The new Pathways website is Coke II for Toastmasters. From a User Experience perspective, it is simply not ready for primetime. Extend D.T.M. program availability, and steer people towards D.T.M. pursuit until Pathways becomes adequate for public use and people abandon the old D.T.M. track manuals because they simply can’t compete with Pathways for member attention.
I’d like to quote from an old posting from my site, old enough that it was actually provocative when it was posted:
When the Master governs, people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.
Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell
In looking at various award review sites, I have seen people equating creative web design with good web design. This is not simply in acknowledgement that creativity is one of the gifts of the human mind and an indispensable part of the great triumphs of human culture. It goes further to take the perspective that “good web design” means design that impresses the viewer with its creativity. This perspective, which is almost never questioned among awards reviewers, is one which is eminently worthy of question.
Good acting does not leave people impressed with how good the acting is. The very best acting leads people to be so involved with the drama and tension that they forget they are watching actors at all. Not all acting reaches that standard — which is a very high standard — but acting has the quality that, at its best, it is transparent: people see through the acting to the important thing, the story.
What are the basic responses to my A Dream of Light? In order from best to worst:
- Best: The reader is moved by the images and stimulated by the ideas, and leaves the reading a wiser person. Perhaps this involves being impressed by the thoughts, but the reader who is impressed is impressed as a side effect of the literature’s power. The reader leaves the reading thinking about the writing’s subject-matter.
- Second best: The reader’s primary response is to think about how smart I am, or how eccentric, or something of that sort. The writing has not completely succeeded. The reader leaves the reading thinking about me.
- Worst: The reader reads it and walks away thinking about the page’s design, even how clean and uncluttered it is. The reader leaves the reading thinking about the web design.
If a reader walks away from that piece of literature thinking about my web design, the design is a failure. The design is as bad as a photograph where the scene is blocked by the photographer’s thumb.
It is sometimes easy for webmasters to forget that readers spend most of their time viewing other pages — not figuring out mine. I intentionally employ a standard web design in nearly all of my pages: navigation bar to the left, and a body to the right with dark text on a light background, different colors for visited and unvisited links (with visited links looking washed-out compared to unvisited links), no frames, judicious use of emphasized text, a header at the top, and navigation links at the bottom. I do not use any technology just because it’s there — one page uses Java, and has content that would be almost meaningless if the applet were not there. The design on my home page is not creative, because it is intended not to be creative. I copied best practices from other sites and from friends’ suggestions, in order to make a design that gets out of the way so readers can see the content.
To adapt a classic proverb: Don’t bother to impress people with creative design when you can impress people with creative content. My web design is not evidence of any great creativity, but many readers have found the content in what I’ve written to show considerable creativity. I employ a very standardized web design for the same reason that I use standard spellings and grammar when I write: I want people to be able to see through them to whatever it is I’m writing about. Yf spelynge caulze uttinshun too ihtselv, itt yss mahch herdyr too thynque abaut whutt iz beeynge sayde. If, on the other hand, people employ standard spellings, readers can ignore the spelling and focus on the point the writer is trying to make. The spelling is transparent. Spelling is not where you want to demonstrate your creativity. And neither, usually, is web design.
Now, does that mean there is no place for creativity in design? No! In I learned it all from Jesus, I had each sentence a different color from the one before, andnone of it black — which I regard as a legitimate artistic liberty. The Quintessential Web Page is aiming at a quite different effect (humorous rather than artistic), and it does other things that are not ordinarily appropriate. In this page, I use the content to draw attention to the design — also not normally appropriate. These things are not a special privilege for me; I just mention my pages because they’re the ones I know best. There’s some really beautiful Flash art on the web. One human-computer interaction expert has created a usability resource that is one of the ugliest pages I have ever seen, and does almost every major no-no on the list. This is as it should be — he is making a point by demonstrating features of bad web design. In that regard, making a page that is singularly annoying makes the point far more forcefully than an exemplar of good web practices that says “Be careful that you don’t have text that’s indistinguishable from your background.” It is perfectly acceptable to stray from general rules if you have strong and specific reason to violate them. I learned it all from Jesus, in my opinion, is a unique and valuable addition to my web page — but if I made every page look like that, my PageRank would drop through the floor.
Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Great artists never believe they have to invent everything from scratch to make good art — instead, they draw on the best that has been done before, and use their own creativity to build on top of what others have already accomplished. In web design, this means making a site that is usable to viewers who have learned how to use other sites.
A careful reader will notice one element of design on this site that is not standard, but should be. Designers for major sites, who often have excellent vision, will put navigation links on the page, but make them as small as they can be and not be completely illegible. This is a truly bad idea, and I don’t understand why it is so common. (Maybe web designers forget that some of us only have 20/20 vision?) The navigation links are some of the most important links on most web pages, and I wish to say, “Yes! I consider these links important for you to be able to read and use, and I will proudly let you read them at whatever your preferred text size is, not the smallest size I can read!”
I will consider this to be a successful design feature if you weren’t aware of it until I pointed it out.
A bit too self-congratulatory perhaps, and my design has changed, perhaps for the worse.
Now back to Toastmasters.
