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the importance of website designers
by scott wright at 16:31 03/11/04 (Forum::Online Communities)
I've got a new research idea - well it is a new way of providing evidence to support my hypothesis. I think that the role of website designers (and particularly for me forum designers) is not fully appreciated in social science literature.
I was thinking of putting out a survey through shout etc. But I was wondering if anyone else had any views on this? How important is the designer? Or do they just do what the customer wants? And is there differences between the demands of government and private companies in terms of the controls placed on you? How aware are the designers of the political and democratic requirements? Is it technology-led?

That's a lot of questions, but I thought I'd just throw out some ideas for discussion :-)

Did anyone else watch the beeb's coverage last night? I thought they were being far too confident in their assessment of Kerry's support based on the high turnout - a case of bias? Deluded hope? I only wish they'd been right!


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the importance of website designers scott wright - 16:31 03/11/04
Re: the importance of website designers Simon - 19:44 03/11/04
I've taken the liberty of converting your comment into a new root article, because I think it'll get lost appended to the bottom of that very long other thread.

(To start a new thread, use the 'New Article' button on the index page of a particular area)


Generally speaking, any system's user interface is pretty important even though people will put up with some fairly awful ones if they perceive a value to the underlying tool.

A good designer is able to integrate the client wishes with all other constraints, and a great designer can revolutionise the perception of something (eg the way the original graphical user interfaces transformed the personal computer).

Coming up with a good user interface is not easy - and technology often imposes constraints of its own. HTML is a case in point - writing complex applications using only standard HTML is a frustrating task, which is why you see lots of Flash, JavaScript, Java and ActiveX jammed together on the 'net.

When it comes to web forums specifically, we're still in the early days of user interface design and the similarity of several competing offerings in this arena just shows that form tends to follow function.

I doubt whether there's a large enough sample of forums hosted by governments to answer the question of how aware the designers are of the political and democratic requirements beyond a few obvious issues. What do you think a baseline set of those requirements might be?


Yup, I was watching the beeb until about 3am and also checking a few dozen websites for a spread of opinion. I got the feeling that the beeb were pretty balanced overall, though I do wish they'd get someone other than Dimbleby and Snow to do these election specials.

Re: the importance of website designers scott wright - 14:47 04/11/04
Thanks for this, Simon.

I thought this site might be of interest to you... I just came across it....


The beeb was fair, but they got my hopes up! I thought they read too much into the high turnout and were too certain about its meaning...

I will have to have a think about the baseline requirements. I had a hunch that the civil servants would not know enough about the technology to be able to ask for too much, and that the designers could use this as a way to do what they wanted rather than what their customer wanted - if the customer had any specific ideas about how to design a discussion forum at all. If that was right, it would suggest that power was in a different area from where conventional social science wisdom lies on the subject. I guess this is a reverse of your argument. I'm also not sure that governments, especially at the local level, undestand what is democratically "good".


Downing Street - again! scott wright - 15:16 08/11/04
Hi Simon, I was just going through the database which you set up through http://no10.quiscustodiet.net/. I started on the countryside forum. However, I've not noticed any messages that were deleted within threads, only block deleted messages (which I assume are for management purposes). I also had a quick look in defence, and it appears to be the same. Are you sure that the identification system for deleted messages is working properly? I am confused because I had expected to see lots go missing within threads as well. I dunno, they subsequently removed all the threads which they had originally censored?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!


Re: Downing Street - again! scott wright - 16:17 08/11/04
I've picked out one message, which I would have thought would have been deleted - I picked this one cos I thought you might find the content interesting...

| *** THREAD ID 64034 *** |

2000-11-05 00:26:00/64034/64034/The Countryside [3]

