When I did the recent redesign of the site, I did so knowing I wanted to do a lot more reviewing of things, but there was an unsolved problem: it’s between difficult and impossible for a casual visitor to find a specific review given the way WordPress displays articles and builds the archives. I didn’t want to hold up the redesign to deal with this but I did add a “need to fix this” task into my queue.

I’ve been exploring this on and off the last few weeks, hoping to find a design I liked that also took advantage of some of the abilities of WordPress to automate creating the data, and finally came to the conclusion that the way I want to write my reviews and the way WordPress wants them set up to make them easy to archive are incompatible. So I went back to building a design that was (a) easy to maintain, (b) easily expandable, and (c) actually seems to solve the problem in a way I like.

I’ve finally got it, too, at least the first generation. My new Topical Index of All Reviews collects links to all of the reviews I’ve got on the site, broken down into a few broad categories, including fiction, non-fiction, gear and product reviews and a couple of others. As the list of reviews expands, I’ll be able to easily split these categories further to keep it easy to find things — I’m already planning to split fiction into Science Fiction and Fantasy, and non-fiction will spawn a history and military history category down the road.

One of the challenges of writing reviews is that once a review falls of the “new postings” areas it can become impossible to find; what I’ve found studying the site analytics is that they don’t use site search, aren’t willing to click through more than one or two links, and it has to be easy and obvious to see when they do. A large page with hundreds of links is useful only to the search engines (which is a good reason to have them, BTW, but don’t expect humans to scan them). You end up depending on the search engines to bless pages as interesting, and in all honesty, for most of us that’s a sucker’s bet.

So the site design needs to work fighting a couple of design realities: if you give users too many options, they give up and probably either go to another site, or head off to Google or Bing to try to find what they want. But if your navigation makes them bounce around too many places to get somewhere, they’ll also give up.

So I’ve found what works best is to limit the number of different “things” they can choose from in any context. You’ll see as you navigate around my site there are rarely more than five or six obvious things to select at any time, and I keep most lists of things short because otherwise they turn into walls of text that users scan past.

But when you do that you create other problems, because you often have a lot more content than you can fit into these restrictions easily. Those are the parameters of that new index page: a relatively few major categories to split it up into logical sub-pieces, and then keep the listings within those groups small enough (IMHO, one screen to one and a half screens on a modern monitor) so they can be scanned easily.

They’re also sorted in alphabetical order instead of date-posted, because that’s a lot easier for a human to scan, and the name of this game is making it easy for the reader, not the programmer.

My ultimate goal is to make reviews a top level area like the blog, podcast and photography is here on the site, but I feel like I want more fresh content in there before I make that change. The good news is this site design is very flexible so those kind of changes are easy, but the existing design is working pretty well at helping people find the reviews — it just seemed they needed more help finding a specific review in the mass of verbiage.

So feel free to take a look at the review index and let me know what you think. I have some ideas on how I might improve it down the road, but I wanted to try this and live with it a while and put time into writing reviews rather than (over-)designing the beast from the start. I’ll see what feedback I get and what the analytics tells me to help decide how to improve it down the road.

Let me know what you think.