[Friday Links] The Teamwork Edition

It has been a week of teamwork, partnerships and groups. Short and precise list this week dedicated to design, development and standards.

New features coming to the university events calendar.

The university events calendar has been around since 2004. It has gone through three complete re-codings since its initial release and it about to go through another. Although thanks to PHPSimpl it won’t be too painful. We are revamping how an event is added, not only help the student looking for events but also to get a handle on upcoming events and their needs.

The goal is to gather as much information as possible without being a burden on the user. Right now the required fields are minimal, we just wanted people to use the system and we would worry about the details later. It has worked, year after year events submissions have grown exponentially.

Creating a central events calendar is key to event promotion. We recently added the upcoming event list to the students Pipeline, the site they go to for all student services. Further expanding the reach of the events.

A new feature starts with an idea, the idea that we need to gather more information without being invasive and still adding value. Below is the initial sketch I made of the new work flow. All new ideas start out as a sketch on paper or the whiteboard.

Workflow in Progress: Adding an Event

From here it goes for review, we sit on the idea for a little bit to let it sink in and make any modifications. Then propose it to the approval committee and once approved we start on a plan to integrate it into the current system.

With limited resources and the flexibility to work on the development server we first limit the new features to internal IP’s. This helps us test the functionality on the development and production servers without having to replicate the whole system in house. It also gives us a realistic idea of the load it is putting on the server.

Large features usually have a pilot department and we work out all the bugs before releasing to general population but features like this we will use internally for a week or two until we feel they are production ready. Using the features on a daily basis is the best way we have found to get the bugs and annoyances out.

This feature is still in the approval process but as it evolves we will post more info about it. New features are always exciting, I am glad we have a place to talk about our design process and upcoming features. If there is anything you would like to see or have us talk about just drop us a line.

[Friday Links] The Practical Edition

So we made it a month, its great to see the readership grow. This week has been one of getting things done and blog neglection. The articles of the week reflect the same mentality in the blogosphere (lolz at the busswords).

[Friday Links] The Short Week Edition

Bulk HTML emails and their impact

We have been asked more and more to create HTML emails, they look attractive and do allow for more visual exposure for the sender. The problem is security, email clients (most) by default do not display images unless they are attached to the email. This becomes a problem when sending out ~40,000 emails and its not viable to attach all the images.

Last week we sent out one of these emails, it was purely information regarding litter and cigarette butts on campus. Since there was no immediate action from the user it was difficult for us to track how effective the email was. So instead we measured how many users actually opened the email and viewed the images.

The reason for gathering these stats was mainly to advocate or deter from using HTML emails in the future. Most students on campus read their campus mail using the online interface which has a scary warning about viewing HTML images and we wanted to know how many students would get past the warning. Students also have the option to forward their email to another address, we were also interested to see where most students were forwarding their mail for better HTML email support.

What we did was setup mod_rewrite and a PHP script to upon loading a URL record the filename, timestamp, referrer and user agent. Then return back the image requested.


RewriteEngine On
RewriteRule ^([a-zA-Z0-9]+).gif$ /email/index.php?image=$1.gif [L]

Example URL of image:


We then would pull out the records from the database and created the same log format as a web server, run it through a web log statistics program to get the results. This is what we came up with.

Total Sent: ~45,000 users
Total Viewed Images: ~8,300

Visitors by Day:

Hours of the Day:

Referring Sites:

Most people who received the email did not open the image, only 18% viewed the images. Of those 18% only 45% opened the email in the webmail interface or in a desktop email client. The top three most popular forwarding addresses are Gmail, AOL and Comcast. And the most popular reading time is between 9-11 am and 9-10 pm. Although these statistics are only from 18% of the emails recipients, it goes to show nothing beats plain old text when you need to get important information across via email. Images should only be used for fluff and should not contain any necessary information.


Don't fork the web, IE8 meta switch may get ugly

IE6 v IE7If you don’t already have your head around the recent articles regarding IE8 and its three rendering modes you should, it is going to be a fact of life soon.

Basically it comes down to IE rendering pages in three modes, the “old mode”, the IE7 half standards mode and IE8 full standards mode. It makes sense to be nice to the web developers who refuse to keep up with their profession, their pages will work forever in future version’s of IE, and be nice to the leading edge developers who painfully hack their way into IE.

As a web developer myself at first I did not have an opinion on the topic but the more I read the more scared I get. This is going to introduce yet ANOTHER variable into the development world. Making developers working on new projects forced to keep up with these three modes and possibly in three years still be working in the “old mode” when they could have been in full standards mode two years ago and help out the end user. Instead it is advocating laziness (ignorance) and old code on the web.

The web is an always transforming place, the landscape has changed from a page-to-page static world to a fully asynchronized ajax environment. These three modes will just slow down the advancements on the web and ultimately make the end user suffer. The graph included is wayne.edu’s IE usage IE7 has taken over IE6’s lead and 7’s growth continues to climb, browsers come and go and developers know this. Soon IE7 will be gone and IE8 will have the largest percent of Microsofts browser share.

Not to mention if no other browsers pick up the idea (I really hope they don’t), IE will yet again become the corporate browser of its predecessors and the “lock in” continues. IE’s goal should be to unify the web and if some sites get broken in the mean time so be it, if enough people like the features (forced update via windows update) and end up using IE8 the non-compliant companies will get on board the standards wagon and won’t look back, their business will depend on it.

