Site Critique: Information Architecture

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When creating a website, the way information is organized within the site is one of the most crucial aspects in the design process. If a good plan for the organization of information is not made early on, the success of the website can suffer. In this post, I will outline a few issues with the information architecture of the Department of Writing Studies website using guidelines from the text Web Style Guide.


A big part of information architecture includes how the content is formatted on the page. Despite the temptation many web designers may feel to imitate the printed page, it is a mistake to do so. Users visiting a site do not have time to read an entire page; instead, they skim headlines to find information they want.

Pages are more useful when divided into sections. The homepage of the Department of Writing Studies site has a letter of greeting written by the department chair, but this format is not useful for most users. The creators of the site should evaluate this text to determine the most important information in it and then separate it out into multiple sections with headings that stand out.

Themes for Organization

Users need to know immediately what kind of information is on a page. One way to communicate this information is by the use of themes. For example, a product page on a bookstore website would benefit from a "Category" theme, dividing books into different categories. A newspaper website would benefit from a "Time Line" theme, with the most recent news at the top of a page and earlier news below it.

The "Undergraduate" page on the site starts out with a description of one of the majors offered by the department, but is then followed by news. These two pieces of information are incongruous and do not belong on the same page. Since the "Undergraduate" page is the main page for all of the undergraduate programs and services, it should perhaps focus on the news section since there is already a dedicated "Major" page.


Just as many people use landmarks in real life to orient themselves in a city, web users need markers to tell them where they are on a website. After all, users may end up on a page deep within the site through a search engine. These users need landmarks to let them know where they are within the site and where they are in relation to the homepage.

The Department of Writing Studies site makes use of such landmarks, but it could be improved. A good example of landmarks is that each page uses titles that match the names of the links listed in the left-hand navigation bar. Additionally, when users click on the link to a section (such as "Undergraduate" or "People"), a corresponding set of tabs for that section open up beneath its title in the navigation bar.

However, when a user is visiting a particular section, that section's name should become highlighted in the navigation bar. Currently, if a user clicks on "Undergraduate", they can see the tabs that opened up beneath "Undergraduate", but the name "Undergraduate" is not itself highlighted. Highlighting "Undergraduate" would strengthen the connection between the section name and its corresponding tabs.

Additionally, the banner at the top of the page is a link. On most websites, the banner is a link to the homepage. In the case of the Department of Writing Studies, however, this banner takes the user to the top of the current section they are in. Let's say I'm on the "Major" page of the "Undergraduate" section. When I click the banner, rather than taking me back to the homepage, it takes me to the main page of the "Undergraduate" section. This makes the banner a false landmark, because it leads users into thinking that it goes somewhere it does not.

Writing Studies Site Commentary

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The Department of Writing Studies website has some issues that need resolving in order to make it easier for visitors to use. I will outline a few of these issues in this blog post along with suggestions for change:


One of the biggest problems with the site is its distinct lack of headings for important information. The homepage includes a letter of welcome from the department chair that does include some useful information, but it is obscured by the fact that the information is not separated into headings. Separating content into different headings has a number of benefits, including:

  • making information easier to find

  • making the text less dense

  • improving overall readability

The homepage should be reworked to include the information that visitors to the site want to see right away, namely, "What is the Department of Writing Studies?" By using headings, the site creators can point visitors to different areas of the site depending on each visitor's needs.

Link Names

Redish points out in chapter 12 of Letting Go of the Words that research shows link titles with 7-12 words were best in helping people find the information they wanted. While perhaps the Department of Writing Studies site does not need link lengths that are even that long, most link names are only one or two words with only one of them having five words.

Link titles like "About", "Courses", and "Undergraduate" do make quite a bit of sense given the context, but more informative titles would help. "About" could become "About the Department of Writing Studies", "Courses" could become "Courses Offered in Writing Studies", and "Undergraduate" could become "Undergraduate Programs and Information".


The only pictures on the site appear to be mood pictures. Mood pictures can be helpful in establishing a site's character and personality, but the site designers should be careful of whether or not the images they are using really convey the personality they want.

The first image on the homepage shows some students walking along the mall. What does this say about the Department of Writing Studies? It has no relation whatsoever and does nothing to give the reader confidence in the department. This might be a good place for a group picture of people in the department.

A good example of a mood picture is on the "Courses" page. This picture shows a student smiling while working on a piece of writing, which creates a positive association with the courses offered by the Department of Writing Studies.

