Category Archives: English 351: Hypertext

All entries in this category are related to English 351: Hypertext, a class I took at Illinois State University in the Spring of 2010.

Who am we?

Sherry Turkle’s article “Who Am We?,” published in Wired Magazine, begins complicating identity immediately. Turkle begins by discussing the many Sherry Turkles who exist in separate but interconnected spheres. She then alludes, in third person, to having authored Life on the Screen. (Much of this article’s material is also covered in Life on the Screen.) And at the beginning of her third paragraph, she pushes that separation a little further with the sentence: “This story is borne of Turkle’s past decade of research.” We don’t know which Turkle she’s talking about here, but whichever one it is, it’s not the one who’s speaking to us now.

Soon enough, she gets to her metaphor of windows, which “allow us to cycle through cyberspace and real life, over and over. Windows allow us to be in several contexts at the same time …” And that all leaves me feeling a little schizophrenic. But I’ve got to admit, those windows are important in structuring life, even as they separate lives. It was certainly a little strange when, as an undergraduate, I first realized my professors could access Facebook. And that strangeness arose from having two “windows” of my life suddenly merge. I think of it like talking politics. I talk politics differently at school, at home, with my husband, with my dad. Why? Because talking politics, for me, is a way to identify with someone. And that means that I always seek the areas of politics where I hold similar beliefs to the person I’m talking to, and that’s what frames our discussion. If I had to talk fiscal policy with someone from school, well, that’s a window I don’t access very often. In fact, it’s a sort of hybrid between other windows I do access, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Thinking in windows is a new thing, at least relatively speaking, because you and I are picturing windows on a computer screen rather than windows in a wall. This shift is part of the generational change Turkle talks about in which some people think of a computer as a giant calculator and others things of it as something a lot messier, softer, more amorphous than that. “Today’s computational models of the mind often embrace a postmodern aesthetic of complexity and decentering” (2). People younger than I am conceive of computers differently than I do. And people of my parents’ generation think of computers differently then either of those younger generations. It seems, based on Turkle’s discussion of Tim, the SimCity fan, that younger generations are OK with not understanding the whole picture. It’s acceptable to them that computerish workings are beyond their control. “Children are comfortable with the idea that inanimate objects can both think and have a personality. But they no longer worry if the machine is alive,” which is interesting because it’s a worry that older generations have invested considerable angst and energy on (3). (Think 1984, Terminator, Minority Report.) But, Turkle says, children are developing a different conception of aliveness: “they are increasingly likely to attribute qualities to [computers] that undermine the machine/person distinction” such as intention, ideas, even consciousness (3). (I’m still struggling with the idea of mobility as a characteristic of aliveness. Turkle quotes children as saying things with more mobility are more alive, and mobility includes an animal in a Sim universe being able to move into other programs or onto other computers, virus-like. Moreover, children assume a desire for mobility in these e-creatures.) The new distinction has to do with sensuality and embodiment—which, ironically, is something people often use computers to mediate.

Which brings me to the question I’ve been circling since I read this article: What is embodiment? What is the difference between thought and action? (This is a particularly interesting quandary in terms of religion, where many Protestant believers ascribe to the notion that one is saved by faith—something at least akin to thought—rather than works—action.) And which of those categories does writing fit beneath? Turkle tells us that MUDs (multi-user dungeons, a category that includes all simulated worlds) are “organized around the metaphor of physical space” (5). Why this metaphor? Probably because we haven’t yet evolved to conceive of something as not requiring space. An object has to have mass in order to be real, doesn’t it? But if that’s the case, how to we acknowledge those things that separate us from computers, like love, hate, and feeling in general? Perhaps it’s the contents of a being’s non-spatial components that define aliveness? Humans have emotion where computers have X. X being all the stuff that floats around in virtual “space.”

Turkle also talks about passing in MUDs, which is even more interesting when one considers the case of Doug, who effectively passes for a computer-played character in one of his MUDs (6). If computers can pass as humans, is the opposite possible? And if so, is defining aliveness a moot point?

Toward the end of the article, Turkle talks about the line between virtual and real. It seems that combining the two usually leads to disappointing results. So I wonder … is this only the case for people who play MUDs? Or is there some part of that disappointment that comes through when one tries to mediate a cohesive online identity as well? “Once we take virtuality seriously as a we of life, we need a new language for talking about the simplest things” (11). Embodiment, feeling, relationships, and self all become far more complex.

