Sunday, September 27, 2009

Need Help Coming up with a Suitable Research Area

Just two weeks into my PhD studies and already I will soon have to submit a research proposal. It's a class requirements to help us submit for grants, so we're not tied to it.

Still, I've been frantically trying to narrow down my areas of research interest to prepare for my grant submissions. Although a useful process, it comes ages before I planned. I had hoped taking classes and pursuing an independent study plan would lead to suitable research questions.

The overall area I wanted to focus on was online participatory democracy and civic engagement.  All research I have found on this has been rather nihilistic - almost convincing me that it is the wrong track.

So I need your help to devise a feasible, interesting, and original (multiyear) study.

Here are my top ideas so far (in order of my greatest interest in first):
1) Will introducing new mechanisms to filter noise in a political website increase users' [both citizens and civic leaders] sense of engagement (or satisfaction)?
2) How can noise filtration and serendipity (to avoid "inbreeding homophily") co-exist in an online interface in a manner users find useful?
3) How to overcome usability limitations of the use of QR codes and the mobile web?
4) Are genre specific usability guidelines more useful to web practitioners than generic ones?
5) Will Google's Rich Snippets provide the impetus for the use of microformats to hit critical mass?

Two topics I've discounted already are:
a) Can features be added to Facebook to resegment and recontextualize our domestic, work, and familial identies?
b) How can web accessibility support be more transparent in authoring tools, particularly Dreamweaver?

Any help in any regard is greatly appreciated!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Recommendations to Improve Web Accessibility

In July, I completed my MA thesis researching diffusion issues for web accessibility. I'm hoping to get the full thesis published, so any journal suggestions would be appreciated. In the meantime, below are the recommendations that developed out of consultations with 21 web practitioners (designers, managers, producers, consultants, & developers).

Recommendation #1: Make WCAG More Accessible
The W3C should consult web practitioners to uncover their specific difficulties using and understanding the guidelines. The guidelines and support material should then be rewritten to address deficiencies. Possible improvements include using better organization schemes, clearer language, alternate access points, and simplified checklists.

Recommendation #2: Support Material Is Needed
Adequate support material is difficult to find and often insufficient. Therefore, a prominent free website should be set up to provide detailed, clear instruction. This may include a code library and design tips. As the W3C is already a central resource and education is already in their mandate, it follows that they should consider assuming this role in a more effective manner that reflected by their current offerings.

Recommendation #3: Education Should Address Accessibility
Both academic and training organizations must start or continue to cover disability and accessibility. Not only is training in the specific techniques required, but also an appreciation of the needs of disabled people. As some small businesses and non-profits have minimal training budgets, ideally education costs should be affordable or free. This may be a suitable role for local advocacy or industry associations to assume.

Recommendation #4: A Canadian Web Accessibility Champion is Needed
No disability organization in Canada is currently effectively leading the charge for web accessibility, leading to inattention and missed opportunities. A Canadian government or advocacy organization is required to take the lead to initiate and maintain momentum on this issue. Duties may include instigating awareness campaigns, appearing at events, promoting education, and acting as an informational resource.

Recommendation #5: Media and Industry Should Cover This Topic
For web practitioners to gain awareness of web accessibility, learn specifics, and appreciate its social importance, media and industry must not ignore this issue. Industry should make a point of addressing this topic in events and newsletters and ensure the topic is raised at conferences. Media, particularly trade reporting, should cover the topic through individual articles on the topic and raising it within the context of other topics as applicable.

Recommendation #6: Authoring and Testing Tools Should Better Facilitate Accessibility
While some authoring tools are increasing accessibility support, continued work is required both to make producing accessible content easier and to render accessibility features transparent.

Recommendation #7: Financial Incentives Should Be Offered
Cost was raised as an issue by all participants, yet the Canadian government offers no specific financial incentives to mitigate the cost of web accessibility work. Although full funding for all organizations to implement accessibility would likely be unattainable, Canadian government should, at the least, allow special tax deductions for accessibility initiatives.

