Save Us From Carousels

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I ranted on Twitter a while ago about the fad for auto-rotating carousels, sliders, changing images, and whatever, on homepages for academic and cultural sites. Quite a few people seemed to agree with me. Well, the nasty things have not gone away since then. Quite the opposite, it seems: every other digital project, research centre, or library collection appears to have decided that its homepage simply must have some bloody great flickering, twitching gizmo taking up a large chunk of the screen. (I haven’t looked, but I have dark suspicions that some of this infestation is down to WordPress plugins just making it too damn easy.)

Why am I on a homepage? Because I’m getting my bearings, especially if it’s my first visit. I want to know what the site contains of interest to me. And I want to do this quickly so I can get to the good stuff. I’m not going to wait for a carousel to go round, like it’s a TV screen, in the hope it might eventually display something useful to me. In fact, my first reaction on realising it’s one of those is generally “Arghh!! Scroll away NOW!!” So any utility it has is pure chance: if the very first panel it displays happens to be of interest to me, and stays there long enough to let me read it and click on it, I might click on it.

Naturally, I find it hard to believe most people don’t agree with me. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there’s loads of usability research backing up this design concept that says I’m the weirdo: most people love watching website carousels go round, find them useful entry points to a website and noooo, not distracting at all.

So I went looking around. First thing: you know what? Most developers hate them too. Second: there doesn’t actually seem to be very much empirical data, certainly not any scholarly research, though there’s plenty of anecdote. There are quite a few examples of developers and commercial UX-y people saying “yeah, we ran tests and people found them annoying”, but no numbers. I’ve found a few designers who love them because they look “cool” and “slick” and suchlike twattishness. I’ve yet to find one real website user with a good thing to say about them.

Still, what data there is says: most people don’t use them, lots of people don’t like them,  and they can actually make it harder, not easier, for people to find useful information. Users tend to blank them out as irrelevant (“banner blindness”), but worse, they make it physically harder to focus on the information around them. Flickery moving things are distracting: whodathunkit?

Accordions and carousels should show a new panel only when users ask for it. Otherwise, it should stand still and let users read the information in peace, without having the rug yanked from under them. As our user said about Siemens’ big rotating box: “I didn’t have time to read it. It keeps flashing too quickly.”

While it’s obviously less annoying, I think a standard static carousel is pretty much useless, like a new version of Mystery Meat Navigation. I want to get information, not play a “Guess what’s next?!” game. I’m not going to use it. Still, at least I’m not going to swear at you while trying to make my escape as rapidly as possible. (Though I quite like ‘accordion’ style designs with text labels that open up. Having something to tell me what’s hiding under there makes all the difference.)

“Approximately 1% of visitors click on a feature [on a static carousel on one of the ND sites]… Of these clicks, 84% were on stories in position 1″. An auto-rotating carousel on another ND site did rather better: just under 9% of visitors clicked through, with the first feature shown averaging 40% and the rest ranging from 18% down to 11%. But those are still pretty small numbers for something that’s going to piss off a significant proportion of your site visitors, aren’t they?

Reason #1: Human eye reacts to movement (and will miss the important stuff)

Reason #2: Too many messages equals no message

Frost argues the real reason we get carousels is primarily political:

From universities to giant retailers, large organizations endure their fair share of politics. And boy does that homepage look like a juicy piece of prime real estate to a roomful of stakeholders. It’s hard to navigate these mini turf wars, so tools like carousels are used as appeasers to keep everyone from beating the shit out of each other.

Also…

A final thing, for people on academic projects planning websites. E-commerce sites and the like have plenty of money for regular website re-designs and refreshes. You won’t. If you don’t want your site to look tired and dated within months it’s in your interests to avoid fads and gimmicks on your homepage. And when it’s a fad that will irritate a substantial proportion of your site visitors, and be useless to nearly all of them, please JUST SAY NO.

When swearing goes bad

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There is this unintentionally (I think) hilarious article in the Times Online about swearing. One of my favourite topics!

What makes it funny, first off? All of the swearwords have been asterisked out.

And then, I always have to giggle at people whose line is ‘no, really, I’m not one of those old fogeys who’s offended by swearing. But…’ And the ‘but’ is the old chestnut that swearing is just fine as long as it’s creative and clever and discriminating and suitably restrained and blah blah blah. (Talk about missing the fucking point.)

[I should add at this point that I don't have problems with people who are genuinely offended by swearing. It's supposed to be offensive. But if you don't like swearing, then just be honest about it. This self-righteous 'yesbuttery' just gets on my tits.]

And personally I don’t think that someone who came up with the following sentence is all that well placed to lecture anyone else about good language use:

Morrissey, however, is someone who manages to be a lyrical genius without practically ever resorting to swearing.

‘Without practically ever’? Dearie me.

(Did you see how restrained I was there? Do I get points?)

Degrees and non-degrees

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Yes, it’s that time of year again! (And I haven’t written on the topic lately so I’m not bored with it yet.) [Update: but I am bored with looking at it now so most of it's going under the fold until I think of something new to say.]

The latest diatribe against Mickey Mouse HE courses (pdf) is out, ‘The Non-Courses Report’, produced by a group called the Taxpayers Alliance. And for once, there seems to have been some effort at proper research; not all of the courses listed are full Bachelors level degrees, but they do all seem to be at minimum Foundation degrees or other minimum two year courses. (So at least we’re not talking about another story that finds a single module or one-term course with a wacky title from a minute HE college that doesn’t even award degrees and then shrieks UNIVERSITY DEGREES GOING DOWN THE TUBES!!!)