So I’ll end with a quote from Donna Haraway that Turkle uses in this article:

“Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes … about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true.”

Definitely CSS

As I begin my research for the required graduate project in my Hypertext class, I find myself gravitating to two particular web experts: Sherry Turkle (more on her work later, trust me) and Eric Meyer.

I was hooked by Meyer’s CSS: The Definitive Guide on page 2. After beginning an explanation of the differences between HTML and CSS in a section entitled “The Web’s Fall From Grace,” he establishes a dichotomy between HTML as a structural language and CSS as a stylistic construct. “Why do authors run roughshod over structure and meaning?” he asks in regard to an example of using font elements rather than heading elements. This rhetorical approach to the highly technical building blocks of the web pulled me in by making me feel as if I not only understand what Meyer is talking about, but I also have a stake in it.

Although I don’t plan to read this entire book straight through—and I think the word “guide” in the title discourages that, anyway—I do like this opening chapter that sets up the differences between CSS and other less nuanced methods. Besides offering understandable explanations and examples, this book makes me feel validated as a web designer who doesn’t know a whole lot about “code.” The rhetorical functionality of web design simply doesn’t rely on HTML, and maybe it can even be hindered by it.

In other chapters, Meyer discusses Selectors, Structure, Values and Units, Fonts, Text Properties, Visual formatting, Borders, Colors, Positioning, Tables, Lists, Interface Styles, and Non-Screen Media. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I have a feeling that all these chapters are as enlightening as the first. Part of that feeling comes from the fact that the author, Meyer, is “the best-recognized CSS authority in the world,” according to Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing with Web Standards, which I’m also working my way through right now. Although I don’t like Designing with Web Standards as well as CSS: The Definitive Guide (it’s less accessible), it’s still a handy book to have around for somebody struggling with web design.

Information Architecture and Navigation

In response to Jim’s post regarding the timing of these readings, I do think I understood them better because I already have a sense of what McIntire is talking about. The vocabulary she uses is the vocabulary we’ve been using for seven weeks now, and it helps to reinforce those terms (and concepts) and internalize them as we go along. I did notice a couple instances where McIntire refers to a difference between artistic and corporate sites. In general, her book is aimed at those designing corporate-style sites. I would argue that, for the most part, the distinction there (at least for McIntire) is whether a site is content-driven or form-driven. McIntire juxtaposes site architecture and visual design to illustrate this point (54). As I’m far more interested in the rhetorical function of web sites, I really appreciate the approach both this book and Krug’s book take to talking about web design. For example, I particularly appreciate discussions where the form and function are explicitly placed in conversation with each other, like when McIntire describes the expectations for underlined words on the web (and, increasingly, in general, as evidenced by the MLA’s latest changes to its style guide). It’s important to me to think about both approaches so that I learn to integrate form and function as I create and critique hypertextual documents.

The first tidbit that interested me in these readings was McIntire’s sidebar discussion of design and the legal system. As it turns out, some entities have successfully patented software patterns—the example McIntire gives is Amazon’s one-click purchasing option—and defended those patents in court. This has interesting implications for web designers, who largely work by bricolage (whether they admit it or not). What does it mean for a person/corporation to own a software pattern? What defines a discrete pattern? How large a chunk does something have to be before it is plagiarized/stolen rather than appropriated/borrowed? (For that matter, why are these patterns patented and not copyrighted? They are intellectual, textual works, yes?) While I don’t have answers to these questions, I think they bear thinking about and I think how they get answered in the courts and in the public sphere will have a big impact on web design in the future.

I was also interested in some usability and accessibility issues in these chapters. I LOVE the list of suggestions for greater accessibility beginning on page 123. During the creation of my Master’s Portfolio, I was keenly aware of the need to provide accommodations for users with different accessibility needs, but I felt quite lost in terms of trying to make my site available to them. Explanations of things like the transparent “skip navigation” link provide me with concrete ways to improve the accessibility of my sites (125). This also ties to goodwill, which we talked about last week. Users with different accessibility needs will likely still encounter problems in viewing my sites, but items like a “skip navigation” link may refill their “goodwill gas tanks” (to use Krug’s metaphor) and encourage them to keep trying because they know I’m attempting to reach them.

