Refresh Detroit: Developing an Idea with special guest Tyler Paxton – Nov 14, 2012

When: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 6:30 PM

Developing an Idea

An idea is not a business. We’ll talk about how to get through the early steps by building a team that can move from the idea stage through customer discovery to an MVP. Developing an idea takes more than technical talent but many non-technical people struggle to engage the development community correctly and we’ll address how you can avoid common pit falls and how to make yourselves valuable.

About Tyler

Tyler Paxton is the founder and CEO of Are You a Human which uses simple and fun games as a replacement for CAPTCHAs. Are You a Human is based in Detroit and has grown to serve 20 Million games a month on over 3000 sites. Tyler previously founded and IT services and consulting company and attended graduate school at the University of Michigan where he founded Are You a Human. Tyler currently lives in the Detroit area and spends all of his free time with his wife and three kids

Meeting Location:

The Qube
635 Woodward Ave.
Detroit, MI. (map)

This month’s event is being hosted at The Qube or more commonly known as the Chase Building, one of the recent additions to the Quicken Loans family of buildings! The entrance is located on Fort Street, once inside head to the front desk located on the south side of the building. Just mention that you’re with the Refresh Detroit group, and you will be directed to the Asteroids meeting room.

Parking:

We suggest parking in the Compuware parking structure, located on Farmer and Monroe streets. Parking is $5 and is a short 5 minute walk to The Qube (see map below). The address for the Compuware building is 1 Campus Martius Detroit, MI 48226‎

The Wayne State calendar story

Most everything has a story behind it and the Wayne State University event calendar is no exception. Our calendar looks different than other universities, so I naturally get questions about it:

What system is used to run and maintain it?
What department updates the calendar?
What department pays for the costs?
How did you launch the calendar to students?

The most popular question, though, is what system we use. It seems like everyone is constantly shopping for the holy grail of event calendars because they absolutely hate theirs. When I tell them we built our own their response either opens the flood gate of questions or they dismiss it as a sub-par system that obviously can’t be sustainable long term.

What’s happening on campus?

This was simple question that seven years ago had a different answer depending on who was asked. It wasn’t that events weren’t happening on campus, hundreds happen every day, but every department had their own idea of what was going on.

We didn’t set out to solve a software issue, we set out to solve a human issue.

Communicating when and where events were happening seemed natural within our existing systems. We have an internal student portal and email system that has shared calendaring. But just because these functions were available didn’t mean they were being used. Believe me, some of these system are pretty powerful to communicate events and keep everyone in sync. Unfortunately, the adoption rate of these systems was almost zero. A few events were added but they seemed to be limited to IT focused items entered by IT staff.

Being responsible for the university homepage, admission websites and general Web promotion we have an interest in what is happening on campus. We investigated and started asking why the existing tools were not being used. The answers all had common themes, “the tools are just too complicated”, “I don’t know where they go once I put them in”, “doesn’t someone need to be logged in to see my events?”. There seemed to be a lot of frustration with the systems.

We tried them ourselves and stumbled across the same usability issues. It was clear the “calendaring” that was part of these large existing systems was an afterthought. It was a shame.

Idea, proof of concept, iterate, rinse & repeat

If you’ve been following me you know I have a thing about iteration. So we had a crazy idea: let’s just set up a form to collect events and list everything that is in the future. At the time (2005ish) we didn’t have a PHP framework (PHPSimpl) and we definitely didn’t have the robust server environment or insights we have now. So we did what most developers do, created a functional app that looked like a backend system. We also took a daring approach to submissions, anyone with a campus ID could add events and they went live immediately, no approval process.

But hey, it worked!

Circa 2007 (First release in 2006)

The first release was really a proof of concept. I’m not sure how many hours went in to building it but I know it was up in under a month (we literally locked a developer in his office to work on this and only this). It didn’t do very much but that is what made it successful. The left menu of the only screenshot I could find (above) says it all. “View”, “Search” and “Add”. That’s all a user needed to interact with.

