Monthly Archives: September 2007

Americorps Alums Site Tour – Profile Section

As with many membership sites, one of the first things to do on the Americorps Alums site once you create an account is to fill out your profile.

Basic Profile

There are several sections in your Americorps Alums profile that you can edit and add information to. Aside from the basic username/password stuff and a photo uploader, there are sections for Personal Information (gender, age, marital status, etc., including your Americorps service background), Additional Information (text boxes for “More About Me,” “Educational Experience” and “Social/Volunteer Organizations”), Contact Information (address, email, IM handles and the like), and Professional Information (basically, your current employment status).

Blog

You also get a personal blog on your profile that you can use, but I don’t recommend it. It’s clunky and the contents are only available to other site members, will not be indexed by the search engines and there are no RSS feeds. If you’re not the blogging type, it’s just one more thing to do. If you are the blogging type, chances are very good that you’ve already got at least one other, more functional and more visible blog out there, so why bother with another one that only a handful of people, at most, are ever going to know exists? I just put up a post on mine directing people to this blog and called it a day.

Bits and Pieces

There are a few other bits and pieces of potential interest that make up the Americorps Alums member profile, including a photo uploading app, a preferences section where you can tweak notifications and whatnot, a page to access your membership status information (paid, lifetime or free), a message inbox and a page that lists all the groups you can belong to (A.A. has “groups,” which let you connect to other people from, say, past Americorps programs or organizations. These operate more like announcement boards than interactive chat groups or anything. Useful for keeping up with what your old Americorps org is doing (if they update their group announcements) than anything else.

Connections

The Americorps Alums site also allows you to connect with other members. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any way to upload your contacts to find members easily, so you have to manually track them down using the Member Search function (or discover connections in your Group memberships) and connect from there. Not sure what the point of connecting is at this point, as there don’t seem to be any additional features you have to be connected to use, but they may add functionality later so it won’t hurt to connect up with your peeps, if they’re on the site. If they’re not, drop them an invitation via the Tell a Friend function at the bottom of the My Profile sidebar.

Conclusions

It’s your all-around standard Profile section – nothing weird, nothing unrecognizable to anyone who’s ever been on any membership/connectivity site. As far as whether or not you should spend the time to really buff it out, I’d say that if you’re going to be using the Alums site to go job hunting through the Career Center or as part of your resume/CV, it’s probably a good idea to create a full profile with all the useful stuff a future employer might be interested in (including who you’re connected to). And if you’re going to be heavily networking among the Alums, a complete profile with interesting tidbits about yourself will probably enhance your connectibility. Otherwise, you can just set up a basic profile and leave it at that.

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Update on the new tag system

I blogged here about my views on the new WordPress.com built in tagging system, along with my concern that I would have to still add Technorati tags by hand in order to have my tags show up there.

Well, apparently that’s not the case, as user timethief explains:

Hi there,

Thanks in advance for the opportunity to respond to your blog posts.

“The WordPress tags only go to WordPress’ global tag listing, and not out into the greater world of Technorati (where all things bloggy reside). Which means that if I just use the WordPress tags, I’ll get just WordPress traffic, whereas if I keep adding Technorati tags, I get traffic from all over the place.”

This is not correct. All tags and categories assigned to your posts do go to Technorati via pingomatic every time you publish a post. Also both are recognized by Technorati spiders and Google spiders as key words.

I have experimented both with using Technorati tags and with not using them and so have many other bloggers. We found there was absolutely no difference.

The only real change is that tags give you the ability to micro-categorize your blog.

http://faq.wordpress.com/2007/09/21/the-difference-between-tags-and-categories/

Well, that’s cool. I’m going to take timethief’s advice and just stick with the built-in tagging for a while and see what happens. With any luck, the only change will be in how much easier my blogging time gets. 😀

Americorps Alums responds to search issue

In my last post, I noted how crazy it was that such a resource intensive site as Americorps Alums didn’t have a search tool on their site. I also contacted the site admins to get their take on the issue, and here is their response:

Hi Soni,

Thanks for your constructive feedback. We are actually in the process of adding a site map, and the idea you present is another fantastic idea. In doing a little research, it seems that there are some reasonably priced “web site search” tools available, so stay tuned for its integration. Thanks again.

