Grading Myself Against Jakob Nielsen’s Design Mistakes

Jakob NielsenJakob Nielsen is one of the great heroes of the internet. He’s a web usability expert. I have learned a great deal from him over the years. It probably helps that his base attitude is the same as mine: people come to your website for a reason; don’t waste their time. And the biggest aspect of this is the way in which people create frills on websites that don’t help. The oldest example of this is blinking text. The first time you see it, it’s interesting. But it never is again. One of my most hated website decorations are drop down menus. They always distract, rarely work well, and often confuse users.

Earlier today, I was looking at Nielsen’s article, Weblog Usability: The Top Ten Design Mistakes. So I thought that I would run through the list and see how I’m doing. Now, it is no surprise that I’m doing okay. I have a general outlook that is very similar to Nielsen’s. But more important, today wasn’t the first time I’ve seen the article. Although, in my defense, I was doing about as well when I first did.

1. No Author Biographies

This is one of my great complaints about blogs. This includes blogs of friends and colleagues of mine. A lot of people really want to remain anonymous. And I agree that arguments should stand on their own. But none of this means that there shouldn’t be an author biography. But even people who aren’t anonymous still provide nothing. I take this as contempt for the reader. As for me, I think my author page could be a whole lot better. But it is better than it used to be.

2. No Author Photo

I don’t think this is as important, but I certainly like it. What’s more, when I’ve written about someone, I like to have a photo of them that I can use in my article. But it is really as simple as what Nielsen says, “It offers a more personable impression of the author.” I also think it helps in gaining regular readers. It personalizes the readers experience.

3. Nondescript Posting Titles

This is one where I really fall down. But I’m trying to do a better job. The truth is that I prefer direct headlines. I hate the trend toward two and three sentence headlines. On this site, I try to make the headline fit on a single line on the page. That’s about 35 characters. As I look at the last ten articles I posted, the two best headlines did take up two lines, even though not by much. They are: “Why Conservatives Ignore Global Warming” and “Why You Can’t Argue With Christian Apologists.” (Nielsen also notes that one should not put headlines IN ALL CAPS. Yes! It is harder to read. It reduces reading speed. It is ugly.)

There is another issue that Nielsen doesn’t mention. Google puts a lot of emphasis on titles in its rankings. I see this all the time. So I really will continue to improve this. I think I’m a lot better than I have been.

4. Links Don’t Say Where They Go

I’m not entirely clear on this one because I think that Nielsen is kind of vague on the point. But he’s very clear on what he doesn’t like. And it is something I see all the time. Here’s an example from him, “There’s more here and here.” I personally hate that because it doesn’t make sense. The least a writer could do is, “There’s more at this link.” But even that’s terrible. When I link, I try to include the article title as I did at the start of this post. But sometimes, you don’t want to slow the pace down in that way.

5. Classic Hits are Buried

Nielsen believes that blogs should highlight their most popular articles. I’ve got a greatest hits page, but it is perpetually out of date. It’s hard to keep up to date because the site continues to grow in readership. But every once in a while, I do a bunch of work on it. It’s about time.

6. The Calendar is the Only Navigation

This is a big problem with blogs. The diary nature of them is really not very good after you get a few articles written. Frankly Curious is currently headed toward 4,000 articles—a milestone we will hit in a couple of months. And we will likely hit 5,000 by the end of the year. I’ve done a lot to improve this aspect of the site. Instead of using the standard blog categories, I created my own PHP code to provide my own category pages. They provide titles and then the first few sentences of the article. You can check them out on the right. The same code is used in the site maps. In addition to this, the site now has two search features. There is the base one written in the blog. This one works great for single words, but it is useless for anything more. So there is also a Google search. Still searching kind of sucks in the world of blogs.

7. Irregular Publishing Frequency

There is no doubt that this used to be a problem around here. It isn’t anymore. In fact, the site is shockingly consistent. I try to do five articles per day. But when I’m doing a lot of technical work (which I have been the past couple of weeks), it tends to go down. I still usually get four articles up and never less than two. This is a point I stress to people starting blogs. It doesn’t matter if you only write one article a week. But write one article a week. In addition to everything else, it keeps you thinking about your blog. Krugman is good about this: even when he’s out of town, he posts little apologies and warnings. People like that.

