English 351 Website Critiques
Past Online Critiques
Past Genre Analyses
Visually Dense Critiques
To sharpen your critical skills in examining web sites, you will write three critiques during the semester each related to the major web project you are working on. The idea here is that thoughtful, critical reflection on what other people are doing with similar websites can help you think through your own site.
For each critique, try to pick a web site that is a little better than you are capable of producing right now. I have found that neither critiques of very bad sites nor critiques of dazzling, highly professional sites are very useful. One is too easy to rip, and the other is too hard to analyze carefully, and neither results in very much learning.
When you pick a site for a critique, please pick a site that is related to your current web project. When a critique is unrelated to a project, I tend to see very little cross over between the ideas in the critique and the student's web project, but when there is a strong connection, I often see students using the critique to also think through their own work. Do not pick a site that is under construction by a student in your class, but you can critique a site from any of the archives of work by past students: repurposing, identity, or creation.
Your critique must include visual evidence that supports your arguments. When I started this requirement, the quality of the student critiques improved remarkably. I will show you how to take screen shots of web pages, how to coping parts of images in photoshop, and then paste them into word docs (or Indesign if you have had English 350). See the section on formatting for more information.
- Critique of a Website For each of your indivdual site critiques, pick a site that are related to your project in someway that is it include techniques or content that is similar to what you hope to accomplish. Be sure to include why you picked the site in your intro, or I will ask you to revise your critique. If you do not have any ideas for a website to critique, especially for the sandbox project, I invite you to look at the various archives of student projects from past classes and pick one of those (you can use the random project link on our home page or on the blog. Do not critique a site by a current member of the class, and do not critique a website you have created (most people get way too defensive critiquing their own work). For your sandbox project, it is ok to not have a very solide reason for why you picked the site, just be sure to say that in the critique.
- Website genre analysis: For the final project, I can offer you an alternative
to a single web site critique: a website genre analysis. Instead of critiquing a single website, you can do a genre
analysis of a series of websites that are related to the
genre you plan to work on. In the past, students have
done genre analyses of online comic books and poetry that
moves. In the genre analysis, you develop a good annotated
list of example sites and then explore their unique features
whether graphic, textual, navigational, or other features.
I want to still do a usability study of a representative
website, but beyond that, you may ignore any of the other
guidelines if they do not seem relevant to your genre.
If you are interested in a genre analysis, Owen Williams,
a student from my Fall 2005 class has given me permission
to share his genre analysis with you. He wrote it in preparation
for his final project which was a graphic
story. He did the genre analysis so that he could
think about the various ways people have created comic
books on the web. The genre analysis is available here. Note that this genre analysis was done before I began requiring visual evidence.
See the course schedule for deadlines.
In writing your critique, begin with a brief overview of the site. Be sure to include the URL, as I will likely read your review near a computer so that I can browse the site while reading so include urls whenever possible. Then include the following material:
Why you picked this site
In your introduction please tell me why you picked this site to critique: What drew you to the site? How is the site related to your upcoming project?
Discuss the primary and secondary audiences and purposes of the web site. Who is the site for and what is it trying to accomplish? Notice I said primary and secondary. Like publications, web sites have a variety of audiences: audiences both external to the organization that sponsors the site and internal to that organization. Often these secondary audiences and purposes are as important if not more important than the primary audience and purpose. For example, is a University web site primarily for internal or external audiences? You could make a good case for either. Give this section a lot of thought. The audience and purpose of a web site play a major role in determining the nature of almost all other elements of that site. A web design decision that seems inappropriate in the context of one audience and purpose may be totally appropriate and effective for a different audience and purpose.
In this section, examine and critique the site's organization. How is information categorized? Do the categories make sense to the users or do they reflect the organization's internal structure. Many a web site crashes on the shoals of poor organization. These sites categorize information in a way that makes no sense to people outside of the organization. Also in this section, look at the navigational structures. Do the links make sense? Can you easily get where you want to go? Is anything missing? Be sure to use visual evidence to back up your points.