Recommendation #8: Web Practitioners Need to Feel Individually Responsible
Some web practitioners felt unable to implement accessibility without supervisory permission. These practitioners should be encouraged to understand both that their actions can improve the quality of life of disabled people and that not complying contributes to disabled people’s exclusion from full participation in society.

Friday, September 11, 2009

End of the Royal Roads

As I get ready to start my PhD classes at UofT's iSchool next week, I wanted to wrap up my master’s studies with a post summarizing my experience of Royal Roads masters of Professional Communication program. Also, I thought it might provide useful information for people considering this or similar programs.

Blogging has been a useful way for me to record my academic experience from my search to find a master’s program to study the Internet, how I chose Royal Roads, my experience as an old student, winning my scholarship, and my thesis research.

Overall impression
The main strengths of the program in my experience were the flexibility to manage learning with work and family, solid foundation in communication theory, interaction with classmates, helpful and friendly faculty and staff, and the beautiful campus. The main weaknesses were the lackluster use of e-Learning techniques and over use of team work.

Program structure
The online master’s programs at Royals Roads combine distance and on-campus learning. The program lasts about two years, with the last few months spent working on a thesis or major project. One can extend the deadline, but there are hefty fees to do so. 

There are two three-week residency periods (one a year) at Royal Roads’ incredible Victoria, BC campus. In between these residencies, one takes an online course one at a time. There were no electives for online courses and only a small choice of electives for the final residency component. 

The program follows a cohort model with one annual intake. This means one studies for the next two years with the same classmates, which in my case was approximately 40 students. 

With distance learning it can be difficult to get to know one’s classmates, but the cohort model allows one to have the time to get to know one’s classmates and build relationships. The program is available to students around the world, but the bulk of students came from Victoria and Vancouver followed by southern Ontario. There were students from most provinces and a couple from abroad. 

As this program is targeted to working professionals and as it is a graduate degree, I found that the background of classmates was impressive and diverse. There were a few students in my cohort who were young and beginning their career, but the average student was 30-50, mid-level career, and female. The ratio was about one male for ten females – but this seems typical of the communication field.

The program requires residency of three weeks per year. The residency follows traditional university format, ie. lectures with profs, essays, student presentations, team meetings, occasional guest speakers, and symposia. This period is intensive, covering most of 3-4 courses in that period. One has a few hours of class a day and essays and readings to work on at night. The first residency is lighter, so this is definitely the time to get to know one’s classmates.

Spending time on campus is an absolute treat as it is the most beautiful campus in Canada (if not anywhere). Take a look at my pictures. Vancouver Islands itself is beautiful and the campus is sandwiched between the ocean and primeval forest. Studying post-modernism in a Japanese Zen garden or spending a coffee break amongst giant trees are highlights of my experience. Google Maps has a good satellite image of campus.

Be sure to try the trails that run through or next to the campus. Students get a free guided tour of the national historic site, Hatley Castle and access to the gardens that one would otherwise have to pay for entry.  X-Men movies were filmed here – Hatley Castle was used for Xavier’s school for mutants. I loved telling my daughter I went to Xavier’s school. The campus library even has copies of all the X-Men movies which was a lot of fun to watch in the student lounge (the library has a bunch of free movies).

Other than the incredible beauty of the location, the campus is much like any other, except smaller.  There is only one place to eat, and while most of the dishes were fairly good, the menu is limited and a bit pricey. I made some meals in the kitchen RRU provides to save some money. There are nearby restaurants (short drive or 20 minute walk) but they are rather mediocre. There is a grocery store and wine and bear store nearby, as well as other amenities like a post office, pharmacy, etc. 

Some classmates elected to stay off-campus – and while that does allow one a calming separation, these classmates didn’t get the same degree of interaction with classmates. I’d recommend staying on campus if only for the chance to get to know one’s classmates better. 

The only downside is that the campus is rather far from downtown Victoria. Bus service is less than ideal and cabs downtown are expensive. Some nights when we wanted to go downtown we would wait half an hour or more to even get a cab to pick us up. Also, cabs from the airport are expensive, so arrange cab sharing with classmates. 

