHU home" and just linking the SHU logo to the homepage

·         Adding more pictures

·         Adding graphic elements to the sidebar

·         Telling users, under the events page, that all events are usually free and open to anyone

From this alpha testing, I also thought of a few suggestions for my site:

·         Adding a "footer" section to every page with contact information

·         Telling users how they can find out about specific events ("Look for posters around campus.  Watch for a global e-mail." etc...)

Mainly, I had to deal with the imperfection of web design.  I have this ongoing problem that everything I design on my home computer, looks completely screwed up on other computers.  As a perfectionist, this is a tough pill for me to swallow!  I have to remember to focus on the web writing and not completely on the design...ugh. 

 

Progress Report: Putting WAF on the Web

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For my term project, I have proposed designing an informative hypertext/simple website for the World Affairs Forum (WAF) at Seton Hill.  I'm a member of WAF and we're a small campus organization without much recognition, so I thought the idea would be a good fit for this project.

I've determined my target audience: SHU freshman and sophomore students who have yet to get involved with any extra-curricular activities.  However, the site will be designed and written in a tone appropriate for SHU faculty as well.   

Thus far in my planning I've sketched out a basic layout for my site.  I want to have a homepage, obviously, with clear organization and navigation.  On the home page, I want to include the WAF logo (probably in the upper left-hand corner of the page) with a clear tag line that will describe the group and the purpose of the site.  I also want to include elements of design associated with SHU, like the SHU logo (see below).  Because WAF is so new and not very well-known, the homepage will probably be greatly dedicated to conveying the main point of the WAF (think Krug). As part of this, I will incorporate the WAF mission and motto...but in a creative way, since mission statements are usually something web users skip over.

As for internal pages, I want to have a page for: fall 2008 events, spring 2009 events, WAF members, and sister organizations.  The "events" pages will list and describe all of our previous and future events, the "members" page will provide brief bios of the student and faculty members in WAF, possibly with pictures, and their contact information.  The "sister organizations" page will link to groups outside of WAF that have helped us develop events or have co-sponsored events. This includes, but is not limited to, City Asylum Pittsburgh and the SHU Alumni Relations.

As part of my design, I've e-mailed Phil Komarny to see if I can use the SHU website style sheet in my design.  Practically, if this site were ever uploaded for public use, it would be linked from somewhere within the SHU homepage.  I also e-mailed around to see what it would take to get the page uploaded as an actual part of the SHU page, and I discovered that I'll have to submit it to the SHU web committee for approval.

If anyone has any comments or suggests for my site, please let me know!  I also have some specific questions about my project so far:

1.  How can I keep the proportions of my site the same, so it appears the same on every monitor?  In other words, I don't want my "margins" or "padding" dimensions to be based on each individual monitor.  Is it possible to keep them the same?

2.  In my navigation bar, I want to list "Events" and then have "fall 2008 events" and "Spring 2009 events" appear as subheadings after the user has clicked "events."  How can I do this?

If anyone has the answers to these questions...or can show me someplace where I can find the answers...it'd be greatly appreciated!

 

Krug: The Archetype.

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Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability presents the theoretical archtype for web usability.  But really, his book is a archetype for all books about web design and writing.

Don't Make Me Think was like a breath of fresh air in the world of internet texts.  Although I was more or less forced to read the book, (as part of my EL236: Writing for the Internet) the book didn't feel forced at all.  It was a quick and easy read.  Moreover, it was succinct and clear while also being incredibly informative.  Web usability and usability testing were not subjects I had every really been introduced to; after reading this little book, however, I feel not only acquainted with the subjects, I feel as if I know them well enough to use the principles they express.  Ultimately this is the goal of any how-to book or college text, but many fall short of the standard.

Besides packing a lot of power in a few pages, Don’t Make Me Think is a web book that actually practices what it preaches.  The book is catchy in design, layout and text.  Headings, phrasing, comparisons and examples all pull you into the book, rather than lull you to sleep.  And these elements may only seem "skin deep", but they really equated to a higher interest in and higher understanding of the text.  The design of Krug's own book was the best example of the benefits of usability he could have ever offered his readers.  I can probably say I learned more from this text than the others read in this class; not that the others weren't valuable, they were, Krug just bested them in the presentation of his information.  His presentation upped my retention. 

My classmates Megan, Anne, and Jed - among others - all had very positive reviews about the book too, which again speaks volumes about its effective, easy style and refreshing simplicity. This was the third in line for web texts in this class, which presented it with the very formidable task of being interesting and useful to students who were probably feeling, at best, tired, and at worst, exasperated and frustrated!  But Krug delivered.

