What Do You Think About the ARRL’s Website?

Yesterday, I got an interesting call from the marketing company that’s working on a redesign of the ARRL website. I had an interesting chat with a young woman there who asked a bunch of questions about how I use the site, but I’m guessing that this wasn’t a typical user interview. For one thing, I’d bet that I was the only one she interviewed that develops and maintains websites for a living. I may also be the only one who’s run for an ARRL board position.

I asked her quite a few questions myself, trying to get an idea of the direction that the redesign was going to take. My guess is that very few of the other people she interviewed asked those same questions.

Now, I don’t know how you feel about it, but I think the ARRL website is OK. The design could use a little updating, but that’s pretty much always the case. I’m of the opinion that the graphic design of a website should be redone every two or three years.

The navigation could perhaps be simplified a little, but there’s so much information there that simplifying it will be difficult. I have used the site so much that I rarely have difficulty finding what I want. When I do, I use the search engine, which does a pretty good job of finding what I’m looking for.

The biggest problem that I see with the ARRL website is that much of the information is out of date. The two sections that I’m most familiar with are the clubs section (I used to be the Affiliated Club Coordinator for the MI Section) and the volunteer instructor sections. The content of both of those sections is showing its age.

This is really the crux of the problem. A fancy, new design is not going to solve the content problem. I’ve designed websites for clients that languished because they didn’t work at keeping the content up-to-date and useful. I fear that the new ARRL site, once launched, will meet the same fate. It will have a great new design, but the same old content.

When confronted with this, ARRL staffers usually fall back on the old saw, “We just don’t have enough resources.” I don’t doubt this, but when I volunteered my services to work on the instructor section, I was basically ignored. I said this in my election campaign, and I’ll reiterate it here. The ARRL must find a way to get the members more involved. My feeling is that there are lots of talented people out there who would be more than willing to work on ARRL projects, but the headquarters staff are just unwilling to get them involved. I’ve never been able to figure out why exactly, but my theory is that Newington has a severe case of the “not invented here” syndrome.

We also discussed how the ARRL might include some social networking features into its new website. This really is something that the ARRL should jump on, imho. The ARRL website should have a feature I’ll call “hambook,” something akin to facebook. Actually, there’s probably not even any need to develop this, but rather somehow use the facebook API to let facebook do most of the work. There are also other websites out there with social networking tools, such as ning.com, that the ARRL could use to promote social networking amongst hams.

The ARRL might even want to get crazy and do something along the lines of Twitter. After all, aren’t the DX spotting websites just an earlier, very specialized form of “tweeting”?Somehow, we should be able to expand on that concept and do some interesting things with the packet network and/or D-Star. This is obviously still a partly-baked idea.

At any rate, I’d love to hear from you on what you think about the current ARRL website and what kind of features the new website should have. I’m going to email the company working on the new website and maybe they’ll even monitor this post to hear what you have to say.

Comments

  1. David N8SRE says:

    I think the site is generally OK, if a bit dated. I hope they’ll avoid the temptation to “glitz it up” with Flash animations and such, which don’t provide any information and make a site harder to navigate.

    More could be done to aggregate the available information. For example, all back issues of QST are now available online. But the archive of product reviews only goes back to 1980. There’s a list of every product review and what issues they appeared in, but it lacks hyperlinks to the online copies of those issues. You can search the archive database for these things, so their database already “knows” the data; someone just has to take the last step and link the two together.

  2. Mark Morgan says:

    I agree with you the porblenm with the ARRL website is not much it layout but content

    The ARRL seesm to think that since it is the only game in town people with join well as a former member the ARRL never realy offered me much I valued and came accross as trying to be on both sides of the fence when it came to code as a NoCoder I could have respected the ARRL more if they came out and took a postion and keep to it that like it or not is leadership something the ARRL lacks

    as it is the ARRL has nothing much to atract me or get me to recomend arrl membership to those I caoch through the licensing process

    as a former president of 2 ARRL affilated clubs I know they offer such folks little as well

  3. Regarding your statement on social networking, there is a “HamBook” already that is slowly taking off within the Twitter community calls 73s.org. I’m usually not for reinventing the wheel, but 73s.org is really providing a nice “social” space while providing ham-specific features. Also, Chris, N7ICE, the maintainer, is pretty good at responding to feature requests.

    While the ARRL is starting to move in the right direction, the “community” is already moving ahead with a full head of steam. Unfortunately, trying to reign them in at this point is going to be like herding cats.

  4. Dan,

    Your points on the ARRL web site are well taken. I didn’t get a survey call, but I have shared some similar views with HQ staff over the past year or two.

    I agree about interactivity (multiuser forums, staff blogs with reader comments, etc.), the need for fresh content and style and maintenance of content, too. Since there is so much more talent outside Newington than inside, it would be good to bring in volunteer contributors. How about Wikis instead of static, one-way publication?

    The League is a big publishing house, but it is mostly geared to print media and to proprietary, non-free distribution models. Why not reduce the dead tree mode and increase web publication? As it is, the QST and QEX pages have very little content. Historical QSTs are now freely available (great news!), but not in a very convenient way. Why is there so little video? Etc.