'Tit face British Townies always griping' by mandysboyfreind

netname: PMO-NET2
descr: Prime Ministers Office
country: GB
admin-c: DRWH1-RIPE
tech-c: DRWH1-RIPE
mnt-by: AS1849-MNT
changed: andrewl@pipex.net 19960626
changed: ripe-dbm@ripe.net 19990706
changed: stephenb@uk.uu.net 19990915
source: RIPE


descr: PIPEX-BLOCK4-7
origin: AS1849







remarks: UUNET UK filter inbound on prefixes longer than /24
remarks: Please send abuse notification to abuse@uk.uu.net
notify: routing@uk.uu.net
mnt-by: AS1849-MNT
changed: tonyb@uk.uu.net 19980330
changed: tonyb@uk.uu.net 19981124
changed: tonyb@uk.uu.net 19990315
source: RIPE

person: D R W Horsborough
address: Prime Ministers Office
address: 10 Downing Street
address: London
address: SW1A 2AA
address: England, UK
phone: +44 171 930 4433
fax-no: +44 171 925 0917
nic-hdl: DRWH1-RIPE
mnt-by: AS1849-MNT
changed: andrewl@pipex.net 19960626
changed: ripe-dbm@ripe.net 19990615


Re: Downing Street - again! Simon - 01:11 09/11/04
OK, attached to this post is a ZIPed text file which goes through the forums one by one showing the lifespan of each message in days, whether we recorded it as missing, the thread ID, the message ID and the subject. I've omitted the other fields (author, body) to save space (you can always search the archive itself for the subject line if you want to find back a particular thread or message)

If the lifespan is 0 or -1 and the message is marked as missing ('M'), then it was deleted the same day. The reason it's either 0 or -1 is because the message posting date on the No10 site was not in 24hr format and so we can't tell if "09:41" was AM or PM.

If the lifespan is 0 and the message is NOT marked as missing, then it was still present when the forums went offline.

A quick scan of this report indicates to me that there were regular withdrawal-fests of entire threads, plus the occasional withdrawal of seed messages (sometimes long after they were posted). It's impossible to know the motive for the thread withdrawals - it could have been for reasons of trying to make the site quicker (ie delete the old stuff).

The first version of the forums suffered far more from obvious censorship than the second (post-crash) version (especially in the Taxation forum), but unfortunately I wasn't explicitly recording 'date found to be missing' for the first version. I was instead trying to fetch the header of each message as each archive index page was displayed, and adjusting the output at my end (to mark messages as 'gone') if I failed to retrieve the header for a message at that particular time.

ZIP file (922 K) Downing Street threads report
Re: Downing Street - again! scott wright - 10:38 09/11/04
Hi Simon,

thanks a lot for doing this. The problem I think I still have is that I cant base my analysis on threads where all the messages are missing because, as you say, we can't be sure whether they deleted them for management or censorship purposes. I can only use threads where some messages were deleted and others were not - and there appears to be very little evidence of this. What I had wanted to do was pick out all these threads then (if there were lots randomly sample) qualitatively analyse the text of messages to see what the reason was for the deletion and if it was fair. (This could then be cross-checked against standard content analysis rules).

But if I am right, and there are very few of these types of thread then the analysis would, rightly or wrongly, be seen as insignificant.

20371 : 20371 : hey webmaster
32 : M : 20371 : 20395 : RE: hey webmaster
29 : M : 20371 : 20717 : RE: hey webmaster
29 : M : 20371 : 20768 : RE: hey webmaster -1 : M :

Just to clarify, you are saying that all this thread was removed, but that the last message was deleted the same day it was posted which suggests it was censored?

I am gonna start going through this zip in a bit more detail now - I think I had better go get a coffee first though!!!

This journal is worth a look:



Re: Downing Street - again! Simon - 11:12 09/11/04
32 : M : 20371 : 20371 : hey webmaster
32 : M : 20371 : 20395 : RE: hey webmaster
29 : M : 20371 : 20717 : RE: hey webmaster
29 : M : 20371 : 20768 : RE: hey webmaster

-1 : M : 20375 : 20375 : hunting is stupid , the human animals are too

20371 is one thread (4 messages), and was removed 32 days after the initial post.

20375 is a separate thread (only one message) and was deleted immediately.

Sorry there's not enough information about the first version of the forums to allow a meaningful analysis - it is, however, interesting to look at which entire threads in the second version were removed and which were allowed to remain (based only on subject line).

For clarity: the file only deals with the second version.

Re: Downing Street - again! scott wright - 16:27 10/11/04
Hi Simon, thanks for this.