In addition to Krug's catchy presentation of ideas, his ideas in themselves were well-rounded and useful.  The book logically progressed from principles of web use, to principles of web design, to usability testing and associability.  He even found room to discuss professional conflicts.  And although the book was written in 2000 and some of its examples are obscure and even admittedly outdated, they still resonate with the audience.  Conventions are conventions.  What was "good design" in 2000, I think, is basically still "good design" in 2008.

The only suggestion I'd give to Krug for a future edition would be to cut down a few of the lengthy chapters (chapter 6 and 7).  These two chapters seemed to break the short and snappy pace of the book.  I'd keep all the ideas, most definitely, but I'd categorize them into separate, shorter chapters so readers wouldn't feel so overwhelmed by a long stream of endless content.  It was a lot to take in at once. 

 

Krug: The Archetype.

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Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability presents the theoretical archtype for web usability.  But really, his book is a archetype for all books about web design and writing.

Don't Make Me Think was like a breath of fresh air in the world of internet texts.  Although I was more or less forced to read the book, (as part of my EL236: Writing for the Internet) the book didn't feel forced at all.  It was a quick and easy read.  Moreover, it was succinct and clear while also being incredibly informative.  Web usability and usability testing were not subjects I had every really been introduced to; after reading this little book, however, I feel not only acquainted with the subjects, I feel as if I know them well enough to use the principles they express.  Ultimately this is the goal of any how-to book or college text, but many fall short of the standard.

Besides packing a lot of power in a few pages, Don’t Make Me Think is a web book that actually practices what it preaches.  The book is catchy in design, layout and text.  Headings, phrasing, comparisons and examples all pull you into the book, rather than lull you to sleep.  And these elements may only seem "skin deep", but they really equated to a higher interest in and higher understanding of the text.  The design of Krug's own book was the best example of the benefits of usability he could have ever offered his readers.  I can probably say I learned more from this text than the others read in this class; not that the others weren't valuable, they were, Krug just bested them in the presentation of his information.  His presentation upped my retention. 

My classmates Megan, Anne, and Jed - among others - all had very positive reviews about the book too, which again speaks volumes about its effective, easy style and refreshing simplicity. This was the third in line for web texts in this class, which presented it with the very formidable task of being interesting and useful to students who were probably feeling, at best, tired, and at worst, exasperated and frustrated!  But Krug delivered.

In addition to Krug's catchy presentation of ideas, his ideas in themselves were well-rounded and useful.  The book logically progressed from principles of web use, to principles of web design, to usability testing and associability.  He even found room to discuss professional conflicts.  And although the book was written in 2000 and some of its examples are obscure and even admittedly outdated, they still resonate with the audience.  Conventions are conventions.  What was "good design" in 2000, I think, is basically still "good design" in 2008.

The only suggestion I'd give to Krug for a future edition would be to cut down a few of the lengthy chapters (chapter 6 and 7).  These two chapters seemed to break the short and snappy pace of the book.  I'd keep all the ideas, most definitely, but I'd categorize them into separate, shorter chapters so readers wouldn't feel so overwhelmed by a long stream of endless content.  It was a lot to take in at once. 

 

This segment of EL236 Writing for the Internet at Seton Hill University has been all about learning web conventions, web design and information exchange through experience.  But your typical web experiences.  Yes, here on my blog I've chronicled what I've been learning, but many of my activities centered on playing Interactive Fiction games (yikes! something I never knew existed) and editing/creating material for Wikipedia.  In between these two activities, I also read about web usability, web accessibility, and usability testing in Steve Krug’s book, Don't Make me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.  The subject matter of the text not only talked about interaction, but fostered interaction as my class designed and administered our own mini-usability tests.  In a nutshell, this portion of EL236 taught me how fundamental interactivity is to the web; as a web user (or designer, even) I am never just simply absorbing information as it comes to me, I am also contributing to the process - and this process can take a multitude of forms. 

Below, take a look at my blog entries (categorized by different class requirements) to see the details of what and how I learned.

Coverage - blogs with quoting, sources, and trackbacks

IF kicked my butt - Learning - the hard way - that interactive fiction isn't as simple as it seems.

Common Sense - The first in a line of entries on Steve Krug's book

Kill the Happy - My commentary to Krug's principles of web user psychology and web design basics

Joe the Web User - Another Krug.  Here we question, Is there a web user?  If so, what does he or she look like?