The report is a fascinating mixture of the sensible, peculiar and shoddy. The authors say they have asked two questions, which sound fairly reasonable: Continue reading

Digital history and the archives: loss or gain?

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The NYT has an interesting article on progress in digitisation of historical sources, and the gaps being left behind (reg. required) (h-t).

It contains an argument, though, that I have some nagging doubts about: that, as more sources are digitised, those which remain available only in the archives will be more neglected than they were before.

Even with outside help, experts say, entire swaths of political and cultural history are in danger of being forgotten by new generations of amateur researchers and serious scholars. …

While the Internet boom has made information more accessible and widespread than ever, that very ubiquity also threatens records and artifacts that do not easily lend themselves to digitization — because of cost, but also because Web surfers and more devoted data hounds simply find it easier to go online than to travel far and wide to see tangible artifacts.

“This is the great problem right now, and it’s a scary thing,” said the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. “The dots are only connected by a few of us who are willing to go to the places to make those connections.”

But only a few of us ever were willing or able to go out there in the first place. Archival research has always been a minority pursuit, given the commitment and resources (including time) it demands. For most sane people, there must be more appealing pursuits.

Is it really the case, though, that the minority will be even smaller in the future because some research can be done without leaving one’s desk? Or is digital history creating large numbers of new researchers who, even if what they’re doing is limited by what’s available online, would never have even contemplated visiting archives or record offices to look at original documents?

I can imagine scenarios in which academics and postgrad students make decisions to restrict research projects (largely) to what they can do at their computer, where they might previously have unwillingly endured research trips. (Though I do find it harder to imagine any historian building a serious academic career entirely based on digital sources.) On the other hand, I can imagine how digital sources are likely to open up new possibilities for scholars whose options were previously narrowly circumscribed by their circumstances, lack of material resources, other personal and professional obligations.

[ETA: Writing that reminded me of something I'd read about Natalie Zemon Davis. The confiscation of your passport (as a suspected Communist) is undoubtedly a more unusual restriction on research travel, although she also faced more familiar problems; the way in which she subsequently made a virtue out of necessity is also well worth reading.]

I can imagine how the priorities of digitisation projects are likely to reinforce the emphasis of much popular history. At the same time, not all digital sources are records of the Great and Good. Far from it. There are now vast swathes of online sources about ordinary people, records which would previously have been accessible only to the chosen crazy dedicated few.

Loss or gain?

But these things are not the same

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A libertarian argues that The left has been infected by the disease of intolerance (as if (a) the left has in the past been some kind of free-for-all, and (b) the right is such a shining beacon of tolerance).

Free speech in British universities is under attack by lefty academics and students because (among other things)

* A student union has banned the Daily Mail
* Another union banned the playing of Eminen records because of the use of words like ‘fags’
* Another one banned Israeli Embassy representatives from speaking there
* And other unions “have banned the sale of Coca-Cola and Kit-Kats in protest at the working practises of their parent companies”.

Since when was eating KitKats an expression of free speech, for chrissakes?

More generally, I don’t see that what any organisation, including a students’ union, decides – especially if based on a vote by the members – to sell or not sell in its own shops has anything to do with freedom of expression. Or that making a decision that might (probably marginally) reduce the profits of major companies like Coca Cola and Nestle has anything to do with intolerance.

Updating ‘modernity’

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From my mailbox today:

Futhark is a new journal dedicated to the publication of scholarly studies based on premodern texts (prior to 1945) from a humanistic perspective, though not necessarily philological.

Dunno, I always thought that ‘premodern’ meant before 1800 or thereabouts.* I suppose it’s inevitable, however established our basic historiographical period conventions may seem right now, that it should be updated and that ‘modern’ is going to be a continually moving target.** (OED: “Of or relating to the present and recent times, as opposed to the remote past; of, relating to, or originating in the current age or period”; “Characteristic of the present time, or the time of writing; not old-fashioned, antiquated, or obsolete; employing the most up-to-date ideas, techniques, or equipment”. Etc, etc. And I don’t even want to start on all the varieties of usage for ‘early modern’.)

But still, anything more than 60 years old is now classified as ‘premodern’?

………

*Not that I’ve ever liked ‘premodern’, I should point out. As an undergrad, I once wrote a fantastically profound snotty and precocious essay mostly about everything wrong with the concept ‘premodern’ (or perhaps it was ‘preindustrial’) – just because the term happened to appear in the essay question. I got away with it, as I recall.

**Well, unless someone somewhere can come up with a new concept to replace it altogether, I suppose (and I mean something less lame than ‘postmodern’).

Bad history and the historian

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I’ve been reflecting on what Ahistoricality said in the Carnival of Bad History

…Yes, I’m complaining: the number of independent submissions from the historical blogosphere was pitiful, in spite of the publicity I got from some of the best-read bloggers in the ‘sphere. Given the educational potential, political abuses and cultural damage of bad history, I would have thought that they’d be lining up to host and flooding the inbox with submissions. Nope.

I think that [part of] the trouble is that if you’re an even half-way decent blogging historian, you don’t feel that you can just dash off a quick post about the latest spot of Bad History you encountered. You have to go do research: if you’re having a go at someone else’s use of evidence, yours has to be watertight. Mostly you don’t start. Or you write a paragraph and then decide you need to go to the library to check something out (just to be sure), so it sits in your drafts folder for the next six months.

Because you just don’t have the time.