Another mood picture is found on the "Undergraduate" page, but all we see is a hand writing in a notebook. Because we cannot see a face, the image feels impersonal and all it tells us is that an undergraduate program in writing studies will involve writing. A picture like the one on the "Courses" page would be better here, again to create a positive association with their undergraduate programs. While the site designers might be concerned about having pictures with little variation, there are times where having a consistent theme is to their advantage.

Youtube and Podcasts and Writing, Oh My!

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For all I dislike Bolter's style of writing, I have to admit that his ideas are very intriguing and spot-on. Everywhere I look now I seem to find evidence of remediation in almost everything I use, from my computer to even my alarm clock (which can play my iPod). Technologies such as YouTube and podcasting appear to challenge what it means to "write", especially using the definitions found in the Pew Internet and American Life study.

With regards to YouTube and podcasting, the writing is mostly behind the scenes (unless your Youtube video has a lot of text). For both of these genres, the writing most likely takes place in the form of a script, or at least the planning documents required to produce them. But we even had this dilemma going back to the invention of movies, if indeed there were any scholars debating the meaning of "writing" at the time. While I would call the script itself (or a transcript) a piece of writing, the podcast or YouTube video is not a piece of writing (again, unless your YouTube video has a lot of text in it). While my definition of writing is pretty liberal--if it uses writing, it is "writing"--I do have some sharp boundaries. If writing is not the main primary form of communication, then it is not a piece of writing.

However, as for the medium itself, if writing as the main form of communication is possible, then I'm willing to consider it a writing technology. Thus, YouTube videos count for me, but podcasts do not. Many might disagree with me, and may also point out that it is important not to ignore that Youtube videos and podcasts can be spontaneous, which is a defining aspect of these genres. For YouTube, using the written form as communication is possible, but it ignores other advantages of the medium, and podcasts cannot do it at all.

Case Study Commentary

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If there is one thing that can be learned from the case study on pp. 46-50 of Ginny Redish's Letting Go of the Words, it's that usability is important in every field. When writing on the web, understanding theories of rhetoric and writing style will only get you so far; in order to be the most effective, you must understand your specific audience and their expectations in order to create web writing that works.

The HHS website outlined in the case study started out as being centered around a "News" feature that lead to the latest announcements about things happening at the HHS. However, the usability study found that visitors did not want "news", they wanted specific, topic-based information. The designers of the initial HHS site completely misunderstood their visitors' needs. In order to alleviate these issues, the site underwent a massive redesign: the new homepage was a list of topics arranged in an easy-to-read grid format, with a search bar added to the top right-hand side of the screen. As a result, visitors were able to find the information they wanted more easily and quickly.

This case study shows us that writing for a website is unique in that it requires a minimum understanding of design. The placement, size, and color of text are almost, if not equally, as important as what is actually written. Writers must also be wary of not writing to suit their own tastes, but to write in a way that site visitors find useful. When writing for the web, most visitors are trying to accomplish a task, not read for the sake of reading. Even in the few cases where visitors are reading for the sake of reading, they need cues that the content is worth their time, such as catchy titles and brief descriptions.

For another example of a bad homepage, Tally-Ho is a website that sells uniforms and accessories for airlines. Is this a website that understands what their customers expect of an e-commerce site? In a word: "No."

Are You a Linear or Non-Linear Reader?

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When reading on the web, eye tracking studies have shown that most people read in a fragmented way, jumping from place to place and scanning only a few lines. As a result, web designers have to be cautious about how they arrange content on their websites. Content has to be focused and relevant, using only about 25% of the words that would be used to describe the same thing in print in order to keep the readers' attention. This sort of reading is described as "non-linear" because readers are not reading the text line-by-line from start to finish, but scanning quickly to see if the content is something they are interested in.

When I read on the web, I mostly read in a non-linear fashion for the reasons listed above. If I'm doing research, I'm only going to read the parts that pertain to what I am researching. If I'm doing online shopping, I read only a brief description of a product to see if I want it and then move on. However, a lot of how I read is based on context. If it is something I'm interested in, I might choose to read it completely, such as an interesting blog post or a digital copy of a work of fiction on sites like Project Gutenberg. Also, texts for school, whether digital or print, necessitate reading linearly in order to understand the whole.

Generally, then, I seem to read non-linearly when performing tasks, but I read more linearly for leisure. This makes sense, because when performing tasks I am only reading that which helps me perform the task, whereas for leisure I am reading because I enjoy it. In short, I am both a linear and a non-linear reader depending on the situation.

Is the Book Here to Stay?