    Even in the League’s “classic” web site, there is a need for improved navigation and upgraded esthetics. Remember that we are competing for attention with all the rest of the web, so “production values” are important. Lord help us, but we should explore Web 2.0, AJAX, Flash, and all that.

    The web upgrade project now underway will result in a snazzier look and feel, and better “information architecture” — easier to find things. It may have a personalized portal for different types of readers (newbies, press, members, etc.) But I don’t think it will change the fundamentals of how the League interacts with members and non-members, which is mostly “arms length”. I think there is a fear of unruly comments (see QRZ.com et al.) requiring lots of manpower to “control”. Volunteers might help.

    My sense is that ARRL as an organization runs a tight ship internally, with clear lines of responsibility for their “business” activities: publishing (the big one), member services, etc. How to open up to extensive volunteer involvement, particularly if that would bypass the traditional field organization structure, is not clear.

    On top of all that, there is the problem of cultures: old time radio folks vs the iPhone generation. In this, the League more or less reflects hamdom at large. Some of us (even OT’s like me) are sympathetic with newer Internet happenings – including, for example, Open Source Software, and, yes, Facebook. But many hams (most, if you listen on the bands) are not. A state of the art website might draw in new blood, but might feel strange to many hams, including many in the League.

    As others have said, we have a kind of identity crisis in ham radio. We used to be the place to be for high-tech DIY-ers up through the 1960′s, but since PCs, iPods, and the Internet, ham communications have become more of a niche activity. Some of us are pushing the frontiers in SDR and some of us are gung ho em-comm people, but young technical people have many more ways to go than ham radio. And there seem to be fewer young technical people.

    So when we talk about the League web site, the most important question is what is the message? Is it gee whiz “we do that!” for prospective hams? Is it a reference site for operations, technical, club info, regulations, etc. for member reference? Is it for education, helping people learn RF and electronics? And so on. The current League site probably “just grew” as people thought up new stuff that should be incorporated. They are trying to be more systematic now. I hope they succeed.

    73, Martin, AA6E
    blog.aa6e.net

  5. OK, Ben. I’m convinced that I have to sign up again for Twitter and now 73s.org.

    More on all the other comments later.

  6. OK. I can’ t resist commenting on one of AA6E’s poins: staff blogs!

    Can you imagine the reaction those would get? I’d love to see staff blogs, but I just don’t see them blogging. I think that they would be afraid of the comments that they’d get.

  7. Yep, keeping content updated is the key, my website suffers the same issue. I agree with the comments, the ARRL site is hard to navigate at times, but once you know where you are going, it works! I would not like to see the site redesigned…. JUST to redesign it. I would bet the complexity of navigation increases rather than decreases. The ARRL is based on volunteers; I am puzzled why they would not accept your gracious offer.

    I use the technical sections quite often as a repository of good ideas, especially about antennas, looking up contest rules and contest scores, DXCC info and read the odd article here and there. I am neutral on social networking on the web, I guess I have profiles on a few of the major services, but they are not complete, I do not use them for actual networking, more just curious as to what they were.

    I do read this blog regularly!

  8. David Brodbeck N8SRE says:

    About the comments problem — I think we need to reach a point where it’s considered OK to have a blog without a comment feature. In a small community like the one that reads this blog, comments are OK, but on more heavily-traveled sites the comments section almost always becomes a playground for the socially maladjusted and a huge time suck for the site administrator. Look at any newspaper’s comments section — it’s all flame wars and the same people spouting the same political screeds over and over again. It doesn’t build community in any useful way, in fact it often tears it down.

  9. Dan KB6NU says:

    I think blogs without a comment feature is OK, but if you don’t allow comments, you’re really missing out on the power of the blog. What I do think would be OK is for the blogger to moderate responses and simply delete those that are simply rants or flames. Yes, it takes time to do this, but I think it’s worth it.

  10. Dan KB6NU says:

    btw, I just received an e-mail from the person who interviewed me yesterday, and she is indeed going to monitor this item.

  11. Dave Sumner K1ZZ already has his monthly editorials posted on-line, if you know where to find them. That’s kind of a comment-less blog. They show up at http://arrl.org/qst . Some of the “News & Features” items on the arrl.org front page are written in the first person, like blog entries.

    Handling comments would be tricky, but waiting 6 months for your letter to the editor to appear in QST is not what I call interactive! It’s all a matter of priorities — the resources could be found.

    Blogging is really different from writing editorials and other print articles. Ideally, it’s all about a rapid-fire exchange of ideas that is fairly informal. I really appreciate what Ed Hare W1RFI has done with his many posts to the BPL reflector and elsewhere. He’s one guy you can sort of get to know through his Internet activity.

    Not everyone is cut out for this or has the time. I wouldn’t want to pressure all the senior League folks to commit to blogging actively, but it should be encouraged as a good way to reach out to the world – and the membership.

  12. Good comments from above. First off, I have to give the ARRL credit for a decent web presence, especially early on. More recently, the web site is falling behind in terms of style and content.

