Anil Dash: a guy who gets it

December 19, 2007 § Leave a comment

I found this snippet from Anil Dash while coincidentally cleaning out my Google Reader backlog today:

Adding features like comments from sources in a news story to Google News is an admirable attempt to bring unique value to aggregated news stories. But tasking a technology team with the duty to solicit and manage these comments ignores the fact that verifying, recording, and reporting a source is fundamentally an act of journalism. By trying to shoehorn a work of research into a primarily technological process, the news team faces the chance of fraud, abuse, error, or most likely, low participation and eventual abandonment.

An awareness that some types of information gathering require judgment and reasoning that’s not well-handled by even the most clever algorithms would help Google make its transition into being a company that creates original content.

Preach on, brother. This is why I love reading Anil’s stuff — he thinks like a journalist and a supergeek.

In the Beginning, There Was the Catalag, Part I: Academic Programs

June 10, 2007 § Leave a comment

Serious nerding out ahead!I recently completed one colossal step toward the information redesign of the Graduate School’s website—overhauling the way we list our academic programs.

I hope to write more about the background of this redesign, including details of the new information architecture I built, but for now I’m skipping ahead.

In the process of the creating the content inventory for our 500+ page site, I noticed a disturbing situation: three separate lists purporting to be the official “Fields of Study” index existed. And they were all different! Gulp.

Even among the first three items in each list, the inconsistency is apparent.

Screen shot of the Catalog list
Screen shot of the Fields of Study list
Screen shot of the Admission Requirements list

The Troublesome Trifecta

In several cases, a program would be called a different name on each list. For instance: is it “Biomedical Sciences,” “Veterinary Medicine – Biomedical Sciences,” or “Basic Biomedical Sciences”? Is it “Learning, Teaching and Curriculum,” or “Curriculum and Instruction”?

How Did This Happen?

As far as I can tell, the three-list disaster was rooted in two major issues: a failure to see the three lists as connected content, and a focus on ease-of-use for the staff at the expense of usability for our audience.

Early in the process of conceptualizing a redesign of the Graduate School website’s information structure, I recognized the disconnect in the minds of our staff between the Graduate Catalog (fully online for several years now) and the rest of the site.

I will probably talk more about this in another post, but in this situation, as in many others, this mental separation had been the impetus for a repetition of information on the site—once for the Catalog entry, and at least one more time in an area of the site outside the Catalog. Rarely were all instances of these originally identical bits of content updated at the same time, and the result was a mess of conflicting information.

So that accounts for two lists (one inside the Catalog and one outside), but this problem was compounded by our need for a content management system that we didn’t have. We were putting a teeny tiny bandage on this gaping wound by housing a third list (which linked to admission requirements for each program) within a database that could be edited directly by our admissions supervisor.

The Solution

I chose to work toward the creation of one master list—an official part of the Graduate Catalog—that would include all relevant information about each academic program, including a link to the program’s website, admission requirements, faculty, courses, degree requirements, and all the other details that were currently listed in the Graduate Catalog entries. As with the rest of the Catalog, any mid-year changes to the entries would be made using the <ins> and <del> elements, an idea borrowed from the way I had once seen amendments to the U.S. Constitution presented.

Luckily for us, we will be moving our site into the University’s new content management system after our redesign, allowing our admissions adviser to have access to our ever-changing admissions requirements for each program.

The Naming of Things

One of the first steps was to figure out how to make the index of programs easy to browse. Each degree or certificate program has an official, registered name—but we weren’t always using it, because sometimes the official name didn’t actually describe the program very well. Some of the academic programs that administered the degree and certificate programs were also engaging in some creative (but unofficial) renaming, which meant that prospective students would not always know the official names.

Book Indexing to the Rescue

Luckily for me, I had recently learned quite a bit about the principles of indexing through a freelance job in which I indexed a book edited by one of my former professors. The professor had introduced me to the indexing instructions from the Chicago Manuel of Style, and I decided to use its guidelines for cross-listing entries as a starting point.

After I separated the official names of the degree and certificate programs into broad categories based on those used by U.S. News & World Report and alphabetized them within the categories, I added cross-listings anytime I thought prospective students might look under another name. For example (Note: The hyperlinks don’t actually go anywhere.):

Digging Into the Content

Figuring out the index was easy compared to the task of combining the content attached to each of the three lists, which had never really been edited and formatted for the web before. After four weeks of solid work, I finally added all the necessary subheads, combined conflicting information about admissions requirements into accurate summaries, and managed to fix most of the other grammar and factual errors.

Next week I hope to conduct some user testing to make sure that my work has really resulted in a more usable framework for our poor students, who have been dealing with some confusing content for far too long.

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