Make a plan!

This week’s reading from Jeremy Boggs,  http://clioweb.org/2008/06/04/part-three-design-process/, and Brian Miller , Introduction and chapters 1-3 in Above the Fold: Understanding the Principles of Successful Web Site Design, address design principles and guidelines.

Boggs’ article covers the process of researching, developing and creating the design of a web site.  He employs a rather methodical approach of working through the process from brainstorming and doing research, to creating a concept, and then creating a mockup.  I particularly like his advice to develop a concept in response to a specific problem. That concept will inform every design choice and will help in explaining those choices to other members of the project team, the boss or the client.  His other advice about preparing a brief; understanding the need to choose options that provide the best solutions over one’s favorite options; and being diplomatic and positive with feedback is really good advice in general for anyone working on a project.

The chapters from Miller’s book cover some of the technical restraints of web design and standards of good layout.  He also stresses the importance of making a plan and having backup choices in case preferred options are not possible, which is also good advice for someone working on a project.

For me, this all points to the importance of making a plan.  You need to know what you want to do and what problems you need to address in order to make informed choices that solve those problems.   When it comes to the design of my blog, I’ll admit I didn’t have any sort of plan.  In something of a panic, I chose a design that I found visually appealing and looked easy to work with.  But I’m finding that it’s a design that doesn’t work all that well.  I want to change the header to include the ‘log in’ rather than having to scroll through all the blog posts to find it at the bottom.  I’ll add a sidebar with a table of contents.  I’d like to have each post on a different page if possible, rather than having to scroll through all of them. And I need to find a different font and font size to put more of each post onto the screen and makes it more readable. These are changes that are not possible in my current blog template, so I’m going to have to find a new one that lets me make more choices and addresses these needs.

Advertisements

PowerPoint, evidence, visualization and charts (I’m just annoyed…)

This week’s reading covered Edward Tufte’s critique of PowerPoint, his warning about charts, tables and graphs and Ben Schmidt’s analysis of history dissertations.  In a nutshell, Tufte HATES PowerPoint.  In  Beautiful Evidence, he says it is presenter oriented not audience oriented.  It reduces information to bullet points and limits the amount of text/charts/graphs that can be put onto each slide.  That means that information gets broken up and makes it more difficult to analyze.  He states “…it harms the quality of thought for producers and consumers of information.”    In PowerPoint presentations, information appears and disappears quickly making it difficult to follow the trail of the presenter’s reasoning and for the audience to do their own reasoning.  It reduces arguments to lists which leave out details, narratives and relationships.  He argues that a written report, printed out for each attendee (he refers mostly to meetings, not necessarily conferences) contains the most detail and information, is easier to follow and allows each person to take the information with when he/she leaves.   In Visualizing Evidence, Tufte uses the incident of a cholera outbreak in an area of London in 1854 to illustrate a point about charts and graphs.   Cholera is transmitted via infected water but before this outbreak it had been believed to be transmitted by air.  A physician tracked the cause of the outbreak to a particular well pump and convinced the London city council to cut off access to that well.   The cases of cholera dropped dramatically and returned to normal levels.  Charts showing the number of cases by week seemed to point to stopping access to the well as the main reason for the end of the outbreak.   But reading the full report from the doctor showed that other factors such as reduced population (many people had left the area by the time access was cut off, so a reduced population would also account for fewer cases) might account for the break in the epidemic although cutting off access probably helped prevent a recurrence of the cholera.  The point is that charts and graphs and tables contain limited information and that information can be easily manipulated depending on how it is grouped, so Tufte says it’s best to assume that any charts/graphs/tables that appear in a presentation are the best of all the possible results chosen expressly to advance the presenter’s case.

Ben Schmidt’s articles are about his inquiry into what years historians write about the most and what years are turning points in history.   He looked at American history dissertations submitted over a 120 year period and looked at the years included in the titles to see which time periods were most written about .  In his graphs, he found spikes at the years of the Civil War and the two World Wars (not really a surprise).  In his next analysis, he made an assumption that writers would pick years with round numbers – ending in either zero or five and then assigned a variable to years that ended in other numbers.  He then graphed the results showing spikes for certain years and how they should up more times than might be expected based in his assumption.  The years that coincided with big historical events popped up more often (what a surprise!)

