Sunday, February 04, 2007


A Sitemap. That’s what the two perplexed kids in my cartoon need. I didn’t really know what a sitemap was until I read about them in Kelly Goto and Emily Cotler’s book “Web ReDesign 2.0.” Now I look for sitemaps on all the websites I visit. Websites that offer them to users are probably the sites that need them least, however, because they are usually the best organized. Websites that don’t offer them may fail to do so because their designers never bothered to create a sitemap for themselves in the first place, as the authors indicate is all too frequently the case.

I have been to many a website where I have felt as lost and befuddled as my cartoon kids, going deeper and deeper into cyberspace against my will, as links lead me to places I didn’t expect and “back” functions lead me to places I don’t remember being. Often I find that links have led me through two or three websites, without my realizing that I ever left the first one. When entering a web page from a search engine, I often find myself in what feels like a lonely outpost of some great metropolis, with little or no indication of what city it belongs to or how to get to the main gate. Often I feel like a cyberspace Dorothy, clicking my heels together and saying “there’s no place like home page; there’s no place like home page.”

The usual results of my fumblings on the Internet are either getting unexpectedly kicked out of websites or deliberately dumping my searches and going back to Google. I almost always start my Web activities at Google and always go back there when I get lost. Google is a foster home for wandering waifs like me who can’t find home pages.

A “home” button on every page is a great thing, but a sitemap gives you an overview for which there is no substitute. The amount of information and the random access that the Internet provides are certainly wonderful, but the biggest thing I miss from the old fashioned, pre-computer days of browsing and doing research is OVERVIEW.

Most of the students in my class are too young to remember something we used to have in libraries called Card Catalogues. A card catalogue was actually a large area in each library where there were row upon row of big wooden cabinets, in each of which were hundreds of little drawers containing thousands of little cards with information on each book in the library. As I remember (it’s been a while now), there were two sets of card catalogues, one arranged alphabetically by subject, and the other by book titles and authors’ names.

I still remember the exciting feeling, when starting a new research project, of approaching the card catalogues and taking them all into my view, like Prince Henry the Navigator surveying the Atlantic from the cliffs of Sagres, vowing, “I shall send ships upon these waters.” Going up to the subject catalogue and finding the general alphabetical area for my topic, I would pull open drawer after drawer like so many treasure chests, and in a few quick glances would know how much gold lay in these territories. You see, there were little tabs that stuck up from the cards that indicated subjects and sub-categories of subjects, and so by glancing at these and at how many inches of cards lay between each tab, you got an instant overview of your topic and how much territory there was to explore.

There were a lot of drawbacks to card catalogues. Often you had to jockey for position with other people using the card catalogue or wait your turn to look in a particular drawer. Sometimes you would get a sore back or dirty knees from stooping or kneeling down to look in low drawers. Sometimes you would find a drawer missing because someone had pulled it out and put it on top of the card catalogue or on a nearby table to look through it. And of course once you found a card for a book that interested you, the card could not tell you if the book was actually available at the time or checked out. You had to go to the stacks to find that out. Then, if the book was not in the stacks, you had to go to the circulation desk to find out when the book was expected back. For librarians, who had to manually type each card, I am sure there were many other drawbacks.

Computerized library catalogues have removed these shortcomings and intoduced many powerful new tools, but so far they cannot offer the kind of all-encompassing overviews and lightning-fast random access that physical card catalogues made possible. Maybe I need help from a good librarian, but I find using computerized library catalogues extremely tedious and laborious as I click in and out and in and out of entries, endlessly going down and backing out of blind alleys, where my fingers used to dance lightly through card catalogues like those of a casino dealer riffling through a deck.

“Riffle” is a good word. I just looked it up and found that it means “to turn over something, especially the pages of a book, quickly and casually.” The ability to do this is definitely a feature of the physical world that the virtual world needs to better develop, for the sake of overview and fast random access.

Think of picking up a magazine and browsing through it. By riffling through the pages, you can, in about two or three seconds, get a pretty good idea of what is in that magazine: how many articles there are, how long the articles run, whether it has a lot of pictures or not and what tone and style the magazine and the individual articles have. You can also, in these two or three seconds, probably pick out at least one or two articles that interest you because of their titles or illustrations.

Now, try to do the same thing with a website. Sure, the home page will attempt to give you some oversight and some juicy teasers, but you have to click on hyperlink after hyperlink, going in and backing out of page after page, to get the same kind of overview of what’s really in there that you can get in a few seconds of flipping through a magazine.

Has anyone developed a tool that lets you “flip” through a website yet? If so, please forgive my ignorance. If not, could someone please start working on one? I realize that it takes a little time for each page of a website to load, so perhaps a “flip” or “riffle” feature could be made from graphic simulations of web pages rather than actual web pages. A sliding bar could be used to allow users to scan pages at incremental speeds - similar to sliders used to scan video in editing programs such as Premiere and Final Cut Pro. While flipping through these simulated pages, a user could stop on one that he or she finds interesting and simply click on it to be taken to the actual web page with all its hyperlinks and Flash features and whatnot that take time to load. Another, simpler way to do this, I suppose, would be to put whole websites, or big sections of them, onto single pages that users can scroll down quickly for overviews. I know that most website experts recommend that web pages should require minimal scrolling, but perhaps long pages should be re-considered or at least offered as an option. For online shopping websites, riffling or scrolling features like this might prove to be very profitable because they would increase serendipity and impulse buying.

My theme here is making cyberspace feel and function as much like real space as possible. Perhaps this seems a little old fashioned and curmudgeonly. But remember, we still live in the real world and that is where our senses and sensibilities are based. We have not yet morphed into cyberspace creatures, as people do in science fiction. So, as long as the physical world remains our home page, we would do well to learn from it and imitate its best aspects when we design websites. I suggest that old-fashioned magazines and library card catalogues are great models from which we can learn.


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