I also appreciate McIntire’s attention to small but potentially important items like creating favicons (121) and the naming of files that need to be saved within the site’s folder hierarchy (63). Favicons are an excellent tool for branding, and file-naming appropriately can save a lot of headaches. McIntire suggests naming files according to their functionality rather than according to their physical attributes, which will keep them relevant even as the visual design of the site changes (63). Another helpful hint was to create a custom 404 page (122). I’ve seen these before, and they certainly altered my perception of the site that caused them to appear. When I get the generic “404—file not found” page, I’m generally disgusted enough to move to another site. A custom 404 page demonstrates professionalism and goodwill. A site I critiqued earlier this semester (www.lincolncourier.com) used to have a custom 404 page with text that echoed the local mission of the newspaper in style. It apologized for the inconvenience with clever text that said something like “We’ve looked everywhere, including under the couch, and we can’t find this page.” It then encouraged users to browse other sections of the site. That page has since been replaced by a corporate-designed site that reads “We’re sorry. You received a 404 ERROR because the Web address you entered is not a functioning page on our site.” Although this is still a custom page, it’s not nearly as well done as the original. It assigns blame to the reader and provides no call to action for future browsing. I won’t make this mistake, and I’m really glad to know how to create a custom 404 page. These are the sorts of things that don’t seem so vital until one has already tried to create a website. Having already worked so hard on the Sandbox assignment helped me to appreciate these timely hints.

There were several things mentioned in these chapters that I will need to experiment with before I understand. While I can comprehend their rhetorical function, I’m doubting my ability to use McIntire’s explanation to make these things happen. For example, I had a hard time following her explanation of creating hierarchy charts in Dreamweaver, although this sounds like it could be extremely useful (78). I’m also not sure I totally understand the process described for disabling links. I know I can do this manually, as I did on the website for my first website critique (http://students.english.ilstu.edu/eaclar4/351/critique1), but I’d love to actually be able to figure out the more streamlined process McIntire describes.

I do have one minor critique: I’m with Heather in being puzzled over the idolization of Amazon. While I find Amazon to be a functional and even well-designed site, I wouldn’t have picked it as an ideal example for usability or aesthetic purposes. The fact that both Krug and McIntire seem to see it as the Holy Grail of web design is surprising to me. But . . . I do think their customized home page is unparalleled. It always makes me think of the first time Facebook implemented its News Feed (then dubbed the “Stalker Feed” by most of my friends). Facebook’s clunky appropriation of customization makes Amazon’s skillful marketing look even sleeker.

Reflecting on Krug’s ideas of Navigation, Identity, and Goodwill

On Navigation—————-

Personally, I find navigation to be the part of a website that really defines how I think of the site as a whole: annoying, amateur, functional, awesome. And although that ordering indicates a hierarchy, there’s really a fine line between annoying and awesome. Take, for example, the website that I did my first critique on. This is a portfolio site produced by a graphic artist, and the navigation is infuriating. The entire site consists of just one page, and the links at the top (which are divided into two navigation bars whose organization is beyond my understanding) are actually anchor links to sections farther down the page. Check it out at http://www.tanyamerone.com. Clearly, this person knows how to design an aesthetically pleasing website, but she edged over that line into the “annoying” category.

Krug gives us a lot of analogies to physical navigation (like the mall example), which is helpful to start conceptualizing the ways in which web navigation is—and isn’t—what we expect it to be. I think the biggest lesson I can take from this chapter is on page 54: “You’re usually trying to find something.” This is just a fact for web usage. Although I like surfing around to find new things, most people want to get in, find what they need, and get out. And especially when there is no sense of scale, direction, or location, this can be hard (57). Navigation has to be intuitive.

I think Krug spends a lot of time talking about the navigation of very complex pages. I appreciate his gripe about people not planning their pages beyond the top two levels (70). However, I’ve rarely designed pages that had more than two levels. And while it’s helpful to study what Amazon does, I wish he’d spent a little time on simpler pages and how to make their navigation as simple as they are.

