This is a cross posting from my blog – Peter Cameron.
The London Mathematical Society is redesigning its website. Sasha Borovik has set up a blog inviting suggestions. Everyone is encouraged to visit and make comments!
It seems to me that there are four issues that have to be thought about before the detailed design work is done:
- How transparent should the LMS be? Should more of its internal workings be displayed to members?
- At present the site is directed towards LMS members. Should it be made more outward-looking? If so, what groups of people should be addressed, and what material should be provided for them?
- How should the balance be struck between easy navigation around and off the site and reliance on search engines to find information?
- The most important issue of all is maintenance. What systems should be put in place to make sure that this is done and to ease the workload on the people doing it?
Let me say a few things about each in turn.
1. Last year’s events suggest that a significant part of the LMS membership would like to see more openness in the running of the organisation. I hope that the natural wish to put that business behind us does not mean that we pass up the opportunity to become more open. But that is a matter of policy, not website design. I recently told the story of trying to discover what had happened to the Forder lectureship and who the current lecturer was. The LMS website did not come out of this test well. Also, as a correspondent to the blog pointed out, the LMS gives grants for various mathematical activities; you are just supposed to know that to find details you should look under “Programme Committee”.
2. What kinds of people might be addressed? As well as members, there are prospective members (benefits of membership, how to join); professionals in nearby areas (statisticians, physicists, computer scientists, etc.); members of other mathematical societies, or more generally, established mathematicians who are not members of the LMS; students or those thinking of becoming mathematicians; members of the general public with an interest in mathematics; policymakers needing information about the strengths and needs of mathematics. And probably others. We should also think, under this heading, of how to provide this information. As well as a traditional web page, should we be considering blogs, wikis, newsgroups, etc.?
3. At one time a popular item on web pages (both personal and institutional) was a list of useful web links. This feature has become much less common, since it is often quicker to Google the required site than to navigate to the “links” section of an existing page. But the problem is that you have to know what to Google! For example, it is easy for me to Google “New Zealand Mathematical Society”. But a foreigner looking for mathematical societies in Britain may not realise that she may be interested in the London Mathematical Society, the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications, the Royal Statistical Society, …
4. No doubt the LMS should opt for a content management system like Drupal. Dinosaurs like me prefer to write HTML code (to one used to TeX, HTML is dead easy), but office staff for whom this is one job among many probably prefer something more WYSIWYG (I dread to say it). There also has to be a clear list of who is responsible for what content, and who takes over where necessary. This is needed both for the organisation itself, and for outsiders (e.g. LMS members) requesting that information be added to a web page.
I’d like to end with a little more about navigation links versus search engines.
One model of the growth of the web graph in the early days of its study worked like this. Take a random existing vertex; clone it (that is, construct a new vertex with the same neighbours); then randomly change a few links. Once it was very common for new web pages to be produced by copying and editing an existing page. But things are different now. Most web pages are ephemeral (produced by computers in response to external requests); and even in permanent pages, style and content have become separated.
On the LMS webpage blog, I suggested putting links to a a few institutions related to the LMS, such as the IMA and the European Mathematical Society. This has now been done. The purpose was so that we could see what others do, and borrow good practice (along the lines of the web graph model, perhaps!). Another correspondent said that having these links on the LMS page would not be necessary since search engines would find them easily. But this is a different issue. In any case, why not have links for people who prefer them?