Why we’re thinking of removing the A-Z

The global A-Z. Such a simple concept, yet such a nightmare. Only the homepage and “just stick it in the” about section are feared more.

The reason it’s so disliked by us webby types is the list itself tends to be completely arbitrary. There’s no logic to what goes in, what comes out, or why it even exists. In the case of dundee.ac.uk our A-Z started in 1996 as a faculty list. It moved from the homepage to atoz.html early in 97, but by December 97 the rot had already set in.

I ❤ Excel

Think about an A-Z list of staff members. How can you sort the list? By surname? First name? Job title? All of these would be a valid way of organising some structured data just like you could do it in a spreadsheet. The same would apply to a course listing, a list of locations, a list of event dates.

Now think about the University global A-Z. How can you re-sort this? I’ll let you into a secret. You can’t.

The rule is: unless it is a defined, automated, rule based A-Z it will, quite quickly, become a showcase for who shouts loudest, who forgets, and who cares.

Things can only get better worse

So let’s have a trip back to 1997 and look at the December version of the A-Z.

I mean my first thought was “why is there a button called LINKS on the A-Z?” but let’s stay on topic and look at the list for A.

We’ve got a building (or is it a department?), followed by a course, followed by a department. Then we get the synonym: but what if someone looked under X? After that we have a service… maybe… and then Ageing and Health (Medicine). This is either a course, division, research interest, or just some vague concept that leads to who knows what.

Then we get the broken links. Notice how American Studies is plain black text? There’s no link there. Now given this was 97 it might have been the even worse concept of “but we’ll have a site soon so just put us in” which thankfully doesn’t exist anymore, but either way it’s useless.

Please sort my needles and hay alphabetically

As soon as the dataset stops being sortable, and it becomes a curated list, the problems occur.

The synonyms start appearing, the old names for departments are retained, things get added when someone asks, things don’t get removed because nobody asked. It becomes very expensive in terms of management.

Plus whenever we launch a new site, all to the previous site to break thanks to a quirk in our current content management system (even when the URL is the same). We then have to go in and fix these which takes up even more time.

But that’s fine, you may say, because it’s doing vital work.

Except, it turns out, it isn’t…

Visit our site E-H

Out of the 26 letters on our A-Z, the majority of clicks only go to three of them: H, F, or E.

And then this happens:

Every one of those links already exists on our services page, and involves one less click.

Funnily enough, Glasgow Uni’s web team recently did a similar audit of their A-Z. Fancy a guess what the top three links were?

So we have 27 pages that:

  • present the user with a completely arbitrary list of over 400 links
  • take up our time fielding requests to add / remove items
  • fill up with broken links whenever we make a change to the site (and then the CMS adds a double red border just to be even more annoying)
  • take up significant time fixing said broken links because who knows where its meant to point to now?
  • perpetuate archaic department names such as ATTU, Advance@Dundee, and Life Sciences Learning & Teaching (School of)
  • sow confusion with vague, often inaccurate concepts: “Television and Imaging – see Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design”
  • despite all of that only has four actively used links

A whole lot more…

The BBC used to have an A-Z, linked to from a button marked “a whole lot more”. In fact the only more this provided was a whole lot of questions about why some things were there are others not.

Why, for example, is Doctor Who on the list but Torchwood not? Viewing figures? Can’t be that, because Blue Peter is on and nobody watches that anymore. So must be to do with prestige and long running, except Just a Minute isn’t on the list either. What happens when Blue Planet II comes on TV? Does The Blue Planet (2001) get re-added to the list? Is it only if it’s on iPlayer? But what about everything else on iPlayer?

Suffice to say, the BBC quietly abandoned their global A-Z at some point in 2014, expunging it from all but a few archive navigation bars early in 2015.

And that’s why…

After 21 years of service, we’re thinking of getting rid of our A-Z too.

Because it’s a nightmare, it’s illogical, it’s misleading, it sucks away time, and people only use it to get to HR and Finance.

