Monthly Archives: September 2011

the trouble with baseless tech predictions, or did i miss google+ killing facebook?

Oh, those heady crazy days when any technology is introduced. I remember the original buzz (not to be confused with Buzz) over Google+, as a wave (not to be confused with Wave) of excitement swept through social media as people asked anyone, everyone they knew for an invitation to the new community.

Some early coverage and commentary took the oh-so-levelheaded tone of OMGOMGGoogle+IsGoingToKillFacebook, despite any tangible evidence or empirical projections. So what happened since?

Facebook is still alive, and confounding users with incremental redesigns, as usual. People complain about said redesigns, as they always do, then move on and keep using the service.

And Google+ has nice membership numbers, although postings I’ve seen have slowed precipitously. The recent announcement that Google+ was now open to all, no invite necessary, was greeted in many spheres of social media with a collective yawn, as if the site were already yesterday’s news. Perhaps in part because Facebook has already rolled features to counter G+ assets. Some of the same folks who trumpeted the ascendance of G+ now treat it as a punchline. Its hangouts, message segregation via Circles and Google tie-ins still hold promise, but the hosannas have long since stopped rattling.

So is Google+ primed to surpass and supercede Facebook? Not today or tomorrow.

Will Google+ eventually pass Facebook in terms of membership or primacy? Cannot predict now. Ask again later.

Actually, the “Cannot predict now” and “Ask again later” phrases I took from my Magic 8 Ball. The Magic 8 Ball says that a lot.

And you know: We should say and acknowledge that line of reasoning instead of making grand and unfounded declarations. We — earlier adopters, the technology press, the general social mediacracy — should stop pretending the latest shiny object is the New Facebook or the Next Twitter. And for the sake of all that is good, anyone who uses the term “game changer” for a brand new technology should have their iPhone confiscated.

Because the future of technology is a lot of things — surprising, exciting, complicated and unpredictable. It’s NOT as cut and dried as saying “this new technology is cool, my friends are excited, so it’s going to be the next [insert the previous next thing].” Because no one really knows. We cannot predict now. Ask again later.

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admissions page makeover: less talk, more action.

A few weeks ago, our admission folks asked me to design a new landing page for a marketing push they were working on. Apparently the direction went so well, they asked if I could adapt it into the new admissions home page. Or they were trying to soften me up to get to the bigger project. In any event, the new page went live on Monday and shows the continuing evolution in how we handle web content.

As a writer, it’s hard for me to let go of graceful, compelling sentences full of descriptive adjectives, active verbs and strong nouns. Yet in high-level pages, it seems users have been more likely to click buttons, play videos, follow left-navigation links than click on inline links. And as Mary Beth Kurilko, one of the brighter minds in web writing, likes to say: If the opposite is ridiculous, why write it? Do any of our competitor schools NOT have outstanding professors, a range of academic programs and a desire to help students succeed? So perhaps this writing has always been cliche.

Here was our previous admissions page; I never thought of it as that bad, but always had room for improvement:

Even though it was less than a year old, you can see the incrementalism in it, as we kept adding one thing, then another, then another. The buttons were a nice addition at the time, but they ended up looking kind of strewn around the page. The virtual tour promotion came later. See all those contextual links? Our analytics found they weren’t terribly effective. Say, is that a July event still in our upcoming events list in September? Oh dear.

The new page is much simpler and more streamlined:


The incremental redesign’s new central emphasis is a two-minute admissions video. Below sit links for related videos, including an extended (~12 minute) version and introductions to our four colleges and schools. The buttons on the side emphasize actions that enrollment management would want to drive — take a virtual tour, schedule a campus visit, apply — and I also recommended a link to majors/minors since statistics show this is a popular link on any page it appears and since one of a student’s first questions is whether we have their program.

We generate the buttons via this site, which eases some crunch of not having a dedicated designer for our office. I’m on the fence as to whether six buttons is a lot; streamlining options is generally a good thing but if Admissions wants to start with six buttons and they all serve valid functions, I can’t argue. What we can do is look at the analytics after the initial push and see where people click and don’t click — and adjust accordingly.

