December 11, 1997
The SLAC WWW Coordinating Committee established an ad-hoc committee in January 1997 to review the present SLAC Home Pages and recommend revisions if appropriate. The membership is Lisa Dunn, Kathryn Henniss, Tony Johnson, Ruth McDunn, Christine Quinn (Stanford), David Steele, Yolanda Wackerman, Joan Winters, and Tom Mattison (chair).
At present, SLAC has three "Home Pages": the Welcome page <http://www.slac.stanford.edu>, the Detailed page <http://www.slac.stanford.edu/detailed.html>, and the Highlighted page <http://www.slac.stanford.edu/highlighted.html>. The Welcome page is intended for the general public. The "working" pages are intended for SLAC's scientific community (on-site and off-site) and the SLAC staff
The contents and arrangement of items on the working Home Pages are at present the joint responsibility of the page maintainer (Joan Winters of SCS) and the WWW Coordinating Committee (WWWCC) chaired by Pat Kreitz of Technical Information Services. The present policies are posted on the Web. The Welcome page is maintained by Kathryn Henniss of Technical Publications with its own advisory committee. Content of the SLAC Announcements page is approved by P. A. Moore of the Director's Office and the page is maintained by Kathryn Henniss.
The charge of the committee was to
This report and the accompanying prototype new Detailed and new Highlighted pages is submitted to the WWWCC for approval, and subsequent submission to the Associate Director's Committee on Computing and the SLAC management.
P.A. Moore of the Director's Office designed a survey to evaluate the working pages, which was circulated via email and on the Web at the top of the working Home Pages as a SLAC Announcement.
There 72 replies to the survey, 63 by email and 9 by the Web form. However, the email replies often did not answer the questions very directly and were thus sometimes difficult to evaluate.
The Detailed home page was favored over the Highlighted page by about 2 to 1. Responders often strongly disliked the page that they did not use. Some found the Detailed page to be too long, dense, and difficult to read. Others liked being able to see everything on one page rather than searching up and down the hierarchy of sub-pages. There were more users of Other/Neither than of Highlighted, indicating that users are becoming more sophisticated about changing their default home page.
A frequent request was for faster access to the SLAC phone directory (in fact many responders have set that as their browser's default). There is already a phone directory graphical button at the top of the Home Pages, but many users were unaware of it. Users also wanted to just type in the name and hit carriage return rather than having to hit the submit button with the mouse.
The stores catalog, purchasing and requisitions databases were frequently mentioned as being important but hard to find.
The ad-hoc Committee was constructed to be roughly representative of the SLAC community as well as the SLAC Web support community. We discussed the results of the Survey and our own opinions of the SLAC Web and how it might be managed and improved. On some of the issues in the charge we were able to reach a consensus quickly. The second part of the charge, regarding selection and organization of the information on the working Home Pages, took most of the time, and unanimity was of course not possible.
Much of the ad-hoc Committee's time was spent in the development and evaluation of prototype pages, both for selection and categorization of links, and for layout and usability issues. The focus was on the Detailed page, for the practical reason that it contains all the links in question, and also because the survey results showed that it is more frequently used. Most Committee members made several versions of the Detailed page with their own ideas on categorization and layout.
At the WWW6 conference, some committee members learned about a method used by Jacob Nielsen to help revise the information categories for the Sun Microsystems internal web-site. Users are given a set of cards each containing one link from the page and are asked to group the cards and name the groups.
We did this card experiment with 10 subjects (many from within the committee). In addition to the information categorization aspect, we also asked the subjects to rank the importance of each link on a scale from 5 (vital) to 1 (don't need) or zero (don't know what it is). The detailed results are available on the Web.
The experiment largely validated the proposed categorization (which is rather similar to the existing categorization), although the subjects naturally chose a variety of different labels.
The ranking of links was interesting. The top 5 links were phone directory, Announcements, Search, Stanford, and WWW Support. Organizational Charts, Site Maps, Telephone Services, Windows NT, Administrative Handbook and Getting Started at SLAC were also highly ranked. Many of the physics experiments that are presently at the top of the working Home Pages were ranked very low. However, it should be noted that the instructions specified that the ranking should be by importance to the subjects' own job, not by perceived importance to SLAC as a laboratory, and that most subjects were from the Web development community rather than the scientific community. This may also contribute to the high rank of WWW Support.
