Tuesday, November 12, 2013

If it would annoy me in meatspace, it will probably annoy me on the web.

You walk into a museum. A docent standing in front of a closed door greets you and proffers a book. On the front of each page is a single block of color; on the back is a single word like "pencil" or "thermos." The docent tells you to pick as many pages as you want to create your own personalized exhibit, then cautions that it will take longer to set up the more pages you select.

You choose some words that sound fun, like "flip-flops" and "corkscrew." The docent slips through the door, then closes it. You hear things moving around for a few minutes. The door opens. You walk in and peruse your choices with interest, but you can't help wondering what you missed. How would "tin can" and "adhesive bandage" look? You ask if you can see them. "Let's go out and close the door, and I'll show you the book again," says the docent helpfully.

The docent's clothes are impeccably tailored. The book's paper is extravagantly gorgeous. And the whole experience is incredibly frustrating.

This isn't a real physical exhibit (that I know of). But its equivalent exists as the digital exhibit Hidden Heroes: a splendid idea beautifully executed in every way except UI. I just wrote about the exhibit's actual content for KQED Science--which led me to learn some crazy things about animal eyeshine, e.g., did you know sharks can turn theirs off and on?--and which also required multiple visits to the website, and therefore multiple opportunities to "create a personalized exhibit." UGH.

***

I learned HTML when I was fourteen. It wasn't a formal class, just a group of interested kids hanging out in the math room after school while a slightly older kid scribbled tags on the whiteboard. I took notes (on paper, natch!) and went home, armed with <body> and <font>, to make myself a webpage.

It was . . . well, about what you'd expect from a fourteen-year-old with a creative spirit. The background was a repeating image of a purple raindrop. And there was poetry.

I've gotten older and maybe slightly wiser. I've dabbled in CSS. There's still poetry and my background is still purple, but at least I ditched the raindrop motif.

I'd be the first to admit that I've never made anything nearly as pretty as the Hidden Heroes website. But I also hope I've never made anything nearly as aggravating.

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