MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXI No. 2
November / December 2018
MIT Entanglement with Saudi Monarchy
Requires Independent Evaluatio
Ethical Obligations of Universities
in Their Transnational Engagements
The MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman
College of Computing
Ethics and Liberal Arts in the
Schwarzman College of Computing
Update on Construction Across Campus
Lamenting MIT's New Web Portal
On The Transition to Retirement
Hypothesizing About Stephen Hawking
Questioning the New MIT Website
Faculty Policy Committee
Committee on the Undergraduate Program
Committee on Campus Planning
Most Popular Undergraduate Majors
Printable Version

Lamenting MIT's New Web Portal

Eduardo Kausel, Philip M. Gschwend, John R. Williams

Over the course of decades, MIT has consistently strived to reinvent itself. It has always sought new directions and attempted bold changes that have kept the Institute at the forefront of science and technology, not to mention a leader in educational policy. But change also brings about the risk of unintended setbacks and harm to instruments that have worked well before. An example of the latter is the recent and drastic change to the MIT web portal, which has been unanimously disliked by both the colleagues we have consulted as well as the students we polled. Not one of them expressed either support or liking of the new pages. Indeed, some colleagues were quite visceral in their expression of dislike, even while asking us not to quote them by name. We shall argue herein that the old format was highly functional and very well designed. If so, the old dictum should have applied: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” We wonder then why it is that the MIT administration felt the urge to change these pages, and to do so without extensive prior consultation with, and counsel from, the faculty.

Let’s first begin with a review of the old, classical MIT home page. It had all of the following excellent features:

  1. It occupied just one page in the browser. No scrolling needed, and the page loaded in an instant. It also changed daily, which had no counterpart at other universities that, to this day, have an unchanging look.
  2. It contained links that gave the users a mental model of the entire MIT structure, with all of the important and relevant paths to information directly available. For example, if you wished to go to the libraries, there was a direct link. Or if you wished to go to either academic or administrative offices, these were directly accessible from that main page. In addition, the graphic was in most cases a photo of the person-of-the-day that loaded without delay, and at the same time it also referred to the latest news with links to appropriate stories and videos on current research, as well as findings and discoveries at the Institute. The Communications Office loomed quietly in the background and not overtly in the foreground.
  3. The small search window at the top right of the page led to either direct searches by topic or searches of faculty, personnel, or students. It was operated by the familiar and very effective Google search engine, which provided a long list of relevant results in little space, often finding the sought after results in the very first search, and displaying these in appropriately colored highlights. That engine was also very tolerant of misspellings, which is crucial when searching and the user either makes mistakes or uses imprecise names, or fails to use the exact name of an MIT office or entity.
  4. The old page was also a clear signature of MIT, with a centered spotlight, clear functionality and a unique personality, and the gravitas reflecting the long hours students and faculty spend on cutting edge research.

By contrast, the new page has all of the following shortcomings:

  1. The familiar MIT home page is now gone, replaced by a rather dull, run-of-the-mill web page that is similar in many respects to that of many commercial websites. No originality there.
  2. The portal displays in excessively large font over several pages, and it is necessary to scroll. It is also needlessly animated, which slows down loading considerably, especially over slow Internet connections. What for?
  3. That main page is now an information desert providing tunnel vision. It includes a dysfunctional search engine that displays suggested search terms in a kind of popularity contest. One can only wonder if groups, desiring to be “popular”, might game the engine by employing Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or some other campaign services to drive users to their pages.
  4. What previously we could see in just one page is either not there, is less complete, or requires scrolling. What for?
  5. The complete organizational structure of MIT that was visible previously is no longer there, and has been replaced by a large search window together with a few perfunctory links. There is an assumption that visitors to the new portal already know what the MIT structure is, and what to look for. If one doesn’t know what to look for, one cannot find it.
  6. As we already mentioned, the search engine must be tolerant of mistakes and errors. The new search engine is not. For example, try entering “huminities” deliberately misspelled. The new search engine finds nothing. But enter the same in Google, and it asks you “did you mean: humanities?” together with the results for that search. In fact, we now can often find material faster at MIT by directly using Google instead of the new search engine. Or say you remember that MIT has a digital library – called DSPACE – that you would wish to access, but can’t quite remember its name. Good luck with finding it.
  7. The new site is an uphill battle to finding information. Yes, the old links are still lurking somewhere, but now they lie some three or four clicks deep. In modern sites that is a very large barrier. People don’t want four clicks to find something – they will just give up.
  8. Try finding a colleague or person in some department, perhaps his or her email, telephone, or office number. That is now an exercise in futility and frustration.
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Now, if MIT decided to abandon its old web pages, an important open question is why? As of now, those reasons are obscure to us and remain to be articulated. Thus, the explication should elaborate on the purpose of the new site, the planned architecture and specifications for the new site, and the metrics that will be used to measure the intended success of the new pages – or the lack thereof. These should include standard industry tests (A/B tests) that might reveal whether or not the pages are serving their ultimate purpose. We invite the team responsible for the new website to elaborate to the Institute on the rationale for the new pages and to articulate the design process they followed in comparing the performance of this new site versus the old one. Did they, for example, consider two websites, one “outward” and one “inward” facing?

