People just don’t make sense anymore

A brief round-up of mostly unrelated pieces of news/commentary:

In a blog post for the Harvard Business Review, Dan Pallotta discusses the problems of “abstractionitis,” “acronymitis,” “Valley Girl 2.0,” and “meaningless expressions” – in other words, people don’t use real words with real meanings anymore.

It would be great if there was Netflix for books…oh wait, there is! It’s called the library.

Borders employees take one last jab at Amazon, reminding customers of one advantage physical stores have over online ones.

Education and testing

Recently I have read several articles about various aspects of the education system in the U.S. Most people agree that our educational system is not wholly successful. However, that’s where the discussion about how to improve the system begins – and where the agreement ends. Everyone has a different idea about what success looks like and how to measure it.

Two recent articles in The Washington Post were critical of standardized testing. One describes the results (and implications) when an adult – a school board member – took the 10th grade standardized math and reading tests. The adult, to put it mildly, did not do well on the tests, and said, “It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning.” (Apparently this issue persists through higher education as well; employers are finding that college grads lack job skills.)

Another article cited the revolt of New York state school principals against students’ test scores being used to evaluate teachers. The most problematic part of this plan is that there has been no pilot testing. In an “open letter of concern,” the principals wrote, “We are very concerned…that at the state level, change is being imposed in a rapid manner and without high-quality evidentiary support. Our students, teachers and communities deserve better. They deserve thoughtful reforms that will improve teaching and learning for all students.”

After giving background and articulating specific concerns, they offer recommendations, one of which is, “Pilot and adjust the evaluation system before implementing it on a large scale. Any annual evaluation system should be piloted and adjusted as necessary based on field feedback before being put in place state-wide. In other words, the state should pilot models and then use measures of student learning to evaluate the model.”

Tests are an instrument of measurement; pilot tests are essential to ensure that the tests are measuring what they are supposed to be measuring. Furthermore, in the evaluation and assessment part of the research process, testing is only the “gathering data” step – but there’s no point doing assessment at all if you aren’t going to act on the results. Testing, in large part, confirms what we already know; what are we going to do about it?

An op-ed by Duke professor Helen Ladd and author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges Edward Fiske in The New York Times earlier this month cited the acknowledged and proven correlation between economic advantage and student performance. Federal education policy, they write, does not take this into account. Setting testing requirements will not help; supporting high-quality early childhood and preschool education programs will, they suggest.

There are a few takeaway points from all this. One: Standardized tests must be tested themselves before being used state- and nation-wide to assess student learning and achievement, or to assess teachers and principals. Two: There is little purpose in testing at all if the true problems are not going to be addressed, and if insufficient support is going to be given to solve these problems. And lastly: Education ought to prepare students for their adult life; it ought to arm them with higher-order thinking skills (i.e. application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation).


Amazon vs. Bricks-and-Mortar

It’s not even Amazon vs. the independent bookstores anymore; now it’s Amazon against any physical bricks-and-mortar bookstore that offers browsability, serendipity, and (hopefully) knowledgeable, informed, helpful staff who can make personalized suggestions tailored to your needs, likes, and dislikes.

Author Richard Russo wrote an op-ed in The New York Times on December 11 about Amazon’s competitive strategy of encouraging buyers to use its price check app in stores by offering credits to consumers, who then buy from Amazon instead of from stores. (It should be noted that while book prices can be checked with the app, they do not qualify for the promotion.)

Russo sent this news on to a number of other authors, including Scott Turow (president of the Authors Guild), Stephen King, and Ann Patchett. King called the strategy “invasive and unfair”; Turow suggested that it might not be “lawful” for Amazon to encourage consumers to go to a store solely to obtain pricing information without any intention of buying; and Patchett said, “I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.”

Authors and bookstore owners and employees aren’t the only ones who object to Amazon’s price check promotion; Maine Senator Olympia Snowe said, “Amazon’s promotion – paying consumers to visit small businesses and leave empty-handed – is an attack on Main Street businesses that employ workers in our communities.”

Fortunately, it is not all bad news for bookstores. An “unusually vibrant selection” of books this season seems to have helped bookstore foot traffic and sales, which are up from this time last year. Former Borders customers are finding other bookstores, too. One bookstore owner in Seattle said, “What’s extraordinary about the books that are out there is that they’ve been so well written and such a pleasure to read. Maybe people have an appetite for nonfiction right now, just for some sort of grounding in reality.”

The book business is, as much as book lovers would like to deny it, a business, but Amazon’s price check app and promotion are “bare-knuckles” enough to leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. Before doing ordering all your holiday presents on Amazon, consider what you get for a few extra dollars at the bookstore: personal recommendations from people who read. Of course, the level of service stores offer varies, but if you’re in the Cambridge/Somerville area, I can recommend the excellent Porter Square Books in good faith.

And if you aren’t looking to buy, just looking to read, another great place to get a recommendation is your local library. 🙂


After yesterday afternoon’s half-hour group presentation in class (LIS 531Y, Usability and User Experience Research) on our team’s usability study on the EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS), and last night’s condensed presentation on the same to the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) Boston Chapter, I am completely done with papers and presentations (and all other work) for my MLS degree. HURRAY!

Photos: one group member from each EBSCO team presented the results of the usability tests to the UPA Boston meeting on at Simmons College on December 12.

As it happens, a recent (December 7) Library Journal article included comparisons of four discovery services, the first of which was EDS. Amanda Clay Powers of the Mississippi State University Libraries observed that EDS worked especially well for undergraduates (novice) and for doctoral students and faculty (advanced), but less well for upper-level undergraduates and master’s students, who were still best served by subject-specific databases.

The research we did in Usability and User Experience Research this semester was focused less on content and more on usability and specific system features (such as the cite tool, the “find similar books” option, and the ability to save or share search results). Still, the LJ article was an interesting overview, especially as it compared multiple discovery interfaces.

One Week

One week of classes left! I have been busy recently with final projects and papers (some parts of which I may post here in the future), but the end is in sight. Meanwhile, a few articles on usability, user experience, and design:

UX Hierarchy of Needs – The author proposes that there is a “UX hierarchy of needs,” namely (from the bottom up) Functionality, Information, Aesthetics, and Usability. The first two are the basic needs, the latter two are the higher needs. However, I’m inclined to switch usability and aesthetics – as a user, I’d rather a system be easy to use than pretty to look at (although aesthetics is more than just “prettiness” – it also encompasses branding).

9 Rules to Make Your Icons Clear and Intuitive – Much more thought and planning goes into (or should go into) those tiny buttons than you might think. This article (same author and site, UXMovement, as above) covers some good basic rules-of-thumb, such as labeling icons, grouping similar icons, and keeping icon order and placement consistent. However, some established icons that break one or more of these rules still work well because so many people know what to look for – the chain link representing the hyperlink, for example, or the ABC for strikethrough. (The author recommends a blue underlined L for the first, and a struck-through S instead of ABC for the latter.)

14 Guidelines for Web Site Tabs Usability – Many sites use tabs for navigation; they are good real-world metaphors (most people are familiar with filing cabinets or binders), they improve content organization, and they are “visually pleasing.” The author outlines some guidelines, illustrating many of his points with appropriate screenshots (remember when Amazon used tabs?). Among these guidelines: tab labels should be 1-2 words, in plain language; tags should be organized in an order that makes sense to users, and related tags can be grouped; and the active and inactive tabs should be clearly indicated so the user can tell what section of the website they are currently in.