site scrubbing

Reading Joel on Software – Rub a dub dub, it suddenly occured to me that this is also […]

Reading Joel on Software – Rub a dub dub, it suddenly occured to me that this is also an excellent approach to curing a site.

Don’t redesign the whole thing, throwing out all that’s working!

What if instead you slowly gently fixed all the little bugs, one at a time. One week check and fix all the error messages, and rewrite them into human language. The next week gently redo the labels, making sure they make sense, addign sublabels as necessary. The next week add alt tags to everything that doesn’t have it. And so on, until the site is more acessible and more usable.

My redesign has been haunting me– I haven’t gotten to finish it, I am disappointed with how some aspects work. But I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed. Now I wonder if I should just slowly polish it, rather then tear my hair out trying to figure out how to redo it again….


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  1. 1

    Great article, thanks for the pointer.
    This is exactly the approach used at my current workplace, for our public website.

    The financial and political situation is such that a major redesign is not viable. Instead, we move through a prioritised list of issues, standardising error messages, making forms work the same way, removing font tags and cleaning up dodgy FrontPage HTML.

    Incremental improvements, and not immediately obvious to users, but worthwhile progress. It can be frustrating at times, and it is tempting to just not bother, but every day a new user visits and doesn’t have to deal with a whole lot of design issues we fixed the week before.

    I think even if a complete redesign was to take place, it would be good to try and keep Joel’s methods in mind – extract the value of all those changes to make sure that all the improvements make it across.

    Time, as always, will tell.

  2. 2

    Perfection is in the details, but detail does not make perfection.

    The focus of Joel’s article was incrementally improving software that already works well. He’s talking about the elegance and efficiency of the code, not the functionality.

    Analogies to websites might include indenting your table rows or substituting style sheets for font tags, but not restructuing navigation and making forms work the same way. Those are pretty major things. If the foundation is weak, I think you have to take a long hard look at whether a site is a sacred cow or not.

  3. 3

    Joel is always a great resource. EH has a great foundation and upon a great foundation there is always room for improvement. Where a solid foundation is lacking it is much more laborous to tweak, as many of the tweaks are iterative improvements to the underlying system. The foundation of the presentation layer is a little easier to modify if the site is using stylesheets and templates. The only thing that is more difficult to modify is the navigation and IA portion as there is user comfort inertia to overcome. Patterning for users is important to consider when changing the IA. A large change will be of benefit if there is poor usability that is keeping desired users away, but incremental changes are always the best bet on this front, so as not to ward off your loyal users.

  4. 4

    honestly, not just pulling your leg… i find your redesign confusing, non-intuitive (occasionally counter intuitive), overly complex, and generally maddening.

    the staggeringly long list of categories is confusing and impossible to quickly assimilate. abstract up a few levels. get it down to a manageable number.

    didn’t ‘gleanings’ have a different meaning on the old site than it does now? i never understood for sure what it used to mean, and i’m not absolutely sure what it means now, so i’m not sure if its still the same or not.

    IA? EH. or whatever is just cryptic looking. it looks like a preverbal conversation.

    it doesn’t just look like crap in navigator 4.78, its nearly unusable.

    there are dozens of other things that have occured to me spontaneously as i casually try to use the site. but i can’t recall them at the nonce.

    all in all though, i’d advise you to stop kidding yourself. i think you’re way far from the point that adding alt tags and eng. language for error pages is going to make any percievable difference.

  5. 5

    Ah yes, the NS 4.78 non-standard browser will make a mess of things, but it should still be usable. There is no mention on the site warning users that the experience may vary with older browser types. This also points to reading log files before making modifications and setting a threashold for what technologies will be included and which will not.

  6. 6

    all right… so there are too few “non-standard NS 4.78” folks who visit ehack to justify making it pleasant and convenient and appealing. right? how many ‘bad impressions’ are too few to worry about? one or two every few thousand visitors? most of us probably wouldn’t think about it much, but some would. not a black-and-white call, for sure, but…

    as you point out, that particular point isn’t in line with the others in my earlier post. the others seem more urgent. but then, they’re all judgment calls, finally.