8. Mixing Topics

Okay. I do this. It is the nature of the blog. The idea is to be mixed. And if anything, the blog doesn’t represent enough of my interests. But this is one of the reasons I’ve worked so hard to get the categories working. Even if I were focused, I’m not sure what I would focus on. I’m not a specialist.

9. Forgetting That You Write for Your Future Boss

I do forget about my future boss because I know that I will never have a boss again. People are willing to contract with me, but they aren’t willing to hire me. But my partner Will did point out that he avoided showing clients (many of whom are religious people and even churches) my site because of the coarse language. As a result, I’ve pretty much stopped using it. I find I can get the same kind of stuff across without those words. Of course, my writing on “spiritualism” would probably offend those people for different reasons.

10. Having a Domain Name Owned by a Weblog Service

I still find it amazing that some very big blogs are hosted on BlogSpot. They always seem like relics from the past. But to each his own.

Well, that’s it. I think I would have to give myself a B+. But then, I’ve always been a pretty easy grader. I intend to continue to work to improve the user experience. But most of my time goes to creating content. I still think that is the most important thing.

Tennessee and Rose Williams

Tennessee WilliamsOn this day in 1911, the great playwright Tennessee Williams was born. He is most known for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. What has always bugged me is how Hollywood just loved Williams. But they glossed over the homosexual themes there. That was true of both Cat and The Night of the Iguana, which don’t make any real sense unless you divine it. Of course, the plays kind of had the same problem. I do tend to think that Williams would have written better plays had he not been writing during such a tender time.

But to me, Williams will always mean just one thing: The Glass Menagerie, his breakthrough play. I rather liked the play when I was young; I think I was 13 when I first read it. But I didn’t really get it. So about a year ago, I read it again. Now, of course, the play makes far more sense to me. And I feel like I understand all the characters. They are all so wonderful, most especially because of their flaws. And like real people, what’s good about them is also what’s bad about them.

Here is what is probably the best filmed version of the play. It has an amazing cast: Katharine Hepburn, Sam Waterston, Joanna Miles, and Michael Moriarty. It is directed without too much reverence by Anthony Harvey, who directed one of my favorite films, They Might Be Giants. It is very close to the play:

What I didn’t know about the play was that it was quite autobiographical. That’s most especially true of the mentally fragile sister Laura, who is the heart of the play. She was based upon Williams’ older sister Rose. In fact, the “gentleman caller” in the play has nicknamed Laura “Blue Roses.” Rose apparently suffered from schizophrenia. She and Williams were very close growing up. But while Williams was working in New York, Rose was given a lobotomy. As was always the case with those, the only question was just how much harm they would do. In Rose’s case, she was left incapacitated for the rest of her life.

Williams was devastated and it is speculated that his heavy use of drugs and alcohol were related to this. In addition to taking care of her over the yeas, he left the bulk of his estate for her care. Even in her state, she outlived him by 13 years. It’s extremely sad, but I prefer to think of her like this:

I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches me on the shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes… Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!

Happy birthday Tennessee Williams!

The Real Global Warming Debate

Global Warming DenialRecent research proves it: scientific opinions on global warming really do differ. The executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium, James Lawrence Powell, looked at every peer reviewed journal article he could find on the subject of global warming in 2013. He found 10,855. Of those two did not accept that the earth was experiencing human caused global warming. Two percent, you ask? No. Two articles. That’s 0.018 percent, or just 0.00018 if you like simple fractions.

Let’s give this some perspective. Four percent of Americans think that “shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies.” That’s over 200 times more credible than global warming denial. A full six percent of Democrats think that Obama is the Antichrist. That’s 300 times more credible. Twenty-seven percent of Americans think that Jesus is “definitely” coming back in the next 40 years. That’s 1,500 more credible!