I've got it now...

I will still look into this analysis, as it could be interesting with a good theoretical argument (and maybe a second example).

Is this of interest? Not sure if it means virtual or not though!




"Relays" Simon - 16:53 10/11/04
That's a bizarre document - I can't find anything that says what they actually want!
Re: "Relays" Simon - 17:09 10/11/04
... so I've emailed Sarah Lambert, asking for clarification and pointing her at some example Novacaster sites. I'll let you know what I hear back - thanks for the pointer.
Re: Downing Street - again! scott wright - 17:09 10/11/04
That is what I thought! Very bizarre. However, the top end funding was rather attractive. Alas, I just tried to log on again and the site is down! I guess that is one way to guarantee one applicant lol!


Physical, not virtual Simon - 16:06 11/11/04
Had a reply, and they're after physical facilities only.

Can't help feeling they're missing a trick there.

Re: Physical, not virtual scott wright - 01:26 08/12/04
Steven Clift:

My vacation is over. The time to collaboratively generate the best
collection of practical e-democracy advice for governments and local
communities to date begins now.

If you would like to participate in this UK government-funded effort,
simply fill out submission form "6. Join the E-democracy Best
Practices Leadership Team" from:


Our first step will be to generate a set of "Briefs" on e-democracy
features - technologies, techniques, online features, etc. This will
be a descriptive laundry list of the top items - - from e-mail
notices to webcasting public meetings - a government can or should do
online to fulfill their democratic responsibilities.

As part of the team you can help draft a "Brief" or simply comment or
contribute to the creation of these short documents. (Think future
one page, two column PDF files with a list of links to real
implementation and top sources for further information.)

Those drafting accepted quality briefs or future project-oriented
case studies will also receive honorariums for their service. You
will also know that you will be contributing to a collection of
useful materials that will be read around the world for years to

For more information on the International E-democracy Best Practice
effort, see:


Please forward far and wide.

Steven Clift
Democracies Online Newswire


Re: the importance of website designers scott wright - 11:41 23/03/05
I was just re-reading your comments. When you were designing the Novacaster software what were the main considerations? Did you use existing forums as a guide or did you try to do something different? Is technology the biggest limitation?

Also, do customers ever come to you and ask you to change the format/design at all?

If there any other people with experience of designing forums (or websites) then the more comments the merrier! Would be interesting to see some of the differences. I asked Kevin Paulisse, the guy who developed DiscusWare, and he said most customers were more interested in an attractive interface rather than a well-designed one.


Re: the importance of website designers Simon - 12:34 23/03/05
Our main consideration was to try and build something that let us do lots of different flexible things using basic building blocks configured in various ways.

90% of users only use 10% of the functionality of any software (I think that's the generally accepted rule). The particular 10% varies from user to user.

What we wanted was a system sufficiently malleable that it would allow us to address all those various 10%s without having to write lots of different code - and that means thinking a lot about concepts and the relationships between them.

We currently have a number of named concepts including "a user", "a group", "an article", "a category", "a capability", "a navigation aid" etc - but often we need to talk to our clients in terms of "visitors", "members", "pages", "buckets", "facilities" and "links".

Essentially the fundamental ideas are based around things and their attributes - which can all get a bit abstract. Names can be very misleading, and can constrain the thought process.

Many customers want different designs for aspects of their sites, and luckily we realised this at an early stage and wrote in the flexibility to create customer-specific templates (based as closely or loosely as required on the system default) for altering both presentation and facilities offered.

We also have customer-specific code in some cases, which we try to implement in a modular fashion (so one customer's requirements don't impose a significant maintenance burden across all the Novacaster sites). If more than one customer wants similar new functionality, we try to reduce it to the core ideas and implement them as building blocks that can then be adapted or employed elsewhere for different related requriements.

The interface is the hardest bit - as I've said before, many web interfaces are a chaos of different technologies, each employed to achieve a certain effect in the whole. We're pretty much pure HTML forms-driven (widest possible compatibility), but as a result some aspects are clunkier to use than might be achievable if we were writing, say, a standalone desktop application.