The Boss - Krug & I tackle the authority-figure issues of web design

Usability, Likability, Accessibility - A Krug blog that discusses usability testing and some fringe-subjects of usability.

Wikipedia 2 - The second installment in a line of blogs about a Wikipedia Workshop.  This one details my encounter with Wikipedia administration.

Wikipedia 3 - An examination of Wiki editing policies in practice, using the Steelers wiki page as an example.

Wikipedia 4 - A comparison between the wiki entries for Seton Hill University and St. Vincent College

Timeliness - blogs submitted on time; that is, 24 hours before the next class meeting

Common Sense

Kill the Happy

Interaction -

Referencing others

Wikipedia 1 - The first Wikipedia blog.  Here, I weigh the pros-and-cons of the free, online encyclopedia.

Wikipedia 2

Wikipedia 3

Krug's Review - My personal review of Krug's book

Comment generating

Usability, Likability, Accessibility 

Good and Bad - My reactions to playing the IF game Slouching Towards Bedlam

Depth - Lengthier and more complex blogs

Good and Bad

Wikipedia 2

Wikipedia 5 - My experiences in editing some Wikipedia articles

Common Sense

Kill the Happy

Usability, Likability, Accessibility

Joe the Web User

Krug's Review

Discussion - comments I made to others

Chelsea's Blog - Finding an example in GriffinGate

another Chelsea - I elaborate and offer some ideas

Anne's Blog - Reaffirming ideas

another Anne - She points out some revelations in her Wikipedia experiences I never noticed

Maddie's Blog  - Summarizing big ideas

Danni's Blog - I try to help her fight through some IF fiction

Christina's Blog - Expanding on thoughts

Getting my feet wet the Wikipedia Way

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For my first attempts at contributing to Wikipedia, I edited the Rachael Ray page and the Seton Hill University page.   If you click on the preceding links, you can view the pages as I left them, after my changes.  To the Rachael Ray page, I added a section on "Charity Work" and information on her non-profit organization, Yum-o!  On the Seton Hill page, I added the Undergraduate section.  To compare my changes to their preceding versions, please see the old Rachael Ray page and the old SHU page

My changes have yet to generate any reaction from the Wikipedia community, but I'm not too surprised because I didn't add anything all that earth-shattering to either page.  But still, I was a little intimidated by this process.  I had a difficult time finding a subject that I "knew enough" to contribute to Wikipedia.  And I was always second guessing myself if I was undermining any of the Wikipedia policies on credible information and unbiased perspective.  But, I suppose that's why sections like "history" and "discussion" are there, so those contributors who are trying to genuinely contribute to Wikipedia can learn and grow.  I don't think I could have ever gone in 100% confident in my writing for Wikipedia by only reading their policies and guidelines; I think it is something you have to try for yourself.

So after testing things out for myself, I think others in academia could have something to take away from the process.  I think professors and high school teachers especially should do an activity like this with their students.  There is no sense in avoiding Wikipedia like the plague and telling others to do so; regardless of your opinions on its credibility, I don't think Wikipedia is going anywhere anytime soon. As long as it’s out there students are going to use it in some manner or another.  So I think teachers should encourage their students to interact with Wikipedia by testing it and adding to it themselves; that way, they can learn what effort goes into viable information and what the difference between reliable and unreliable information looks like, both on Wikipedia and any internet source. And as the internet continues to grow and become an almost indistinguishable part of our culture and society, it's important to do this at as young an age as possible; I think I could have gotten more out of this activity if I did it in high school, rather than having my teachers tell me to never, ever use Wikipedia.  Ever. 

In any case, I was still able to take some important ideas away from my interaction with Wikipedia.  I was able to see the inside infrastructure of Wikipedia, and like I said above, it's clear that it is a source with staying power, not an internet fad that will fade with time.  It should be used, but used wisely.  And from my experiences editing a page, I realized that maybe every mistake out there isn't malicious (although a lot are, I'm sure).  Wikipedia should be embraced, albeit cautiously, and perhaps with a focus on its interactivity, not its role as a one-way, cut-copy-paste information source.

