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.
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.