What’s Wrong with Zspace (part 2)? : continued discussion with Albert and ZCC

I’m going to post my reply to Michael in a new blog post since it seems that the old post might be overlooked.  However, feel free to reply wherever you wish.

>As to not consulting users, etc. – that too is hard to comprehend – since we sought reactions, ideas, comments, advice, etc., over and over, in diverse ways for months, and have actually never stopped doing so. We even put in whole forums for the purpose, wrote emails and solicited replies that way, etc.


Did you start consulting users before implementing the site?  If so, why didn’t you use an open source project?  Why wasn’t the development done in a more iterative fashion, so that the users would have a chance to get used to the features as soon as possible, and offer further feedback. 


>Anyhow…here are reactions to the first blogger’s initial specifics, point by point…




>> 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.


>Saying something is clunky is not, well, very easy to relate to, honestly – because it points nowhere.


I think there are others who share this perspective (they showed that they understood by providing suggestions for improvement), and to be honest, I didn’t do a good job of explaining it because I thought it was self-evident. 


Here are a few examples:

1.  The menu to add photos only allows one to add a single photo at a time, so adding an album, which takes about 10 seconds on facebook, takes about 45 minutes on Zmag.  Please add the ability to add multiple photos.

2.  The album only shows 10 photos at a time, so I added a bunch of photos, to find that only 10 would be shown.  Please add the ability to add more than 10 photos to an album.

3.  The wiki has no security, so currently, when I go to add something, there is a bunch of spam, with no user content.  Please add security to the wiki so that it’s not over-run with spambots.

4.  Things like search are difficult to find, because they aren’t shown in a typical way (there is no search box next to search, which is something my eyes look for when I’m on a website.)  Please add a search box next to the search, or figure out another way to make it more visible.

5.  You can search for users by address, but not groups.  Why not?  Please add the ability to search for groups by geographic location in the same way that you allow us to search for users by geographic location.

6.  When replying to blogs, the messages get reformatted to remove paragraph pasting, which causes a nicely formatted reply to show up as a block of text.  (I’m going to stop using please, since it’s tiresome)  Formatting needs to be preserved.

7.  The mailing list function of groups only displays the last message that is sent.  It would be better for each group to have their own subforum, so that discussion threads can be reviewed by new users.  Maybe you could make it so that when a group is added, it automatically gets it’s own sub-forum.

8.  As I suggested to Chris Spannos, it may be a good idea to get a google search appliance rather than trying to roll your own.

9.  The interface limits users to only adding 10 photos for an album.  If it’s a space issue, then you should make users aware of how much space they are allowed to use.

10.  You should refer your web designer to the previously mentioned books on interface design.  This is an open-ended suggestion, I can’t tell you exactly what’s right.  However, I can say that you shouldn’t only be basing your layout on numbers of clicks to reach a certain area.  That’s extremely biased towards making life easier for those who are already familiar.  You are going to need to make tradeoffs, like adding an extra mouse click so that menus are organized better.  One method is by grouping like things together.  So, when creating a menu, try to organize things by a single axis.  i.e. US, Canada, Mexico… go together, but adding something like Audio/Video to the above choices would be confusing and unexpected.  If I’m looking for something, I may never get to Audio/Video, because my expectation from the first three things is that I’m looking at geographic locations.  Make sense?


>You mention you are a programmer. Excellent. Do a screen image of something better and we can take a look. That will be necessary, I think, because I just don’t see how the tabbed menu system is clunky – or the left menu system – and they are the navigation tools.


I write software that processes terabytes of genomic data on a world class supercomputer with about 4000 online processors.  Our increase in data usage is 4 Terabytes per day.  Last year, we produced over 1,000,000 GB’s of new genomic data.  That said, I haven’t written a web page in 10 years.  The tools I use are for editing text files (vi, emacs,nedit), not slick user interface design apps.  The last user interface I designed was for an end user application (think windows applications, not web pages).   I’d rather not dig up a bunch of out of date web development tools for something that isn’t a serious development effort.  I can get my point across without designing a mock web page.  If needed, we can do that later.


>Clunky suggests slow – but they are not slow at all. Clunky suggests, perhaps, inefficient, but I don’t see that either since you can get virtually anywhere in the site in two clicks – despite that it is so large. So I don’t know what you mean.


What you describe, Michael, is one (extreme) end of an axis that spans all the way from power users who want to be able to get anywhere with the minimum amount of mouse clicks, and casual users, who don’t mind a few extra mouse clicks if it makes the software more intuitive and easier to use.  The reason you are at this end is self-evident.  You use the software every day, and have no issues with things being difficult to understand at first, since for you the most important aspect is maximum efficiency over a long period of time, not initial start-up costs.  What’s tragic, is that I doubt your approach is anywhere near what most Z users want.


