Monthly Archives: June 2010

21st century problem-solving: first to the crowd, then the cloud.

When I ran into an idea with no easy implementation solution on Wednesday, I went the way so much web problem-solving runs these days: first to the crowd, then to the cloud.

As part of many meetings toward redeveloping our website, I met with one of our more engaged and engaging music faculty and, after some brainstorming we thought: Wouldn’t it be cool to take recorded work of our faculty and students and embed an interactive playlist? We have plenty of original and accessible work in the rock, pop and jazz spectrum, and having a playlist of this material seemed a great way to promote the college to prospective students.

But how? A Google search on building playlists came to this Mashable article, but Mixtape.me, 8tracks and Grooveshark fell way short in one key way: Forget trying to upload original music onto them. If I wanted to build a playlist of Eminem or Snoop Dogg or Lady Gaga, I would have been fine, but those sites have no love for musicians who aren’t famous.

So next I went to the crowd and asked around on Twitter. Some earnest suggestions there, including iLike, which I learned has partnered with MySpace. And as you would expect when two social-media platforms with some of the worst usability merged, the directions and “help” led me in circles that made me abandon all hope.

Finally a Twitter conversation with a recently graduated musician bore fruit when she enlisted the aid a bandmate, another recent alum. He recommended SoundCloud. On the free cloud-based system, you can upload any music onto it and create embeddable playlists. The free version is limited to two hours of music, but I think that’s more than enough. So after a few minutes of fiddling, here was the result:

SUNY Oswego Music by sunyoswego

One drawback of the solution is that it’s Flash-based, which we’re trying to move away from on the new site. But it will do for now, as the crowd-sourced question also brought a suggestion of jPlayer which, since I’m not a coder and my developer is way busy with our overall web project, we can explore down the road.

But this is less about the solution, the destination, than the journey to reach it. Problem-solving in the 21st century is a lot more social, a lot more collaborative, than ever before. Which makes it, in a way, even more enjoyable.

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neuro web design (review): a book that clicks.

Finally followed up on a long-ago recommendation (thanks, Karlyn) to read Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click? by Susan M. Weinschenk. After reading it, the suggestions seem self-evident. But sometimes we can’t see what’s in front of our faces … which is a bit of her point.

The book is heavy on psychology and how our brain works, in large part about our unconscious minds. But don’t get the feeling that this is a dense academic tome: It’s a quick read of 132 pages that translates psychological experiments into everyday relevance. A major point: Despite everything we think and study and plan, our unconscious mind drives a lot of what we do online.

Among the observations this book makes crystal clear:

The importance of storytelling. The best communication, in any medium, tells a story. Not only should we make the case via success stories, we want to create pictures in users’ minds where they can see their own story (or future story) as part of the narrative. Are we just talking about what our theatre department is or are we telling stories about the opportunities available to theatre majors? To read about students who get to direct a mainstage production, write and stage original one-act plays or what alumni are doing is compelling stuff! And if we invite users to tell us their stories, that brings us to …

The power of online engagement. There is, psychologically, a huge gulf between making your first Amazon purchase and writing your first Amazon review. The former makes you a customer; the latter makes you a member of the community. Friending someone on Facebook is one level, but commenting on each others’ photos or status updates is a deeper level of connection. This is why the idea of creating microtransactions — meaningful ways to interact online, such as “Tell us your Oswego story” — is so intriguing to me in our web redevelopment.

It’s all about the user. We don’t like to think of ourselves as self-centered, but user-centered design necessarily realizes that self-interest drives our web visitors’ actions. Thinking about what users most want to do and what they don’t want to do should drive how we build web pages and content — moreso than what we (as content providers and designers) see from the inside. “What’s in it for me?” is, whether they want to admit or not, the thought on users’ minds when they visit your site. This is why thinking of user experience is paramount and “org-chart navigation” — how we see ourselves — just obfuscates the process.

There’s more to the book. Much more. And I highly recommend it. The only thing I would may liked more of would have been additional concrete examples of psychological concepts translated into web design. But then by not giving examples, maybe she lets our mind search for examples … or create them ourselves? The brain is a powerful machine, and Neuro Web Design not only explains it, but puts it to work.