I’m still trying to adjust to less writing, but short directive phrases (Update Status, Add Photo, Write Post) seem to work for Facebook, right? In any event, we’ll see how a new direction of less talk, more action works for us.

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girls in the grass?: just say ‘no’ to stock people photography.

Some say the photo trend of planking is being replaced by stocking — where people simulate a common stock photo and upload the images side by side. Like any good satire, StockingIsTheNewPlanking touches on a painful truth: Way too many people are way too dependent on stock photos of people in cliche poses.

Admittedly, the “girls under trees” shot seen on so many campus websites is a running gag in the higher education community. But at least those are real photos. Far worse are the ubiquitous clip-art manifestation that is “girls in grassy fields using laptops.” I’ve worked at a college with its fair share of grass for 10 years and have never seen a girl with a laptop sprawled amid the greenery. Go ahead, search Google Images under “woman laptop grass” and you’ll find enough shots in fields to cover the earth’s surface. Shoes appear to be optional.

Or consider the “jumping for joy” shot. Does anyone find this exhilarating? Or is it just cliche, if not ludicrous.

If you don’t have a photographer on staff, consider taking your own darn pictures. I know it’s not easy to get the perfect shot, or the right people in it, for some uses. If you work at a college, you’d be amazed how many good shots your students can take … and may have already taken (of authentic situations) and wouldn’t mind letting you use. But if you do a big promotional piece with grinning folks in a stock photo, and your competitors roll something out with the exact same image, how dumb does that look? Or, who knows, maybe you’ll find that big photo on the front of that slick brochure being parodied by some stocking folks.

It really all comes back to one of the biggest currencies of the web today: Authenticity. I’d prefer a real photo that may not be the most technically outstanding over a carefully manufactured — but stale, cliche and generic — stock photo every time.

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stop treating QR codes as shiny objects!

QR (quick response) codes, you may have heard, could have many beneficial uses by enabling smartphone users to scan them to unlock additional interactive web content. Sadly, too many people still seem to treat them as a shiny object — something to be used for the sake of appearing trendy, not for practical purposes. I point to this conversation from a colleague at another college (offered anonymity) as an example:

Department: “We’re going to post QR codes at the shuttles stops so that people can use them to access the shuttle schedule!”

Web person: “Couldn’t we also just post the shuttle schedules?”

Department: “Ummm ….”

Pop quiz: Which is more convenient for a user: A piece of paper they can read, or a symbol they may or may not know is a QR code, and that they can only read if they have a QR code reader and a smartphone? You could provide both, but at the very least provide the former … at least if you prize actually letting people find out about your shuttle schedule.

Sadly, that’s not the worst example I’ve heard involving QR codes. Someone at another college told of a proposed PDF with a QR code that, when you scan it made your mobile device try to download — wait for it — the exact same PDF.

No. No. No. No. No!

I can’t stress it enough: Goals first, then tools. Don’t treat QR codes as shiny objects. They are gateways to additional information, not replacements for necessary information! The first college that sends out acceptance letters to prospective students that forces them to scan a QR code to learn whether they are accepted or not should lose its accreditation on the spot!

When I interviewed him last fall, the always impressive Tim Jones of North Carolina State rightfully termed the potential use of QR codes as “enormous, and we’re working with several departments and organizations on campus to develop some interesting ways to use QR code check-ins.” Imagine, for example, accessing additional information on a play, actors or the director from a program, or gaining a building’s office directory, history and local social media posts via scanning a QR code.

A good example at our campus involves QR codes on event posters that bring up a page when users can purchase tickets online. At #hewebroc, we had QR codes that allowed attendees to go online and fill out evaluations (with a chance at winning a prize). At lunch this week with the organizer of our campuswide Quest academic symposium, which often includes fretting over last-minute changes after the printing of the program, I suggested a QR code connecting to a web page with late-breaking updates.

I’ve heard lots of creative and inventive ideas that can really benefit users. What they all had in common was they involved solving a problem or fulfilling an action, as opposed to a desire to use a QR code for the novelty of it.

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