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
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org with “Web A-Z” in the subject.