A Midweek Writing Exercise: “Statement of Problem”

Howard here. Let me cut straight to the exercise:

Describe the problems you currently have with the Writing Excuses website, but do so without describing solutions to those problems. 

and then…

Describe things that work the best for you, or things that you enjoy the most at the Writing Excuses site, but do so without simply naming the feature.

We’re giving writingexcuses.com a redesign, an overhaul, and we need use-cases. From you!

In the world of web design (and in the larger world of software design, and the even larger world of product design) the engineering team will do the wrong thing when presented with a long list of instructions from end-users. What they need is a concise list of instructions from an architect, who has looked at the various use-cases in their correct contexts.

Here is one way you might respond to this exercise without having paid attention to the instructions:

“Use a bigger font, and make the buttons bigger, too.”

Okay, but will a bigger font actually solve the problem? Let’s reword this and see.

“I can’t read the site when I’m using my phone, and when I try to click on links or buttons I usually miss.”

Oh-ho! Now we know that what this user actually needs is a version of the site that comes up for mobile devices, and which is optimized for use there. (Note: yes, we know this! And we also hate when mobile sites don’t provide the full feature set. Both of these things are already in our requirements list. And we also know that even for laptop/tablet/PC/Mac users, the existing font is often too small.)

More examples:

I like the tag cloud.

Well, okay. Producer Jordo hates tag clouds, and I don’t like tagging things when I write episodes up, but we’ll go ahead and leave that alone, I guess.

I find episodes using the tag cloud, and sometimes I find super-helpful episodes that I didn’t expect would help.

Wait, you mean it works? Well, that changes things. I’m encouraged to keep tagging episodes as I create them, even though (confession time!) I don’t use the tag cloud myself, and I worry that it might not be useful. And hey, for some of you it might not be! That’s why this writing exercise is so important. One person’s solution or favorite feature may be another person’s problem, and unless we describe the problems and the functional use-cases, we won’t catch that.

Let’s do this one more time…

Don’t make the site all bloated and graphics-heavy! I hate sites that do that.

There’s no value assigned to “bloated” or “graphics-heavy.” Why do you hate sites like that? Are you offended by color? Is it a mobile phone issue? This totally ties our hands, because adding ANYTHING might be problematic here.

I like how quickly the site loads. Episodes take a while to stream, but the UI comes up fast.

This statement identifies load-time as the thing we need to not break. Taken in context of other problems and other successful use-cases, we can see exactly what we need to do.

This writing exercise is especially tricky the more you know about web site design and software design, because you probably already know the solution we’ll end up using. You want to save time and just jump ahead. If you’re passionate about the solution you’re offering, that’s yet another difficulty level. They stack! That means this is a great writing exercise for the engineers among you! It’s like “show, don’t tell,” only with more descriptions of eye-strain and less pre-formatted XML.

Producer Jordo and I interact with the site differently than you do, and Izzy and Tiffany (our development team) are even further disconnected. But if you give us the right information, we’ll give you a new, improved writingexcuses.com that will amaze you, and part of that amazement will be that we gave you good stuff without taking any of the old stuff away.

Unlike our writing prompts, this exercise goes into the comments. And we’ll actually read it! (No critiques, though.)

For your handy-dandy, below-the-fold reference, here is the exercise again:

Describe the problems you currently have with the existing Writing Excuses website, but do so without describing solutions to those problems. 

Describe things that work the best for you, or things that you enjoy the most at the Writing Excuses site, but do so without simply naming the feature.

109 thoughts on “A Midweek Writing Exercise: “Statement of Problem””

  1. Good thing: I like how easy it is to just download MP3s.

    Problem: I can never quite get the MP3s from here to operate on an MP3 player, they only load when I listen to them on my computer.

  2. * I find the top of the page too visually cluttered.

    * The search function is hit-and-miss. Sometimes the results will lead me to the right season, but not to an individual episode. It seems to improve drastically for episodes after season 4 for some reason.

    *Episodes before season 6 or so don’t have little blurbs, and sometimes I can’t quite guess what the content is by the title alone. The above two points can make it difficult to find a specific episode.