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is redeveloping oswego.edu a big project? yes. and no.

So this is my summer: I’m part of a great, dedicated team moving our massive website, oswego.edu, to a new content management system and giving the site a whole new look. Ideally, by the start of the fall semester. Is that all a big project? Yes. Absolutely. And, in a sense, no.

While it’s definitely a big project, I could describe it as accurately as a merging of many different projects and goals. Consider the activities of our small, merry band:

– We’re creating new schemas (templates), stylesheets and components (added features) in our new CMS, Ingeniux. (When I say “we” here, I mainly mean “Rick Buck.”)
– We’re migrating content for around 10,000 pages.
– We’re training a couple hundred users or so on the new CMS.
– We’re tracking and documenting all of the above.
– We’re creating around 30 new landing pages that raise the presentation of academic areas.
– We’re working with a freelance designer on four primary templates, including a new home page. (The CMS is skinnable, so the new look will be “turned on” all at once.)
– The powers that be have tasked me with making our new site more engaging and interactive.
– Under the umbrella of engagement, I carry six other emphases — more user-centered, greater portability (interactive with both mobile devices and social media), greater usability, more conducive to microtransactions (meaningful ways to interact), promoting storytelling and cultivating community-building. Yes, those are a lot of things, but they can help guide this and future projects.

We have a fabulous cross-campus CMS team working on the back end, and content migration is under way. The designer delivers first drafts of template suites (three options) this week. Support from the top has been marvelous.

We’ve come a long, long way. And there is so much to be done — in pieces large and small. It’s like assembling a giant puzzle, but we know all the pieces are around and we’ve started putting them together. Don’t be surprised to see more blog entries about this big project … or collection of projects.

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making a gowalla campus tour: if you build it, will they come?

Part of my ongoing research of geosocial (location-based interactive) media has involved testing the usefulness and usability of it. A more extensive project was creating a visual campus tour via Gowalla. Or, if you prefer, knocking a tree down in the forest to see if anyone hears it.

With its ease of creating locations and uploading photos, Gowalla seemed a good bet for the project. Some locations already existed from previous testing, and a couple of lunch hours making spots for the other buildings and taking photos filled in the blanks. It came together through a few hours of experimenting, mostly in my spare time.

I placed bit.ly links on a couple of well-traveled pages on our website, plus Oswego’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, then waited to see what happened. The good news: People are visiting virtually. The bad news: No one’s engaging it.

We had around 200 folks in six weeks, generally 5 to 10 per day … Gowalla’s lack of metrics means I know little about what happened once they reached that site. But the only people to check in have been two current students and I. Admittedly, you can’t check in if you’re just visiting via web, but it’s too bad no one has interacted with this feature geospatially. On the bright side, while preparing to write this entry, I was pleased to see that visitors other than the location creator can edit place information. This previous data hygiene issue was one of Gowalla’s drawbacks. Alas, this project reveals other shortcomings of the platform.

1. Gowalla’s low adoption rate. If Foursquare had the capability to upload photos, given its larger user base, I would expect the number of checkins to be higher. I’m experimenting with some Foursquare projects now, not yet sure of outcomes.

2. Navigation issues. It’s just not easy to get from one location to another in the application. Gowalla’s usability is better than other geosocial platforms, but the tour comes across more as a list of places loosely connected than a cohesive presentation.

3. Lack of wow factor. People may have been excited when they saw this tour existed, but it has nothing on, say, a Campus 360 virtual tour complete with creepy talking avatar (coming soon to our campus). Just seeing photos with a little bit of information is perhaps less than users wanted.

So if creating a Gowalla tour isn’t a stirring success, at least it’s a learning opportunity. Creating it took only a couple of hours, and I consider experimenting, trying new things and learning new technology time well spent.

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3 tips for dealing with a conference backchannel.

Last week’s SUNYCUAD Conference featured its most active Twitter backchannel (defined as a real-time discussion thread using a hashtag, such as #sunycuad). While the backchannel is usually constructive, often retweeting the most salient lessons, it can occasionally include questioning of speaker effectiveness. Certainly nothing at SUNYCUAD reached the level of the #heweb09 Great Keynote Meltdown, but some comments centered on consultants appearing to present infomercials, speaker suggestions deemed debatable and seemingly suspect strategy.