A central issue in either the continuation of the old pages or the development of the new web pages is a thorough understanding of the purpose served by those pages.

Even before the change, MIT was already running Google Analytics that collected information on the geographical origin of the visitors, the pages visited by them, the duration of their visit, the links or parts of the pages that they clicked on, and miscellaneous other metrics and statistics such as papers copied from the personal web pages of the faculty, or from DSPACE, or application forms and instructions downloaded by prospective students.

We understand that top class consultants were used to redesign the site, but the results suggest that their terms of reference and scope might have been unclear. For example, there are many functional requirements for MIT’s web pages. Which one is of overriding importance to MIT?  Potential undergraduate and graduate applicants?  Users of remote education such as edX and Open Courseware? Faculty, researchers and students at MIT as well as at other institutions of higher learning and research?  Funding agencies? The press and the media in general?  In short, who is MIT targeting with these new pages, why the emphasis on some specific targeted group, and who decides on the appropriateness and desirability of those targets?  Our sense is that the new pages are mainly targeting the media and information industry, not the faculty, staff, students, or prospective students.

And what makes the Communications Office think that having a visually animated page is a marked technical improvement? It may cater to young people who are used to video games, but not necessarily to serious users. A visual effect is necessary only when it conveys important information that can’t be provided otherwise. It should not just be visual candy.  To make an analogy, consider the old version of the TV documentary, Cosmos. In it, Carl Sagan shared his contagious enthusiasm for astrophysics and cosmology with serious and at times complex thought-provoking ideas and explanations. It was brilliant. You will surely recall the memorable punch lines “Extraordinary claims necessitate extraordinary evidence,” and “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!”  By contrast, the new version of Cosmos was dumbed down considerably, and contained many silly animations as well as video and acoustic effects that conveyed no useful information and had no relationship to planetary science. An example of that was that silly spaceship, which was there merely to entertain and keep the attention span of those who grew up with Star Trek, or played for hours on end with Pac-Man (or some other video game). To us, much of the new web page design seems to place excessive value on the visual impact of the website, and much less on its usefulness and practicality.

One additional related observation. Together with the new page, the Communications Office began sending us a daily news brief (MIT Daily). What for?

Previously, there was a link to the latest news of the day, often illustrated with small photos or diagrams as bait. Perhaps one out of 10 or 20 times, i.e., about twice a month, there was a story of interest to us which we would click on to learn more about the latest news. In its current incarnation, the newsletter overflows our inbox with largely useless or irrelevant information, competing for our attention with all sorts of other pushed news and punch lines, not to mention emails and social media. And this is not counting the newsletters that we receive regularly in connection with our own specialties. In summary, the newsletter may well be MIT’s, but it very much feels to us like junk mail. Thus, we have proceeded to unsubscribe.

We surmise that the restructuring of the MIT web portal was not an inexpensive proposition, and those involved in its development and implementation have vested interests in continuing that effort, rain or shine. This makes us think that the old format is now defunct, and that it shan’t even remain available as an installable option to its users. If this is indeed the case, we mourn the passing and loss of a formerly outstanding resource. Needless to add, we no longer have the MIT portal as our home page, since Google does a far better job.

To conclude, it seems to us that the Communications Office ought to clarify and respond to at least the following points:

  • Explain why this was done and how much it cost (compared to continuing the old website).
  • No good engineer would suggest a new design without testing it on a representative group of users. Was that done?
  • MIT should recognize this inadequate product and revert to something with the functionality closer to that of the old site, unless someone explains cogently and convincingly why that would be a mistake and should not happen.
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