Frankly, I’m annoyed!  I do agree with Tufte about being skeptical of charts, etc.  It’s far too easy to manipulate the data to make it fit a predetermined conclusion.  Also, his points about PowerPoint are well-made – it is a fairly inflexible format with a limited ability to convey technical or complicated information, BUT it is (in my opinion) incumbent upon the presenter to choose the method that best conveys all the information necessary and shame of people on those fields that rely on complicated and technical information for choosing a method that isn’t up to the task.    As for Ben Schmidt’s “investigation” – it seems pointless to me.  Historical events/periods/eras, etc don’t conform to nice, neat sets of time.  It seems logical to me that years associated with significant events are, of course, go to show up more often in dissertations than those that don’t.  His scope of inquiry was rather limited as he only choose dissertations with numbers in the title (what percentage of the whole is that?) and his assumptions of what years would be chosen is absurd.  I think he was just wasting time and trying to put off working of his own dissertation.  So between Tufte’s diatribe and Schmidt’s pointless charts, I’m just annoyed.

PS Check out the September 21 Dilbert comic strip (brilliant!) http://www.dilbert.com/

Don’t make me think….

First off, I’ve had a wicked cold all week, so I apologize if I ramble.

This week’s readings came from Ch 1- 8 of Steve Krug’s book, Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited.   The author is a usability consultant for websites and mobile apps.  The book contains his advice on how to design websites and mobile apps that are enticing, easy to understand and easy to use.  The chapters break down how people use websites and how designers should accommodate the users.  Much of it boils down to Krug’s laws of usability (there have been 3 so far):

1. Don’t make me think  – What the website/app is and does should be evident and self-explanatory.  If it isn’t clear, users will get frustrated and that can (and will) lower their trust and confidence in your organization.

2. If doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each is a mindless, unambiguous choice.  – Users need to understand why they are clicking on a link or a button and feel confident it’s taking them in the right direction.  The choice should be clear and easy to make.

3. Get rid of 1/2 of the words on each page, then get rid of 1/2 of the ones left.   – Users tend to scan websites to find the information they need quickly, so don’t include information/text/words/blah,blah,blah they don’t need in order to get what they want.

In this week’s questions/comments to consider for this blog post, we were asked to pick one of three websites (they differed from the ones listed on the syllabus) and to discuss whether it holds up in 2014.   I picked the History Matters site , historymatters.gmu.edu.    I did some basic navigation through the different sections, read the “more on this site” information, did a quick search, etc.   I did the usability test at the end of chapter six in Don’t Make Me Think and tried to see how well the website conformed to the three usability laws listed above.

My first impression was that the website is not flashy and fairly basic visually.  It was easy to navigate to the sections and back to the home page.  Too much of the text was in the same color and font, making the text run together.  Putting the titles of each section/page into bold font and/or another color would have made them stand out better and this easier to find and use.   The same observation applied to the instructions for each page – some differentiation would help break up the page better and not look like one huge block of text.  Overall, I was able to find and use the site ID, page name, sections, local navigation and search features easily.  I didn’t completely understand the search feature (I also didn’t put a lot of effort into it, either) and thought that it was too wordy and somewhat convoluted.   The site packs a lot of information into one place and it can be a little daunting to wade through it the first time.  However, this is a site aimed at students and teachers of American history, so I don’t have a problem with it being somewhat wordy (in places).  I do think that it could benefit from applying the second law of usability.  I’d rather click more times than be faced with a page of a lot of text I have to wade through to find where I want to go next.

The questions/comments to consider asks us to think about who historians/scholars write for and how Krug’s advice on usability applies to academic writing or live presentations.   Historians and scholars write for a rather select audience  – themselves, their peers and perhaps, a few interested lay people.  They don’t write for the general public.  Krug’s laws of usability do apply but in a different way.

1. Don’t make me think – It’s actually ok to make your audience think but don’t confuse them or make them feel stupid (it just makes them mad!)

2. It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice. – You don’t have to lead your audience by the hand down the path of your argument/point but don’t make it too convoluted either or take huge leaps in logic.

3. Get rid of 1/2 of the words and then get rid of 1/2 of what’s left. – This one probably applies the most (!).   It’s not necessary in academic writing to boil everything down to the bare bones and be as brief as possible, but it’s also not necessary to be long-winded and use fancy words just for the sake of using them.

For live presentations, the need to use Krug’s laws is much greater.  Live audiences are going to be more like web/app users – it’s ok to be thought provoking but there won’t be time to make your audience think everything out; the path of your argument needs to be  clear and concise (much shorter and more obvious than in writing); and too much talk is like too much text – pare it down to what’s necessary.