Regards,

Greg Heinrich
Member Engagement Manager, AmeriCorps Alums

First off, I’d like to thank Greg for responding so quickly to my comments. That proves that not only are there real people behind the site (which I already knew), but that they’re promptly responsive to visitor input as well, which is always a good thing.

Secondly, I applaud the site’s efforts to grow and improve, and to take feedback seriously. It’s a good sign that this isn’t going to be a “set it and forget it” endeavor, as is sometimes the case with resource sites.

But I do have to say, I’m a bit taken aback and somewhat bemused that my suggestion to include a search tool was received as a “great idea” that triggered some research into the prospect on their part (which is how I read it, anyway), because that’s a core concept of building accessible, user-friendly websites that should have been a no-brainer for any web designer who hasn’t been hiding under a rock since FrontPage rocked the Internets with those newfangled scrolling marquees and flashing graphics.

I mean, dude. Yes, real people are running the joint, but what people? Have any of them ever run a professional multi-level site before? And if so, how does something as basic as putting a search tool into a resource archive/member community not get on the drawing board well before even the color scheme and layout?

Eh, maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. And I’m glad they’re finally considering the idea (and I hope they pick a proven, brand-name implantation that actually works, and not some bargain-basement off-brand kludge that some back-alley programmer hand rolled because he just had to have a piece of software with his own name on it).

But for me, going into a site with the Americorps name on it and seeing these sorts of basic usability issues is like going into a supposedly upscale nightclub and seeing a plywood bar and cheap carpet – it gives the impression of either fly-by-night cheesiness or, more likely, big dreams being carried out by people who are in over their heads. Neither prospect is particularly comforting.

Americorps Alums Site Tour – An Overview


First, the good news

The Americorps Alums site is a veritable treasure house of valuable resources for the registered Alum. So let’s take a moment and go for a visit, shall we…

Obviously, the first stop for most Alums is going to be the Americorps Alums home page. Here you get your first look at the navigation links, the calendar, the news panel and the Alum Spotlights, which are in the sidebars that show up on all the site pages, although when you’re logged in, the Latest News becomes a profile links pane.

Aside from the basic navigation links, though, the home page offers a rotating gallery of pictures of Americorps members in action, and just beneath that, a row of quick links that will allow you to either Contact, Sign In or Register. Once you sign in, these links change to Contact, My Profile and Sign Out. Beneath these links, you’ll find a listing of recent announcements, news items and other important content.

The navigation links take you off to a site nicely populated with useful resources that can help you save money, find jobs, discover new opportunities and so on, including members-only discounts as places like Barnes and Nobles and Avis car rental, listings of colleges that will match your ed award, and a career center and library.

All very nice and all pretty much standard.


And then, the not-so-good news

But if I’ve got one gripe about this site, it’s that that’s about all that’s standard. Simply put, this site has some serious usability issues.

For starters, there’s one bit of gear the site doesn’t have that every site with more than a handful of pages should have, and that’s a site search application. Nor, as far as I could tell from browsing the slide-out navigation panels, is there a handy link to a site map, if there is a site map at all. Given the fact that this site isn’t the most intuitive site to find your way around in, these missing pieces create an environment ripe for generating a high number of frustrated visitors.

This is a serious usability faux-pas, as far as I’m concerned, and I’ve written to them about that.

Also, while the site does offer social networking and blogging tools that are purportedly there to make the site more interactive and useful to members, these tools end up being so clunky or hard to figure out (and the existing myriad of social networking and blogging platforms out there so convenient, easy to use and already highly populated), that very few members bother using either of them. In fact, few members bother to do more than throw up a bare-bones profile at all.

Just as an aside, it always amazes me in this day and age of dead-simple, intuitive and often free content management systems, social networking tools and widely agreed-upon user-friendliness usability standards, that businesses and non-profits will still create sites that defy standard usage habits, use proprietary (and hard to use) applications, and otherwise seem to go out of their way to ignore the decade+ of evolved user experience on the web and the associated tools/actions that we’ve all come to know, recognize and use almost without thinking about. As a result, users have to re-learn the unique pathways and how-to’s of basic actions like adding contacts, finding resources and sending messages for each site, a task for which few users have either the patience or the desire to do.

Not fun.


