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RyanCarey comments on A new reference site: Effective Altruism Concepts - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: RyanCarey 06 December 2016 03:08:49AM *  6 points [-]

Hi Owen,

Thanks for producing all of this content. I agree that it is a highly leveraged activity to make important ideas known to more effective altruists, and that making an online repository of such materials to link to ought to be a scalable solution to this problem. Thanks also for launching the site in an early stage of development, and without promotion, in order to allow criticism!

I’ll pitch in on three issues: i) the strategy of EA Concepts ii) its user interface, and iii) possible alternative approaches. I discuss the user interface here because it relates to my overall thinking.

Strategy

The main challenges, to paraphrase, are 1) to provide a reference, 2) to convey basic information, and 3) to connections and relationships within EA. It's hard for a simple reference (1) to also compellingly convey knowledge (2,3). Conveying knowlege is in large part a process of figuring out what to leave out. An obvious way to improve the pedagogical value would be to leave out the abstract decision-making topics whose research isn't shaping altruistic decisions much. Another major part of conveying knowledge (or getting people to read the content at all) is communicating some clear answer to the overarching question: “Why do I care?”.

First, the issue of leaving things out. Where research rarely shapes EA activities, such as in the ‘idealized decision-making’ section, such topics should probably be budded off into a glossary. Then, what is left would be a well-organized discussion of why effective altruists find certain activities compelling. One could even add info about how effective altruists are in fact organizing and spending their time. Then, one would have a shareable repository of strategic thinking. The question of why the reader might care would then answer itself.

The need for readable strategy content is clear. When one runs an EA chapter, one of the commonest questions from promising participants is what EAs are supposed to do, other than attending meetings and reading canonical texts. (These days, it surely is not just donating, either.) Useful answers would discuss what similar attendees are doing, and why, and what person-sized holes still exist in EA efforts. Such online material would convince people that EA is executing on some (combination of) overall plan(s). The EA plan(s) of course have arisen partly from historical circumstance.

This brings me to a final reason for including more general strategic thinking. If the EA community was started again today, we would - from the outset - include people from industry and government, rather than just from the academic sector. There would be researchers from a range of fields, such as tech policy, synthetic biology, machine learning, and productivity enhancement rather than just from philosophy and decision theory. So we have an awesome opportunity to re-center the map of EA concepts, that I think has so far been missed.

To summarize, I think the map would be better if it: selected and emphasized action-related topics, re-centered the EA community on useful concrete domains of knowledge, not just abstract ones, and conveyed the connections between action and theory, in order to make the material readable and learnable.

User interface

Currently, the site lacks usability. There are lots and lots of issues, so I wonder why some existing technical solution was not used, like Workflowy or Medium. Obviously, it is a prototype, but this gives all the more reason to start with existing software.

To begin with:

  • the site’s content should be visible on the front page with no clicks. It shouldn’t rely on anyone having the patience to click anything before closing the window. This means that the tree should be visible, and that the content from some or all pages should also be visible with minimal effort. One option, not necessarily a good one, would be to have the “+” button expand a node with mouse hover but regardless, some solution is required.
  • The numbers in the tree that indicate how many daughters each node are uninteresting, and should be removed. (Once one figures out how to have nodes effortlessly expanded and collapsed this will be even more obvious)
  • It should be possible to access content without going through to a separate page. Although it should be possible to link to pages, by default, they must appear on the homepage, and the only obvious way I see to do this to put them in the tree. This would make it effortless to return from content to the main tree, which is also necessary. (Currently you have to scroll to the bottom of the page to click the back button!)
  • Clicking the text of a node must have the same effect as clicking the plus sign next to it. Plus signs are too small to expect anyone to click. The only thing that it would make sense to happen, then, is for clicking a link to cause its daughters to expand. On this approach, if you wanted to further characterize the non-leaf nodes, you would need some solution other than pages.
  • When I hover over a page link in an article, nothing happens. It would be nice if a summary was provided, as in Arbital.
  • The text in the tree and in the articles is too light and somewhat too small.
  • One should be able to view pages alphabetically or to carry out a search.

So there is a ton of UI improvement to be done, that would seem to be a high priority, if one is to continue piloting the site.

Alternatives

So how else might a project like EA Concepts be built? I have already said that (1) might best be achieved by moving some of the drier topics into a glossary. (2,3) would be best achieved by whatever modality will reach a moderately large expected audience who will engage deeply with the content. In light of the fact that the current page has poor user interface, this could instead be done with blog posts, a book, an improved version of the current site, or the explanations platform Arbital. Arbital, a group of three ex-Google EAs have already made a crisp and useable site, and in order to attract more users, they are pivoting toward discussion of a range of consequential topics, rather than just mathematics. On the face of it, their mission is your mission, and it would be worth looking hard for synergies.