But, he did give some good pointers for this. Being able to tell where you are no matter what page you’re on and always having a path to get quickly back home are good tips to live by, in my opinion. I’ll certainly use the trunk test in the future (85). I also find his practical examples to be very helpful, so I’m going to take a page out of his book and critique some actual web pages. Below, I’ll use some more examples to contextualize Krug’s ideas about navigation.

http://hardflip.com – I’d call this an amateur site in terms of navigation. I get the feeling that there’s some sort of organization, and I even understand the chronological blog part of the site in the bottom left quadrant, but it takes way too much effort to figure out what’s actually going on here. And the “changes coming … when time permits” tagline scares me. It makes me feel like I’m on Facebook and they’re about to completely change the way the navigations works … again. (Hey, there’s another example of a site that toes the line between “awesome” and “annoying.”)

http://www.youworkforthem.com – I’d call this one functional. The tabs at the top let me know what my options are, and the navigation is actually clear enough to counteract the fact that the homepage tells me nothing about what this page is for. (More on that when I get to Krug’s chapter on Identity.) The navigation bar also repeats halfway down the page. This is confusing at first, but it’s actually helpful once you realize what it is. I want to note, though, that while the top level of navigation is functional, all the clickable buttons are a bit overwhelming due to the fact that they aren’t labeled in any way. You have to click to find out what the link goes to, and clicking blindly isn’t a best practice for people used to avoiding viruses and such.

http://www.shankman.com – This is my “awesome” example. The navigation is persistent on every page, the buttons actually act like buttons, and the nav bar is at the top where it’s easily found. (There are still things that could be improved about this navigation, though. For example, I hate that the home page is Shankman’s blog. Although I’m OK with blogs being long scrolling pages because that’s what they are by nature, I’m not OK with home pages being long and scrolling.)

http://www.jerseyjoeart.com – Here’s another one that could easily have been awesome but instead falls into the “annoying” category. The links pick up the feel of the page and are clearly links, which is shown both by their spacing and the embedded rollover images. But … they’re placed at the bottom of the page, which is annoying to someone who is just browsing and wants to click through the site’s pages quickly. They also change places from page to page, which is frustrating when a person is trying to find something specific.

PS: I used http://www.randomwebsite.com to find several of these sites, and it’s a site that takes the simplest possible approach to navigation: It only has one link, and that one’s external, and the single page isn’t long and annoying. Refreshing!

On Identity—————-

This chapter is really, really interesting in that it makes us face the fact that we are the absolute worst people to be doing usability testing. Krug tells us that “the ‘main point’ is the one thing nobody inside the organization will notice is missing” (103). I think it’s astonishing how much this happens; it’s difficult to keep from happening even when one is aware of the problem.

One of the sites I mentioned above is a case in point. The home page of http://www.youworkforthem.com tells visitors absolutely nothing about the site’s purpose. This become an even bigger problem when (after several clicks into the site) one realizes the site is a platform for selling web design materials. I could have easily pirated a design off the home page of the site without ever realizing I was supposed to pay for it. This is an example of where an organization’s failure to explain their site’s purpose could lead directly to lost revenue.

I was interested in Krug’s distinction between taglines and welcome blurbs. I’m just not sure I agree that every site (barring the biggies like Amazon and CNN explained on page 106) needs both a welcome blurb and a tagline besides a page title and site ID. It seems to me like the page title, site ID, and tagline are all accomplishing very similar things. I looked back at my Master’s Portfolio site (which is at http://students.english.ilstu.edu/eaclar4/index.html) to try to decide which of these parts were essential rhetorically speaking. I found that the page title is “Reading Public Bodies … A Portfolio by Erin Frost,” and the welcome message is found below the image. But I don’t really see a site ID or a tagline, and I think the page is still rhetorically sound. (I’d be interested in seeing others comments about this. Disagreeing with Krug makes me nervous because the more I read of him, the more inclined I am to take his word for anything.)

On Goodwill—————-

I realize this post has rambled on for quite some time and I may be losing readers’ goodwill, so I’ll wrap up quickly (much as Krug does in this succinct chapter). I find the visual aid of a reservoir of goodwill to be helpful, but I will constantly be imagining my readers’ reservoirs to be almost empty just to be safe (162). I find the lists on pages 164-167 to be particularly helpful. Once again, as Krug stated early on, these are things that seem like common sense once you know them, but they are also things that are sometimes hard to figure out until you’ve gotten Krug’s perspective.

