Would you like me to redesign Chemguide for you?

Every year I get a tiny trickle of perhaps 3 or 4 emails from people offering to redesign Chemguide for me. I always refuse these offers, and this page is to explain why.

There are two different aspects to this - a redesign of the main site, or an offer to make the site more useable on small smartphone screens. They need looking at separately.

Redesigning the whole site

The structure of the site

When I started writing Chemguide in 1999, I had no intention of making it as comprehensive as it is today. If I were starting from scratch, it would definitely be organised in a more logical way. For example, it doesn't really make sense to have the organic chemistry in three separate chunks.

But I can't at this stage reorganise it without causing chaos. There are links to individual pages from schools, colleges and other less obvious places from all over the world - not to mention all the internal links between Chemguide pages. So any reorganisation which resulted in changes to the URLs of individual pages would inevitably upset a lot of people.

The current structure, although not ideal, works well enough, and I think most people can live with it.

The appearance of the site

In the early days of the site, I was writing at a time when some people were still using TV sets as monitors, and when a good internet connection would have a speed of 56 kb per second - that's kilobits not megabits. To make it readable, and downloadable in a reasonable time, you needed to strip anything inessential out of the site.

By the time monitors and internet speeds got better, Chemguide was already quite well developed, and it was too much bother to redesign it. In any case, by that time, it was obvious that the original form of Chemguide had some real advantages.

The short line length made it very easy to read, helped also by short paragraphs, and confining the text to the middle of an otherwise empty screen removes distractions.

There is also a psychological aspect to this. Chemguide is used and trusted as an accurate and understandable site by huge numbers of people all over the world. It is also distinctively different from other chemistry sites in its layout and colour.

If a student comes to Chemguide a couple of times and finds it really helps, the next time they come the familiarity of the site gives them the confidence that they will succeed again. Confidence is the key to learning.

Interestingly, some Chemguide material is incorporated in pages of the LibreTexts (previously ChemWiki) site, and obviously they have reformatted it to fit into their site. The words and diagrams are often identical, but it just looks different.

If I read the material on Chemguide, I automatically trust it. If I read it on the LibreTexts site, even though all the words and diagrams are the same and I recognise it as my material, I feel the same caution that I would have on any other chemistry site - simply because it doesn't look like Chemguide!

I am not letting anyone else get their hands on the site!

Chemguide currently runs to almost 600 pages (including the menus) most of which have a fair degree of cross-linking. I know that everything works on the site, and that there are no essential errors anywhere. Over the years, most small typos have been spotted and corrected, and the very few major blunders I made early on have also been sorted out.

Any changes to the site put this at risk, and I would feel the need to recheck the whole site if someone else were to be involved in a redesign. I simply don't have the energy to do that.

Old-fashioned isn't a problem!

A couple of times I have been told, in so many words, and not unkindly, that Chemguide looks old-fashioned. I can live with that - I have no problem with old-fashioned! All that matters is that the site helps students to achieve a grade that lets them follow the future that they want. Since I believe that the present layout helps to do that, why change it? Essentially, if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

Redesigning the site so that it will work better on small screens

I have had one or two suggestions about reformatting Chemguide as an app for small-screen devices.

Chemguide was written for a full-size computer screen, because smaller devices didn't exist when I started. It works fine on laptops, and is useable on an iPad, provided you enlarge it slightly so that the text fits the full screen width.

It doesn't work satisfactorily on smaller screens, although I know from my web stats that quite a few people do use it in this way. That doesn't, though, mean that it is a good idea!

I have had a look at a couple of chemistry apps for the iPhone, and what they consist of is essentially the equivalent of the sort of revision cards that students sometimes used in the past - small pages of reminders to use before an exam if you already know and understand the topic.

Chemguide works because it has the space to talk students through everything step-by-step. Given how little you can fit onto a phone screen, it would be impossible to condense Chemguide in this way without completely changing its nature.

But I also question the practicality of using a smartphone as a learning tool. To understand something you need to be able to follow a sometimes lengthy step-by-step discussion without any distractions.

Smartphones and their apps are specifically designed to maximise the amount of distraction. To me, the idea of using them to try to learn and understand a complex subject like chemistry is just plain daft!

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© Jim Clark 2018