A win-win for everyone

There wasn’t a mandate for everyone on campus to use the calendar, so we had to get creative to grow adoption. The way we accomplished this was we made it insanely enticing to add events. If someone took a few minutes to add an event we would do all the hard work after that. The events then fed to their website where they had the chance of being promoted on the university homepage and all over campus. The campus community got their events promoted by doing just a little bit of work and we got all campus events in one place. A win-win for everyone.

Circa 2008

The second release of the calendar was more of a visual refresh. We watched our analytics really closely and talked to a lot of staff and students to figure out how we could make the “view” of events easier.

It came down to these things:

  • The ability to see and pick an individual day’s events
  • Each department needed to be able to link to just their event listing
  • The introduction of categories
  • Date ranges for event listings so we could promote a single week or an entire semester of events
These simple items were a natural next step. Without giving the system time to grow in to them we would have just been designing in the dark. They came out of the needs of campus and so far we haven’t added a single feature that hasn’t being widely adopted.

Current version (launched 2010)

The third major release was yet another visual refresh with a few added features after some lessons learned. In the previous version every event had the same prominence. The “Power Cycling” fitness class and the “Last day to register for classes” looked exactly the same to the end user.

We created three levels of events

  • Reminders – Things everyone needs to know which are promoted at the top of every page
  • Featured – Campuswide events that are open to everyone and need a little bit of visual attention
  • Regular – Things that happen every day and maybe have a smaller or limited audience
The amount of calendars in the system started to get out of control, over 500, and the list was unmanageable from the user’s end. So we categorized them on the homepage by type and audience. This helped to bundle events and encourage discovery.

Learning from our failures

We introduced two features that we thought would be a good idea: community uploading of photos and videos per event. The idea was to link re-occuring events to their previous years and highlight photos/videos so users would get a better sense of what the event was about. Great idea, right?
We should have noticed the red flag right away, the idea for these features came from us, not from the calendar community. The problem was these photos/videos took an extra step for the user to upload them, the benefit to uploading them wasn’t mutual (not win-win), and included an approval process, adding a day or two before the media actually showed publicly. Long story short but this lasted about six months before we disabled them. We’re still looking for a good way to passively gather photos and videos from an event.

I’m going to your event!

Mid-2011 we added the most requested feature to our calendar, RSVP’s. From the beginning everyone was asking to collect RSVP’s for events, so we knew this was important but every event had their own needs. Some were completely public, others were invite-only and some even required payment. We knew we couldn’t screw up a feature like this so we didn’t add it right away.

We purposefully took the hard road and hand created every RSVP form for everyone that asked for one. Every form had their own page, database table, manager and access. We worked with the event owners to walk through the entire user process from beginning to end, both their physical process and how that translated online. It was a grueling process but it was the only way for us to learn how to ask the right questions, reign in requirements and get creative about reusing elements.

A year later we had a really good understanding of what it would take to create a self service RSVP system that fit 90 percent of the needs of campus. Above is a screenshot of the RSVP creation process, it works a lot like Wufoo (but not as sexy yet). It also was the foundation of our broader self-service form manager, Formy.

Open data, what’s ours is yours

In the past year we have been busy expanding our (almost) public API. Right now it is invite only but I’m making it my mission to start allowing public sign up for keys by the end of the year. As more students and departments are experimenting with their own mobile websites/apps or just remixing data it’s important for us to be able to provide everything we can in a safe and standard way. This means opening our data to the community as yet another benefit to using the events calendar. Adding events now have effects far beyond anything we in central marketing could imagine.

Our m.wayne.edu is currently run completely on the API and we are in the process of moving most every website to use it for data access.

Two years, due for another redesign?

It’s been two years since our latest redesign which has our minds churning. We have a few things in the works… But nothing we can announce just yet. We know the overall menu structure in the administration area is a nightmare and we know that we have all sorts of other data that can be connected to an individual event to make the page even more useful. Have a suggestion? Just email us.

More than just software

If you’ve made it through this entire story I hope I’ve been able to get a few things across. The first is that although the calendar is just another piece of software it serves a larger purpose, to bring the campus community together. I don’t think a vendor-provided solution could have effected campus in the same we have been able to. Being on the ground level, listening, responding and consulting has really shaped how campus thinks about current events and planning for future events. Secondly, without the amazing support from everyone on campus we wouldn’t be able to provide students with what we think is the best event calendar in higher ed. Thank you all.

