Illinois Writing Project and Illinois Writing Project Ning Website(s) Analysis

Organization

Organizational Scheme

The organizational scheme of the Illinois Writing Project (IWP) website (that is the link on the left, the site "proper") is "five-sixths" topical-- "Home," "What We're About," "Effective Programs," "Outstanding Leadership," and the like: all of these are distinct topical ideas from the other (the sixth link, "contact us," veers into the "task" schema).

This scheme is quite popular in the World Wide Web in general, but the particular problem with this scheme on this website is the following: the IWP website should attract a lot of diverse audience traffic. Teachers, school administrators, students of both secondary and collegiate status, legislators, and community members all have reason to traffic the website. Thus, the topical organization becomes too broad. "Effective programs"--is this something that a teacher can click in order to access lesson plans for her classroom, or a blurb an administrator should read if she's considering utilizing IWP for professional development? Nearly every element of the topical schema presents similar ambiguity; an audience organizational pattern may have been more effective here.

The "ning," a members-only collaborative meeting-place for IWP teachers, also follows a hybrid topical / task organizational scheme, providing such choices as "invite" (task), "my page" (task or topic, depending on the user's purpose) "multimedia," (apparently topical) "What's going on?" (topical). As the ning is built to serve such a specific audience, it seems much more logical to provide task / topic organizational structure here.

Organizational Structure

The IWP official website's has a broad hierarchal organizational system; information is categorized into one of six choices, and each of these choices leads to one screen only after it has been selected. Only one of the six choices provides depth via sub-choices; holding the mouse over "Effective Programs" reveals a drop-down menu of five choices (besides "Effective Program itself, which is both a choice and a header). These sub-choices, though, like the super-ordinate structure above them, only lead to one screen per selection. No hypertext linking exists; the web-site is organized solely top-down. Some of the "sub-choices" under "Effective Programs" provide local organizational structures, which are topical and hierarchal as well.

The IWP ning, likewise, is also organized (partially) hierarchally--here, there is a little more breadth, with eight choices on the same "level" presented to the user; a little more depth is provided here, though, with three of the eight choices revealing drop-down menus with a few choices each.

Unlike the IWP website, the ning does provide some additional hyper-text organization; similar to a Facebook page, sub-topics which appear in icon / text pairs all over the home page link to other pages, which in turn can link back to the main page or to other sub-pages, ad infinitum. Here is where too much depth occurs, though: each sub-page may yield 8-10 choices, which each then yield an additional 8-10 choices. The user can become very overwhelmed with choices and lose sight of the website's original focus.

Labeling

As alluded to in "Organizational Scheme," the textual labels on the IWP website are problematic in their ambiguity. Why was it decided to replace the standard "About Us" with "What We're About"? Such a choice suggests that clicking the link will reveal less of an IWP-leaders biography and more of a philosophical treatise. And that is what the viewer finds...but then why the additional "Outstanding Leadership," which reveals (surprisingly) biographies of the teachers (oh dear, the dozens, and dozens, and dozens) of teachers who further the IWP mission. Shouldn't "Outstanding Leadership," which is ambiguous and suggests that perhaps resources on how to be an outstanding leader will be provided, instead be labeled, "about us"? And shouldn't "What We're About" be more straight-forward and not so closely mimic standard web lingo, perhaps the more distinct "Our Philosophy"?

The ning's labels are only slightly-less misleading. "Community" is clear enough, and provides a standard social media page that allows for connections amongst its members; but "multi-media"? As a teacher-user of a website that is supposed to help me improve my classroom practice, I expected this link to provide me with ideas for implementing multimedia into my writing instruction. Instead, it provides me with photos of IWP-trained teachers, random nature scenes, cartoons....none of it is organized or categorized. The "video" link reveals a page that says, "No video has been added yet," but no hierarchal structure or hints suggest how

Iconic labels appear in the ning, but to the user's confusion more than anything else. Because of its social nature, the ning provides a square picture icon next to each user's name, much like Facebook. But unlike Facebook, these pictures are big and clunky, and they appear besides everything that people write or create on any page of the ning, making pages big and clunky, too. And because this isn't really Facebook, many users felt it unnecessary to provide a photo, so well over half of the community is represented by an image of a blond cartoon girl coloring in a sketchbook--not exactly the height of professionalism. Items on the ning that are not directly user-generated also have icon and textual labeling, but many of these icons obscure or confuse the label further. For example, "Helpful Sites" is accompanied by three blue silhouettes, which really doesn't clarify what these sites are helpful for, exactly.