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With the constant advancement of the capabilities of digital text, many believe that books may someday cease to exist altogether. Certainly, Bolter et al. seem to constantly expound on the advantages of digital text and point out that older writing mediums have succumbed to newer ones over the course of time. Thus, just as the papyrus scroll gave way to the codex, and the codex to the print book, it seems as though technological determinism will continue its course and remediate print completely into hypertext.

However, I do not believe that this will happen anytime soon. Or to be more precise, I do not believe that all books will be converted to hypertext anytime soon. I largely agree with Bolter; he explains that with the invention of the ability to massively reproduce pictures, the television and the internet, our culture has become a much more visual one compared with the 19th century. Looking at a newspaper or magazine today compared to even just twenty years ago is likely to reveal this change. There is one area that favors print more than hypertext, however: the novel.

Although we have indeed become a more visually-oriented culture, there are still plenty of Americans willing to read lengthy novels. The problem with hypertext is not that it lacks the capability of reproducing the text of a novel, but that the particular reading habits that surround novels do not work well with the current digital technologies. Current LCD monitors with fluorescent backlighting irritate the eyes after relatively short periods of time, and the current generation of ebook readers (which remedy this situation by using a new display technology dubbed "e-ink") are too expensive. Laptops with screens the size of a paperback book page cannot display text as clearly as printed ink of the same size due to a low resolution. Additionally, it is very difficult to enforce copyright laws on digital texts, with many existing solutions infuriating users by limiting the number of devices they can put their books and by disallowing them from sharing their ebooks with friends. Thus the hypertext novel already excludes three great features of the print novel: affordability, readability, and freedom of use.

Thus, to answer the question, "Is the book here to stay?" I think that there may indeed be a day when hypertext is the main form of reading and print recedes into the minority. But one of two things must happen: we must either adjust our reading habits to fit digital technologies (which some would say is already happening), or improve the technology to the point where all types of reading habits are comfortably supported. Until then, I'll be enjoying my books.

Technological Determinism

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Every time man has invented a new technology, heated debates have arisen over its implications for social change. When these debates arise, many become polarized by it, some arguing that it will save us and some arguing that it will destroy us. New technology rarely favors either of the extreme ends of the debate; however, new technology very often coincides with a shift in the way societies think and behave. The question then becomes, "Do social changes influence the creation of new technology, or does new technology influence social change?" Those who believe the latter to some degree are technological determinists. In short, technological determinism is the belief that technology has been the primary driver in cultural change since the first inventions of man.

There are varying degrees of technological determinism. Those who believe that technology drives us and that we can do nothing to stop its progress or change its course are called hard determinists, and those who believe that technology has a significant impact on society, but ultimately we are the ones who decide how to use it are known as soft determinists. The latest round of debates about new technology focus on the internet and instant access to information. As an article from The Atlantic Wire argues, the ability to access information instantly results in our jumping from article to article, rarely reading the whole thing because the information is no longer scarce. The author himself admits,

"...what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." (Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid?)

However, I think that we human beings are made of tougher stuff. I find myself browsing the web for long periods of time, and while I, too, will dart from site to site as I browse, if I find an interesting article, I read the whole thing. I still enjoy reading books, and if it's a good one, I can read for a few hours if I have the time. Ultimately, it seems to come down to what you value, depth or breadth of information. While the internet encourages so-called 'information snacking,' that is not the end-all and be-all of its function. I suppose the demands of the business world have a greater impact on those individuals because, as history has shown, if a new technology allows people to get more work done faster, it does not result in more free time but a higher workload. With the expectation to answer every email, go to every meeting and compile reports in shorter and shorter time periods, the pressure to skim rather than absorb information is overwhelming. But no matter how overwhelming the situation may be, I think that, if something is truly unbearable, we can raise enough voices to cause the necessary changes. If nothing else, technology and social values have a dynamic interrelationship of cause and effect, and it does not seem to me to be a one-way street.

Hypertext and the Remediation of Print

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Within the first three chapters of Bolter's Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, he outlines how different writing technologies change and improve upon their predecessors. He calls this process "remediation." Beginning with the reed pen and papyrus, writing technologies in the West have evolved into the codex and later, the printed book. But the writing technologies we use have not stopped evolving, and today we find ourselves with a new technology that some argue is poised to replace print entirely: hypertext.