  7. 7
    Eric Scheid

    I don’t know, I think this site could be gently scrubbed and in so doing it will be more usable for other browsers.

    One simple example: the headline for this page is <span class=”header”>site scrubbing<br /></span>, which with CSS disabled doesn’t look like a headline. It could be polished up as <h1 class=”header”>site scrubbing</h1> (with appropriate changes in the style sheet to suit).

  8. 8

    Hackles’ comment about “gleanings” rings true to me. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t a link to the blog on the home page. I always key in Since the directory is /blog, I assumed the section was called that. If the “gleanings” nomenclature was reinforced anywhere on the landing page, it might help clear things up.

    BTW, chalk up another 4.7 user. Mac.

  9. 9
    Lamont Cranston

    been there, said that … a little history might explain the current situation: long long ago CW produced many interesting things (still does, too), of which one was a blog and another was a mostly regular email newsletter of various gleanings. They were different things, tho often a particular nugget was to be found in both – the latter was more whimiscal of the two.. Then CW chose MT over GM for EH, which also afforded for an email emittance from the blogs, re-purposing the content of one into the other. At this point someone (no names, no pack drill) must have figured that since the web-page thing and the email thing were the same content, they should have the same name, and thus the more interesting of the two names was chosen.

    Anyhoo … this points up a small challenge of incremental and organic development… you can end up painting yourself into a corner, simply by doing the obviously right thing at the obviously right moment.

    Which is why refactoring concerns itself with changing only the form of the code, and not simultaneously changing the functionality of the code. If you keep one constant it means you have something to test against. The flipside lesson is that its not wise to do a front-end redesign at the same time you do a back-end technology change.

    There are always exceptions though, such as when the functionality is shaped by compromises due to the technology, and the new technology imposes different compromises. No easy answer there.

  10. 10

    lamont wrote:
    … a little history might explain the current situation…

    intent and history are two things users don’t have time for. further on you mention the adaptation of movable type’s functionality as the reason for the confusion. of course, we’re all aware that “technology must adapt to humans”, and not the other way around, right?

  11. 11

    I don’t think it’s a problem to call a blog something besides “weblog” but you have to be consistent and the naming convention needs to be visually apparent.

    Both the “articles” and “organizations” sections have headings that spell out the fact that that’s what they’re called. A “gleanings” heading would let the uninitiated know that’s what the blog is called. (I don’t think it’s enough to spell it out on the home page).

    Now that I look at those other sections, I realize that incremental improvements need to be implemented site wide if they’re to be useful. Both Articles and Organizations have links to the oldstyle “weblog” and “gleanings”.

  12. 12

    well, it’s a personal site, first and foremost.

    Which means my number one audience is me. though I appreciate and try very hard to accomadate my audiencce, it’s also my place to let my hair down, to experiment, to play, to postulate, to ruminate, and so on.

    I do regret the css layout design move, but mostly because *i’m* not ready for it. It’s nice to read that my site gets high acessability marks, but it’s frustrating when I see a weird rendering bugs and haven’t got the technical skill to fix it. I like css; it’s easier to deal with– until something goes wrong.

    As for gleanings and the blog: it is a massive amount of work to do both, and I have barely enough time to do one. Also, I was told by a couple of web professionals whose opinion I admire that having the two was confusing. So I attempted to combine them.

    MT isn’t quite up to the task of that combination, though. MT 2.0 might be, I don’t know. I had refined gleanings to the point where it worked very well– everything I can coax MT into outputing is not as usable.

    It’s interesting that you say Gleanings was more whimsicle– it was mostly just a list of links. However, it did have opening thang, which was always very personal, and the commentary was always a bit more honest and less refined, when it existed. I dont’ know why, but composing gleanings in email, to an audience who had all chosen to listen gave me a sense of intimacy that colored my writing. The blog always feels more open, more exposed. Though it is a personal site, I still feel as though I am in public, seen. It colors my tone.

    Anyhow, when I talk about scrubbing, it’s more like things such as the link I first added to the top of the front page tidbits, explaining where the blog/gleanings was. Perhaps a next step will be putting back to web log. I know it’s shocking but a goodly number of my gleanings readers did not know what a blog was– you can assume it’s common nomenclature but you’d be wrong.