We quickly reached consensus that the Welcome page vs. Working page(s) distinction was sound. We also concluded from the survey results that we could not justify elimination of either the Detailed working page or the Highlighted working page in favor of the other. While this is an extra burden on the page maintainer, the present maintainer (Winters) is a committee member and agrees that it is justified.
The links on the present Detailed page are done with text and very elementary HTML formatting. This has the advantage of fast loading, compatibility with very primitive browsers, and produces a usable layout even in small or oddly-shaped windows. The Committee agreed that while these are virtues for such a utilitarian page, the resulting long horizontal strings of links can be hard to scan by eye.
We note that nearly all users now have browsers that support tables. The "SLAC Announcements" box on the present page is implemented as a nested table and we are aware of no complaints from users about it. Tables allow a multi-column bullet-list format for the links on the Detailed page, which improves readability without greatly increasing the page length. With a bit of attention to the construction of the table HTML, this even works for browsers that do not support tables, and is usable in oddly-shaped windows. We have constructed and evaluated many prototype Detailed pages, and decided that two columns of links, with main category labels spanning the full page width, worked best.
The survey results indicated that the SLAC Phonebook is a very important use of the Web, and that users are not completely satisfied with the present arrangement. We propose adding a text-input box to allow last-name-only phonebook searches directly from the working Home Pages. Since it is a single box, a carriage return will start the search.
We did not feel that the present red button-bar arrangement is a particularly successful navigation feature. It uses a lot of screen space and bandwidth but is not very readable, and according to the survey is frequently not even recognized as being a navigation feature. A column of text links, or a row a text links separated by vertical lines or square brackets works better. We propose to navigate between the pages with a vertical text list in the upper right corner of each page.
We propose to change the list of top-level pages that are accessible from this column of text links and that should share a common style. We add the SLAC Announcements page as clearly being an important top-level page. We also add SPIRES as being among the most frequently-accessed SLAC web services, particularly from off-site. We drop the "What's New" page as not being of central importance. Of course we retain the Welcome and two working Home Pages and the Search page.
We propose to add a navigation feature to each sub-page below the Highlighted page in the form of text links to the other sub-pages. This allows users to jump from directly from sub-page to sub-page, rather than going back up to the main Highlighted page, scrolling to the link to the next sub-page, and following it to the sub-page.
While frame-aware browsers are becoming common, we feel that frames are not a positive development in HTML and should be avoided for the SLAC Home Pages. Frames fragment the user's window and make it more difficult to design a page that is usable at an arbitrary window size. They also complicate bookmarking and printing. Nearly any positive feature of frames can be adequately simulated by careful design of non-frame pages.
We discussed the customizable "Smart Home Page" concept, which allows the user to expand or compress some sections of the page. There is an unmaintained prototype available. Such an approach would address some layout and clutter issues with the Detailed page, possibly making the Highlighted page obsolete. Further development would would be required for a complete evaluation. It is rather likely that future developments in HTML or server technology will deliver comparable features in an industry-standard fashion. While the concept is promising, we felt that it was important to produce improved SLAC home pages with existing technology.
The "Research" category and its placement at the top of the list was not controversial, but the sub-categories and their labels have been changed after much discussion. The links to SSRL have been clustered together to increase their visibility.
We propose that the "SLAC Institutional Information" category be re-named "Working at SLAC" and "Information from SLAC (including SPIRES Databases)" be renamed "Scientific Information", with transfer of some links between the categories and changes in the subcategories. The committee recognizes that neither the previous labels nor the present labels are strictly mutually exclusive, so some links could logically belong under the both labels. But we feel that the new category labels express the existing distinction better.
We believe that much more of the scientific output of SLAC should be visible on the Web. To this end we propose an explicit "Scientific Publications" sub-category under the re-labeled "Scientific Information" category.
The computing category is problematic. The Web is much less synonymous with computing than it was a few years ago, and many feel that computing is now just part of "Working at SLAC". There is a great deal of computer documentation and policy information on the SLAC Web, but we feel that it is not now organized in an accessible way. When a better user-oriented SLAC Computing home page exists, the right solution is probably a high-level link to that page. But in the meantime, a separate "Computing" category on the SLAC Home Pages provides a place for selected links to serve this purpose. However, we propose to drop the "and Communications" part of the category label and move the communications links to "Working at SLAC".
"Divisions, Groups and Programs" has been re-labeled "Organization" with few other changes. We note that there are many organizational units within SLAC that do not yet have web pages but probably should, so this category is likely to grow.