In web design, hypertext only refers to text on a page that is a link, but Bolter has expanded the definition of hypertext to include any form of electronic writing. Using this as our definition, the answer to the question, "What does hypertext refashion?" is, simply, "Print itself." Note that I do not mean that hypertext will drive print into extinction, although there are many who would side with that argument. Rather, I mean that hypertext seeks to replace print by providing ways of writing that are not possible in print. The most obvious example of this is the hyperlink, but other defining aspects of hypertext include its interactivity through comment posting or even the ability to edit the page itself (e.g. Wikipedia), the ability to embed multimedia objects that enhance the writing, and, for the author, the ability to easily find and replace words, sentences, or whole paragraphs.

One of the advantages described of hypertext is that it more freely allows for association of ideas in contrast to print's hierarchical nature. Bolter describes an interesting debate on p. 43 about whether or not links do actually facilitate this association or do they, in fact, limit the reader? If the author chooses which links she will put in her article, then the reader only has those links to deal with and, so the argument goes, their associations have been decided for them. I would counter this by saying that the informed mind would realize that the author included those links for a reason, which makes them a rhetorical choice, and if the reader did not agree with those associations or wanted to create their own all they would have to do is go to their preferred search engine and find related articles on the same topic. That is, unless the article in question was on a CD-ROM and the person did not have internet access, although this particular situation would be rare in the United States.

However, there are a few clear advantages to print, although hypertext is gaining rapidly on these areas, too. For instance, print is naturally easier to read because it does not require an electronic screen, which means both that it does not require a source of electricity and it does not induce eyestrain as easily. Ebook readers are the counter to this, as they use a new display system called e-ink that does not require a backlight, resembles a printed page, and the battery lasts long enough for even a long reading session before needing to be recharged. Ebook readers are expensive and highly specialized devices, however, so print currently seems to have the advantage.

Whether or not hypertext will in fact replace print is up to the sensibilities and technologies of future generations. As Bolter notes on p. 46, "In this late age of print, the two technologies, print and electronic writing, still need each other. Print forms the tradition on which electronic writing depends, and electronic writing is that which goes beyond print...In short, electronic hypertext is not the end of print; it is instead the remediation of print."

When Ink Becomes Pixels

I am a digital native.

Thanks to my father's interest in computers as an engineer, I have been around computers for as long as I can remember. My first experience with writing on a computer probably was in my elementary school, where we were taught how to type on some Apple II's in our school's computer lab. Ever since, the computer has been my preferred medium of writing.

Starting in high school, I have found that I am more and more likely use my computer when starting a rough draft on a paper than to write it in a notebook. I might use a notebook to brainstorm or organize my ideas, but when it comes to begin writing prose, I go to my computer. The article "Writing, Technology and Teens" found that many teens do not believe using a computer has a significant impact on their writing ability, although they believed they were able to write and edit more quickly. I, however, find that my writing is better on the computer precisely because I can write and edit more quickly. Given the same amount of time, I believe I can write a higher-quality essay on a computer than on paper. I do have one point of disagreement with the teens who believe internet communication is not "real" writing. Whenever I write an email, even if it is to my friends, I tend to use whole sentences, no abbreviations, no emoticons and I take time to figure out exactly what I'm going to say. I very rarely use text messaging or instant messaging, so I cannot comment on my use of those tools.

As a digital native myself, I agree with the main points of "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants." When doing research for a paper my first thought is to go to the internet, if only to use the University's online library catalog to reserve books. However, resources such as Google Scholar are incredibly useful for searching peer-reviewed journal articles and other similarly credible texts. Additionally, if one finds electronic sources to be anathema, the online version of an article almost always has bibliographic information, making it a simple matter to track down a print copy. Despite my use of several electronic tools, I am not a great multi-tasker. The most I'll do is have music on while I work, but sometimes even that gets too distracting. Like the NPR podcast we were assigned mentioned, I feel more efficient when I focus all of my efforts on one task at a time rather than multiple efforts at once.

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Recent Comments

  • Lee-Ann Breuch: Good point about the banner. I didn't realize it wasn't read more
  • Lee-Ann Breuch: Hi Sam, Great ideas here for link names, headings, and read more
  • Lee-Ann Breuch: I can respect your definition of writing as not including read more
  • Lee-Ann Breuch: Great point about the HHS web site completely misunderstanding their read more
  • Lee-Ann Breuch: Your comments here make abundant sense; we read according to read more
  • Lee-Ann Breuch: You make a great comment about the novel resisting the read more
  • Lee-Ann Breuch: You provide a very good insight that technology and our read more
  • Lee-Ann Breuch: Hi Sam, Excellent job discussing the Bolter reading this week. read more



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