Category Archives: Soni’s Rants

Problems, pet peeves and venting about issues.

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.

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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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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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Homework club vandalized

The Pisgah View Homework Club I was assigned to this last year was broken into recently. The latest ChildrenFirst Newsletter carried a short piece about it and a call for donations to replace what was gone:

PVA Vandalized

The Project MARCH Homework Club at Pisgah View Apartments was vandalized and some items were stolen. The break-in occurred during the recess between the summer enrichment program and the upcoming start of the after-school program. Stephanie Johnson, Project MARCH Coordinator, creatively used the temporary boards placed over the broken windows to reinforce the positive message that Project MARCH exemplifies in the Pisgah View community (see photo).

Following is a wish list of items needed before the club reopens. Please call 828-259-9717 if you can donate or purchase any of these items for the Homework Club.

Cordless phone and answering machine
Set of Motorola walkie-talkies for staff
Board games – especially Mancala
Sporting goods – basketballs, soccer balls, jump ropes, tennis ball with the velcro “mits,” other appropriate outdoor recreational equipment for elementary-age children
Legos
BrainQuest (2nd grade and up)
Five long folding tables and 12 folding chairs

The fact that the thieves took our heavily used board games and sporting equipment leads me to think it was teenagers (or stupid grownups who haven’t bothered to grow up) who thought their life just wouldn’t be complete without filling their closets with used and beaten-up toys stolen from children. Your average hardened crackheads wouldn’t have bothered hauling out half of that stuff, as there’s not much street value in an abused board game or BrainQuest books.

!#%*&*!! losers. Hope they’re happy. ‘Cause stealing toys from kids who don’t have all that much to begin with just so you can get a taste of some of that sweet, sweet Mancala goodness (missing pieces and all)…well, that’s just how you bring it on the street, dog.

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Time Management for Busy Volunteers: 5 Ways To Keep Volunteering From Ruining Your Busy Schedule

I know how it is – you’re a busy person with a lot of stuff on your plate. And yet, it’s so hard to turn down those requests to help out when the sign-up sheets get passed around, especially when your “socially conscious” boss is watching. So here you are once again, facing an afternoon (or even an entire day) of volunteering that’s torpedoing your schedule faster than a Russian sub at a fundraising raft race.

Well, no more!

Follow these simple tips to streamline your volunteer activities and I guarantee you’ll never have to worry about juggling volunteerism and your jam-packed schedule again.


1. Show Up When You Get Around To It

Look, everyone’s going to be getting there all at once and it’s going to be chaos. Plus they’ll probably be doing some sort of (yawn) orientation for the zip-heads. But you know how to find your way around a simple work site and crowds give you hives. Besides, it’s not like you’re getting paid or anything. If you wanted to punch a clock, you’d be at work, right? So, take your time, field a few more calls, catch a few extra Z’s – whatever. The work will still be there when you get there.

Oh, and if you are going to be late, please – don’t bother calling. Your volunteer coordinator is going to be up to her neck in idiots trying to figure out how to work the sign-in pen. Don’t pester her. She’ll figure it out sooner or later on her own, anyway.


2. Instructions Are For Zip-Heads

You’ve finally gotten there and signed in (printing takes forever, so avoid that time-wasting trap and stick to your normal scrawl…they’ll be able to read your handwriting just fine). But now some granola-crunching hippy is holding everyone up by rattling off a list of unnecessary instructions and “duh” safety tips.

Blah, blah, blah. You’re not a five-year-old – you’re just going to be pounding nails and hanging siding. How hard could it be? Besides, you’ve done this before and know a few shortcuts. So use the orientation time to get in a few more vital text messages, and then do it the way you know how to do it – who knows, maybe they’ll learn something. Let the sheeple do it the hard way.


3. Don’t Let The Organizers Drop The Ball

What ball? Any ball. It’s their job to keep this gig running smoothly, so if you see something wrong (not enough ice for the free refreshments, their selection of tools is not up to par, there’s some clue-free loser who insists on doing everything the hard way in charge of your team, etc), make sure you let them know. And don’t back down if they don’t immediately fix the situation. You’re doing the organizers a favor by keeping the support volunteers from slacking off. The site would grind to a halt if someone didn’t keep an eye on things.


4. Rules Are For Clients, Not Volunteers

Sure, those poor people getting the food boxes have to take what you give them. But dude, you’ve been here shelving donations all day. Why shouldn’t you load yourself up a box of the good stuff on your way out? You deserve it! And it’ll save you a trip to the store on the way home, so you won’t have to leave off volunteering early to do that. They should be grateful.


5. Leave Early Anyway

You’ve got things to do and people to see. Messing around with clean-up and whatnot is just going to slow you down. The rest of the team won’t mind if you slip out a bit early – they know you’ve got important stuff hanging on the line. And if you leave now, you won’t have to fight the crowd to get out of parking, and that’ll cut at least 5 minutes off the time it takes you to get to the gym.


Bringing It All Together

The key to keeping your volunteer activities from cutting into your busy schedule boils down to one word – priorities. What’s more important – your schedule, or all that other stuff? Seriously, weekend plans do not make themselves!

Cutting corners, shaving time and making sure the support team knows who they’re here to serve will keep you from wasting your talents and cooling your heels doing pointless busy-work. Once you’ve turned this time management system into a habit, streamlining your volunteerism to minimize schedule disruption will be as easy as falling off a ladder.

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Curses, foiled again

Got up early today (after a crappy mostly sleepless night, even) to finish up the last few hours of painting touchup that will finish the paint job on the Emma trailer and finally get that job off my “to do, already” list and the hovering weight of it off my shoulders. It’s been a week + since I’ve been able to get back there at a decent hour to get any work done (before nine there’s too much dew and after about noon, it’s too damned hot for the paint to go on right) and since I’ve just got a few bits of touch up, it’s been driving me crazy to be that close to done for so long and yet not be able to just get in there and whack it out.

Alas.

Hurricane Dean seems to be throwing some (I’ll admit, much needed) rain our way. I had hoped I could get what I had to get done, done before the rain came in (it was scheduled for later today), but 10 minutes after I touched paint to brush here it came.

Gah!

True, it cleared up by around 11:30, but the weather forecast calls for a good chance of thunderstorms all week and I didn’t want to get started – again – only to have get rained on – again – and by then it was already too hot anyway, so I just gave up. I’ll hold off until next week, when the hurricane leftovers should be done with and try again.

That is, if Mother Nature could kindly &*#@%!! condescend to allow me a 5 hour window (2 to paint, three to dry) between too wet and too hot to do it in.

*shakes fist at sky*

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The Never Ending Project

Spent the day at Emma today, playing volunteer and doing still yet more painting. God, you’d think it’d be done by now, but it’s tough to make progress when you can only work a few hours at a time, a day or two a week. By midday, it’s either too hot to paint (the paint gets all thick and nasty in the pail, making it too thick to apply nicely) or it rains. And here lately, it’s been doing both.

Managed to get in several hours today, enough to get the rest of the cut-in work done on the back, but not enough to roll out the second coat, since by then it was hot enough that the paint would have just dried on the roller pan. And while I was up on the ladder, I realized the back window trim needs a second coat. Lovely.

But it goes. The checklist to date is: roll out second coat on back wall, second coat for window trim, trim out bottom of trailer (a lately-added decision, since we have the paint to do it), then do punch-list/touchups where needed. Feels like more than it really is, to be honest. I just wish it would go back to those lovely cool, overcast but not rainy days of spring. You could get a whole day in with weather like that. 😀

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