It all boils down to knowing your audience.  What’s appropriate in one situation isn’t necessarily appropriate in another.  And that’s a big part of Krug’s message.  Website designers need to know and understand their audience (and he helps them do that) in order to design effect and usable sites.  And historians and scholars need to understand their audience(s) and how to effectively reach out to them.

Wikipedia

I found this week’s readings very interesting and a good reinforcement of the issue of truthfulness and accuracy of information on the internet.   While the class projects that created the hoaxes were interesting (and very amusing), I think the assignments to add to or create Wikipedia articles were actually very good exercises.  It was interesting to find out that the students were very concerned about getting their facts right and using good, reliable sources.  And was  very helpful  in developing better research and computer skills especially in learning to recognize reliable sources and weeding out the unreliable ones.

The series of blog posts by Mills Kelly and his Lying about the Past classes and the hoaxes they created were very interesting but in a different way.  I found the whole concept to be pretty amusing and I appreciate the effort put into executing them.  Mostly though, I am glad that there was so much discussion in his classes about the ethics of what they were doing.   I think the first hoax with the false Wikipedia article probably did tiptoe of the edge of what was ethical but since there was a time limit established and they were going to reveal the hoax I thought that brought the whole exercise back into the acceptable range.    In reading some of the comments by people who were taken in, their arguments rather quickly turned to how they felt their trust had been “betrayed”.  I think they were grasping at any excuse that would take the focus off the fact that they didn’t do their due diligence and check the facts.    Having worked in a historical house museum, I found that people really like rather sensational stories about the past and are really reluctant to have popular beliefs debunked.   And with pirates being so popular (then and now), it must have been exciting to some to have a new pirate story uncovered and really disappointing to have it all be a hoax.  The desire for something to be the truth often outweighs common sense.  I liked that the second and third hoaxes were conducted in a somewhat different manner and especially that they decided to created only true Wikipedia articles.   To have the users of Reddit debunk the serial killer story so quickly shows that people had learned to dig deeper with Wikipedia and verify the sources rather than be drawn in by the articles.

The lesson to be learned from all this though is to do your research, make sure of your sources and check the facts!!!

As for Miles Kelly making the decision to stop offering the class, I agree with him.  The exercise is a good one and it got his students excited and involved with history.  It also got people talking about history in a new way and that I think is a good thing.

As far as Wikipedia goes, I do use it.  I often use it to look up something quickly for my own personal use.   For school work and my museum work, I turn to  Wikipedia sometimes as a starting point for finding sources especially on a topic that I don’t know much about.  Sometimes when I’m having trouble finding information, I check Wikipedia to see if there are other sources that I may have missed.  If there isn’t an article or if the article is really short, then I know that I’m probably not going to find any more resources (at least on the internet).  I’m not really sure that much else can be done with it, without having to submit all articles/changes to some sort of review before they are added.  For me, the bottom line is that for a FREE and open  resource it’s pretty good and often quite helpful.

Intro part 2

After reading a couple of the other blog posts, I decided I wanted to add to my intro and add to my thoughts on digital history.   I went to college the first time in the early 1980’s and there was no interest and in many ways no computers to use for doing research or even writing up essays and papers.   I am astounded at how many resources are now available online and I am excited about learning about the ways to access and search through them.    

One of the issues that concerns me is accuracy and truthfulness.  I always worry about the accuracy of any information I find  – whether on or off the internet.  I love working with the objects that museums collect and I love the stories and histories they hold.  I want to share those stories and help people understand that an object is more than just a thing it’s a link to our past.  Surveys have shown that people trust museums the most in terms of truthfulness and accuracy.  Whenever I present information to the public through exhibits or tours or programming, I try to be extra-diligent in making sure that I present as truthful and accurate information as possible.  

I love the possibilities that digital technology presents to the museum field but we have to be careful not to become overdependent on it and lose focus on the actual objects and their stories.

 

Introduction

My name is Debbie and I am obviously the non-traditional student in the class.   This is my first semester at UMBC and I am a history major.  I also volunteer at the Baltimore Museum of Industry and am a consultant for a small historical society in Anne Arundel County.   My goal is to get my Master’s Degree in Public History and return to full-time museum work.    My personal historical area of interest is fashion and fashion history.

I think digital history is the use of digital technology to gather and store information from as many resources as possible to provide better access so those resources and information can be researched, interpreted and shared (often via digital technology).