 

 

First impressions count

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After examining and comparing the Saint Vincent College and Seton Hill University Wikipedia articles, I tried to place myself in the shoes of a high school junior or senior who was investigating potential colleges.  And I have to admit, based on these pages I'd be more likely to attend Saint Vincent than Seton Hill.  Although both pages were relatively brief, all the information on the Seton Hill page was grouped into one section, and half of it was dedicated to the tension surrounding the start of the football team.  Now this is a viable point in the school's history, but the football section seemed prominently placed above a few sparse sentences about the clubs and groups at SHU.  In short, I think the page leaves a lot of room for additions, like more detail about SHU’s academic programs, its growth after becoming a university and some of its traditions (Christmas on the Hill, Night on Haunted Hill, etc.)

Granted, Saint Vincent's page didn't have a whole lot of content either, but it did at least have enough to break down into sections like "history," "traditions," and "notable alumni."  It also added a little about the traditions at the school, which I think is something that prospective students (seemingly the most popular audience for these sites) would be interested in reading about.  This may not seem like a big deal, but as far as first impressions go it makes Saint Vincent seem like they have more to offer students, and that the people associated with Saint Vincent care just a little more than those at Seton Hill about making the school look good (I don't really think this is true, both schools have positive and negative aspects.  I think this is what some people could assume if they knew nothing else about the two schools.)  However, when I first searched for the site I typed in "St Vincent College," which directed me to a page about a college in England; this, of course, could be problematic to the Saint Vincent College because it offered no way for visitors to be redirected.  On the whole, then, Saint Vincent's page leaves almost as much to be desired as Seton Hill's page; I don't think either of them does the two great schools justice.

Something unexpected...Again!

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To understand a little better (well to understand at all) the process that goes into creating and editing a Wikipedia article, I dug around the page dedicated to the Pittsburgh Steelers.  I consider myself a decent fan of the team and I was satisfied with the content I found on the page.  It had straightforward information about the team's history, logo, name, ownership and place within the national football league, as well as current information and more culturally tuned information about rivals and the fan-base.

Then I checked out the "edit this page" link, something I've never done on a Wikipedia page before.  I was surprised by what I found!  The text box reminded me of HTML coding and I had expected to see just all plain English text, just like what appeared on the page.  I think links like "editing help" will be used quite often when I actually attempt to edit a Wikipedia page, because the content of the edit page didn't seem very self-explanatory.  And I especially took this note to heart: "If you don't want your writing to be edited mercilessly or redistributed for profit by others, do not submit it."  I was kind of intimidated by this statement, but I suppose it is a way for the Wiki masters to discourage the dissemination of pure speculation. 

But from what I can tell, there are many people who don't mind being subjected to merciless editing or mass redistribution in the name of the Pittsburgh Steelers, because the page history showed that the page gets edited every could of days, several times a day. 

Overall, this activity showed me the real scope and power that Wikipedia brings to its everyday-web-user editors; there is a flurry of activity almost constantly.  The shape and form of information has the potential to be changed on a daily basis.  I'm sure this isn't true for every page, but the Steelers page shows that it does indeed exist for some. 

  

Wide World of Wiki

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Since it has been drilled into my mind since my last year of high school and following three years of college, I've been away from Wikipedia and its world for quite some time.  Wikipedia was branded the root of all scholarly evils.  And when I turned my back on Wikipedia, I assumed it was doomed to failure as well.  How could something so unreliable, that wanted to function within the world of academia, ever survive?

Unknown to me, however, Wikipedia has been thriving even though I haven't been a part of it.  And believe it or not, there's a heart to Wiki mission; I thought it was simply ad hoc, come-and-go, do what you please, add, subtract, bash, lie, fix...anything goes!  Naive, yes.  However, there is a clearly stated ethical base to the Wikipedia approach.

This base is quite extensive, actually.  Not only are there the Key Policies and Guidelines and  Five Pillars, there is a Simplified Rule Set and a List of Policies.  Wikipedia has established an entire organizational culture.

This greatly improves my assumptions about Wikipedia.  I assumed they would ignore the inherent problems of their system; brush them under the rug and try to pass themselves off not only as something legitimate, but as a source with no problems.  These documents, however, prove that Wiki knows exactly who and what they are; they are pronouncing to the world their mission, problems and all.  Wiki announces under the heading, "Using Wikipedia as a Research Source": "Users should be aware that not all articles are of encyclopedic quality from the start, and may contain false or debatable information."

Good for you, Wikipedia.  Your mission is a valiant one.  This doesn't mean I'll start citing you as a legitimate source in my term papers, but it does open my eyes to the grander scope of Wikipedia.  The source never wanted to masquerade as a traditional encyclopedia for strictly research purposes, even though this is the box many students, like myself, wanted it to fit into.  So if you expand the purpose of Wikipedia, its problems seem manageable.  Wikipedia is more of a process, than content.  The content is there, of course, and should be held to the highest standards possible.  But don't lose the Wikipedia forest amidst all those Wikipedia trees.