Now, it’s true: Powell’s work is not on scientists; it’s on scientific papers. And there are reasons why climate change deniers might not publish. One thing could be that they just can’t get papers published because of institutional inertia. But that isn’t as credible a reason as you might think. Journals like Nature and Science are desperate to publish shocking and disruptive papers. So what generally stops these supposedly shocking papers from being published is that they are bad science. I’ve read a number of Heartland Institute papers and they are all the same: they cherry pick data. Any data that conflict with their thesis is simply ignored, not even argued against.

But the fact that there are basically no papers most likely indicates that global warming denial is not a scientific enterprise. It is something done by people with ideological axes to grind. They don’t have to do science; they just know. So they aren’t scientists and it is wrong to say that the science is divided on the point.

It rather reminds me of the Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate. Repeatedly, Ham said something along the lines of, “You have your scientists and we have ours.” Well, sure. In the debate, it was clear that by “scientists,” he meant “two scientists,” because he brought the same two guys up again and again. And that’s about what we have in the global warming debate.

I don’t think that Powell’s work is definitive. I’m sure there were more than two real scientific papers published last year that had skeptical authors. But they are skeptical about little things. They aren’t out there thinking that if they could just get their big break they’d blow the lid off this vast scientific and political conspiracy. But that’s what the ideologues think. It just ain’t so.

The next time you hear about the scientific debate that is raging over human caused global warming, remember the kind of scale they are talking about. On one side: 10,853 articles. On the other: 2 articles. Going with the 2 article side is like not wearing a motorcycle helmet because in an accident, it might fall off and land on your toe.

Education, Inequality, and Myth

Paying for the PartyI was introduced to a very interesting book by Henry Farrell, a political science professor at George Washington University. This last term, he has had a reading group with seven female seniors and most recently, they read Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. The book looks at how the party culture works for affluent people, because they don’t need hard majors with good GPAs. Their social connections and financial resources will land them in a good place after college. But poorer kids end up being pulled into the party culture where they end up without bankable skills and often without even a degree. And they are usually saddled with debt. Meritocracy rules!

Farrell’s group affirms the book’s findings on the micro-scale. And there is much more to the book on that level. Much of it is terribly troubling, including how the party culture puts women much more in threat of sexual assault. What’s more, the college administrations seem to either be unaware of the problem or disinterested. And you can see why. If they wanted to do something about the problem, they would have to sit the poorer students down and tell them: you aren’t equal to the rich kids; you can’t act like them. And that is anathema to the mythology of America.

I’m more interested in the book on the macro-scale. According to conservatives, income inequality is all about education. If the poor would just get educated, everything would be fine. Now, it turns out this is not true. Education is a small part of the problem, but that’s all. Paying for the Party illustrates this.

Inequality in this country is best thought of the same way that institutional racism is—of course, they are very often one and the same thing. The best case scenario based upon the book is that we will get our poorer students to work really hard and get good grades in engineering and pre-med programs. But that in itself says, “America is not an meritocratic country!” All we see is that if the poor are very bright and very hard working and very lucky, they may do as well as the stupid and lazy and unlucky children of the rich do.

I’m quite willing to admit that an American ideal is that people should be able to work hard and get rich. Where I differ from conservatives is that I don’t think that having rich parents should tilt the playing field entirely in your favor. And note: these rich kids who do well despite sliding through college with easy majors and bad grades (think: George Bush the Younger) already had enormous advantages before they got to school. Those advantages helped before they were even born, with better prenatal care. It extended to better nutrition growing up, better schools, better social exposure, you know: better lives.

So the question is, are we as Americans going to continue to accept living in an aristocracy but still hold up the ideal of meritocracy? Because it is more than just unpleasant for the poor; it is wrong. At least in an honest aristocracy, the poor aren’t blamed for not being rich and powerful. Here it is the worst of all worlds. The poor have lives that suck and they are told that it is their own fault. Six out of ten of the wealthiest people in America inherited their wealth. And it is only getting worse. So it is either time to change that or to stop pretending. But we won’t do either. Because the facts and the myth flatter the power elite.