Look critically at the visual design of the site, always keeping in mind that design and media is intensely social in nature and must be geared to a particular audience and purpose. Use the ideas in Williams' book: proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast. How does the site use or fail to use these principles? Look carefully and in detail about design and be sure to use Williams vocabulary. If you have taken a visual design course and have learned a different design vocabulary, you can use that vocabulary. The important thing is to have a way to talk about what you see. Be sure to use visual evidence in the form of screen shots from the site to back up your points.
All websites, whether simple of complex should create some sort of identity/ethos through a combination of color, images, typography, and text. What sort of identity does this website create? How does it do it? Is this identity appropriate? Effective?
Observe someone using the site to complete a task. Write about how they did. I have found watching a third party use a site to be an invaluable component of the critiques. A good way to do this test is to first invite them to look at the site and articulate what they see as the audience and purpose what they like/dislike, etc. Then invite them to do a task that interests them. Next you may give them a task to do that you think might be problematic. Finally, talk to them about the site. What did they like/dislike? What would they change? When you write your critique, be sure to conceal the identity of your tester.
Quality/Appropriateness of writing
I do not expect you to read every word on a site, but I would like you to assess the overall effectiveness and appropriateness of the writing in the site.
Use the wayback machine to look at the history of your site (http://www.archive.org/web/web.php). When was the site first archived? What can you learn from browsing the history of the site? How does this history support the themes you have observed in the site?
The Big Picture
Finally in the context of your discussion of the above issues, make an overall assessment. What is the bottom line? How good of a web site is this? Why? Be sure to make this judgment in the context of the audience and purpose of the site. I strongly encourage you to stop at this point and reread what you have written. One place were many critiques go wrong is when the students make lots on interestin observations in the various sections of the critique but then forget all about those observations in the big picture section. Make your big picture observations in the context of what you have written earlier about the site.
I will grade these critiques and you can rewrite them if you are unhappy with your grade. As a rule of thumb if the grade on a critique is more than one level below the grade you hope to get in class, it is a good idea to revise. In evaluating your critique, I will be looking for evidence that you have thought carefully about the site and the above issues. I am particularly impressed by detail and engagement. I do not care for brief dismissive analyses that do not say anything other than how bad (or good) a site is. I do like thoughtful, detailed explorations of why a site is bad or good.
I find all of these sections to be important to a good critique. If you omit any of them, I will ask you to rewrite your critique. I will grade your critiques, but you can revise the critique if you are unhappy with your grade. As a general rule, if your grade is more than one level below what you hope to get in the class, it is a good idea to revise. If you decide to revise a critique, please talk to me ahead of time so we are clear on what changes need to be made and do the revision promptly (within two weeks). The longer you wait, the worse job you will do. The absolute deadline for revisions is December 6.
Usability testing is a form of classroom research. I have received IRB review and approval for this classroom research. The protocol number is 2005-0333. Usability testing for a class is borderline IRB research. Undergraduates do not need to collect a consent form to test a site with their roommate or significant other. However, I encourage graduate students to use the consent form. If you do not you cannot use the results of your usability testing in any public dissemination such as a presentation or a publication. The form is available here. You are responsible for collecting and preserving these release forms.
As I noted earlier, you must include visual evidence in your critique. That is you must include images from the site that demonstrate the points that you are making. I will show you how to take screen shots and how to insert those screen shots at appropriate points in your critiques.
You can write your critique in Word or Indesign. Please print it using our color printer. I need to see the critique on paper and I cannot easily get to the color printer during the day. You may also do your critique as a website. There are some examples of recent web-based critiques that follow most of my current guidelines in the box at the top of the page.
Finally you are welcome to use Publisher or Pages templates if you want to create a visually more complex critique. Using a template is a fascinating intellectual exercise, you must fix your content to the elements of the template. I have included an example that Gina Cooke did last semester.