On the Great ZCom Design Debate of 2009

I’ve been following the back and forth on what I am heretofore dubbing the Great ZCom Design Debate of 2009. I’ve been on both sides of the aisle of this one. On one hand, part of my (day) job is usability testing and user interface design (in the bureaucratic bowels of a U.S. midwestern university, nothing fancy). So I agree with a lot of the design feedback being given in posts like Jonathan Schindler’s, and the comments sparked by that post. Though the Z staff has put in a tremendous amount of work on the site, and I do appreciate it, I think the staff is missing the point to claim that the site already has almost all the features that are being requested (I’m referring to a 2/6/09 21:39 comment by Mike Albert (I think – it was signed site2 administrator2) on Jonathan Schindler’s post).* Although all the features may be there in some form or another, this does not necessarily mean that they work well together from a user perspective. I think a quick usability test or heuristic evaluation of the site could be helpful. I would even volunteer to work on this myself.

Additionally, in the comments, people started discussing ways to counteract the pressures that are pushing the content on ZCom to be "all serious all the time", which makes us seem one-dimensional, and doesn’t do the Left any recruiting favors. I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that there is a "serious button" that the admins could turn on or off; I think everyone acknowledges that this is a community/culture issue, that can only be addressed over time, by site users gradually adding more "non-serious" content. [And I am trying to do my part here with my own half-baked ramblings.]

On the other hand, I’ve been the "web developer" on projects where I had to face feature requests from people who I felt did not understand the complexity of what they were asking for, nor had they taken the time to understand what was already there. (I’m not saying that all, or indeed any, of the feature requests coming in, are like that ; just that I have some sympathy for the staff developers).

I also recognize that there’s some truth to what Mike Albert is saying here (from his comment cited above): "The top tabbed menu has 13 options. If that is way way way too many – would you like to go down to ten, or eight, or five. WHich ones would you drop – and what would you say to the person for whom those are important?" Reorganizing menu items on a website is almost always a huge political battle. Again, I think that usability testing would help, although it will not get rid of Mike’s point that someone may lose out if menu options are dropped.

Also, I have worked as a paid staff member in a non-profit co-op, and I know that there can sometimes be negative group dynamics between paid staff and member-owners (specifically, a feeling among the paid staff that the members are making requests about matters they don’t fully understand, and a feeling among the members that the paid staff is out of touch with the needs of the members). I wonder if a little of that dynamic is going on here as well.

The design, development, and maintenance of a huge community website would be a daunting prospect, even without the unique constraints that ZCom faces (a small number of staff, attempting to run the website as part of a larger organization, following a Parecon model, within U.S. capitalism). I think the ZCom Consumer’s Council that was created today is a positive step towards the participatory design of the site, within a Parecon framework.

*Tangentially, I wanted to comment on Mike Albert’s comments about how the "number of clicks" advice originated within the advertising world ("And my impression is most of these ‘rules’ are created by advertising depts – in order to increase the number of clicks to see things – less on each page – so you see more ads."). That may be the origin of some web design advice, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate it. Web design and usability research has roots in many fields, including academic cognitive psychology, library science, graphic design, and others. The specific issue that Jonathan was referring to ("there is a saying that most people can’t store more than 7 digits in their head") is from the cognitive psychologist George Miller. This is not to get into a debate about the (ir)rationality and "sell-out-itude" of web design and Human-Computer Interaction (an interesting debate for the future, to be sure). This is just to point out that web design and usability research is not wholly a creature of marketing, and that these fields have insights that I think could benefit ZCom.

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