Online courses
All courses make use of Moodle for their online interaction (forums, chat) and resources (links, readings). I previously criticized Royal Roads non-innovative use of e-Learning techniques. Having finished my degree now, I stand by that post. While some professors used effective e-Learning techniques, most classes were based on extensive discussions with classmates, often in the form of discussions and projects amongst a team of 5-6 students.  I also posted on the benefits and challenges of relying on online interaction for learning.

Most classmates felt there was way too much teamwork. This is probably my biggest complaint. Although teamwork does enable one to get to know classmates better, it becomes overwhelming doing the actual work and managing the team (which is just as much, if not more, work). Teams for online courses are randomly assigned, but even out of 45 classmates I ended up with a bunch of the same people repeating on my teams. I lucked out and had teams (except one) where everyone participated and was pleasant. However, I talked to classmates who had bad experiences with teams, mostly in the form of people not participating. Considering that most students at Royal Roads are working professionals and thus encounter/cannot avoid extensive team experience, positioning team work as building skills is dubious (easier for professors to mark – is probably the real reason).

Program flexibility
The main reason I chose the program was that I could cater my learning around my schedule. Even living in a city with three universities, I would not have been able to have sufficient flexibility to continue to work and spend time with my family. This program is therefore ideal for those that need flexibility.

But it is not as flexible as some of my classmates thought it would be. Most classes required one to post to discussions frequently and at least every few days. Some classes had tight, rigid deadlines for team work that was quite difficult to orchestrate when combined with busy work schedules and various time zones. I could not participate in some class chats as a result and would also have a one day turnaround on some team work.

Kids - I was the only one in my cohort with a young family and I don't recommend doing this and working too if one has young kids.

Subject matter
I feel this program gave me a solid foundation in communication theory and cultural studies and honed academic skills, such as research, writing, and formatting (APA).  I had not studied communication before but had encountered some concepts from my bachelor’s film studies and journalism classes. I think the program did well in not assuming a prior knowledge set, teaching the essentials, and moving quickly enough through concepts to be appropriate for master’s level courses.

There were professional development courses geared to communication professionals, but reviews from classmates were rather mixed on these. The courses on research methodology were extremely useful both for preparing one for future study or performing research in a workplace. Other courses cover the gamut of communication theory from interpersonal to organizational and from computer to culturally meditated. 

Studying the Internet
I took communication, but I really wanted to take Internet Studies. As Internet Studies is such a new discipline, there were not a lot of options to study this remotely. I felt, however, that studying communication would give me a good foundation to study this aspect of the Internet. Plus, I hoped to examine specific instances when I could. A lot of the professors and classmates were unwired luddites, so Internet topics did not often come up – or with much depth. I have a multimedia background so I enjoyed discussing and learning about other media.

I told my professors of my career path and research interests and they were all open and encouraging to me applying course concepts to Internet cases.  Since I started Royal Roads has added “thematic paths” which is essentially what I did, but Internet Studies is still not an official path or focus.  Considering how much of the concepts do apply to the Internet, I’m surprised they don’t offer this.

Final thoughts
Over the years, I have studied at six post-secondary institutions. Never have I encountered such helpful, pleasant staff and faculty as my time with Royal Roads. Even the support staff and tenured professors were nice! Whether I was on campus, emailing, or telephone everyone was incredibly friendly and cared about helping me. There was one difficult nutty professor, but that's to be expected. Time and time again, Royal Roads staff and faculty spent extra time and effort to really help and talk to me, whether it was applying for scholarships, getting research approval, ordering food, finding library resources, discussing semiotics, etc. I'm not sure if it is a West Coast vs. Toronto thing, but it sure makes a difference to study at such a welcoming place.

I definitely recommend the program and university. If there is anything else you'd like to know, please feel free to ask below.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Oh What a Night - Jersey Boys Highlights Problems with Web Usability

Going to see Jersey Boys last night confirmed the value in me studying web usability. The websites to book the tickets and the theatre had such appalling usability it is unbelievable.

Here are the problems I encountered.