Overall, I think there's something useful to be done in this space, but I'm fairly unconvinced that the site is currently on track to capture (much of) that value.

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 08 December 2016 03:07:02PM 3 points [-]

UI is not really my area, so I'll leave that to others except to say:

  • Thanks for all the comments! I think that more work into the UI is going to be important, and critical voices are helpful for this.
  • In development a lot of this lived in workflowy, and it was noticeably worse to use than now. (But perhaps there was a different way of setting it up which would have worked better.)

On strategy, the general idea is not that everyone reads the whole thing, but that people can explore local areas they're interested in. This should avoid the need to cut anything off into a glossary (although the guidance for how to start engaging could improve; I agree that idealized ethical decision making content is irrelevant for most users so should probably be less prominent). This should let people engage with and become experts on aspects of EA-relevant research and have a rough idea of how it fits in with other areas, without needing to be expert on those other areas. One of the important reasons for laying it out in an approximately-logical tree was that we think this could help people to spot where there are gaps in the research that haven't been noticed.

Comment author: BenMillwood  (EA Profile) 10 December 2016 06:41:16PM 2 points [-]

I agree that idealized ethical decision making content is irrelevant for most users so should probably be less prominent

I feel like one of the key advantages of the tree structure is that it's already not too prominent. I can see the motivations for demoting it even further, but it does feel like it's in the right place with respect to the overall structure of the concepts, and it's hard to see how to de-emphasise it without losing that.

Comment author: RyanCarey 11 December 2016 01:26:00AM 0 points [-]

On strategy, the general idea is not that everyone reads the whole thing, but that people can explore local areas they're interested in. This should avoid the need to cut anything off into a glossary (although the guidance for how to start engaging could improve; I agree that idealized ethical decision making content is irrelevant for most users so should probably be less prominent).

Despite the treelike structure, omitting boring or esoteric topics still seems key for keeping the reader's trust and attention.

Wanting to lay things out logically also shouldn't prevent focusing more on areas that are more important.

Comment author: BenMillwood  (EA Profile) 10 December 2016 06:37:18PM 2 points [-]

To provide another perspective on UI issues (in descending order of importance in my eyes):

  • I agree that the content pages need a better way to return to their location in the main tree, although I'm not exactly sure what that would look like. Having content appear within the tree itself has downsides, like wasting page space on tree structure illustration (roughly speaking I imagine navigating the tree and reading content as separate activities, and I don't want them to interfere with each other). It's not inconceivable that you could make the content available within the tree and on separate pages, so that users could choose how/where to read it.
  • I think having "+" expand on mouse hover is a very bad idea. I should be able to move my mouse around on the page without causing radical structural changes to what is displayed. (Moreover, mouse-hover stuff doesn't tend to work so well with mobile).
  • The numbers serve some value to my eyes, but I'm not sure how much. I'd also consider having the numbers reflect the total number of children under each node, rather than just the number of immediate children. That gives you an idea of how much depth a particular subsection is covered in, and how much an undertaking it would be to read all of it, for example.
  • I agree that search is also important. You can do this the "dumb" way by just strapping a custom Google search to the page, or you can do something smarter that e.g. highlights which parts of the tree contain your search results (perhaps how many times, with totals at the parent nodes). This smarter search seems like a low priority, but once I came up with it I thought it was too cute not to share.
  • I disagree that clicking on + nodes is too hard, although I agree that it's intuitive to expect clicking on the text of the parents to have the same effect. A simple solution would be to have the first child of every parent be a summary of that parent, but I'm not convinced any solution is necessary.
Comment author: RyanCarey 11 December 2016 01:16:46AM 1 point [-]

It's not inconceivable that you could make the content available within the tree and on separate pages, so that users could choose how/where to read it.

That's what I already secretly had in mind.

I disagree that clicking on + nodes is too hard, although I agree that it's intuitive to expect clicking on the text of the parents to have the same effect.

I feel like even once it has been made true that clicking on the text or the 'plus' next to it do the same thing, there will still be some work to do to make the user 'closer' to the content. Basically, good and popular websites tend to give the user a payoff with one-ish click. Currently, I doubt that the EA Concepts site would be used, except for when people are linked to specific ideas. But I recognize that this is at least a somewhat subtle point.

Comment author: weeatquince  (EA Profile) 06 December 2016 12:41:20PM 3 points [-]

I am not an expert in design but from a personal point of view I like the user-interface.

I found the concept tree with the numbers in brackets and links that are different from the "+" etc, to be intuitive and easy to navigate.

Comment author: MichaelDickens  (EA Profile) 06 December 2016 04:28:20AM 1 point [-]

Your bulleted list is not formatted correctly which makes it really hard to read; can you fix it by putting two newlines before it?