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What’s Wrong with Zspace?:An Attempt to Figure Out Why I am an Upper Level Sustainer of Zmag, But Have Been Spending My Time on Facebook


Sorry if the title is inflammatory.  Hopefully the title will spark some interest, thought, and discussion.  I just received today’s commentary from Michael Albert, and am trying to examine the reasons why I, as a longtime sustainer, have not participated more in Zspace.  I think that there are quite a few reasons to be excited about where Zmag is going, and I really would like to say that as a computer programmer, I can appreciate all the hard work (and resources) that must have went into bringing it this far.  That being said, our measure of success will ultimately be in how much we participate, and how much it furthers our goals.

With that said, here are few reasons I haven’t participated:

I.  The interface is clunky.  It has quite a few options, and a lot of work has been done,however, making it more intuitive and aesthetically pleasing would go a long way towards encouraging people to use it as a social tool.  I don’t think you are going to get people involved in Zspace purely from a movement building perspective, because to be honest, I don’t see it being that effective as a movement building or organizing tool.  It’s a great source of information, but isn’t quite there yet when it comes to networking.  So, until it becomes more practical, it needs to be fun.

II.  The things that I really NEED it to do, it doesn’t even address.  Here are my issues.  I’ve been on this site for 6 years.  I still don’t know where a single member of zmag/zspace lives, and have no idea who is near by.  The only time I’ve met other members of the community was at a life after capitalism conference 6 years ago.  I feel extremely isolated, and in my own community, I feel like I’m "the guy who read’s zmag", not a member of a larger community or movement.  How exactly am I supposed to form a chapter of whatever our Parecon club is if I can’t even find people?  I thought about using meetup.com, but I don’t think we really want to force people to use a commercial site, as that could limit growth.  What’s more, this kind of thing would be possible on zmag, if only we set it up and organize the site so that people in a certain geographic location can find each other.

III.  I’m a computer programmer, and even as someone who works with arcane syntax and cryptic interfaces every day, I find the interface to be quite arcane and overwhelming.  There are way, way, way too many options and the organization of information is quite haphazard.  There are way too many links on a single page.  Take a look at google, it only has a few links, and then gives you a drop down menu for the rest.  There’s also the psychological issue of knowing that if I’m overwhelmed, then so is everyone else, so what is the chance that they will use it interactively?  It’s one thing to have a few bookmarks to the parts of the site that I use every day, which is the way I’ve used zmag until now, and quite another to have to interact with the site and learn all of the new features.  Rather than extending a busy layout with even more features, it would have been better to start over with a sister site or completely clean up the existing site (like what we used to have with parecon.org). 

Let’s take a look at the top menu to start, and get rid of the Z at the beginning so we don’t falsely associate the things together.  We have Com (Why not Home?), Net, Mag, Space, Sustainers (account?), MI/EO (what is an MI and EO?), Blogs/Forums (why together?), Video, Translations, History.  That’s not to mention what happens when you go to Znet, and you’re given the further top level options of Intl, Places, Topics(huh?), etc.  First, can we rationally group these things together?  What does history have to do with translations, or Space have to do with Net? 

IV.  When people see complex interfaces, their apprehension increases quite a bit.  I think that this fear of breaking things or screwing up keeps people from using the site as much as they could or should.

Here is the way I would do it:

1.  There is a saying that most people can’t store more than 7 digits in their head.  Good interfaces keep this in mind by usually keeping the number of choices in a top level menu below five. 

2.  Naming is important, as are other non-obvious things.  As a software developer, I spend over half my time coming up with names for concepts, efficient ways of organizing common tasks, and logical groupings for sets of tasks.  Something as simple as a name change can completely change how people use a piece of software.  It’s an extremely difficult and open-ended problem.  It’s not just about coming up with the right answer, but the right questions.  Doing this is extremely important (and difficult).

3.  It seems that there is a bit of fear in simplifying the site.  So, if worse comes to worst, have the community vote.  Ask them:

a.  How many items they would like on the top menu as a default.

b.  What their preference is for those items. 

c.  Make the top level menus customizable, so that those who don’t like it can set it up how they want. 

d.  You could even track what gets shown based on how many users go to a certain subsection. 

4.  Ask yourself questions like: can my users find what they need easily?  Can even my staff tell me what all of the top level menu options are? 

What about the menu on the left side?  After using it for a week, am I likely to feel like I know where things are?  Or, will I have to constantly look to figure it out.  Can we describe the site’s organization in simple terms that are accurate, comprehensive, and easy to understand.  Or, in describing how it’s laid out, am I going to struggle to explain why certain things are where they are?

5.  Is there any redunancy that can be eliminated?  One glaring thing is the menu on the left hand side of the blog posting tool.  I would say that half of the words in this menu are redundant, and not in a good way.  Things like:

Enter My New Multimedia

View/Edit My Multedia

Enter New Multimedia I like

The above could be condensed to Create, Edit, Delete.  Likewise for the other menu options on the left hand side of this page. 

Anyway, that’s enough rambling for now.  My hands are tired, but depending on what I hear, I may elaborate a bit more.

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