The global AZ. Such a simple concept, yet such a nightmare. Only the homepage and the « just drop it in » about section are more feared.
The reason it’s so obnoxious to us web types is that the list itself tends to be completely arbitrary. There is no logic as to what goes in, what goes out or why it exists. In the case of dundee.ac.uk our AZ started in 1996 as a list of faculties. It moved from the homepage to atoz.html in early 97, but by Dec 97 the rot had already started.
I ❤ Excel
Think of an A to Z list of staff members. How can you sort the list? By last name? First name? Job title? All of these would be a good way to organize some structured data just like you might in a spreadsheet. The same would be true for a list of courses, a list of places, a list of event dates.
Now think about the global AZ of the University. How can you tidy this up? I will tell you a secret. You can not.
The rule is: Unless it’s a defined, automated, rule-based AZ, it will quickly become a showcase for the loudest shouters, forgetters, and who cares.
Things can only come
So let’s take a trip to 1997 and watch the December release of AZ.
I mean, my first thought was « why is there a button called LINKS on the AZ? » but let’s stay on topic and look at the list for A.
We have a building (or is it a department?), followed by a course, followed by a department. So we get the synonym: but what if someone looks under X? After that we have a service… maybe… and then Aging and Health. This is a course, a division, a research interest, or just a vague concept that leads to who knows what.
So we get the broken links. Notice how American Studies is plain black text? There is no link there. Now as this was 97 it could have been the even worse concept of ‘but we’ll have a site soon so get into it’ which thankfully no longer exists but either way it’s pointless.
Please sort my needles and hay alphabetically
As soon as the dataset stops being sortable and becomes a curated list, the problems occur.
Synonyms start appearing, old department names are kept, things are added when someone asks, things aren’t removed because no one asked. It gets very expensive in terms of management.
Also, every time we launch a new site, everything at the previous site breaks 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 them, which takes even longer.
But it’s fineone might say, because it is doing vital work.
Except, it turns out, it’s not…
Visit our EH site
Of the 26 letters of our AZ, most clicks go to only three of them: H, F or E.
And then this happens:
Each of these links already exists on our services pageand involves one click less.
Strangely, Glasgow Uni’s web team recently carried out a similar audit of their AZ. Feel like guessing what the first three links were?
So we have 27 pages that:
- present the user with a completely arbitrary list of over 400 links
- take our time responding to requests to add/remove items
- fill with broken links every time we make a change to the site (and then the CMS adds a just to be even more annoying)
- takes a long time to fix said broken links because who knows where it should 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 this it has only four actively used links
The BBC had an AZ, connected by a button marked « much more ». In fact, the only extra thing this provided was a lot of questions about why some things were there, others weren’t.
Why, for example, is Doctor Who on the list but Torchwood is not? Audience ratings? It can’t be like this, because Blue Peter is on and nobody watches it anymore. So it has to do with prestige and longevity, except Just a Minute isn’t even on the list. What happens when Blue Planet II hits TV? Is The Blue Planet (2001) added to the list again? Is it only if it’s on iPlayer? But what about everything else about iPlayer?
Suffice to say, the BBC quietly dropped its global AZ at one point in 2014, deleting it from all archive navigation bars in early 2015.
And here’s why…
After 21 years of service, we are considering getting rid of our AZ as well.
Because it’s a nightmare, it’s illogical, it’s misleading, it’s a waste of time and people just use it to get to HR and finance.
However we would like your feedback before doing so.
Do you find there are things you can only find using AZ? Search doesn’t find certain phrases? Get wrong results using another method?
Let us know in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Web AZ’ in the subject.