Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Read/Write Web and the Everlasting Quest for Usability

Since last November, I have been heavily involved with wikis. To support our Sakai implementation at University of Delaware, I wrote a full report on Wikis in Higher Education, since it is a new tool to most professors at UD, and that we believed that it could provide some major instructional benefits. I have also been involved with the Teaching and Learning group of the Sakai community, using Confluence every week to support our confence calls.

A lot of people, when exposed for the very first time to a wiki, have the same reaction. They kind of question why they are so ugly, or why they can't find anything... I can't blame them. Most wikis are not that good looking, and most of them are a total mess in terms of information architecture.

When I was thinking of a reason why wikis are the way they are, something struck me: web usability and good design were hard to enforce with web 1.0, when only a few Internet-savvy people had access to push pages to the world. It was kind of a lost cause then, but now that everyone can publish to the Internet, it's even worse.

The biggest difference between wikis and other tools is the fact that wikis are unstructured by nature. You almost always start with a blank page, and you must create the content, the format, and the navigational patterns at the same time. Not an easy task for a web designer, so imagine for a common mortal! (Not that I am assuming that web designers are superior or anything, of course... They just spent more time on a computer, and less time in the great outdoors.) Blogs and widgets are highly structured, and you can change their look and feel afterwards, but not wikis.

Which is why I think it is time to educate wiki users to basic concepts of web usability.
  • Define a navigational structure: How will users navigate between pages in your site?
  • Define information architecture: How will your content will be organized, and do you need to explain it to your users (if you have to, it's usually a case of poor design)?
  • Keep your site shallow: Do not create a site that has sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-pages. It becomes a nightmare to navigate, and it is usually a sign that the information is not structured in a comprehensive way.
  • Divide your information in chunks: Use headings to serve as visual dividers, so that the information is visually scannable.
  • Use meaningful link aliases: Click Here! doesn't mean anything. Links will stand out by themselves because they are usually blue and underlined, you don't always have to isolate them.
I have more tips and tricks available in my report and on its page. I just finished a document explaining how to gain full advantage of the wiki tool in Sakai. Have a look at these resources, and give me your comments.

Open Question:

Do you have tricks, methods, references, or links to promote usability to non-designers, instructors, or students, wiki-related or not?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Six Critical Skills for College Graduates in the New Economy

I read an article in the paper version of the Chronicle of Higher Education today (yes, there are still paper versions of stuff) that got me thinking. The article is called The Case Against Assessment Tests and is basically a rant against normalized tests as a good metric for admission, graduation, and institution comparison. As more and more colleges pull back from requiring SAT scores from their new students, this article seemed very timely.

Most of the article is based on a speech by Daniel H. Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (a definite must-read for my summer). Pink cleverly exposes six new skills that are required by the new economy:
  1. Design: This skill is described as the ability to solve problems, to look at an issue and articulate a creative way to solve it.
  2. Story: This goes along the way of a lot of people I have met in the last year. I recently attended Alan Levine’s 50 Ways to Tell a Story (video version, CoverItLive version), and storytelling is now definitely one of my top priority.
  3. Empathy: I would describe this one as “the ability to give a c***” about what others are living and feeling. Empathy is at the heart of the motivation to help others.
  4. Play: The ability to bring something from boring to fun and engaging.
  5. Meaning: How do you give a meaning to what you do? What drives you? Student will have to be able to put meaning into words, to share it with others.
  6. Symphony: The skill to get a global vision of a project or a topic. This is the opposite of focused and narrow, which is what most graduate programs are all about. Personally, I think this skill could be embedded within Design.
Now, getting back into my “support staff for faculty using IT” shoes, I see a lot of obstacles to implementing such a right-brained perspective in my institution. Here are some of my observations:

  • This change cannot take place on a course by course basis. Programs must be reassessed and redesigned to make sure students are exposed to the opportunity to develop their creative side, even in sciences.
  • This change will be leveraged by network-savvy knowledge workers. The ability for universities to constantly redesign themselves will be a critical factor of success.
Assuming that the six skills we have to train our students on are not necessarily the skills the current workforce possesses, what strategy would you envision to make this change of culture happen?

Disclaimer and Copyright

The ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are mine, and do not necessarely reflect my employer's point of view.

Creative Commons License
This work by Mathieu Plourde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.