To book our tickets, we went to Ordering tickets is fine if you're familiar with the theatre and don't have any special requests.

The site does not allow one to refine a search by any criteria other than date and price. One clicks on a button to "Find Seats" within a price range and is given up to two options of seats.To check out where those seats are and if they have an less-than-desirable view, there's not much help. They do have a good feature that lets you click on a seat to see its view.

But ideally, the seat you're considering buying should be highlighted on a map of the theatre. One can find the seat for oneself by searching through their maps of theatres. A bunch of theatres are shown not just the one hosting the show you want to see, so you have to remember the name of the theatre (and with Toronto theatres changing names regularly this is not easy). The initial theatre maps are impossible to read, so one has to download the high-resolution PDF. It's not worth the download as even at full zoom the seat numbers are unreadable (my vision BTW is fine - recently tested even).

Better not have any special requests for seats as there is no criteria to refine a search or information provided about the seats other than their number. The site does have a feature to find "Best available seats". I can see the up-selling value to the company in that feature - but does anyone use it? What constitutes best available - surely people have some preference.

We like aisle seats (extra legroom and great for any hasty exits), to not to be under a balcony (bad acoustics and views), and to not be too close to the front (avoid neck craning). There's no way to find any of this out except to run a search, manually look up the two options of seats on their poor maps, and repeat ad nauseum until fate smiles upon you.

Or you get sick and tired of it and call Ticketmaster and get connected with someone who can find your customized seats in moments. Which is what I had to do.

No other online problems (they did forget to mail us our tickets, however) until the day of showtime when the show's websites let us down. I "Jersey Boys" and clicked on the first hit, the "official site". I can almost forgive them for their first two crimes as it is an entertainment sites and more "fun" is permitted. First crime - a splash page. Second crime - slow download. Then I discover I'm in the wrong site as even though I used Google's Canadian service the website for the Broadway version is the first to come up. But they do have an inconspicious link to international versions of the show, which gets me to the Toronto version site (and another slow-to-load splash page).

I usually take the subway to this theatre, but was driving this night and wanted to know where the nearest parking lots were located. I expected the site to have a "Directions" or "Getting There" link. To find parking info one has to guess. I tried the "Theatre" nav link and it seems like it is not there, except until below the fold there's the following text (I have to quote it as I just couldn't believe it:
For those who wish to drive to the theatre, please view the presentation on the left side of the page 'Where is the Toronto Centre for the Arts?' by clicking the 'Learn More' button for more detailed information, directions, parking information and maps."

The presentation looks like an ad, so one would never intrinsically click it. But when instructed to do so, I thought I'd get the parking instructions right away. Instead I have to click through 12 slides manually to first find out about the architects, the neighbourhood, the grand opening, its first show, the decor, the acoustics, the air conditioning, 3 more slides, then driving instructions, then a link to a PDF of a parking map. The map was exactly what I was looking for - excellent even - so I printed it out. I just couldn't believe all the b.s. they put me through in order to get it!

I love that someone must have noticed that parking info was hard to find, so they took the time to add the copy I quoted above. If they noticed the problem and had the time to address it, why not just include the info or link to a map right on the page? Why make someone wade through a presentation of useless information?

In preparing for this posting, I checked if there was another link elsewhere and the is parking info buried under FAQs. It is great info - but completely different. This info actually lists the rates (that is really good to know in Toronto) but does not have a link to their great map PDF.

I saw a link to "Jersey Boys radio" while on the site. After the show, I wanted to my wife to hear their songs, so I thought of this cool feature. But despite offering the radio in Windows Media and Real Player, it would not play for me in Internet Explorer or Firefox that night. This may not be the site's fault, but I didn't get any helpful messages or explanations. Today, it works for me - but such mysteries should not remain at this stage of the Internet's development.

Most of these usability errors and a lot that I encounter in general are so serious and so obvious that I find it hard to believe any web professional could miss it. After all don't people that make websites want to make money, by selling things, providing information to avoid phone calls, etc.? So lately I've been thinking what needs studying is not uncovering usability issues but rather why web practitioners fail to implement such basic practices?