Also, your response indicates that you think Zmag is designed for maximum efficiency.  Except, it’s not.  As I mentioned in the tool to add photos, there are areas that require an obnoxious number of mouse clicks to use (i.e. click, add photo, click, add photo, etc.)


>The admin features, however, I agree were clunky – or perhaps more accurately, a bit hard to find, and requiring some serious attention to use well – but they are now improved with quick edit, and will soon become much better…in many more ways.


Ok, we agree on this.


>Maybe I am not hearing well, but I am not sure what you think should be fun – the site technology won’t be what is fun, or amusing, or insightful, or inspiring – it is just a vehicle. The content – which writers and sustainers offer, will be all those things, one hopes.


I’m not sure either.  I think the fun angle refers to the culture.  But, I think the interface kinds of feeds it, i.e. the categories are serious left issues.  I’m not sure this is a good idea if we want to encourage users to participate as much as possible.  You could address it by writing a commentary, (or I could).  But, I think it’s a hurdle. 


>When I look at the bios of people, which is part of the content that people provide, I am impressed and inspired. If people whose bios I have noticed were to offer up something more of themselves, with more people doing it, my guess is the current technology – much less the technology which is coming – would be fine.


I agree with this sentiment, in that it’s successful to the extent that people use it.  If a bunch of people were using it, then fine.  I use craig’s list, it’s about 100 times less sophisticated than Zmag, but it works, so why fix it?  My suggestions are in the context of our need to get more users.  If you think it’s more about the culture, then maybe we should focus our discussion on that.  I’m not against discussing culture if that’s what people think the issue is.


>> 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.


>Okay, good, I look forward to seeing things you would like to do that we don’t address…


As mentioned in the 10 suggestions above, make it easy for me to add a geographic location to a group.  This would make it easy to create a group with local chapters.  i.e. IOPS, and then Saint Louis IOPS, etc.  Right now, we can create a group named Saint Louis IOPS, but I have no way of ensuring that users who are searching for groups in Missouri will find it.


>But this first one – is, well, odd. It may well be you don’t know where anyone is from, but if so it is not because the site doesn’t address it. If everyone enters their locale, anyone could search and find everyone near them. Videos show you how to do so, though, honestly, it is like any other form entry and search – it seems to me…


I missed the location search for users.  This is great, thank you, but we still need it for groups. 


>Soon the friends feature, chat, messaging, etc., will be much better – but they do all exist now.


I’m looking forward to it, and please keep it up.


>> 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.


>I don’t know where you live – but all a site can do, I would think, to help with your situation where you live is allow people to enter geographic and other such info, and then tp search for people near them. We have that – but we will be adding more, including easier access and use of it…soon. If there are ideas beyond that, please do let us know.


>But note, maybe a half a million people use the site – all leftists, located all around the world. If everyone did put in their info – then in most places, certainly countries, states, cities, even towns, you would be able to meet others. I don’t see how we can do much, however, other than urge it and continually improve the tools…


Don’t underestimate the importance of dialog.  I also think that one of the issues, and frustrations that users have when dealing with Zstaff, is that the process for addressing user feedback is somewhat arbitrary.  i.e.  A user comes to you with a suggestion, you’re having a bad day, or maybe you don’t agree, so that ends the conversation.  To a user this can feel very stifling, in the sense that whether or not they are listened to, is somewhat a matter of luck.  It depends on who they are talking to, whether or not that person agrees that it is an issue.  It also gives you, or whichever staff member they are talking to, WAY too much power.  Don’t get me wrong, you should have more power than the typical user, because what happens at Zmag affects you more than the average Z user.  However, we shouldn’t round user’s decision making power down to zero.  In other words, your ability to see where a sustainer is coming from shouldn’t be the filter or gateway that determines what gets done.  But, if the interaction between you and a user is one on one, that is exactly what happens.  This isn’t by design, but just a side effect of how users and staff are communicating. 


I think you and the staff are very open, and try to take into account what our needs are.  But, as an institution grows, it becomes more important to formalize participation, to ensure that users are given a voice that counts, at all times, not as a matter of chance.


>> 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.


>But actually, we have… as noted above. Have you looked at the videos about site features – examined them, etc.


Sorry, I will. 


>Now you might say, well why do I have to do that? But, honestly, why wouldn’t you?