Every one of the few Distinguished Toastmaster (D.T.M.)-track printed books I have read is formulaic. I do not mean this as a dig: it is a very good thing. They are, and should be, formulaic, meaning that people don’t have to figure them out, because people open the first page already knowing how to use the book. Someone who is reasonably bright and determined stands a good chance of eventually making D.T.M. status without ever bothering the Vice President of Education about how to use the manuals. They are not only intelligently written; they use conventions successfully.
What is User Experience?
User Experience is an information technology discipline that is all about “Let’s not forget the user.” Every other part of the IT picture besides management that I am aware of is based in the sciences; communication is important, but the work product is ones and zeroes, and things built from ones and zeroes into something bigger. User Experience is different, and it draws primarily from the humanities. The User Experience professionals who worked at Xerox PARC and made the foundation for what became the Apple Macintosh were anthropologists, pure and simple. There are other disciplines that are relevant besides anthropology are psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and so on, but the work product is not building things from ones and zeroes, unless you count software like a word processor. It is a better understanding of how people interact with a particular system.
If you’d like to read further, I highly recommend Laura Klein’s UX [User Experience] for Lean Startups, which does an excellent job of introducing User Experience on a shoestring budget.
I would like to give one concrete example so as not to speak in colorless generalities. I was going to say I was going to nitpick a small detail, but while this may be a nitpick, upon reflection I do not consider it small.
There are three things about the popup that seems to do the lion’s share of the work that leave me puzzled. More specifically:
- That segment of the website is implemented with a popup window, as opposed to, for example, a lightbox within the page, a new browser window, or just being the whole page. This means that users won’t get to access something very important unless they dig into parts of the browsers most users never see. Speaking for myself as a professional, I go into my preferred browser’s settings all the time for IT reasons, but I don’t know how to browse to turn pop-up windows on or off or make exceptions for individual sites; I have to search. I am at a loss for why Toastmasters members are put through this choice.
- The popup window does not match its content in size. This means that, if the person tries to expand the window a bit, a feat of some dexterity is necessary, and it is necessary when the popup appears because the system doesn’t remember the user’s change. I am at a loss for why Toastmasters members are put through this choice.
- Lastly, I am at a loss for why the scrollbars have been confiscated when you can get them for free. (Someone thought that scrollbars are ugly and the page would look prettier if they were suppressed?) It is quite easy in CSS to only display scollbars when they are needed, and it may be the default behavior. I am at a loss for why, given the two points above, scrollbars are confiscated from Toastmasters members.
This is more or less the tone for the whole site.
The red flag hitting a User Experience professional again and again, about the site and the organization that implementented it, is comparable to starting a brand new car and being greeted by the overpowering smell of burning petrochemicals and seeing smoke escape from under the hood.
Jakob Nielsen, who was one of the founders of what is now User Experience for websites, gave some cardinally important maxims, such as “Zero learning time or die,” or “Users spend most of their time on other sites.” My own site uses a WordPress “child theme”, meaning a variation on a standard theme that (in this case) visitors have seen on many other sites. I try to respect this basic wisdom.
It is also a rule of thumb that if you are explaining to people how to use your site, that’s because you know on some level that it’s confusing. No D.T.M. material I’ve read opens with a “How to use this book” page.
One other cardinal finding that is really a matter of politeness at core is that if there is a site that’s confusing, people feel stupid. Worse, most visitors will blame themselves for being stupid or whatever, and not a website, if the website leaves them confused.
(There was a comic strip that I failed to track down that said:)
Where does this leave Toastmasters?
Where does this leave Toastmasters?
Actually, it leaves Toastmasters in a surprisingly good position to profit immensely from a mistake.
One thing I heard at a first job is that “Sunk costs are not an issue,” and “In a healthy company, 40% of all projects are scrapped.” This usually does not mean that people are honest with themselves and realize a project should have never have been started in the first case, or that they had no business being involved in that area in the first place. More often the thought is, “It was the right thing to start, it was the right thing to continue, and it was the right thing to stop.”
Second of all, copyright issues aside, a good Python shop should be able to clone the present Pathways site within a month, and possibly modify from there.
Third of all,, I would recommend that Toastmasters hire a good Python shop and a good User Experience lab, treat the existing site as an alpha release, and improve from there. (Or better, try to make a web equivalent of the program that made Toastmasters famous worldwide, and improve from there. The resources to do better are available, and they are within easy reach, possibly much easier reach than the current solution.
Do you believe that “Toastmasters is for everybody?” Put your money where your mouth is. The present Pathways implemention is manifestly not for everybody, or at least not yet. It’s confusing and it’s causing needless calls for help. Keep your manuals and the D.T.M. track available. They are for everybody in letter and in spirit.
I remain available for questions or suggestions. I have knowledge of Python, known for getting a lot done quickly and well, which has facilities like Django (where “The web framework for perfectionists with deadlines” is not just a tagline), and I have interest in User Experience. I’m not sure I’d be the ideal person to tackle either side, but I have general knowledge in those areas.
And most of all: make D.T.M. a wide open door, at least until Pathways is genuinely ready for our members.
A toast: To the next and better Pathways implementation!
A green Toastmaster Christos Hayward, Competent Communicator, Sergeant at Arms
(P.S. How can you know when Pathways is ready? Very simple. It will go viral among members and clubs, and there will be no need to exhort, sell, or force people to use Pathways because they will adopt of its own. You can know when people stop ordering your excellent D.T.M. track materials. They will go the way of the horse, for routine U.S. transportation, if you make Pathways a good enough car.)