  3. Problem: When I click the “listenermail” link and send off an email in the hopes that you might consider the topic for a future episode, I immediately get back a response letting me know that the “listenermail” mailbox is full. This makes me sad and wonder if you ever check your email. :-(

  4. Sorry if I’m too late to the party, but I’ve finally figured out how to put words to my thoughts. :)

    1) I like the iTunes feed. It seems I’m in the minority here, but I do. I only have an iPod, and I’m not very technologically savvy in some places, and don’t understand what RSS feeds are or what they’re meant to do, and so to have the episodes all in one little place (the official iTunes Podcasts app) is very helpful to me. Being able to download them to my iPod without having to sync it to a computer is very nice. Occasionally it seems like it takes much longer for them to get put up on iTunes, so that’s a little sad, but overall, please don’t get rid of the iTunes feed. Please don’t.

    2) I like being able to listen to the old episodes. It’s very helpful to have them all in their separate pages without too much drawing my attention. It would be nice to have way to access the back episodes through the iTunes feed (they are lost in cyberspace after around 15 episodes), or some other form of playlist, because of the difficulty navigating the buttons on small iPod screens.

    3) The UI, especially at the top of the page, is very disorienting. It’s helpful to have all the different links, but the layout tends to overstimulate my poor eyes and gives me a bit of a headache. I’m not sure if it’s the color scheme or something else, but I can’t look at the website for very long without getting serious eye fatigue. It might be just be me and my bespectacled eyes, though.

    I hope that helped! Good luck with the site upgrade.

  5. I love the existence of the microcasting Q&As, as they answer lots of questions that I have.

    I wish there an obviously labeled address or mail form where it is appropriate for me to send a question that I hope to be addressed in a future Q&A. :)

  6. All too often, I need to put on my headset in order to hear you guys, even though the sound on my laptop is turned up as far as it goes. And, yes, the font is eye-achingly small on my laptop. When I CTRL+scroll it up, everything else gets huge. I end up increasing the font to read the liner notes and comments, decreasing to find other stuff, increasing, decreasing. I’m getting Scroller’s Finger.

    On the plus side, I can go for long periods of time without coming to this site, yet it still looks the same. (I’m still recovering from Facebook’s bi-weekly major changes of a couple of years ago.) It’s nice to come here and be able to use the site without having to figure out where everything went.

    One more plus: Nice punctuation, Howard! Your comma placement is a joy to behold!

  7. Trust the Cloud, Howard! Trust the Cloud!

    I don’t use clouds on other sites, and found them slightly annoying until I came to Writing Excuses. Just having the different font sizes (reflecting popularity) makes it easier to find a tag than in an alphabetized, uniform-in-font list. Weird, but true. It’s somehow easier on the eyes, or maybe it’s easier on the brain, to use an alphabetized cloud. (Yep, I’m as surprised as you are, Howard.)

  8. I know i am late to this party,but I wanted to add my support to previous post that I really like.

    I second the motion for a writing excuses playlist, either by topic or randomized. Listening to writing excuses while doing housework is great fun!

    I second the motion to be able to download a season at a time. Or maybe a whole topic at a time.

    I also note that season 8 has an incomplete archive which made it tricky to be sure I didn’t miss an episode.

    Sometimes when I download (not streamed, download) an episode to my phone the audio is choppy, never had that issue via iTunes, but I don’t always have time to sync my ipod when I want to listen to a new episode.

    Any way to support the cast besides buying books by its authors? I was already an audible member when I learned about the cast, but when I asked audible how to make my membership support the cast I got the phone equivalent of a ” deer in the headlights stare”.

  9. Is it too late to jump on this bandwagon?

    1) I love having access to all the old episodes in the archives. I find it easy to navigate by season and often go back and listen to podcasts from earlier seasons.

    2) I have enjoyed many of the books you recommend during the podcast. But I listen to the cast every week, and I don’t usually have time to read/listen to a whole book! It would be helpful if I could see a list of all of the books-of-the-week (and maybe some of the other referenced books), not just the most recent.

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