Friday, May 30, 2008

Renaissance ROM a Cautionary Tale

I used to love the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) until their make-over project began. Called “Renaissance ROM”, the rebirth is like how ghastly corpses in horror movies jerk up for one last gasp before actually keeling over. As the project has pretty much wound-up now, any hope that the ROM could ultimately redeem themselves have been dashed.

So I have been seething in my dislike, not for the new architecture, whether the rather-ugly exterior and the wasted, sterile interior spaces with uninspiring, throwback to the 19th-century new exhibit presentations, but mostly for the general disrespect for museum visitors that the management of the ROM clearly has.

TVO’s Agenda recently aired a special on Toronto’s 2007 architecture (you can watch it via podcast or read the blog on their Episode page). They were inspired by this year’s Pug Awards, the awards for Toronto’s ugliest new architecture (which you can vote for online – their website is cool and effective, unlike most of the nominated buildings).

The dislike of most of the TVO panelists for the ROM inspired me to do this blog. There was one panelist who liked the ROM but even then he admitted that defending it was like “defending a child molester”.

I was thinking about what went so horribly wrong and realized that the ROM’s project problems are ones I see with website launches/relaunchs. So here are some cautionary tales for us all:

1) Don’t let the designers talk you into something too flashy
Projects of this nature do need to be visually-pleasing and grab attention, but architecture (or homepages) should fulfill its functions. A main goal of this project was to increase exhibit space, yet this project added only a small amount as the pyramids have lots of wasted space - are all sizzle and no meat. So it is design for design’s sake, but yet glass pyramids are so overdone for the past 20 years, it’s not even good design, it’s clichĂ© and boring. I’ve seen plenty of examples of good design that serves function, but sometimes designers need to be reigned in a little (even if they are “stars”). Or if you’re going for style only, make sure it’s damn good.

2) Have adequate plans.
Libeskind submitted his plans for the building on hastily-drawn napkins – and it seems planning did not progress far from that. The Crystal is not very crystalline as Canada’s climate was not considered and the all-glass crystals were soon changed to partial glass. It’s important to do some research and really know what you’re getting into before proposing a project, let alone giving it the green-light.

3) Not thinking of your visitors first
The ROM seems to me to be too inwardly-focused, to the point that the project seems all about pleasing themselves and their peers rather than their visitors. Clearly, they decided to go with Libeskind with his cocktail napkins because of his stature (no doubt receiving external pressure to pick a star) and once this route was chosen, any desire to put users first seemed to go out the partially-glass window. The role of users seems barely considered and the design hasn’t impressed anyone I know either. The internal spaces are sterile and the pathways lack drama. Yet, it’s not just in the architecture that the ROM has forgotten its visitors, as they have turned their back on one of the major client groups, families. Families represent a significant portion of ROM’s visitors, yet they built only one family bathroom and they took away the nursing area. The kids’ area is small and dull. The dinosaur gallery is now just a “collection of bones” as one TVO panelist indicated, with the jagged, small spaces crammed with bones piled on top of each other. In all galleries, the things kids and adults enjoy (and that inspire learning) such as recreations, multimedia and interactive exhibits are almost completely gone. Signage has been kept to a minimum (because there’s no space in the crystals to hang them, I presume) and the few remaining signs are only for those with an applicable degree. I’m sure the curators enjoy this presentation - the visitors don’t. Organizations often make websites reflecting the company’s intentions and structure, but I believe a lot of this is done due to not knowing better. The ROM used to know how to be user-centric, but now instead they have disdainfully decided to create a museum for themselves and their ilk.

4) Making tasks hard to do
Here’s when you know there’s a problem – they made finding the gift store difficult. You can walk by it and not notice it at all. It’s almost impossible to find the cafĂ© (not that many would want to – it’s all brie and arugula, now). So when even making-money isn’t a primary goal of the ROM, you know there’s a problem. Navigating around the museum is problematic. This could be aided by decent signage, but there’s no pathways built in to either aid finding your way or to create a sense of exploration. Building task-oriented structures, whether buildings or websites, isn’t glamorous – but when visitors can’t do what they need to, they get frustrated and the company misses opportunity to make money.

5) Not fulfilling the ultimate goal
The overarching goal for this was to make the museum a destination and thus attract more people. Instead they get mediocre architecture that isn’t awesome or unique enough to draw people (Why didn’t they talk to OCAD – now that building has drawing power) and once inside, the lack of drama or whimsy will make the building instantly forgettable. The row upon row of glass-boxes in the galleries and their family-hostile attitude will not inspire locals.