Navigation

The mission of the Illinois Writing Project is, essentially, to equip teachers to better help students navigate reading and writing; how ironic, then, that parts of this website aren't that navigable. The only choice for navigation here is the top, global navigation bar; the absence of a search tool prohibits searching, and the absence of an index prevents finding information in any way but clicking through and reading what is provided under each of the global navigational links. The good news is that the global navigation bar remains present no matter what page the user views, so that the user doesn't have to click back out the same way she clicked in.

The ning also maintains a steady global navigation bar no matter where the user locates herself; in addition, a right-side navigation task-based bar allows the reader to make social-network choices (check mail, read recent activity, manage settings, and, oddly, access help sheets), and a search bar in the top right, maintained on every page, allows the user to search specifically instead of browse generally. In addition, navigation systems via links to other pages are splashed across each and every page of the site (and not located to the left or the bottom of the page--literally all over instead). Clicking these links will lead to new pages where the global and right navigation bars will follow, but these intermediary pages are not part of either of thee navigation systems, so it is very hard to tell where one is in relation to the site as a whole.

Five Functions of a Website

Identifying the site, establishing a brand: Overall, Illinois Writing Project establishes its brand fairly well. A logo occurs at the top of the page (a pencil) which also appears on many of their promotional materials. The name of the website is clear, bold and professional, and a tag describes that IWP is "nationally recognized staff development on literacy education with highly experienced teacher leaders." One thing the website fails to do is identify itself as being associated with the National Writing Project, which is significant both to its identity and to plugging its product, as NWP has more name recognition.

Setting tone and personality of website: the website is meant to advertise the empowering, welcoming, communal aspect of IWP and what it can do for classrooms. However, the site is so text heavy, that it puts people off rather than welcoming them in; and none of the pages clearly indicate, in succinct terms, what the organization does. Further, the website does not clearly enable viewers to request IWP services, which sort of defeats part of its purpose.

Helping people get a sense of what the site is all about: parts of the home page seem clear; the labels, for example, suggest that navigating through the site will clarify what the organization is all about. However, the link on the home page that says "conference is closed" is not clear--what conference? Why is it closed?

Letting people start tasks immediately: Well, all the website's functions, including a link to the "ning," are available via the home page. However, not all of these tasks satisfy viewers' questions.

Sending each person on the right way, effectively and efficiently: Provided that the links on the home page actually lead to what the user anticipates they lead to, based on their labels, then, yes, this home page is a good "send-off."

8 Points for Pathway Pages

  1. Most visitors are on a "hunt": I'd say that this pathway page, "Effective Programs," does not give off a great "scent." There's no search function, and the links on this pathway page are buried in the middle of the page, sandwiched between heavy text, and in the same font and color as the rest of the page. A drop-down menu descends from the global navigation bar from the "Effective programs" button, but since the other global navigation buttons don't have drop-down menus, the user may not think to utilize this.
  2. People don't want to read a lot while hunting: Mega-fail on this one. This page is very text heavy, with two large paragraphs; links off this page lead to similarly text-heavy pages.
  3. A pathway page is like a table of contents: Once again, this is only mildly successful. Labels like "professional development," and "in-class support" might offer some context, but they're in "teacher-ese" and awfully similar to one another.
  4. Sometimes short descriptions help people: Certainly short descriptions, short anything, would help, but no short descriptions exist.
  5. Marketing is likely to be ignored on a pathway page: This is, in fact, why the long paragraphs fail; they're marketing tidbits, but users are searching, not reading.
  6. The smoothness of the path is more important than the number of clicks: Not so great--I did a mock-usability test. I thought back to the time I first used this website--when I wanted to attend a leadership institute. So I clicked, "Outstanding Leadership," and got, instead, biographies of the people who work for IWP. From there, I had to click back to return to the pathway page and try another link. Frustrating. It was too many clicks AND the wrong path.
  7. Many people choose the first option that looks plausible: (see note above).
  8. Many site visitors are landing inside your site: This site does this very well. All pages on the site prominently display logo and organization description; the pages look unified, part of a whole. No matter how someone navigated here, they'd have no doubt who the website belonged to and what mission drives them.