    I agree with the comments about content getting out of date. This is the curse of a large web site…the maintenance burden can kill you. I recently spotted some fundamental errors on the ARRL site concerning auxiliary stations (the FCC rules had changed) and reported them. It has been months and these errors are still not fixed. On any web site, I think you need to consciously decide which docs are the foundation that need to stay updated and which ones can be let go over time (blog style).

    It is easy to dismiss the style issues, but some attention to keeping the site up to date is important (without the overdone whizzy java scripts, etc.) Style can’t overcome crappy content but it can certainly enhance it. The logical side of our brains will argue that it is only content that matters but given the way humans are wired, style can have a positive effect. Just don’t get the priorities reversed. (See Pig, Putting on Lipstick.)

    More aggressive use of blogs would be a really smart move for the ARRL, sending the message of reaching out to the ham community. I would allow comments but keep them moderated. If necessary, restrict comments to members only, registered on the web site. (This will provide a degree of accountability….often missing in the trashed out web sites.) In the extreme, any bad boy members can be permanently banned from the comment feature.

    The ARRL is pinging out content via twitter: http://twitter.com/arrl
    This is a good example of using the web infrastructure that exists without having to invent it. (Isn’t that always the smart move on the internet? Leverage, not invent.) We need to do more of that.

    73, Bob K0NR

  13. Good comments. The new design really looks nice (it’s still evolving, though, based on comments). The layout is more logical and navigation makes more sense. I don’t know to what degree Flash elements will be incorporated, if at all, but I share N8SRE’s reservations about glitz over substance. But so far I have seen no animated elements and hope it stays that way. The most exciting parts to me as a web developer are the under the hood elements with searchable xml and integrated enterprise e-commerce. The more sophisticated the code, the better the user experience can be (if it is done well). So far, I have every confidence that it is in fact being done well, and we should see some results in about a year. Gary KI4LA

  14. It’s going to take a year before we see this? By that time, whatever they’re coming up with is going to be out of date.

  15. Yes, the content is quite dated and a lot of pathways on the 1st page. It would be better for me if there was an index page with an access link from every page.
    This has nothing to do with content, design, or anything else important, but I have always wondered why they thought it was a good idea to lock a lot of the technical articles from non-members. It seems to me a good way to encourage newcomers is to include them in all the activities. However, I do not approach ham radio with an eye for financial advantage.

  16. Mike Zydiak says:

    I just came across this seemingly most appropriate section of your website as a result of a “Yahoo Search”. I was hoping to find intelligent commentary about today’s migration to the “New and Improved” ARRL website. (I’m starting to have my doubt’s about the improved part.)

    Will you be entertaining that commentary here, or is there some other location where I can browse comments and complaints.

    Mike Zydiak (W2MJZ)

  17. Dan KB6NU says:

    Hey, Mike. Thanks for breathing some new life into this item. This is certainly an appropriate place to comment on the new website. I’ll probably also be writing a blog item about the new website once I get around to surfing around in it.

  18. Mike Zydiak says:

    Dan:

    Thank you ever so much for providing the rest of us with this platform…

    Myself, I am a somewhat inactive ham, as I don’t have as much time as I wish to devote to this fascinating hobby. (I’m one of the many… probably the majority… that rather than talking on the air all evening, are usually doing some sort of project in the shack, with a few radios simply playing in the background.)

    Of course during my work day I’ll normally check the ARRL site at least once, as it is the premiere source of Ham related news, and it provides me an important easily accessible source to all of the back issues of QST. (I gave away my huge collection of QST years ago for distribution to Eastern Europe, as they were taking up way too much space.)

    This migration to a brand new website frightens me. Normally, in such a complex undertaking, and since server space is so darn cheap, it would make sense to run both sites simultaneously until all of the bugs were completely worked out. While the old ARRL site was somewhat long in the tooth, it worked very well, everything was easily accessible, and it was fast… really fast. So much so that when I thought I was having problems with my wireless connection which I use during the day at work, I would click ARRL in the Bookmark Bar and watch the Kbps meter to verify my connection quality.

    Perhaps it is simply the rush of a huge number of users at the moment, but the site right now is a pig, and is slower than AOL at lunchtime. Yesterday, the 12th, the back issues of QST was not functional, but today it seems to be up. But… the search feature is not yet functional on keywords, so it appears that the site is still being completed in bits and pieces, and the membership are the Beta Testers.

    Also, I have yet to be able to find a button to simplify the presentation for those like myself who have a relatively slow connection speed… glits, graphics and ads do eat at the presentation speed of the pages, and slows it down to a crawl.

    While I really believe that it is ultimately most desirable to have the League make this major upgrade to its public face, I would think that the League would not wish to present an imperfect product to the public, especially by an organization which prides itself on its technical and journalistic competence.

    I do hope that the other regular users of the site find their way here, (maybe you can do some magic with the Keywords on the searches), as I would love to explore other reactions to the implementation of this upgrade.

    Thanks again for creating this forum.

    Mike Zydiak (W2MJZ)

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