A smart ass reply, but not incorrect,”Why wouldn’t I read the instruction manual for a new car?”  Well, the answer would be, I have 100’s of websites in my bookmarks, and have never had to use a video, so why would I start?


>> 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.


>Saying there are too many options always strikes me – perhaps wrongly, but I have to answer honestly – as very strange.


No it isn’t.  According to your reasoning, it would make sense to put the index for textbooks in the front, since the table of contents is a wasteful over-simplification.  Or, when teaching grandma how to use the computer, you’re saying it would make sense to give her a display showing her all of the BIOS settings, her installed software, every single system setting, all programs, including ones that are system or commandline only, within two mouse clicks.  I am an expert, and the only time I check my BIOS is when I’m building a computer, and the last thing I want is to have needless information distracting me from my tasks.  I’m not saying there are too many options, but that they aren’t organized well.  Users prefer to have irrelevant things hidden.  You are trying to avoid the decision of what’s relevant by displaying too many choices in the top menu.  I know that what goes in the top menu is political, but we have a solution, allow people to vote.  That’s a lot better than providing a huge number of choices up front. 


>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?


Yes, down.  First, grouping is important, so they should be grouped in a way that like things go together (as mentioned above in the US, Mexico, Canada example).  Then, let users vote.  To users for whom this is important, I would tell them that we strive to achieve maximal effectiveness for all users. 


>I only use some – but the fact that there are others there for when I do want them, or for someone else – why should that bother me?


It should bother you because there is a cost in having irrelevant information displayed up front.  It makes it harder for users to find what they want.  People tend to look for logical groupings and patterns in how things are organized.  If you fail to do that, then they are likely to overlook something.


>To reduce options means reducing things that someone wants to do, or even that you might want to, at some time – even if we remove ones you don’t presently care about. Some folks might not want half the topics, or nine tenths of the places, or various facilities. Surely the thing to do is use what you like and just not the rest, no?


I don’t want to reduce options, I want to change how things are organized.  I’m not proposing that we throw anything away.


>I personally don’t really think this should be a factor at all – but it is, I know – and we are creating tools which will allow users to have the top page, and their zspace page, and the top zspace page, look as they like and contain what they want – and no more. Yes, even the top znet page – you will be able to have your own version. But notice, when we do this, it won’t mean I have to have your version… which if we just reduced everything, we would be imposing on everyone.


How can you have written as many books as you have, and not understand the importance of layout and organization?  I would think that a lot of the same decision making that goes into organizing the chapters of a book would also apply to creating menus, but I guess I’m wrong.


>So I have to say, even now, before that, saying you find a tabbed menu arcane, and a left menu that does something admittedly unusual, but transparent once you use it, arcane, I find hard to fathom… Perhaps people explaining would help.


Not tabbed menus, but this particular tabbed menu, and not because it’s tabbed, or because it’s a menu, but because of how the particular topics are organized. 


>> 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. 


>Take a look at the New York Times … etc.


>I just don’t see your point, I have to admit – but that’s me, again, it won’t be an issue, soon, because we will each have what we want. Take the top page – you will be able to see your own version – with whatever boxes of items in the second and third column you want to have there, and no others – with the first column filtered however you want, with whatever numbers of links you want…etc. You could choose, on your version, to have only writers you want, or topics, or places, or whatever else… So this problem, I think, will be history, soon.




>> 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? 


>Again, this will be history due to coming personalization features – but, while that is so – I have to say, changing the world, honestly, well, it does entail work, lots of issues, lots of foci of concern…we need to be less easily put off, I suspect…


Yes, and while we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the interface, I don’t think that it’s the only reason why people aren’t participating yet.


>> 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. 


>You don’t have to do anything – but it is there is you want to.


>But that said, we are going to allow you have exactly as little as you want, on your version – but, I have to tell you, from where we sit, we of course precisely want people to pay attention to that which doesn’t come naturally, what isn’t the stuff they are already most into… so it is a kind of balancing act…


I agree, it is a balancing act, and a difficult one.


>> 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).


>If what you like is a lower level page – why not just go to it?


That’s what I’ve done, but I miss quite a bit.


>But, again, the personalization features that are coming will address all this, I think…


>So far, despite the tone of your blog, you have said only we should reduce…and of the things you want to be able to do, mentioned one that we in fact facilitate. I am a bit at a loss…


Sorry to disappoint.  I’m going to stop now, since I think I am repeating myself, and I don’t think I have anything new to say in response to the rest of what you wrote.  Most of what I wrote above could be used to answer your other concerns.(however, if I missed something, please let me know).

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