However we’d like your feedback before we do it.

Do you find there are things you can only find using the A-Z? Does the search not pick up certain phrases? Do you get incorrect results using another method?

Let us know in the comments below, or drop an email to help4u@dundee.ac.uk with “Web A-Z” in the subject.

Written by:

Once described as 'unapproachable and rude to children', Pete nevertheless strives towards the goal of making the content of our website more friendly, readable, and useful for our visitors. Surprisingly handy with a drill.

  • Show Comments and Reply Form

    20 Responses to “Why we’re thinking of removing the A-Z”

    1. Rebecca Trengove

      I’ve never used the A-Z. With the exception of the couple of pages I go to direct (eg Staff and Brand) I use Google to find everything, whether it’s the staff expense form, the link to an open job, a course page, etc etc. I’m with you on getting rid of the A-Z.

    2. Vivienne Dunstan

      I use the A-Z sometimes, mainly because I find the site organisation confusing, and the in-site search facility does not work reliably for me. I wish I could just use the search, but more often than not it won’t find what I’m looking for. Whereas if I go to google.com and type it in there, with Dundee University, it finds it. Please reconsider, and also please take a really good look at the search facility and its problems. I’ve reported them to IT before.

      • Pete Hewitt

        Hi Vivienne,

        I’ve had a look but can’t see any recent calls in the help desk. Was it a while ago you reported these, we can’t access anything older than 18 months.

        Anyhow, which links are you using the A-Z for that aren’t showing up correctly in search? If something isn’t appearing or the wrong this is appearing we can investigate why that is and try to fix it. πŸ™‚

        Drop me an email if that’s easier.


    3. Kirsty Speers

      A great read thanks Pete! I didn’t even know an A-Z page existed before reading this, and then struggled to find where it was! I always use the search function and find what I need!

    4. Jeanette Paul

      I use the A-Z all the time as I find the Search facility is hopeless. I do often find the site I need simply through Google. If the Search facility is radically improved then happy to lose the A-Z…but please not before there is something else in place!

      • Pete Hewitt

        Hi Jeanette,

        Which links are you using the A-Z for that aren’t showing up correctly in search? If something isn’t appearing or the wrong this is appearing we can investigate why that is and try to fix it. πŸ™‚

        Drop me an email if that’s easier.


    5. Michael

      The A-Z is so woefully out of date and pointless. I always use the Google search bar to find what I need “uni dundee pay scales”, “uni dundee ise timetable” etc.

    6. Luke Newman

      The A-Z is at the top of the home-page and the services link is four screens down (on my computer), which probably explains why I have used the former up to now and not really been aware of the latter. Services link at the top, maybe?

    7. Colin Reid

      I use the A-Z a lot. I’ve been here a long time and there have been so many changes in where and how information and policies are organized and presented that the A-Z is a useful short-cut rather than following a half-remembered route that no longer works or guessing how things have been restructured. For example, I forget that the Discovery Portal is now linked from the LLC rather than Research (why is it not on the main Research page?) and there are lots of other policies and topics which I do need but only occasionally, and lose track of all the restructuring. I do appreciate the difficulties at your end, but I find the A-Z very useful when something crops up.


      Hi there.

      You may find it more useful (as a webby type) to have an automatically maintained A-Z linked to the search database. I’m sure you could also feature automatic sorting according to your own preferences, too, but for the silent majority, A-Z is defacto.

      By the way – where has the UoD public telephone directory disappeared to ? That’s essential for services which do not have a public electronic point of contact.

      • Pete Hewitt

        Hi James,

        One issue with automatic indexing is it needs a consistent naming convention, something that isn’t possible with the current website. However it is something that is being worked on for the new site and hopefully should work nicely both for ourselves and the end users.

        The old SOMIS phone directory went away at least 3 years ago but had been out of date for at least a year before being turned off. You’re not the only one who misses it but any potential replacement needs to be maintainable in the long run, which the old one was not, hence it breaking, and then being turned off.

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