But it’s not all bad

Even with those limitations, however, it’s still a very worthwhile resource to have at your disposal.

Usability gripes aside, this site is seriously full of valuable and useful tools, resources and options for Americorps Alums that are indeed worth reinventing the wheel a bit to dig around for, if you can get past the “raised by wolves” web standards blindness of the site structure. For my part, with sites like this I tend to do what everyone else seems to be doing – I set up a simple profile and go straight to the stuff that’s useful to me and don’t bother much with the site’s interactivity, blogging and social networking tools, since I already have far easier and more effective options for doing that.

This is unfortunate, since the Alums site could be a highly interactive and socially “contagious” site for sharing and conversing with other alums – which is what it appears that it wants to be – as opposed to just a static library of resources, which is where it stands now.

Maybe one day, the site builders will visit Ning or some similar community and see how easy it is to make all that connectivity…well…easy, and fun. Or just learn how easy it can be to drop the roll-your-owns and simply integrate the stuff their membership is already using into the basic site structure (or create tools for integrating their site into these existing systems).

But in the meantime, members are better off sticking with Facebook, Ning, MySpace or whatever for connectivity, and just look at the site as an archive of money-saving and opportunity-opening place to get private-access goodies.

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Americorps Alums Site Tour

As a way to encourage Americorps Alums to join up on the Alumni site, and as a way to help others find the tools and resources they can use, I’m creating an Americorps Alums Site Tour series. Each post will explore one page or resource that the site offers, complete with linky goodness, reviews of the resources if I know enough about it to do so and so on.

Hopefully, this will not only allow Alumni blog readers to find more of what they’re looking for, but with any luck, the keyword usage and tagging will help get the Americorps Alums name out there just that much more, and increase the odds that someone will stumble across it on their Americorps-related searching.

I’ll post links to the tours posts here as I get them written.

Go Alums!

Americorps Alums Site Tour – An Overview
The good news – the site’s chock full of useful resources. The bad news – usability is awful.

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Category Changes Update

Okay, so here are the category changes. Hopefully, I’ll be able to corner the market on these titles for a while, or at least until I decide whether or not to move the blog.

Original Category —> New Category

My Life —> Soni’s Life
Blasts from the Past —> Service Year 2000-2001
Events —> Americorps Events
Rants —> Soni’s Rants
Stories —> Americorps Stories
Random Blathering —> Blatheration
Fun Stuff —> Soni’s Having Fun
Volunteering –> Volunteering and Americorps

People —> I just deleted this one, and let the posts fall under whatever other categories they were listed under

Plus, I’ve added an Americorps News, A Lifetime of Service and a GTD Housekeeping categories, which should be fairly self explanatory.

So, that’s that done. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

New WordPress Tags, and Category changes

Looks like WordPress.com, where this blog is hosted, has implemented a tagging feature in the posting dashboard. So now I can add WordPress tags automatically, without doing the hand-coding of Technorati tags. Which is cool…except…

The WordPress tags only go to WordPress’ global tag listing, and not out into the greater world of Technorati (where all things bloggy reside). Which means that if I just use the WordPress tags, I’ll get just WordPress traffic, whereas if I keep adding Technorati tags, I get traffic from all over the place. So for now, I’m using both the WordPress tags and the Technorati tags, so as to get the greatest exposure. Granted, it looks cluttered and redundant, but it’s the best option I have for now. I may just end up going with Technorati, since it’s the bigger pool of fish. We’ll see.

Also, you’ll probably note some Category changes in the near future. Apparently, if you click in the Category field in the sidebar, you get just my posts that fall under the Category, but if you click on the Category listing in the post itself, you get taken to a global WordPress page with listings for everything posted under that Category tag by anyone in WordPress.com. Which is, I must say, the most asinine arrangement I’ve seen in ages, not to mention confusing as all get-out to someone who’s new to the blog (hell, I’m confused by it and I’ve been here the whole time).

I was not aware of this until just now, when I went looking for info on the new tagging set up. The only way around it is to either host the blog yourself (which I may do at some point in the future, although moving the blog would be a pain) or renaming Categories so that you’re the only one with that Category. Which is what I’m going to try doing. So if any of you have bookmarked one of my Category pages for some reason (I can’t imagine you have, but just in case), please note that the link my go bye-bye in the near future.

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