 

Where to Draw the Wiki Line...

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I remember when Wikipedia hit the internet; I was in high school, just at the beginning of my research and term paper days.  Wikipedia seemed like a gift from the heavens.  Wikipedia, where had you been all my life?!  It quickly became the go-to source when researching homework, papers and projects.

But the greatness of Wikipedia seemed doomed to the fate of a led   zeppelin.  As quickly as it had been revered, however, it was dismissed for being inaccurate and untrustworthy. 

Today, three years after I graduated high school, Wikipedia is still swimming in the minds of many, especially academics who are often on the research hunt.  And many still dismiss Wikipedia to its very core; not only does it fail to uphold the standards of encyclopedias everywhere by providing accurate information, it bucks the responsibility for its failures as well, citing the collective inaccuracy of all things web and its open, anonymous nature, which would make it almost impossible to track down negligent users, but also leaves the door open for those do-gooders who would (and, they say, will) come along and fix all the problems. 

Although many dismiss Wikipedia for this reason, there is a rising sentiment that is turning back in favor of Wikipedia. Scholars, even, are finding value in Wikipedia.  But is it for the facts alone that they find value?  Well, more often than not it’s the social commentary that Wikipedia represents that is uniquely drawn from it as a research source.  Wikipedia illustrates a process of information dissemination and dialogue, often on contemporary issues that aren't included in traditional encyclopedias. 

This is how many today use Wikipedia, and this is how I use it as well.  Sorry, Wiki, I don't think you'll ever be a definitive factual source in my research.  But you offer an interesting window into the minds and applications of people in the information age.

 

dealing with the Big Boss Man

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Krug, ch. 12

So you finally get this web usability thing down, and then an evil boss pops out from around your cubicle corner and ruins everything! Just kidding.  But according to Krug, there are two major issues that can sometimes arise from an authority figure, even if they have the best of intentions.  Bosses usually suggest: 1) requesting too much personal information from users or 2) ineffective pizazz design elements. 

Both of these issues remind me of a recent visit to one of my favorite sites, foodnetwork.com (the website for the food channel.)  Just a few days ago I signed up for an online newsletter that sends Christmas cookie recipes to your e-mail (I know, I'm a 70 year old woman living in a 20 year old body....) and I was impressed that the registration was quick and painless.  All I had to do was enter my name and verify my e-mail address.  The simplicity of the process definitely helped me think better of the site.

Unfortunately, however, the site has also recently undergone a total design make-over...for the worse.  The design is notably fancier and conveys a more stream-lined image, but the site just isn't as user-friendly.  I miss the old one!  This site loads slower (a big disadvantage when my main action is using a search engine to look up recipes) and is almost too streamlined; there doesn't seem to be any visual hierarchy at all!  Everything is on the same level and nothing draws my attention first.  Plus, they seem to have re-organized some information and I can no longer find information that used to be easily accessible.  For example, full cook times for recipes are now hidden in a drop-down menu and a section titled "recipes from the same episode" is now hidden in a tabbed sub-section. 

So my feelings are pretty close to what Krug describes in one of his mock e-mails: "Most of the time on the Web, people don't want to be engaged; they just want to get something done, and attempts to engage them that interfere with their current mission are perceived as annoying, clueless, and the worst kind of hucksterism." (184)

I don't know if this redesign came from the request of a CEO or a designer, but I can't help but wonder if they did any usability testing for their new site. 

 

Attack of the Usability Tips!

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In the context of the assignment that this reading was a part of, it was a lot to take in.  Being completely new to usability testing, every point seemed to offer something that I hadn't thought of.  So I wasn't sure which tip to use first when I made my own test.  I felt like I needed to take everything the document offered and apply it to the assignment at hand.  I tried the best I could, but I don't think I got in all in there at the first attempt.  But the document will definitely be something I reference in the future.  It seems like something I'll read over once to take in, but then will only be able to grasp its ideas is when I have it by side when I'm making my next usability test. 

 In particular, the tips on quantifying questions, asking subjects to list, sequencing questions and asking questions in pairs were quite helpful.  This helped me move beyond just asking subjects to perform a series of actions.  Using task-finding activities along with ranked and two-tier opinion questions helped round out the test.  In general then, using all these tips together helps you make the most all-encompassing, helpful test possible.