Designing Web Interfaces

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< 1 minute

I haven’t read the book yet, but this blog post on screen templates presents 12 basic layouts and the sort of information they work best with. It could be a useful checklist if you want to manage or rationalise presentations across a large website, especially one that has evolved organically and could do with tidying up. The templates are simple (seasoned designers won’t find much they don’t know already) but could be handy for anyone new to web design and layout who wants some “off the peg” styles to get them started.

Thanks to Rey for the link!

Usability evaluation methods

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Estimated reading time 4–6 minutes

I’ve been studying usability evaluation methods (UEMs), which although not directly related to taxonomy work, are relevant for anyone involved in information architecture (IA). I was surprised at how controversial a subject usability is, having assumed that everyone wants their sites to be as usable as possible. However, assessing usability does involve a lot of judgement calls and tradeoffs, which is one reason why some people seem to take against it.

You have to decide who you are going to focus your usability testing on, perhaps choosing a “core user group” rather than trying to please everybody. You have to decide what aspects of usability you are going to focus on – for example accessibility (everybody should be following minimum W3C standards anyway), but you might legitimately decide that you are not going to worry about making your site easy for children to read (e.g. if it is a postgraduate discussion forum). Then you need to decide if you are going to try to make individual tasks as efficient as possible (e.g. not using as many keystrokes) or look at the site as a whole (e.g. a social networking site might place a higher value on being fun and funky over being efficient to use).

Once you have decided who your target users are and what aspect of usability you are most interested in, you can choose a testing method. There seem to be over 100 different methods out there, ranging from fairly straightforward ones like Jakob Nielsen’s Heuristic Evaluation – which gives you a checklist of things to look at, and even “expert inspection” where you just look at the site to try to find potential problems. These methods assume you know quite a lot about what makes a site usable or not.

You could do an experiment, where you set up a task or scenario and measure people’s performance at it. This is often described as laboratory testing, but you can have a “lab” that is just you, a notebook, and a computer for your participants. This sort of test is great if you have one specific function (e.g. an ecommerce function) and you want to check that people can follow the steps easily.

The methods I liked the most were the more abstract conceptual methods, like CASSM, where you try to get a picture of users’ expectations and then compare them with the website to see where there are gaps or conflicts.

Interestingly, the literature shows that for all methods there is a marked “evaluator effect“, with different evaluators getting different results even when using an identical process. I think this is because there is so much interpretation at all stages. The closest you’d get to a “scientific” set of original data would be to set up a carefully controlled usability lab test, but even then translating the results into redesign suggestions is really an art, not a science.

There also seems to be a “political correctness gone mad” brigade who say that accessibility means you can’t have any pictures on your site and that Jakob Nielsen’s site looks horrible and out of date. I think this is a misunderstanding of what usability is all about. Usability is about making a site easier for everyone to use, and accessibility isn’t about leaving features out because certain people can’t use them, it’s about providing a “Plan B” for anyone who doesn’t use the site in the way you expect. So, it seems to me that it’s fine to including fancy visualisations, as long as you also provide a text description for people who can’t see them, or a tricksy javascript feature as long as you include an alternative for browsers that don’t have javascript enabled. Nielsen’s site is old fashioned, but that doesn’t mean it is the only way to create a usable site. The BBC have aesthetically pleasing modern sites that are also well crafted for accessibility.

It is true that there are tradeoffs and quite a lot of art rather than science in usability evaluation, but I think there is a moral (not to mention legal in the UK – not sure about elsewhere) imperative to at least try to be inclusive and in most cases it is simply poor marketing to shut out or make life difficult for potential customers.


Organising Knowledge » What Are We?

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< 1 minute

I’ve been mulling over what to say about CMS Watch’s “Taxonomies are Dead” teaser, but defer to Patrick Lambe of Green Chameleon, who has written a very good post in response: Organising Knowledge » What Are We?.

One thought of my own is that there seems to be increasing differentiation between taxonomy creators and implementers (which I take as a sign that taxonomies are thriving rather than dying). I’ve always been on the content side of things, so I see knowledge organisation as primary, and the technology you use as secondary. However, more and more it seems to be the case that people understand the word “taxonomist” to mean someone who is a sort of Sharepoint sysadmin.

Truevert: What is semantic about semantic search?

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Estimated reading time 1–2 minutes

Truevert: What is semantic about semantic search? is an easy introduction to the thinking behind the Truevert semantic search engine. I was heartened by the references to Wittgenstein and the attention Truevert have paid to the work of linguists and philosophers. So much commercial search seems to have been driven by computer scientists with little interest in philosophy, or if they did they kept quiet about it (any counter examples out there?)! Perhaps philosophers have not been so good at promoting themselves either. Perhaps the Chomskyian attempt to divide linguistics itself into “hard scientific” linguistics and “fuzzy” linguistic disciplines like sociolinguistics has not helped.

As a believer in interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches, I have always wondered why we seemed to be so bad at building these bridges and information science has always struck me as a natural crossing point. Of course, there has been a lot of collaboration, but my impression is that academia has been rather better at this than the commercial world, with organisations like ISKO UK working hard to forge links. Herbert Roitblat at Truevert is obviously proud of their philosophical and linguistic awareness, and more interestingly, thinks it is worth broadcasting in a promotional blog post.


Taxonomy and Records Management

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Estimated reading time 2–2 minutes

Taxonomy and Records Management « Not Otherwise Categorized… is a blog post I wish I’d read a year ago when studying a records management module for my Masters. A lot of people seemed to think it was strange that I had chosen the RM option and I couldn’t understand why the records managers didn’t talk more about taxonomy. Of course, taxonomists often work on records management systems in one form or another, and are happy to discuss the differences between taxonomy as file plan, taxonomy for RM, taxonomy as classification, taxonomy for navigation, and so on.

I think it shows that there is really very little widespread understanding of what a taxonomy is. People assume it is something mysterious and technical in the heart of whichever system they encountered one in first and don’t realise that taxonomies crop up all over the place. It’s not even very easy to find an “official” definition.

Alan Gilchrist and Barry Mahon in Information Architecture: Designing Information Environments for Purpose say “TFPL takes the view that a ‘corporate taxonomy’ can be viewed as an enterprise-wide master file of the vocabularies and their structures, used or for use, across the enterprise, and from which specific tools may be derived for various purposes, of which navigation and search support are the most prominent.”

Patrick Lambe in Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness describes taxonomies as taking many forms, including “lists, trees, hierarchies, polyhierarchies, matrices, facets, system maps” and Vanda Broughton in Essential Classification points out that taxonomy is now often taken to mean “any vaguely structured set of terms in a subject area”.

Settling on a single, popular definition of taxonomy might help promote taxonomists and taxonomy work, but as taxonomies need to do so much in so many different contexts, there just might not be a simple definition that works. Perhaps we need a taxonomy of taxonomies!