Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

12 July 2008

Model madness

Clark @ 8:35 AM

Well, if you happened to hit my blog between yesterday and today, you might’ve noticed some slight changes to the format.  Unintentional.  I’ve just started tweeting (using Twitter), and had seen how your tweets could appear in a window in your blog.  I wanted to do the same, but my blog template is old.  I wanted to look at another template so I clicked on it, and it installed the new theme, not just giving me information.  Which wiped out the header and some of the customization on my sidebar.

I pinged my ISP, who’s also a friend/colleague/mentor, and was my boss a couple of times.  Sky let me know that the themes are just different sub-directories that get swapped between, and if I just clicked on another theme I’d eventually get mine back.  Which worked, and it’s now back, but there’s a lesson in there.

First, I’m reasonably tech literate.  I programmed for a living (for Sky, actually) before I went back to grad school.  I’ve maintained a knowledge of what tech can do, though I no longer maintain fluency in any languages.  I’ve maintained, updated, and have customized my sites as well (this blog, my book site, and my company site).  However, my understanding is more conceptual these days; e.g. while I know what CSS is and why it’s good and you should use it, I’m pretty much at the crayon level with it.

However, the lesson is that having taught interface design (and studied with Don Norman) I know that the interface could be doing a better job of helping me build a conceptual model of how my blog site operates.  They recently changed the blog entry interface, and actually made it worse because the ‘tag’ interface is no longer on the screen initially, it’s hidden down below and you need to scroll to get to it (which means I forget sometimes).  But overall, I really don’t understand where and how they’re using files to compile this site.

Now, I also don’t know PHP (or javascript, or Python, or… the point being that there are so many different web technologies I can’t keep up with them all; it’s not how I add value to the endeavors I’m engaged in), but I’ve managed to muddle through adding things to the files like the Feedblitz signup (if you want to read via email, like I do).  The old interface made it really hard to find a file to edit that you hadn’t edited recently, and the new one’s better (some things get worse and others get better, but really things should steadily get better). I realize web interfaces are going to be weaker than application ones, but it doesn’t have to be this hard.  Of course, as far as I know it’s free, so I shouldn’t complain too much.

Still, one of the things we know is that if there is a conceptual model underlying how something’s implemented, making that conceptual model clear (or even available) will help people work with a system when they’re using it intermittently.  There’re no clues for me in WordPress.  Now, their working assumption for people who’ve installed their own copy is that they’re reasonably facile with PHP and probably more regularly generating code, so maybe I’m not one of their target users.  Still, there’s little to be lost, and a lot to be gained by making the underlying model clear.

I do recommend you read Don’s Design of Everyday Things book, which helps explain why mappings and models are powerful guides to action. Everyone who designs solutions for others should read it; it’s an easy and short read, and it will definitely change the way you look at the world.  In a positive way, and that’s a good thing, I reckon.  Oh, and do include conceptual models in your learning designs. It leads to much more persistent and flexible performance.


  1. Clark: Reading this makes me feel so much better. Twice now I’ve tried to install and customize WordPress and failed miserably, which is why my blogs are all still running on Typepad, where I respond easily to the user interface design. Like you, I understand a lot of things conceptually, but am still at the Crayon level with implementation.
    I write professionally for a blog that uses an installed version of WordPress. When I first started writing for it, the WP version was terribly out of date and I found it extremely difficult to use. Recently, they upgraded to 2.5.1, which I find much more user friendly in comparison, although I still don’t find it intuitive.

    Comment by Michelle — 14 July 2008 @ 5:28 AM

  2. Michelle, I actually got the the tweet feed working, but I can’t get the formatting to work right; bloody buried css. WordPress *has* been working, but like you say, the interface isn’t very good.

    Comment by Clark — 14 July 2008 @ 12:07 PM

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