Follow the updates to our events calendar: http://blogs.wayne.edu/web/category/calendar/

Introducing Today@Wayne – What’s happening at Wayne State

We are pleased to announce something we have been working on for quite a long time, code named “The Hub”. It is actually the first step in a long journey to increase the amount of internal communication across the university and reduce the amount of campus wide emails. Today@Wayne launches today with a website that is a daily snapshot of everything going on around campus, in real time.

A snapshot of campus on one page

We know the amount of content being produced on campus every day is tremendous. (Trust us, we subscribe to and read it all). We have heard over and over again how hard it is to find out what is happening on campus. So we set out to solve that issue, Today@Wayne takes in (almost) all the existing sources of information around campus and combines it into one website.

The homepage is separating into a featured story, news, blogs, videos, images, events, research and highlighted items from the digital signs around campus. The format of the homepage was based on a lot of employee feedback. We asked what people would be interesting to see if there was a daily email that came in to their inbox every morning and was the first thing they read before starting their day. The structure of the content is still open to changes. We are getting feedback on a daily basis and their will be tweaks over the next few weeks.

One feature story per day

Every workday, Monday through Friday we will be featuring a new story on the homepage. This story is going to be based on an exiting story of a student, faculty, or alumni. The stories are going to be a little more flexible than the ones on wayne.edu. Since the audience for Today@Wayne is internal and already has an interest in the university, the stories don’t have to have as much impact. Most of the stories do have the same impact but with the difference in audience.

Blogs and social awareness

The top right corner of the page is filled with the most recent blog entries from http://blogs.wayne.edu/. This site has been a little bit of a secret till now, we will post a longer explanation in the next few days. But in short we are opening up blogging to anyone with an AccessID, feel free to try it out, we would love to read what you have to say.

In addition the videos are pulling directly from YouTube. The photos are pulling right from Flickr. And the Twitter section is pulling from our “Official” twitter list. It’s not just us contributing to this content, all official accounts on campus pull in to this area.

A daily email coming

Down the road we will be sending a daily email with the Today@Wayne contents. We wanted to make sure we get the information right first and get appropriate feedback before undertaking two enormous tasks without a groundswell of support. The email will initially be a digest of the things happening in the past and future 24 hours on campus. A second step to that email will be to include audience specific information. This will reduce the reliance on the LISTSERV and the massive amounts of emails we each get every week.

What is happening to Life@Wayne?

Life@Wayne will be retired in the next few weeks and replaced with Today@Wayne. The process of re-writing stories was not sustainable and frankly un-necessary. The content authorities around campus are doing a great job producing content in a more timely mannor. We are sad to see it go but it is for the best.

How to contribute

We are always looking for contributions and are willing to take any suggestions. The first step is to get your story online, the second is to alert us about it. Just send us an email at web@wayne.edu and we will check it out. Sending the email is just the first step, we will have further questions and we are always looking for photos or video associated with the story. All stories are subject to approval so there is no guarantee your story will make it but there is a good chance it will.

View Today@Wayne and let us know what you think.

Having fun with error pages

We do everything possible to maintain an error free website but sometimes things are beyond our control and a error occurs. In the event of an error the last thing we want to do is spit some weird hax0r code out to the visitor and leave them at a dead end. Secondly we don’t want to expose anything about what actually went wrong to give a potential open door to be taken advantage of. Below are a few examples of how we hare handling errors and what they look like from a visitor’s point of view.

500 – Something went wrong

The first is the campus directory search which is an interface to look up faculty, staff and student information straight from the LDAP directory. Almost all of our websites use some sort of localized database of the larger official databases at the university to ensure the data is going to be available when the visitor is looking for it. It also ensures the application is fast, we all know the faster a website is the more people will use it.

