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 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:

Digital Signage: Spotlight On

You may have noticed walking throughout campus recently and noticed the digital signs have a new content on it, a highlighted faculty member. We started rolling out what we are calling “Spotlight On” slowly throughout the signs on campus.

What is Spotlight on?

Every day our faculty are discovering new things, helping the community and making an impact on the world. We know this because we spread it through press releases and news items. To us this used to be great but it wasn’t good enough, only a small amount of our campus community read the releases or visit these random websites. Our solution is to bring these faculty members to the masses.

Since the signs are already in high traffic areas it is almost the perfect spot to make campus aware of their accomplishments. Above is an actual sign and what the spotlight looks like. It features a photo, impacting statement, name, title and a call to action to get more information. The goal was to make the signs impact the person walking by it enough to take a second and read or at least recognize the faculty member they may see walking around campus every day.

How to get spotlighted?

Are you doing something great or know someone that is on campus? Just send us an email, and we can get the ball rolling. We have found most spotlighted faculty have been nominated by others on campus. This is probably the best way to get someone highlighted.

We aren’t limiting the spotlight to faculty members only, we are open to highlighting anyone in the campus community who is making an impact on the world. Students and alumni are the next group to be featured.

What is that silly looking image?

That square image is a QR code.

QR code (short for Quick Response) is a specific matrix barcode (or two-dimensional code), readable by dedicated QR barcode readers and camera phones. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. The information encoded can be text, URL or other data.

The barcode can be scanned with a number of mobile barcode scanners, the most popular is Google Goggles. Once scanned the codes we are producing are combine with a “” URL (more on that later) which take the user to the faculty member’s profile. The plan down the road is to direct the user to a video or audio interview with the faculty member to give them even more of a reason to scan or type in the URL. It is our way of yet again extending the content beyond its original intent.

Noel-Levitz 2010 E-Expectations Report

Noel-Levitz just released their 2010 E-Expectations Report. The survey is of more than 1,000 high school seniors. It examines their attitudes and behaviors toward Web content, social networking, recruitment videos, and e-mail.

If you are not familiar with the report, here is a quote from their site:

An ongoing project to uncover the online expectations and behaviors of prospective students

What do students expect when they arrive at your campus Web site? What kinds of electronic communications will resonate with them? How can you create the kind of dialog that turns Web visitors into student inquiries?

The E-Expectations series has studied the expectations and behaviors of college-bound high school students, as well their parents, prospective graduate students, and current college students transferring to other campuses. This research project examines what students want to find on Web sites, as well as their attitudes toward communication mediums such as social networking, text messaging, cell phone calls, and instant messaging being used for recruitment.

I recommend everyone who works in higher ed read it and keep it in mind when doing any communication to prospective or current students.

Download the 2010 E-Expectations Report (pdf)

Launch: Office of International Students and Scholars

Recently we launched a completely revamped Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) Web site. Traditionally the OISS office designed, developed, hosted and wrote their own web site. The last and the largest of the Educational Outreach Web sites to launch with almost 200 pages of need to know information for international students.

What we noticed

We took a look at the site from the ground up. Asked the important questions about who the real audience is and what they are coming to the site to accomplish. A few things we noticed right off the bat, the letter from the director on the homepage had to go, it wasn’t engaging and took valuable real estate. The next was the thin header image, the only image on the page that was too small to reinforce the Wayne State brand. And lastly some calls to action, everything on the old site was the same size and prominence, nothing stood out.

What we learned

We sat down with the people who answer the phones and with some actual international students to figure out what really needed to be on the site. We learned that student testimonials are huge in determining which university a student will attend. The three most needed things on the site ended up being financial aid, housing information and forms. Last but not least a large number of current students were visiting the site every day looking for events.

What we did

Taking all of this and a lot of other things into consideration we built the navigation around a goal oriented approach based on what stage the user was in. We then separated the homepage in to some key areas that highlighted the upcoming deadlines, the three main things a prospective student is looking for, highlighted student profiles/testimonials and an area for the upcoming events. During the redesign process we transitioned the OISS office from a standalone calendar to the main university events calendar. We also worked with the marketing coordinators to shoot some testimonials in different languages. The design of the site is aligned with the other international Web sites. And last but not least we moved their site into the central university CMS and server environment.

The end result

After all of this research, planning and execution the final site is something we can be proud of. The design and information reinforce the goals of the department and university as a whole. It took longer than we expected but in the end was worth the wait.

View the Office of International Students and Scholars Web site at:

Redesign: Welcome Back Week


Now that classes are in full steam the new Welcome Back Week Web site is up. Unfortunately I don’t have a screen shot of last year’s site with events or navigation but the main change is the design of the site.

The new site has the week spelled out prominently and large buttons to select each date to view events. This year the content pulls directly from the main university events calendar. In years past we only selected a few events to promote, this year including most all events lets students aware of the large array of events each day.

The site overall is simple and straight to the point. The goal with the new design is to make the visuals more solid and clear compared to last year. For example, the extended ribbon on the headers puts a large emphasis on the page headings and key areas.

View the new site at:

Site Launch : Student Council


Wanting to improve accessibility and promote transparent communication with the student body, the student council sought us out to create a site that would be easy to navigate, clean, and at the same time fun.

The homepage features a promotional section highlighting activities being promoted by the council, the Top Topics section showing new information of importance to students and topics being discussed by the council, and displaying the meeting time and location to encourage involvement.

Checkout the live Student Council Web site at: