Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Useit.com has weighed in: this blog sucks!

Jakob Nielsen weighed in two weeks ago with his annual Top Ten Web Design Mistakes. Since we continue to work on the large-scale overhaul of our organization sight, I was feeling pretty high about that we'd managed to avoid 9 out of 10 of his mistakes, and the one we did violate, we did for good enough reason.

Then today he published the Top Ten Design Mistakes for Weblog Usability, and I failed on nearly every score.

This sight has been semi-moribund for months as I try to determine if blogging about my professional life is actually compatible with my profession. When I think of the necessary improvements, it's a little daunting.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Blogger Van Winkle meets CMS

Where the heck did March go?

So, yes, I've been insanely busy. But that's not the full story for why I've been on a month-long hiatus. Work has recently been taking me into areas that probably would be interesting to write about in play-by-play mode, but given my position, it clearly wasn't appropriate to discuss. That sounds much worse than it is.

Consider, for instance, product selection and vendor negotiations. Not much that I could safely say on the topic of products and vendors whom we were researching and negotiating with. It's not just that I had responsibility to stay silent on issues that impacted the negotiating position of the organization—which I did. I also found myself routinely realizing that there were just too many aspects of the project that other stakeholders hadn't had a chance to hear about or weigh in on yet. I felt an obligation on sensitive issues not to let colleagues first hear about things on my blog. While getting dooced is the popularly explored hazard of mixing work with blogging, it’s hardly the only one.

I've been working with a number of colleagues on researching Content Management Systems (CMS) this year. At long last, I can publicly state that we've signed an agreement with Ingeniux as the platform for redesigned website.
So far, they've been a good outfit to work with. I'm interested to see how this process works out from here…I'm especially interested on how things go when you get to the end users of a new technology product. Most computing widgets meet up with adoption barriers when they reach the end users. It seems to me that the linchpin of adoption is ease of use.

This is specifically NOT a critique of our clientele. In fact, adoption of new things is expensive and time consuming. The resistance to change can be viewed as not only human nature, but a necessary step in the feedback loop that helps to force new tools and methods to be more efficient and useful.

Our web maintainers already have a perfectly good, but often confusing set of tools for updating their content. For years, people have been looking for the thing to make this whole business easier. Easier content updates will hopefully spell more content updates, which will hopefully result in more usable content for our important audiences.

I'm usually suspicious that deus ex machina will arrive in the form of a software box. Every once in a while, though, we have seen examples of products that make the daily transactions of networked communication far easier. When we introduced the Blackboard learning management system at the Trico, the number of courses using the web to supplement course activities soared from single digits to triple digits almost overnight. At the time we made that decision, Blackboard was not universally perceived as the most powerful tool available, but it did appear to be the easiest.

I’ve often heard resource developers ask a paraphrased form of the famous quote from the movie Field of Dreams (based on the Kinsella novel, Shoeless Joe): If we build it, will they come? And of course, there’s no guarantee. For starters, how and where you build it matters tremendously. They don’t ask ‘Is this heaven?’ just because you showed up.

If you are with a college or university and you're currently considering content management solutions on your campus, I'm happy to discuss our issues and discoveries with you. (And, of course, I'm interested in your experiences!) In addition to ease of use, I can generally say that full Mac support, standards compliance, and backoffice administration were also factors that played into our final decision.

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Michael Gormon vs. The Blog People

Back in December, Michael Gormon griped about Google and its ambitions. More recently, he tore into blogs and the people who keep them. Since the Prexy-elect of the A.L.A. is weighing in with comments that fall somewhere between professional criticism and open mockery, and since they've in turn been picked up on the ultimate tech-salon, Slashdot, this debate has turned into a Whole Big Thing. (875 Slashdot comments and counting!)

For those of us who have been in the information services arena for any length of time, I think we can hear overtones of the classic (and pointless) I.T. vs. Library culture wars of a previous era. Before I comment directly on Gormon's incendiary remarks in the Library Journal, I'm putting on the record that I fervently love and admire librarians. (Let's give a shout out to all my friends at the reference desk.) I've spent many years promoting (successful) (they tell me) partnerships between I.T. workers, librarians, and other academic tribes; I'll continue to do so until they pry my meeting schedule from my cold, dead fingers.

Gormon's remarks in both pieces, are, of course, generally true. And yet, they're embarrassingly unsophisticated, in ways that my hipster librarian friends who can fluidly navigate traditional librarianship and the roster of expanding digital forms of expression could immediately spot. Is Google's PageRank algorithm the ideal way to store and retrieve information? Does the ideal exist? Do libraries have the market cornered on optimal finding and access to information? Are most blogs good? Are all blogs bad? Are the "Blog People" uniformly illiterate Neanderthals? (Answer key: no, no, no, no, no, and no.) Gormon confesses to not knowing much about the blogosphere until December. This statement suggests to me that, for a person involved in the information services field, he'd been living under a rock. Not that he's a raging Luddite or "antidigitalist." Just moldy as all get-out. As I was reading his piece in the LJ, I had the vague impression that he was speaking about blogs the way my pappy would have spoken about the newfangled rock music in the 1950's. For better and for worse, rock-and-roll is here to stay.

I believe that we will be well-served to be critical of what Google does (up-to-date ready reference) and doesn't (in-depth, scholarly inquiry) do well. Likewise, the best blogs are enormously useful in aggregating news, providing well-written opinion, and building learning/interest communities. In fact, the best "Blog People" (we call them "bloggers") read. A lot. Whole books, even. Without even hesitating, I could name two dozen blogs that are more interesting, informed, and informative in an average post than Gormon's piece in the LJ.

Here are some other takes on the Gormon piece, not all of which I agree with:
Steven Cohen
David Winer
Mark VandeWettering
David Rothman

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Speed Bumps (on the Road of Application Migration)

From the category of little things making a big difference...

Enthused by my successful transition to Firefox on all my machines over the last few months, I thought I'd give email client Thunderbird a try. I've been using Eudora since the dawn of time, but have been increasingly noticing its creakiness. (I'll still gladly take the power of full-fledged client like Eudora over any web mail interface, though. I don't get how so many people tolerate using web mail as a primary mail interface.) As for Thunderbird, I was enticed to see how well its professed anti-spam functionality performed. If it could do for my email what SpamAssassin has not been able to do thus far, it would be a lifesaver.

In the last twenty-four hours I ran the installer on both Windows XP and Mac OS X. For now, I'm using it quite happily on the XP machine, but quickly aborted on the Mac. The XP installation was drool-proof. It converted all my Eudora settings, filters, and address book entries without a hitch as far as I can tell. Within a few minutes I was up and running. There were only a few minor settings changes that I needed to make, and figuring out how to configure the preferences was easy to interpret.

When I tried the installation on the Mac, though, I was not offered an option to convert my Eudora stuff. The only migration I was offered was from Netscape. (Somebody actually used Netscape as a mail client? Poor schmuck.) That was that. I don't have the time to recreate my address book and complex filtering rules. I'm sure somebody's already built the Eudora migration tool, but it wasn't part of the basic install. Let's face it, I'm too governed by inertia to play the hunt and peck game to replace something that was generally working fine anyway. When it comes to bread-n-butter apps like browsers and mail clients, auto-pilot migrations are essential. Maybe I'll try again at the dot-one release.

The verdict is still out on the spam filtering, by the way. It requires training, which takes a little bit of time at the outset. I've had a number of false positives on messages from mailing lists, but otherwise, it seems to be getting better.

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Friday, February 11, 2005

Tipping Point Existentialism

Partially inspired by my participation in a study circle of Tricollege IT and library staff that I helped to start, I've been doing a lot of reading of books like the Malcolm Gladwell's most recent stuff and Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice. It has been fascinating reading, but so much thinking about spreading ideas and making decisions is starting to give me a case of the existential manager heebie jeebies.

So maybe we can learn to spread ideas by manipulating the environment and exploiting special talents of people in our organizations, just as Gladwell suggests in The Tipping Point.

Million dollar questions: what ideas are worth trying to tip? Are there any big ideas that I.T. in higher education is (or should be) trying to tip right now? Or is our job just to make the trains run on time and keep everybody more or less out of harm's way?

Million dollar questions, continued: how much mindspace should we legitimately occupy for the people we serve? Do we add complexity to people's lives by constantly trying to spread new ideas, features, services, practices, versions, tips, etc.?

Million dollar questions, also: how much behavior can we reasonably hope to shape? Given the effort involved in just trying to modify very basic behaviors (like practicing good password security or backing up files regularly), is there enough mindspace that an I.T. organization (or library) can occupy to spark more interesting epidemics? See also: opportunity costs.

Million dollar questions, they just keep on coming: are I.T. organizations populated by innovators and early adopters, or are they agents of the conservative mainstream culture, seeking to minimize risk and protect the status quo?

I keep coming back to the thought that these issues are really about organizational leadership. Connecting workers' daily to-do lists to broader organizational goals. I wonder if collegiate information services organizations generally have our eyes on the ball, or if we're mostly just getting through semesters putting out fires and trying to stay on the good side of a demanding clientele. Are we a "maven" culture that truly helps to translate good ideas into something that broader constituencies can use?

I think I need some less thought-provoking reading for a few weeks! Congratulations to you on your interpretive powers if any of this puzzled rambling made sense.

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Monday, February 07, 2005

Firefox conversion survival kit, tip #1

Back from a week of flu. Hackity-hackity, cough-cough-cough!

A faculty friend just got the rundown on why he should switch his browser from I.E. to Firefox. Then he asked how he sets up Firefox to be his default browser. I had to do this myself only weeks ago, but I'd already forgotten.

If you're running Panther, you set the default browser for your whole system by configuring the default browser setting in Safari's preferences. Brilliant! (Blech.)

If you have a Mac, you already knew this, but I've recorded it here as both an example of horrible, counter-intuitive U.I. design and a reminder to myself of how to do this the next time I'm asked. (It's so non-intuitive, that I'll have to go looking it up. I find it really hard to remember things that defy logic.)

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

We're not bad. We're just drawn that way.

Our current student ce-web-rity, Nelson Pavlosky, one half of the digital-manifesto-wielding, free-culture-seeking, freedom-fighting duo who jousted with (and defeated) Diebold in last year's famous case, says that my organization ain't so bad. In fact, we're an "ally in a quest for a freer society." Heavy. I think it was sometime in the Clinton administration that we last got a little credit in a public student forum.

It may surprise Nelson and some other students that our ITS department is more than just benignly tolerant of freedom of expression. We are a living, breathing, group of humans with similar core values to the community we are a part of. As such, we are quite partial to all kinds of personal and academic freedoms, just like our faculty and students. We value your safety just as much as the Dean's Office. We also need to protect other organizational interests, as would the P.R. office, the H.R. department, and our legal counsel—not to mention the Board of Managers. Some of these interests are in tension at times, but we all do our best to balance them in appropriate ways, while leaving the smallest possible dent when sacrifices must be made.

As a small, residential place, we're fond of calling ourselves a community. I think one of the first steps in having a true community is to stop making different parts of it into "the other," and start forging a shared identity. Our shared cultural values includes traits like rigorous intellectual inquiry, respect for diverse opinions, and commitment to broadly-defined personal liberties.

While I appreciate the recognition Nelson gives my colleagues, I'd like to point out that it's not so much that ITS has stood up to external pressures. The reality is that the whole College has stood up together against those pressures, and the people I work with have played their part thoughtfully and with great care.

We are you. (I feel like breaking out into a chorus of "We are the people in your neighborhood.") There are times when we must address our differences of opinion, but I'd hope that one outcome of spending four (or more) years at an undergraduate institution like Swarthmore is to appreciate the sense of shared mission that typifies such places.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Welcome to Swarthmore visitors

If you weren't in attendance at the talk that Tim Burke and I gave at the faculty luncheon today, please forgive me for cluttering your RSS feed.

If you were at the talk today, welcome. If you have any questions or comments about what you heard, I'll be glad to field them here. (I'm sure Tim will chime in if he feels he has anything to add.)

Our supercool librarians have rolled today's bib-blog-ography into a public feed page that you can use to check out a variety of aggregated resources you may be interested in. (Thanks, M.)

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Monday, January 24, 2005

When all-campus communications go bad

The Phoenix, 01.20.2005. Republished with permission from the artist.

For the longest time, the campus had a printed publication called the Weekly News, which was mostly announcements and classifieds. To cut back on expenses, the publication went online-only, which pretty much killed it. Everybody I talked to says that they no longer read the Weekly News ever since they stopped delivering the physical copy to our mailboxes. Me included.

This change put even more pressure on all-campus email, which now was the only way to slackvertise to the whole campus. Anybody drawing a paycheck at the College had the ability to spam the campus about their events or their sofas for sale. Some people really resented the volume of stuff, especially students, and much clamor arose for an email revolution.

Personally, I can't get worked up about a few excess, perhaps frivolous emails from colleagues when the global email infrastructure is collapsing under the weight of drugs-n-porn spam. But, it strikes me as really indicative of how unruly campus communications can be, and how hard it can be to change information consumption habits once they're formed.

Of course, a 15 minute investment in setting up an email filter in a proper client would solve this problem, but that hasn't gained anywhere near the traction that griping about junk mail has. Some students even want ITS or some other administrative entity to police for content on the mailing lists. (There's a bad idea whose time must never come.) Instead, we're sending out digests twice a day, which I consider patently worse than what we originally had. I suppose it's only better if you're measuring good and bad by how many emails you won't read are sitting in your inbox. It's really bad if you only read 10% of the traffic on the list, but if you use subject headings to alert yourself to things you care about.

Unless and until we're able to put forward a real campus announcements system on the web, preferably something that's delivered prominently on a campus portal and with an awesome GUI, I think we were better off just letting chaos reign on the lists and telling the people who have time to complain about junk mail to get over themselves.

I think I'm out of the mainstream on this one.

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Friday, January 21, 2005

Ed-Tech Toolbox Essential:
Database Solutions with FileMaker Pro 7

A recurring theme in my support of Humanities faculty over more than a decade is that few have a workable definition of what a database is. A database is something that one accesses in the library perhaps, but it certainly isn't something that you make. (This probably also stems from the fact that unlike most other disciplines, Humanists do not often perceive of the fruits of their research as data.) As a result, I've seen a number of cases over the years where somebody has spent countless hours generating reams of notes or drawers of slides before they ever realize that they have barely-usable pile of "stuff."

On the one hand, it's a little bit worrisome that there are generations of scholars floating around who continue to be trained, from what I can tell, to approach their research with rather medieval methods for information storage, processing, and retrieval. On the other hand, it makes my job both fun and rewarding.

This week I had a professor land at my door with a problem. She's doing close analysis of patterns of language in a classic work of literature. (Trust me, you've heard of it.) She'd gone through this tome and literally pulled out every instance of a particular part of speech. She then dutifully (and handsomely, I might add) recorded more than a dozen descriptive data elements about each instance on papers in a manila folder.

Alas, to search and sort? She'd figured that she'd try entering it all into Excel. It's good that she realized that she had structured information that belonged in tables, but thank goodness she found her way to me before she started entering her multi-lingual data into a giant spreadsheet.

The best part of my job is that in order for me to help instructors, they have to give me a crash course on their research. Our faculty are world-class scholars, so even if the technology use is early on the evolutionary scale, the questions are always fascinating. I consider it a fair barter to ask for my help in exchange for some intellectually stimulating conversation.

The professor in this case knew her data very intimately, so after an hour at the whiteboard, she had visual understanding of her data's structure, and I had a working specification for the database she needed. It took under four hours to crank out a database that met her needs. This afternoon she took it for a test spin, with only two minor change orders, requiring only a few minutes each.

The light has turned on for her, and I've already been informed that this consultation has helped her think about her larger book project. To me, that's great beyond my ability to express it.

So a word about tools here. We've always used FileMaker Pro in our shop for this type of work. It was never a perfect tool, but it was quick and simple, and with enough kludges, you could make it do what you wanted. At least it was cross-platform, which is essential for us.

Version 7 has come a long way, and it's now quite an elegant development package, especially if you get the Developer edition. There were so many powerful new features, but I especially appreciated being able to store all the tables and a (portable) script library in a single file. This not only makes relationships a snap to set up, but it's also really nice for the solutions developer. If you're using Developer edition to produce a stand-alone/runtime version of your application, there's just one file to give to the client.

Special thanks to colleague J.J., whom I know wishes not to be named on web sites, but who gave me the crash course on all the new features in FM Pro. It was impressive to watch a virtuoso fly through the application.

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