In this case though we are pulling right from the live directory, because of the sheer size of the information and need for it to be up to date immediately. Since we are not the only site accessing this service it can be under heavy load at times. In our tests it returns the results very quickly 99% of the time but there is that off chance it doesn’t return anything within 15 seconds. To us this is unacceptable so we display an error message to the visitor letting them know they should try again. We have the same message about “Our office dog, Sparky, has chewed some wire” and for them to try again. The dog on the other hand changes from a cute dog like the one pictured above to a few others that make the message far more entertaining.

404 – Document not found

As we move more sites into a central web environment and combine pages, files and centralize domains we always create a massive redirect document to ensure any old references to pages, files and images get redirected properly to their new locations. This works over 90% of the time but there is the off chance that files get missed or things get moved after the fact and something is actually missing.

We have a standard 404 page that gets built on every one of our sites that frankly is a little bland. Partly because we want to make it useful and give the use as much information as possible and then give them a search box to look for their file. We also want to ensure the context around the missing document stays in tact so we put the text in the template of the site so the visitor can use the navigation. It’s not the most entraining but it works for the over 400 sites we manage.

During the last redesign of the campus events calendar we decided we needed to have a little fun with missing events. It’s not often that an event gets added then deleted but it does happen. When a visitor lands on an event that was removed they get the screen above. It’s our way of saying  sorry while still making someone smile. We know we can’t make up for the missing event completely but we can turn a little frustration into comedy.

It feels odd showcasing error pages but these were just too good to keep hidden. Hope this is your only encounter with them but in the off chance you do run in to one of these rest assure we are logging all errors and actively working on fixing them.

Events Calendar Update: Campus Calendars, Cross Promotion & more

Introducing Campus Calendars

Each school/college/department has their own calendar and it’s worked great until a few months ago. We realized a lot of activities were cross disciplinary and more than one department/group plans activities for the same event. Our solution was to introduce “campus calendars”. These are available to everyone to add events to regardless of what calendars you own. Some of these calendars will show up year-round while others will only show up at certain times of the year. It will help pull together events from around campus into larger event groupings.

View by Category

The left hand column now has a “View by Category” heading. This allows visitors to just see events in a certain category. It works great when browsing for something to do based on interest. For example you can view all the “Art Shows” around campus in one listing regardless of what department is hosting it.

Facebook and Twitter features

We realized a lot of events are being shared through our “Add This” plugin and we wanted to make it even easier to tell friends about events. So we added the native Tweet and Like buttons from Twitter and Facebook to hook directly into the visitor’s accounts and their friends’. We don’t have enough stats from these services just yet but I’m sure we’ll do a post about their use soon.

Removing the “I’m Interested” and “I’m Going” links

After optimizing the right-hand menu to hook directly into existing social services we realized the “I’m Interested” and “I’m Going” functionality were redundant and confusing. We looked at our statistics and realized they were not being used as much as we had hoped and the data wasn’t available to the event owner and frankly wasn’t helping anyone. We ended up removing them completely and rely only on existing services.

Cross Promote

Lastly over the last few months we have been battling with groups around campus wanting to promote events on their homepages and calendars from other areas around campus. The current calendar only allowed the event owner to add the event to different calendars. We decided to allow anyone to “pull” events into their calendar. These events will show up in the normal listing and display on their homepage but they won’t have access to make changes to the event. You have to be logged in to see this option and when selected you can select the calendars you want a certain event to show up in.

All of the changes above were inspired by every user of the calendar. Our goal is to make the most useful calendar possible for the campus community. If you have any suggestions to make it better just drop us a line at web@wayne.edu.

Wayne State University digital signage – Phase 2

We have made a lot of progress since our “First Look” at the implementation of the digital signage all over Wayne State’s campus. Wayne State now has more than 25 digital signs mounted on walls in at least 16 buildings on campus.  So far the feedback has been all positive and we are implementing different templates to fit the different need of each individual sign.

From our feedback, we recognized that weather, date and time should be on every sign somewhere within the display’s real estate.  We have fed in Wayne State’s main news and events to the main WSU template via RSS.  The last feature on the template we now have up and running is a place to promote Wayne State campus wide events and campaigns.

