Archive for February 16, 2012

Innovations

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on February 16, 2012 by telescoper

Moaning about science politics, especially with regard to funding, is one of the recurring themes on this blog. The UK government administers science policy through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (better known as BIS). Unfortunately I can’t think of that name without harking back to the good old days of the Innovations Catalogue (shown left). I was shocked to discover that this met its demise as long ago as 2003 but in its time it was comedy gold. Packed full of palpably useless gadgets – who could possibly forget the vibrating fur-lined golf club cover? – it was all the more hysterical for  that fact that it was clearly deadly serious. When I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue tried to lampoon the Innovations Catalogue,  the results struggled to be as funny as the real thing, although I do remember Willie Rushton’s combined cigarette lighter and nasal hair remover…

It seems that the Innovations people made one big mistake that cost them their business: the stuff they sold was dirt cheap. Subsequent experience has taught us that if you want to persuade people to buy useless gadgets, you have to make them expensive. No tat sells like expensive tat…

Anyway, having thus established the theme of Innovation, let me now explore a variation. Websites.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a number of changes to websites I use. Last week I noticed that Twitter had been revamped. The first impression I got was that all my tweets were on the right hand side of the screen instead of the left. Not a drastic alteration, though as a man who is fully in touch with his inner Luddite I find even that level of change hard to cope with. More perturbingly I later saw that the button for searching for mentions of your username (for those of you who aren’t twits twats twerps tweeters, this was marked “@” because all twitter names begin with that character) is no longer labelled “mentions” but “connect”. Huh? Connect with what or whom? Likewise the “activity” tag is now called “discover”. Why it was decided to change the names from something descriptive to something non-descriptive is beyond me, but it’s probably what passes as “innovative” in the world of web designers.

I’ve got nothing against web designers in general, and I think some websites are absolutely wonderful in both content and style. This one, for example. However, there are some who seem to have been put together by people on a mission to the make the design so impenetrable that it’s impossible for anyone to find any content at all.

A major leap in this direction has recently been made by the BBC. A while ago they introduced a new home page, which has virtually no information on it, but lots of graphics. After vociferously negative responses from users of the BBC Website, i.e. the public, the person in charge responded by saying that the changes were needed in order to make the site more distinctive. I freely admit that it is distinctive, but its main distinction is that it is poor.

Now I’ll grant that page layout and style is a matter for personal taste so there will be others out there who like the new BBC Webshite. That’s fine. What’s less forgivable is that the quality of service has also deteriorated and that is an objective fact. Here’s an example.

On the old BBC website you could set your location, with the result that the homepage would give access to local news, local TV and radio listings, and so on. You also automatically got weather information for your chosen location. Now you can still set your location on the homepage, but if you click on the new “weather” page your location is automatically set to London. Every time you log on, and want to check the weather, you have to type in your location by hand. Unless you live in London, of course, which is presumably why the web hacks didn’t worry about this.

I’m no expert, but it shouldn’t have been beyond the wit of even the most lowly web designer to pass information about location from one page to another within the same site. But who cares about whether the service is better for the user, as long as it’s distinctive….

I suppose the point of this post – if there is one – is that we shouldn’t be too respectful towards innovation for innovation’s sake. Not all innovation is good.

You might think that adage applies also to what goes on in BIS, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

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