Especially intriguing is that Krug names some of the things known as identifying an advanced digital designer as the very things that diminish goodwill; “putting sizzle in my way” as a downfall makes me feel a little better about knowing nothing about Flash. Many of the things on the list to increase goodwill are things I learned during my print design classes three lifetimes ago. These include knowing what your audience wants and giving it to them, saving them effort by putting in effort yourself, and knowing what questions they want answered. Other suggestions are unique to web design, like providing printer-friendly pages and making it easy to recover from errors. These are the sorts of things that I feel should be obvious but often don’t think of.

I especially like Krug’s final admonition: “When in doubt, apologize.” This seems to me a mantra that could benefit many companies in terms of increasing corporate responsibility and creating goodwill with consumers.

Layout, Color, Graphics, and Typography … Oh my!

Having read a Robin Williams text previously, The Non-Designer’s Web Book offered lessons that were somewhat familiar to me. I remember loving Williams’ writing in the past; I found it spunky and refreshing. I still think it is, to some extent, but read alongside Penny McIntire’s text, it actually came off as a bit grating. I really enjoyed the professional tone of Visual Design for the Modern Web, and I consistently found myself marking page numbers that I wanted to come back to later. I also found at least a few examples of techniques that I’m already planning to use in my Sandbox assignment; it really helps to be in the midst of a project while reading this information.

In the Page Layout section, I was excited to get an understandable explanation of how display size and resolution interact. This has always been something of a mystery to me, and I’ve generally resorted to random guesswork and checking out my sites on as many monitors and browsers as I could in the past. While I understand that this sort of usability checking is still a good idea, I feel much more informed about the initial creation of a site that I think will look presentable on most systems. It was also helpful to realize that both Visual Design for the Modern Web and The Non-Designer’s Web Book recommend using an 800-pixel-wide display. Visual Design for the Modern Web also helped me understand the difference between liquid and solid layout. This was something that I had a vague concept of from working on the Sandbox project, but I was still puzzling it out. Knowing that a solid layout is a set number of pixels horizontally and that a liquid layout expands and contracts to fill any screen makes the distinction much easier to wrap my head around. Much of the other information in Visual Design for the Modern Web could fall under the C.R.A.P. principles discussed in The Non-Designer’s Web Book, although they were discussed in a more sophisticated way with more modern and helpful examples, in my opinion. I also appreciated the attention given to accessibility throughout McIntosh’s text.

The chapter on Color in Visual Design for the Modern Web was my favorite part of this reading. While I’ve studied color theory before, I didn’t know about hexadecimal coding. Now I feel like I have a much better handle on how to create attractive color schemes in web design programs. Likewise, the Graphics chapter was very informative. It helped me understand the reasoning behind some things that I already knew, such as why a jpeg file is best for photographs and a gif is best for line drawings. The discussion of transparency and layers was helpful in thinking about how to get around some common problems in web design. I was also interested to learn about the ways in which bitmapped files are compressed and why these images sometimes degrade to the point of being unusable. I especially appreciated the explanation of the relationship between DPI and PPI, which I’ve known experienced designers to misunderstand. All this said, McIntosh provides understandable examples that are helping me understand why particular conventions exist in designing for the web. Knowing why a convention exists is immensely helpful if one is ever considering breaking a rule. Just as in any other aspect of life, knowing the original reasoning behind the rule is pretty vital to understanding when it’s acceptable (even beneficial) to break it.

As an experienced newspaper and magazine designer, most of the Typography chapter was old news to me (except, obviously, for the HTML). I’d like to pick a fight with McIntosh on one subject in this chapter: She states that “typographers have long argued that printed body copy is more legible in a serif typeface” and then goes on to refute this as an industry standard, implying that it’s a subject of great controversy. To be blunt, she’s wrong. Defaulting to a serif typeface for body text is an industry standard for print media. The sans serif typeface this book is set in drove me nuts the entire time I was reading. (Obviously, for this particular user, it wasn’t a transparent choice). I’m not arguing that one should never use a sans serif face for body type in print; I’m just saying that most good print designers won’t do it unless there is a good reason. On-screen, I’m no expert, so I’ll take McIntosh’s advice to use sans serif typefaces if the serifs are breaking down and proving useless. However, I’ve always been partial to Georgia (a serif) for on-screen type, so I was a little pleased with myself when I learned that Microsoft had hired this typeface created specifically for screen display. I think this goes to show that anyone—even a web designer as inexperienced as I am—who is paying attention can design a decent web site just by using common sense in relation to usability.