One common maintenance problem is for someone to request a link on the Home Pages to a newly-created web page that does not fit well into any existing category, or fits into several, or perhaps should catalyze a significant reorganization of the categories or subcategories. It is also difficult for the page maintainer to remove any links from the Home Pages, because users may have become dependent on them.
We propose the addition of a new category "SLAC Home Page in Transition" to help solve these problems. The "New to the SLAC Web" subcategory allows any new link to be added immediately without agonizing over the category structure. The "Moving Off the SLAC Home Page" category allows links to be removed from the category structure but still be findable so users can make their own bookmarks to them before they vanish.
The links in the "Transition" category should be carefully tracked by server statistics. The statistics can demonstrate whether a new link is actually being used and thus merits being on the Home Page, or whether a link that was thought to be little-used and proposed for removal is actually used often.
We agreed that given the present state of Web indexing and search engines, and the sophistication of users, there is little need for the category "Useful Information Elsewhere" to be on the SLAC home pages. These links can be temporarily placed in the "Moving off the SLAC Home Page" sub-category.
The present Highlighted page uses the category labels from the Detailed page as links to a sub-page per category, along with very brief descriptions of the sub-page contents, and a handful of selected direct links from the sub-page. It is impossible to choose a set of direct links that is both small and perfect, and it creates a political problem for the page maintainer(s). We feel that the best approach is simply to list on the Highlighted page the subcategories under each category and eliminate the concept of direct links from the Highlighted page.
Our committee agreed that the basic model of page ownership shared by a coordinator and a broadly-based advisory committee is a sound one. It is impractical for a committee to write the actual HTML code or to maintain it on a daily basis. But an individual coordinator is unlikely to understand the many different facets and needs of the SLAC community, while a broadly representative committee can. The present working Home Page maintainer is a member of the ad-hoc committee, and the committee proceedings have been an extended example of this model.
In a computer- and technology-intensive environment like SLAC, users increasingly expect to find important information on the Web. But there are obvious gaps in the coverage of the SLAC Web: important organizational units with no page, reference information or databases that could have Web interfaces that do not, etc.
While there are many Web committees at SLAC, with overlapping jurisdiction, the emphasis is on regulation of what appears on the Web, or at best assistance to those who have decided on their own to create pages. There is at present no well-defined mechanism to solicit content for a coherent SLAC Web.
The key changes are the new categorization, and the concept of a table-based layout of the Detailed page. It is recognized that the Home Page Coordinator (see below) should review the details of the design, like color scheme, graphics, fonts, and that there is an effort to produce a more official SLAC logo. However, the selection of a final logo should not be allowed to delay the transition schedule.
We feel that it is important to acknowledge that the redesign / adjustment process represents an evolutionary process, as the WWW permeates the SLAC, and more material becomes available. The dynamic and evolutionary nature of the project, as well as the increasing scope of the site and the burden of its maintenance and functionality directly impacts the amount of FTE required.
SHP Coordinator responsibilities:
A subset of the necessary responsibilities could perhaps be carried out with as little as .5 FTE on a short-term or interim basis, but our feeling is that if SLAC plans to take the Web seriously as a tool for information sharing -- both within and beyond the SLAC community -- a full FTE devoted to content management and development and site design and maintenance is essential.
The Advisory Group should be representative of SLAC as a whole and should include people active in the use and development of the Web at SLAC who have an interest in and/or demonstrated expertise with Web authoring. This group could be WWWCC, a subset of WWWCC, WSCs, or another group designated or approved by WWWCC and the Coordinator.
Responsibilities of Advisory Group
The following issues, though not the responsibility of the Coordinator or the Advisory Committee, are closely related to their ongoing work, and as such bear mention in this report.
Much functionality and ease of maintenance is possible if SLAC takes advantage of developments in server software development.
The ongoing design and development of a large website is facilitated by information about which links on the central pages are most accessed and whether the hits on a particular page are from a link on a central page or elsewhere (e.g., another page, someone's bookmark list). In particular, having log files which include the "HTTP-REFERRER" field will provide the SHP Coordinator and Advisory Group with information extremely relevant to future redesign efforts.
The SHP Coordinator and the Advisory Group will require access to the server logs in order to take advantage of the information contained therein.
Committee member minority opinion
Mattisonfor the AdHoc Committee to Revise the Highlighted and Detailed Home Pages