My astute and thoughtful colleague Sam Rebelsky has posted a righteously angry essay about the current state of Grinnell’s web presence. I will add one additional thought about the functionality of the site for members of the Grinnell community, who have to try to figure out how to navigate the public and private sides of the College’s web pages, in part by guessing which side of the public/private divide contains any given bit of information.

Each side of the wall has its own organizational conventions and search functions; the intranet cannot search the web and vice versa. We might take issue with the organization of information on either side of the wall, but that can, in theory, be fixed. The deeper problem lies in determining which side to search. There will always be information that seems like it should be on one side but is actually on the other–we’ve seen for many years how much disagreement we have among reasonable people about these decisions–so the current system will always be sending people down the wrong rabbit hole, and the only signal pointing to the correct rabbit hole is frustration. If you think something is public, you can only discover that it is on the intranet by exploring the public side of the site thoroughly and finally giving up. The same thing happens if you make the opposite mistake. Driving people crazy is a necessary and constitutive feature of the current setup. I will call this phenomenon, which I have experienced repeatedly, the Two Rabbit Holes of Unending Woe.

The only way around that problem is to eliminate the ambiguous cases as much as possible. I see two ways to do that.

1) You can put pretty much all the web content into the private intranet, so everybody knows to look there. But this won’t work: everyone knows, for example, that some events need to be advertised to a broader public, just as everyone knows that the Center for Careers, Life, and Service or the English department needs some public presence. Therefore, if you force other parts of those functions onto GrinnellShare, you necessarily create and maintain the Two Rabbit Holes of Unending Woe: anybody who chooses the wrong Rabbit Hole–and they will sometimes choose the wrong Rabbit Hole–has to explore it completely before frustration finally leads to the correct one.

(Sometimes, even the navigation of the correct Rabbit Hole doesn’t work. More than once, I have finally had to give up and contact staff to ask them to guide me to their content. We can’t have web architecture built on a foundation of phone calls.)

2) But there is another way! You can put all of the plausibly public content onto the public website. If the CLS needs a public presence, the only way for it to have a coherent website is to make all of its marketing and communications materials public. If they want to shape their information for different audiences, they can easily do so with the conventional means of pages “for current students,” “for alumni,” etc. If the categories fail for any reason, the user can use the search function as a backup, with a high likelihood of success: this is the Single Rabbit Hole of Completed Tasks and Happy Grinnellians. (In this scheme, an intranet* still has a useful function as a sorting system for internal documents that need controlled permissions. Departments, committees, classes, and ad hoc groups of individuals can use it to share what they need to share in a controlled way.)

We need to stop thinking that throwing more money and labor into approach #1 is going to solve the current, drastic problems of the site’s organization and usability. We have excellent people working hard on each of the two Rabbit Holes. They make their decisions thoughtfully and help people effectively when called upon. Their work will never pay off in a system that requires user frustration as an essential feature, perhaps the essential feature, of navigating between the public and private sites. This is a happy case in which the value of sharing our information with a broader public also produces in a site that is more welcoming and easier to use.

 

*Note: Edited from “GrinnellShare.” We need some way to share files, not necessarily the Microsoft way.

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