    I think by trying to learn what is not working, and slowly trying out alternatives I’m making use of the freedom I have as a personal site, to fuck up in public, to play, and to learn.

    Finally I won’t listen to the advice of anyone who comes on my site under an alias and with no link to a site or an email and insults me and my other readers rudely and carelessly. When you have a name, and/or show your own work, show who you are we can start to have a conversation as two humans should. Though the comment above was thought out and justified and reasonable, there are a dozen others on this site that are just nasty and childish, suggesting that changing the site for you and you alone would only encourage this behavior. Of course if I hear from other, full and complete humans, these same complaints I will do my best to respond to them, while still respecting my own vision for this site.

    And yes, I could require people to give their emails to post, but the ones who wanted to remain anon would just themselves, and it would annoy the heavey regular posters who comments I love and value. Though the price I pay for comments is occasional assholes, the terrific dialog I’ve seen spring up on this site is quite worth it.

    So: put in your name, put in a URL, tell me what I need to keep, what I need to not change, and what is causing problems for you, and if I ever get a free moment again (I’m beginning to wonder!) I’ll explore it and see if there is a better solution.

  13. 13

    Back to the post: I really think you’re definitely on to something. People have been trying to make that ‘scrubbing’ into methodology (agile development methods spring to mind) and I am with you: I think it’s the only way to make something really good.

    Think Amazon.

    Then again, scrubbing can go the other way; any painter will know there is a point when you have to restrain yourself (it’s hard) and stop fiddling because anything you add will make it worse, not better (think Yahoo).

    And for websites in general that work ok-ish, I think change is usually bad.

    But as for youor personal site: I’m from the do whatever you like school. I’ve redesigned personal sites from scratch, well knowing that the end result might be less usable, but I felt like experimenting and trying things out. Better on your site than on your clients’

  14. 14

    RE: “any painter will know there is a point when you have to restrain yourself (it’s hard) and stop fiddling because
    anything you add will make it worse, not better”

    one last tap.

  15. 15

    who is not with the doowhatchalike school with personal home pages? i am too. ehack has a couple of big differences from run of the mill personal pages tho. it is a (loudly and prominently) self-defined ‘info architecture’ site. this leaves it more vulnerable to being judged on its IA than run of the mill personal sites. cw has (directly or indirectly) invited comment with posts like this one.

  16. 16

    Hey, I’m right here.

    This is loudly and prominently a site about IA, and it is loudly and prominently a personal site. Moreover it’s my lab. really. It’s my place not necessarily for best practices, but for new practices. I’m trying to learn what works, and that sometimes means putting my readers in funky positions.

    Usability is not IA… I live across the street from an architect’s house, and man it is peculiar. It’s nonstandard, and from what I’ve glimpsed, weird inside also. I’ll try to get a photo for you folks.

    In a way this is my house, and it may be peculiar. But it’s mine. I may not always use the most usable architecture, I may not use standards even though I champion them —

    I’m playing. I’m creating a space to innovate in. IA is essentially a creative act, and I am not intentionally inviting usability criticism on this site (though I like to hear what’s working and what’s not, in a constructive way) anymore than a designer’s personal site about design is.

    Usability interests me, and I do it for a living along with IA, but it’s nice to escape sometimes and be creative. There is a tiem and a place for everythign, I don’t go all goofy on a client’s site, and I do play around when expectations here.

    As for the redesign, damn I’d just like to get the time to finish the damn thing, then live with it and see how I feel.

  17. 17
    Lamont Cranston

    Peculiar is not unsuable. Nonstandard is not confusing.

    These terms are not equivalent. They may sometimes intersect, but they are not equivalent.

    If your neighbor’s house is difficult to use or confusing to its users, then he is a poor architect, no?

    And by the same token, I’m ready to agree that IA doesn’t equal usability. But IA that defeats usablity is failed IA, right?

    I’d say that an IA who designs a site that is difficult to use or is confusing is failing at one important test of his or her ultimate success.

