Friday, November 12, 2004

no razzle no dazzle, just keep to the left

Imagine if every web page you visited looked exactly the same, whether it was an application, a banking site, a news site or a knowledge site. Imagine if you had to visit these same sites every day, all day.

When one of these sites wanted to hold your attention, show you something new, teach you a new trick, how would they perk up your brain to say ' Hey now. That's different, that looks interesting. I'm going to enjoy this experience'?

Intranet Dependence
A company Intranet is a controlled Web space. A large Intranet can contain vast screeds of information all interlinking, mixed with user applications for payroll, people management tools with in-house systems, product information and corporate communications - and training. Workers become dependent on the Intranet to perform everyday tasks and so they sit looking at it every day, all day.

In the past, the Intranet where I work was sprawling and lacked control; individuals developed sites for different Business Units, and many small groups. Some were colorful to say the least, some inventive and some extremely professional. Unfortunately people with no design, usability or otherwise training ran amok.

Oh Intranet, Wherefore Am I?
And then Big Brother stepped in. Now all sites are controlled by way of a central developer tool (which we all hate) and forced templates. In many ways this is a good thing. There is standardisation, there are content publishing rules and the organisation can feel more secure about what is 'out there'. On the downside there is a distinct lack of 'brand' in the sense that everywhere you go looks exactly the same; there is a 'transparency' between sites - it's very difficult to orientate yourself to where you are in the mass of sites that form the Intranet as a whole.

You Are Here?
There are only a few visual clues that assist you to realise when you have changed from one site to another rather than simply from one page to another within the same site (they don't allow new windows or popups). One clue is template color however there are only 4 template color schemes allowed in the publishing tool and 3 are unattractive. Most developers choose the same color template (mid blue) as it is the most pleasing to the eye. Other clues include breadcrumb trails and banner site titles but as these are visually identical in every site, they do not work.

Variation in content display is discouraged and if you try anything different the opinion is that you are 'showing off'. They actually don't want people to be creative. Yet, it's only creativity that will assist in orientating the site visitor within this environment of sameness. That doesn't mean a plethora of dancing frogs either.

No Climbing the Trees
Although the old Intranet had it's problems, most people did not have trouble with orientation; they had difficulties finding information but factors affecting that included inefficient search engines and no metadata. It seemed easier to see how one site related to another as they had different 'personalities' or flavours and either lived on seperate servers or on seperate directories; looking at the URL gave you clues to where you were. Now sites seem to float in a void - they all have seperate URLs, every single one - there's no backtracking up the tree.

Time to Sparkle
Slip into the mix of Intranet content a large dose of eLearning. The big brother approach is to make that look exactly like the rest of the Intranet because 'users don't like to have to think'. Excuse me but isn't that actually what we want them to do when in training? Don't we want to snap them out of the everyday and perk them up into a different state of mind?

"Now it's training time! See the interesting things we have to show you? Doesn't it look inviting and different to what you stare at all day long? Don't you feel valued that we have gone to so much trouble to create a module that looks pleasant, vibrant and fun enough to help you absorb all the information we want to shove at you?

Queer Eye for the Intranet Guy
"Oh but users don't want different navigation methods. And we need to make it all the same so they know exactly what's an instruction and what's an important note and what's a learning check question and what's a top of page arrow"

[Carson] Ever heard of CSS people? [/Carson]

Unfortunately, most of the Intranet big whigs don't understand CSS. They don't understand its relationship with content and presentaton. They haven't twigged to the fact that all the elements of any page can be structured exactly the same but presented in different 'skins'. One guy was even trying to get us to 'register' our style sheets with a central body so they could check them for accessibility issues. Pardon moi? That's like reviewing a recipe to decide what the cake tastes like!

Smack in the Face with a Wet Fish
I have developed a multitude of online modules that presentationally all look entirely different; different color shemes, different text areas, different buttons and banners. Look closely however and you will see that they are all actually functionally the same. Navigational elements and methodologies are identical.

The learner knows what to do without instructions as far as getting around goes, however the visual 'smack in the face with a wet fish' makes them sit up and prepare themselves for a new experience - they are automatically encouraged into learning mode.

So, away with thee harbingers of creativity doom and get thee to a nunnery. Tend to thy Intranet if must be but keep thy sticky fingers out of my elearning pie and free the workers!

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