Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Troubling Aspects of the Online Realm

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There have been many controversies, problems, and evils to contend with in the online realm lately, I hardly know where to begin.

This blog typically delivers in-depth studies and researched articles on single issues of importance to web users and user advocates.

This time I'm going to try posting a more general overview of some topics that may be treated more comprehensively later.

What are some of the negative developments I've encountered lately, regarding the internet?

Well, here's just a small sample...


Troubling Aspects of the Online Realm


1. Blogosphere Portrayed As Stupid

Ana Marie Cox of www.wonkette.com is put forth on presidential election television news coverage as a "spokesperson for the blogosphere" and she does a devastatingly lousy job as our unchosen representative.

Seems to me that the Mainstream Media is holding her up as a joke, to reassure viewers that traditional journalism may have taken some hits from bloggers (RatherGate, etc.), but has nothing to really fear.

Ms. Cox's performance on the C-Span presentation was ghastly. I lost count of how many times she said "cocaine", "drugs", and "vicodin". Does she aspire to be a female version of Rush Limbaugh? She looks like she had about ten cups of coffee too many, bouncing around in a chemical rush, racing through her little speeches, appearing to be very uncomfortable with her sudden fame as a "j-blogger of note."

When some dude from CBS confronted her in the C-Span presentation about "exit polls" and their value as news and political reporting, she caved and proclaimed her total ignorance on the subject, deferred to the CBS schmuck, and hastily proceeded to ask her audience to proceed to the next question.

Nice to be honest, but if you don't know what you're talking about, why are you talking about it?


2. Automatic Reloading of Web Pages

Possibly just a minor annoyance, but have you ever experienced this?

You're viewing a web page you just arrived at, then after only finishing a sentence or two, while the entire page is still in the process of downloading, the page is redirected, and the article disappears, replaced by content you're not interested in.

Sound crazy? Frustrating? In open opposition to the fundamental philosophy of the web? Yeah, all of the above.

It's called "automatic refresh" or "automatic page reloading" or "forcing fresh content on users".

I was reading a page in the online version of the New York Post, on Dan Rather and Tom Brokow resigning, the collapse of the mainstream media, when suddenly my browser is redirected to a page on Shelley Long attempting suicide with prescription pain pills.

Though I searched for it, I was unable to locate the page I was reading. The New York Post either had not yet archived the article, or had permanently removed it, or I'm just not that good at finding online content that disappears as I view it.


3. Text Entry Box Scrolling


Have you ever typed in words in a "text entry box" (like an email address for an email newsletter subscription), then realized you made a mistake, and need to go back to the beginning of the text you entered?

Good luck.

Usually, the box is too short to contain, in a user viewable format, all the text you entered. You know, the beginning text disappears, slides to the far left end of the box, and vanishes, whilst the continued text progresses toward the right end of the box.

The only way I know of to "scroll" the text is to carefully position your cursor at the extreme right end of the box, but still touching the text entry space, and click repeatedly.

I will do some research on this issue and see if any solutions, or at least an acknowledgement of the problem, exists.


4. Search Engine Filters

I'm sure the various search engine providers are working on a wide variety of problems, but I'd like to see user parametered filters available for all search operations.

Advanced and Scoped Search options often provide varying degrees of filtering, but seem to be largely syntax or grammar oriented or based on date of content.

I'd like the universal ability to search for relevant online information, but to filter out unwanted sources.

Search engine filters could include:

* no blogs, comment postings, forums, or other user-generated content (which are good sources of opinions, but less reliable for facts)

* only dot edu (i.e., university sites), dot gov, or dot org sites (hopefully providing unbiased, non-commercial information)

* no sarcastically titled sites (i.e., moronsreadthis dot com, or rabidrightwingers dot com)

* no "subscription only" content sites

* no keyword spamming sites that are exploiting interest in a topic, but have no real content

* no parody sites containing fake editorial content, in the name of alleged "satire"

* no non-credible web sites--a filter that would determine the presence of valid contact information, about us, credentials, staff bios, and legitimate outbound links.



5. Web Designers Proclaiming the Demise of Usability Concerns


This is getting rather tiresome:

web design sites, blogs, and online magazines cheerfully announcing how the cruel tyranny of usability pundits has been trampled by an army of liberated designers.

Usability is "dead"?

Tell that to software designers. Software must be quick, easy, and nearly "intuitive" (guessable, easy to figure out based on previous software interface experiences, with no steep learning curve)...or the software product itself is dead.

Do designers really want the "freedom" to design web sites primarily for their own satisfaction and ego-enhancement?

When did users decide that ease of use is no longer important to them?

When did corporations and organizations decide they didn't care if users could actually accomplish things quickly and easily at their web sites?

Who really thinks users will cheer when web designers proudly bleat that usability principles are nothing more than shackles that result in boring web sites?

How many users are seeking novelty and supposed design marvels...over quick, uncomplicated information foraging and acquisition?

Do web designers really hate being constrained by user concerns, and wish to have the "freedom to create any random thing" (to quote J. Nielsen) that pops into their heads, regardless of how efficient it is in fulfilling the site's purpose and the needs of users?

How many corporations, organizations, and individual site owners will applaud this development? How many users?


6. Automatic Email Message Opening

With a certain email program, when a user is reading the messages in the inbox, and click on Delete, to get rid of a message currently being viewed, the program deletes the viewed message, then automatically opens the next email on the list.

This is a dangerous practice.

If the next message on the list is a virus, bang: you're dead (or seriously wounded).

If the next message happens to be a spam email, bang: you've notified the spam sender that your email address is valid and active, thus putting you on an active list that will be sold to more spammers, resulting in avalanches of spam in your inbox.


7. Vanishing User Profiles

User Profiles are pages on web sites containing user-generated content relative to personal interests, career field, occupation, title, marital status, gender, hobbies, geographic location, favorite movies and books, etc.

How many times have you created a User Profile for some online service, discussion forum, email program, group, or whatever, then had trouble editing it, or even viewing it?

I've encountered this problem frequently.

You create a User Profile, but once created, it seems to vanish into mysterious regions of the site.

Often, you can find My Account, but that has no link to your profile. Just "Identification Information" which is mysteriously separate from User Profile.

Often, you can Edit Profile, or Create New Profile, but what happened to View Profile?

Users are in a hurry. A big hurry.

They don't have the patience or time to muck around with a web site, or go on linking expeditions in search of what should be obvious locations for important information or functions.

Give users too much frustration, too much mystery, too many wild goose chases, and guess what? They bail out and never return.


8. Task Completion Messages

Users like to view a "mission accomplished" type message upon completing a task on a web site.

But usually, when you fill out a form, add a comment to a posting page, edit a profile, or download an item, you receive no indication that the action was successful. Occasionally it's obvious, most of the time it's not.

To add insult to injury, you're often taken back to the same page you just completed, but blank, as though nothing happened, and you need to re-input the data.

Why can't all forms, registrations, downloads, and other user-input or user-activated tasks provide users with a message that assures them of the result produced?

A link to the changed page, the updated profile, the edited preferences, the filled in form, or the download manager, so users can actually view and verify their input, is mandatory.

After a user has inputed a lot of data, and clicked on "Save Changes" or "Finished" or "Apply Edits" or whatever, a confirmation message, plus a link to "View (Edits, Changes, Comment, etc.)" would be very nice.

To not provide the message and link is symptomatic of an attitude that can be expressed as: "make the function work for the site" rather than "make the function work for the site and for the user".

This is an example of a site that works, but is not (optimally) usable.

In other words, from the viewpoint of the designer, the web site works.

But in the experience of the user, the web site is not easily or quickly usable.

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