Good projects go bad for many reasons; this project is just so spectacularly bad, it’s hard to comprehend. With its huge cost and years of effort, there’s no excuse for fouling up so badly. So there’s comfort in knowing that even if you are part of a dubious project, it definitely could be worse. My ROM membership expires in two days; I won’t be renewing or likely returning.

Friday, May 23, 2008


I should be sleeping, but I figured I would just be recapping in my head the take-aways from the Mesh conference I attended today and yesterday, so I might as well blog it. Mesh is without doubt Canada's web conference, attracting Canadian speakers and attendees doing some of the coolest online work.

This is my second year attending and overall I loved it. It really is great to meet and talk to other people working in the same sphere.

This year as I'm both a grad student and a part-time website manager, I decided to bill myself only as a grad student. Glad I did, as this meant that I could actually talk to people without them trying to convince me how great their product/service is. Frankly, I just want to take a pee without getting pitched.

I was going to recap the sessions I attended, but then I noticed an attendee blogging during the sessions, so check out Connie Crosby's blog for an excellent summary of the key points (and as it turns out, we attended almost all the same sessions).

The first day with its focus on online media and society seemed to me to offer more insight on how people are using the Internet, online issues being tackled, and the possibilities for the future. Whereas today's discussions on marketing and business felt a bit like textbook information for those who don't take the time to read the textbook in the first place.

It was great to hear from Canadian Internet success stories StumbleUpon and Club Penguin. But there were many others at Mesh doing innovative, creative, fascinating work in or with the Internet. The company I work for, on the other hand, is pretty staid and low tech. So attending this conference is bittersweet as I watch the parade passing me by.

I also found it ironic that at an Internet conference, I went into serious Internet withdrawal as I had no online access for most of two days. I was dying to check out the sites mentioned, blog about issues raised, check my email, etc. I did get lots of enjoyment looking over others' shoulders to see the extent of fellow attendees' ADD (only Connie seemed to be doing anything on her laptop related to the conference). I was a bit horrified at the widespread Twittering going on (What the hell are people twittering anyway? "My ass hurts from these crappy chairs./ I think I'll go get another free Red Bull./ Mmm cheesecake squares. / Should I go for drinks afterwards or go home and sleep?").

Thanks to the organizers of Mesh for bringing another great line-up of speakers and assembling a much-needed forum in Canada for this sector.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Oh CanCon! Should it stand on guard for Canadian Internet content?

This week, in my class, the topic of the America’s domination over global culture was debated. While it's often American movies, tv, & music that is most often discussed, there are clearly implications for the Internet. With only one of the top twenty websites visited by Canadians actually being Canadian (source: Alexa), perhaps it's time to consider regulations or incentives for Canadian online content?

Here's some background on the situation.

I think it's safe to say that American entertainment companies use some predatory practices (foreign dumping, block-booking, vertical integration) not to mention their irresistible cultural products. To protect a semblance of national culture, various countries have responded by enacting legislation requiring a certain amount of domestic content to be aired. In Canada, this legislation is Canadian Content Rules, known as CanCon.

CanCon remains controversial, yet as the authors of Mondo Canuck state "Despite opposition to CanCon, which persists even today, the fact remains that initially the system was like a shot of pure adrenaline to a national recoding industry which had barely registered a pulse". Certainly, many Canadian recording stars owe their success in a large measure to CanCon, and Canadian music listeners have certainly benefited from it.

CanCon has sparked controversies, such as its checklist approach that determines what is deemed "Canadian". A famous example of this was Bryan Adam's hit "Everything I Do," which wasn't considered Canadian as it was co-written by a Brit and recorded in London (see 1992 CBC interview with Adams on this controversy).

The film industry does not have to follow CanCon, although some argue it should. There are however, various grants and tax benefits that have over the years encouraged Canadian cinema. As a result of very generous tax benefits in 1979, Canada produced 50% more movies than Hollywood on per capita basis, according to the authors of Mondo Canuck. Out of this, came some of the worst films ever made here and some of the best (Atlantic City - artistically, and financially Porky's and Meatballs).

But checklists of what counts as Canadians can impede our sense of national pride in our cultural products, such as the recent controversy over the film "Juno", which while filmed in Canada, by a Canadian with two Canadian leads, would not have been considered Canadian for the Genie awards, as it was bankrolled by Americans.