My stance is firm, the meta rendering mode is a negative not only for the web development community but the web users as a whole. Breaking the already broken end of the web may not be a bad thing in the overall scheme, just imagine in two years or so when they eventually deprecate the “old mode” rendering engine, it’ll be a much tougher fight than if they never implemented it in the first place.

Update: 01/24/2008 6:30 am EST:

After reading an article by John Resig and the HTML 5 DOCTYPE my fears of this meta switch have eased.  It turns out IE will only use the meta tag for doctypes which are already established and widely used. HTML5 and beyond will not need the switch to render in fully standard mode.  And IE8 will support DOCTYPE switching for all new DOCTYPES.

This changes the whole situation, it awards the developers who code to standards with  an actual useful browser and lets the lazy developers keep their routine.

New Addition.

We have added a new member to our team, Chris Pelzer starts today as a full time web developer. Chris has worked in the department for two years as a web technician. During those two years he has worked on most of our high traffic applications and sites. His knowledge of the industry and optimization has been key to those applications success. He has also worked on the open source framework that we use exclusively, PHPSimpl, adding features and fixing bugs.

You will be hearing more from Chris in the future, working through browser inconsistencies and CSS ninja techniques he will definitely be an asset to our group. Welcome aboard Chris.

Folksonomy – The Social Web

Yesterday I attended a seminar here at Wayne State University that was streamed from the University of Michigan. The seminar was called “Coming to Terms: Understanding Folksonomy”. Thomas Vander Wal, the speaker at the seminar, is often credited for coining the term “folksonomy”. Folksonomy is closely related to Taxonomy. According to Wikipedia taxonomy is “the practice and science of classification”. Folksonomy, on the other hand, is classification, more specifically tagging, applied by the general populous. Thomas Vander Wal said social tagging is simple data applied to an object by the general population which is then made available publicly.

Social tagging is gaining popularity on the internet. Sites such as Del.icio.us and Ma.gnolia.com allow people to create accounts and tag anything with a URI. Users can return to the site and search for keywords they might have applied to a URI they saved any time in the past. Users are able to easily re-find information that they have tagged on their account. These sites also allow users to search through items tagged by the rest of the user base which creates micro communities of like-minded people.

Re-findability is the key concept behind tagging. Allowing a user to remember the information or object that they tagged in a way that best suits them is the key to a successful tagging project. Thomas said the less time users spend thinking about their tags the more likely they are to find the tagged object again in the future. Community is also important when tagging goes social. Allowing people to search through other peoples’ tags will lead them to new information that will likely also interest them. Social tagging also helps bring like-minded people together through similar tagging trends. This can be applied in many ways; in a business environment it might be used to form the best possible groups of people to work on a project, or on a dating site it could be used to unite couples with similar interests.

Social tagging can also lead to insight about the public opinion of your product or site. Thomas said people often apply tags based on inferred meaning of the object. Tags with inferred meaning are just as important as tags with categorical meaning. Such tags will allow a company to see what people are actually thinking about the object being tagged as well as allowing the customer to easily re-find that item in the future. Thomas believes “Every tag is sacred”; even the negative tags should not be deleted. Data mining on tags can lead to a deeper understanding of the item and how the public perceives it. Knowing that the public has a negative view of something will allow a business to fix the problem rather than ignore it.

The ability to link things together through the co-occurrence of tags can be extremely useful. If the same tag shows up on two objects they are thought to be related in some way. When objects have several tags applied by several people it becomes easier to define accurate relationships between objects. Many ecommerce sites use this approach to display a list of other items to a customer that might also interest them and will hopefully generate additional sales. Most sites currently use tags applied by the company rather than allowing the public to socially tag the items they are selling. However, Amazon.com does allows the public to tag and comment on the various products sold on the site. This is arguably one of the many features Amazon.com has implemented that contribute to their ongoing success.

Social tagging is a trend that is gaining in popularity and implementation which is good for everyone. People can bookmark in a way that’s easier for them to re-find the site. Customers can find what they’re looking for faster. Businesses will generate more sales because customers can easily find what they’re looking for. And social tagging creates the feel of community which allows people to connect in new and interesting ways.

[Friday Links] The Busy Week Edition


Microformats now on all web page footers

microformats.gifWe have just expanded our vcard microformated university address from the university homepage to all pages in the universities Content Management System. The list can be found here, it doesn’t include all the pages by far but it is a crucial step to integrate microformats into all pages at the university. Not only the vcard for the university address but eventually all events, profiles and news items.

Current code in footers:

<address class="vcard" id="wsu_copyright">
  <a href="http://wayne.edu/" class="url fn org">Wayne State University</a>
  <span class="adr">
    <span class="locality">Detroit</span>,
    <span class="region">MI</span>
    <span class="postal-code">48202</span>
    <span class="country-name">United States</span>
  © 2007

Microformats are important to us as a university for a few reasons. First they are the right thing to do, since IE hates XML its difficult to describe the content on web pages. POSH helps but it only goes so far, the relationships and descriptions of the items being represented are missing. Microformats jump right in, they offer a way to describe content on a page while still being standard compliant.

Secondly as a higher ed institution we are here to bring knowledge to everyone and publish our research. Microformats help with people and services discovering and sifting through all the information we provide.

Our microformat initiative starts with these vcard footers, the events calendar is next and then profiles. Eventually we hope to use all microformats where necessary.