  18. 18

    She is probably a fine architect– I really can’t see. the kids seem to have a fine time running in and out of the house.

    As for me, as I said it’s a lab. I will try non-standard items in hopes of discovering better ways to do things. Standard is not always worse, just as you said peculiar is not always unusable. I also have to balance vocal users with my statistics, and look to making a good site for all.

    But first for me. Why can’t I have a site about IA that is still a personal site? IA is my passion — my passion. And if others enjoy it, good. Cool! even. My expiraments, my playing certainly makes for some great conversation….

  19. 19
    Lamont Cranston

    You may do as you wish with your site, it is your unique right and privledge. No one, I think, would dare try to take that away from you.

    But when you tout it as a IA site, its architecture becomes relevant to some of its visitors. A designer’s personal site reflects on him as a designer. (I use ‘him’ as a pronoun of indefinite gender, not – as you seem to wonder – as an overtly sexist slam). A writer’s personal site reflects on him. This is simply to be anticipated by reasonable individuals, isn’t it?

    And if you are intentionally making the architecture of this site opaque to generate interesting discussion, I may think that is unwise, but I would never try to imply or – worse – state – that you shouldn’t have that perogative.

    Designers are free to make buttugly sites, writers to write poorly on their sites. And I’m free to judge them for it.

    I’m particularly free with my judgment if they themselves use those selfsame sites to level criticisms at other sites and other thinkers.

    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t visit EH just to endure its sometimes confusing structure. You have some amusing posts, some interesting links, when I can find them. I enjoy some of your regular correspondents. I do not think EH is without merit.

    I do think it is exposed to genuine criticism, though. And I think if you are going to tout it as an IA site and to use it as a forum to mock, deride, and criticize others ideas about IA, I think it would be sage of you to anticipate some criticism yourself.

    Reasonable, isn’t it?

  20. 20

    Very– and I’m also going to continue not to intentionally make opaque errors, but rather to intentially try hard to make better architecture, which means sometimes being brave enough to make mistakes. So I won’t be perfect, I won’t always follow the safe best practices because

  21. I want to make my work better, and I have to break rules sometimes to see if I can make something better.
  22. I have to fail sometimes, and make something confusing. (thought not intentionally)
    Sometimes it is better.

  23. Somethings are clear to some people and unclear to others

    I don’t even have the time to finish the redesign, much less test it. I try to wach people use the site when i can, and so far it is solid. I cannot trust the vocal minority– first of all it’s a small poor sample, second people self report badly. How can I trust that hackles cannot find gleanings (the blog) when he comes here every day to insult me or my visiters? I need to see people use it. I’ll listen to criticism, I’ll balance it against what other people have said, what I’ve seen, what I know from heuristics and then I’ll act… if I have time. Sometimes I have to live with the mess longer than I wish.

    I always appreciate deeply good criticism… why do you think I have comments? but the kind of from-the-hip sniping hackles does is not valuable. I can neither follow a link to discover if he actually knows what he is talking about, nor email him to ask him more. his alias alone suggests he is here only for the purpose of sniping– not only at me, but sadly at the other commenters. Come to think of it, although your alias is not as suggestive of attack, you also are invisible under what could be a non de plume. Now that this has scolled off the page into archives, you may not even know I’ve answered you; I can’t send you a note letting you know I’ve responded.

    But it is a personal site, and I ask to be treated as a person. Criticise me, but in a constructive way that allows me to get better. A professional site should be held to high standards; a personal site should be judged with the understanding that

    the creator’s time is limited
    the site is done for free
    the site is probably done with a desire to make a personal statement, not for a user’s benefit (though users may well get a benefit from it, just as they do from art)
    that the creator probably cares more deeply for his/her ugly duckling that for most sites,, should be treated gently, for they don’t have to share with you their ideas on design and webwork. They could just blog about puppies and crushes.

    What’s funnny is I would have welcomed either critism if it had been EMAILED to me using the feedback form, and I would have probably made changes as quickly as possible based on them– but because some people choose to insult me (not make suggestions) in public I understandably was disturbed. some people wanted to look smart and sharp in public and yet stay unaccountable for their comments, I can’t help but question that value of their critique.

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