Check out the new design below:

WSU Main 1UP Digital Design Template

The latest template we’ve completed is for the School of Business on a 2 x 2 digital television array.  It also successfully feeds an HD steam of CNN and displays main campus and School of Business news and events.  This set of 4 displays is broken up into 4 sections, containing the elements to keep a consistent look across the screens.

Here is the result:

WSU School of Business 2 x 2 display

The next steps after implementing the remaining main signage templates is to explore how to make our signs much more dynamic.  We hope the newest designs are aesthetically pleasing to the eye and bring pertinent information to the campus wide community!

Design Change: Event RSVP Template

Last week we launched a new design for RSVPs in the Special Events calendar. The ability to create RSVPs has been open to the campus community for a while now so we thought it was time to examine the process again.

Problem with the old design

Most RSVPs that went through Special Events had their own complete look that took over the page and matched the print or e-mail campaign for the event. Recently that has not been the case and we noticed a lot of events going out with the plain linear template. The template wasn’t very scannable and was frankly confusing to users at times because the form was below the fold.

Benefits of the new design

The new design has many benefits over the old, if you would even call the old template “designed”. The new template has two columns, one for the event description and the other for the form. We found that most often the description and form length are about even which results in a balanced page. The layout of the form is about the same except we styled a few default elements like the first and last name fields to make the form a little shorter. Lastly we changed the submit button to be green and larger. This created an anchor for the eyes at the bottom of the page and a defined call to action.

Benchmarking

There is no way to measure the success of the new design since the number of RSVPs that go out are variable and all have different audiences. Through a brief survey we have found that people using the new RSVP form find it more inviting and have a better overall experience.

Insights: Sharing Events with AddThis Plugin

Last week we started investigating sharing methods for events on events.wayne.edu. When we initially launched the university events calendar we wanted to make sure events were easy to find and share. After the launch we saw an upswing in the number of events being added and the traffic to the site. We were happy so we continued advocating and pushing the functionality on the campus community. Now, a year later, our goals have changed. Our calendar has an abundance of events and it’s time to share them with the world.

AddThis Plugin

We started playing around with the Facebook Open Graph plugin this week and it sparked our interest in how people were sharing events. We initially put the AddThis plugin in the right column of each event with the most popular options at the time for sharing. Looking at the analytics we were surprised with some of the results.

1. E-mail is still king

There has been a lot of talk the last few days about e-mail being dead but we are seeing 37 percent of all event shares being sent out through e-mail. Another interesting note is that e-mail is not the first item on the share list, it’s actually the last item in the first column which makes it a little harder to notice.

2. Facebook and Open Graph

We assumed Facebook would be at the top of the list for shares but it wasn’t. It still pulled in a respectable 24 percent of all event shares, however. To us this has more impact than email because Facebook shares are a one-to-many relationship. They allow for a snowball effect, allowing friends and extended friends to comment and like shares which extend the reach exponentially.

Last week we also added the Open Graph plugin to the right hand column of event pages. It’s still too early to report on the analytics but we are seeing a spike in usage already and will report on this later. I will tell you that Open Graph is far more powerful than we imagined.

3. CTRL-P

To our surprise printing was in the top three share options for AddThis. 12 percent of people click on the “Print” link within the plugin to keep or share a hard copy of an event. This peeked our interest because it isn’t doing anything special other than File->Print in your browser. What it did was give us the opportunity to double check our print style sheet to make sure we were maximizing the page content. We did fix a few things after our investigation.

Beyond Events

We have the AddThis plugin installed on pages throughout the Wayne State website and are gathering statistics from these areas also but they were not taken into account in this blog post. The users for the event calendar are different than other areas on campus and we treat their needs differently. We are going to continue to monitor share usage throughout the entire website and hope to offer visitors the most effective sharing options to continue to spread the great things going on at Wayne State.

View by Audience

We recently updated the University calendar to handle viewing events by audience.  This was brought up by one of our clients and it made perfect sense for us to make this addition. Previously the only way to view events was by a particular calendar. It was helpful, but limited. We added this feature into the menu and it interacts the same way as viewing by a calendar.

We hope this new feature allows our users to interact with the calendar more often and find more relevant events.