To further indicate the problems with defining Canadian content, a classmate, Sherry, responded: "We are so permeated with American media, how do we determine and measure what Canadian content really is?" Truly, some content made in Canada by Canadians hasn't seemed particularly Canadian (e.g. Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda).

It seems an impossible task to define Canadian content, but I do think it is important for fostering Canadian artists and taking pride in their work. So I'd define what's Canadian as if it was made by a Canadian, it's Canadian.

So into this the CRTC, has recently been reconsidering its decade-old policy to not regulate Canada's Internet (read Toronto Star's March 22 article Can we police Canadian content on the Internet? ) with a full report due this month and public hearings to follow. This has come up now as the CRTC found there was "minimal investment in producing ancillary or new online broadcasting content".

I have seen good Canadian online content, but I certainly wouldn't say the industry is as healthy as Canadian music, literature or film. So what's the solution? Regulate the amount of Canadian content or offer incentives or subsidies?

I eagerly await the outcome of the CRTC's public hearings. In the meantime, please share what you think should be done. Regulate? Subsidize? Nothing?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Facebook In Reality

I'll admit I'm ashamed of my Facebook behaviour, which is a combo of voyeur delight, narcissism fetish, and retro-teenage idiocy. But at least I'm not alone - this video skit by "Idiots of Ants" hilariously nails the Facebook insanity.

But I'm not ready to give up my addiction yet.

Friday, May 02, 2008

How is front-end web work structured at your organization?

The young age of the Internet medium means that most companies have not necessarily found the ideal structure to place various responsibilities for their online properties. True, front-end web work has been moving out of IT departments where it was originally placed, with all the dubious websites that ensued as a result. Now it seems, web work is often structured in the Marketing department.

Recently, me and some people at my company have been thinking about alternative structures and wondered if there were some success stories of novel methods? I posted a question on LinkedIn and here were some of the best replies:

Ian Suttle wrote:

At [the company I work for] there are a couple of groups which deliver front-end services depending on the actual needs. There's a creative services group which does one-off promotional pages specifically tied to events and programs, which reports to the product group. The actual web site UI and graphic design is done through a team of producers, who work with the business group, but report through either a product management or engineering. In all cases, the team is able to handle graphic design, layout design, html, and basic javascript.

Vaishali Ahuja

The company I work for has a Marketing department which has Marketing Communications under it (has front-end work like web design, graphic design, literature, desktop-publishing, etc.). IT is a separate department (has the web development, IT, Operations, etc. under it). The major functional or service enhancements to our corporate website is basically driven by our Marketing Communications department, which uses the IT department for back-end support when needed.

Erin Smith wrote:

When I worked at a company that did everything in-house, we had an interesting arrangement... which I would not recommend. The creatives and development team were a part of the corporate design team in marketing communications department, while the producers & content coordinators rolled up to the web team. The marcom dept also consisted of in-house advertising, public relations, and other teams.

Major functional/service enhancements were driving by a team we referred to as web platforms. This was a bit out of whack, as web marketing was probably the biggest client of the technologies, but was a bit disjointed.

Because we were global, we had to get web content out early for translation, and I found that the web content team (who did web project management, information architecture, and content coordination for marketing initiatives) was also the first team to go through the marketing questions with the 'clients' - questions like "Who is our target?" etc.

This arrangement was not ideal.

I'd recommend a site management team as a single, non-IT entity, which could perhaps pitch enhancements and new technologies in a resource allocation meeting every so often. Designers, IAs, and content/copy people definitely need to be on the same team.

Brad Einarsen wrote:

There are as many ways to answer this question as there are organizations. Fundamentally, the control of the website should reside with those who know the user and the customer best. These are distinct groups... user implies ownership and current usage (support area of site) whereas customer implies selection of product from options (acquirer).

This *may* be the Marketing department, or it may not, depending on your organization. This *may* also be the technical documentation department (if your organization creates products for which documentation is necessary). In some rare organizations it may even be the IT department, however this is the exception rather than the rule.

Different groups need to "own" different pieces of the task and if you give the entire thing to one group you will always get a lopsided outcome (information heavy, graphics heavy, technology heavy, etc.).

Rather, I would have a representative from each group have a seat at the table and drive consensus rather than control. However, this can only work in organizations who understand team dynamics (not those who have slapped the word "team" over the structure of "department").

If you have a suggestion on how to structure web work, please let me know...