To their credit, one presenter who faced some mild backchannel questioning, an integrated communication consultancy, tried to engage commenters after the fact and thanked them for their suggestions. They also asked if Q-and-A was moving increasingly to the backchannel, as the phenomenon was apparently new to them, and I applaud their efforts at making it a learning experience.

The worst thing that could happen would be if Twitter backchannels discouraged helpful folks from speaking at conferences. It shouldn’t. Backchannels are much more manageable if speakers take proactive steps to engage their audiences. Some suggestions:

1. Use a backchannel buddy. When Rick Allen (@epublishmedia) and I both spoke at the HighEdWeb Regional at Vassar, he asked if I’d have his back(channel) and offered to do the same. At the start of a session, you can note someone in the room will monitor the backchannel and ask any questions posed there if people don’t want to ask directly. And just knowing the backchannel is being monitored in real time may keep people more civil in their tweets.

2. Understand your audience. This was the real problem in the #heweb09 meltdown; the speaker was imparting antiquated information and just wasn’t playing the right room. Perhaps unfairly, consultants have an inherent challenge speaking to higher ed practitioners who may view them as mercenaries who make lots of money for telling administrators things the underpaid, underappreciated peons have said already. I don’t see practitioners rip other campus practitioners on the backchannel, due to mutual respect of the day-to-day challenges. That said, presenters may want to ask organizers about the job descriptions of attendees, skill levels (is a 101 or advanced approach best?) and whether the conference has hosted similar topics. Letting attendees know in advance you’ll focus on beginner-level information could make a world of difference.

3. Provide value early and often. Give someone something useful and they’ll respect you. Period. If presenters eat up considerable time pumping up themselves and/or their company/institution at the beginning, they’re missing an opportunity. Many presenters wait until the last five minutes to get to takeaway advice, but why not instead bring out some great stories, tips, tricks or helpful advice in the first five? Making a good first impression will buy you social capital.

Moreover, speakers should not take backchannel comments personally … sometimes the audience is just restless, feeling trapped in a presentation they didn’t expect and reacting the only way they feel they can. Any criticism in any medium can become a learning opportunity, including Twitter comments, but taking steps to create a productive and positive backchannel is even better.

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social media is a complement, not a replacement.

While I enjoyed the whole experience of the first-ever Post-Secondary Canadian Web Conference, I’d say my favo[u]rite moment was completely unplanned and again showed the connective power of social media.

At #pseweb, like many web conferences, I find myself “meeting” lots of interesting folks via the Twitter streams — whether engaging in @ conversations or retweeting keen comments — but not always meeting them in person. So as the last sessions ticked away, I lamented on Twitter that I hadn’t yet met many of my new tweeps face to face. The solution came quickly, as several other folks called for a tweetup and arranged a time and place (2:45, outside lecture room 203) within minutes.

The impromptu tweetup between sessions found around 12 to 15 (should have counted) folks introducing themselves and chatting amicably. Some even admitted it seemed easier to communicate via Twitter than face-to-face, with an outside context driving the discussion, but everyone seemed quite pleased to meet those they had been tweeting with the previous couple of days.

And this is what those who quickly dismiss Twitter miss: The community it builds is the platform’s greatest feature. Twitter has become the hub of activity at most conferences, with folks starting discussions and posting helpful links even during sessions, but also a true connector on a personal level. Its inclusive nature is not limited to just those there physically, as the positive feedback of those unable to make #pseweb and enjoying our live-tweeting of sessions demonstrates. As for social media changing conferences, I only gave out one business card, yet gained 35 new Twitter connections and even several LinkedIn invites.

But, as the impromptu tweetup showed, social media is not a replacement for regular interaction — it is a complement, and often a catalyst. When incoming students interact in our Class of 2014 group, it isn’t for the sake of using Facebook; they mainly want to get to know future classmates. And meeting someone I’ve interacted with via Twitter is always a treat, confirming an earlier electronic connection. One should never view social media as a kingdom unto itself but instead a doorway that can lead anywhere.

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