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/

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.

Launch: Planetarium

Last week we launched the long anticipated Planetarium website. The site is a complete 180 from their old site.

As you can see from the screen shots above the sites are dramatically different visually. We also included many dynamic features and simplified the navigation to ensure visitors find what they are looking for.

Updating the look

During the life of this project the physical planetarium was going through an overhaul. The original planetarium was build in 1955, then renovated in 1996 with the renovation of the building and was recently upgraded to include the newest digital projector technology. They came to the marketing department with the need to update their logo and give them a visual presence on the Web and print that matched their new physical look.

As a first step in the project we sat down with the department head and figured out everything the planetarium has to offer, what their prospective and current visitors are looking for, and came up with additional ideas that would benefit the department. This lead to a homepage that had many more features than the previous website. We organized them into News, Events, Show Schedule, and Promotions. Some of the promotions stay up year round while others rotate out depending on the time of year.

It was important for us to give the look of the site something that was not only inspiring but also lead visitors in to learn more. Since it is tough to take photos of the audience while the planetarium shows were going on we opted for photos of the actual sky.

An abundance of information

From the people we surveyed we discovered a great majority either didn’t know we had a planetarium or didn’t know the extent of what they offered, we set out to change that. The fact that most of the events are free also made people step back. The planetarium not only services the campus community but it also regularly holds public shows, specialty shows, k-12 classes and private events. Their most recent show is a movie called Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity. We wanted to make sure they had the space and ability to promote all they offer on their website.

Dynamic Schedule

Something we did specifically for the Planetarium website was to build a mini calendar on their homepage that highlighted the dates with shows. Upon clicking those dates the show list appears below. We have a standard events calendar style that we use on every other site but it became clear when working through how visitors use the site that they want to get this schedule information quickly and clicking through multiple pages was too slow. So we made the calendar fully dynamic to allow for greater visitor interactivity and success.

View the new Planetarium website at: http://planetarium.wayne.edu/

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.

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.

Deleting RSVP submissions through the University Events Calendar

We’ve had a few requests lately for the ability to remove a submissions from our Events Calendar RSVP system. Here are some of the problems our users faced with using the current system:

  • Double submissions from a single registrant
  • Test submissions from us or the client
  • If someone calls to cancel, they still count in the total number of registrants.
  • If there is a max limit to the number of registrants an event can have, they would have to manually bump number up based on false submissions.

Our Approach

We decided to take a hybrid approach to this problem. We didn’t want to actually delete any data so we could keep a record of everything. When editing a submission, there is a normal “Delete” button at the bottom of the form now. When using this, it marks them as deleted in our database. The listing page now adds a style of line-through so you can easily tell they have been removed. It also takes away from the count so the max limit does not need to be adjusted at all. When exporting a list to CSV, the deleted registrants are also not exported.

We believe this will be very helpful for our frequent users and will solve some of the problems we’ve recently faced.

Launch: University Events Calendar

You probably noticed just about everything on the events calendar has changed, the design, structure, images and navigation but rest assure we migrated all the events into the new site. And even through their URL’s are different the old links will forward to their new location.

After three months of development we are finally ready to show off the first release of the new events calendar. Not only is the front end completely changed but we re-wrote and optimized every piece of back end code. Below is a breakdown of what changes we made.

New Wayne State University Events Calendar

Completely new look

The old calendar didn’t really have a design, it was more of a list of events by day with every event having the same prominence. Classes at the Rec and Fitness Center looked exactly like a FOCIS event which brings in world renowned speakers. Scanning down the page you couldn’t determine which events were large scale. Not to mention we made it 200% faster.

Featured upcoming events

Featured Events

With the new look also comes the ability to feature upcoming events on the homepage. This means weeks and months ahead of time an event can be promoted visually to gain larger attendance.

Community events

Right now a work in progress but the new calendar allows for events that are pulled in from other sources to be promoted as “Community Events”. It could be an art show at MOCAD or a band playing around campus. The goal is to let students know is going on between or after classes.

reminders

Reminders and deadlines

These have been pulled out of the main event listing and pulled to the top of the page to ensure the most visual weight. They can be collapsed by clicking the X in the top right of the box. The goal is it remind students when important deadlines are coming up separate from the event listing so they don’t get lost.

Event Details

Individual event additions

We added quite a bit when it comes to individual events. The first is the ability to upload a photo to promote the event. From there we also allow uploading of images and video from the event. These photos and video will create a gallery and be featured on the calendar homepage. Not to mention if an event happens every year the photos from previous events can be linked to the next years event.

If a student is interested or is attending an event they now have the ability to mark right on the event page. In turn the event will show how many people are interested or attending. It will not show the users information to the public or the event admin so users don’t have to worry about privacy concerns. But the end user will be able to keep a list of events they are interested in or attending.

We created a more intuitive URL structure. Before an event URL looked like this: http://events.wayne.edu/view/20722/date/93381/ From that you have no idea what day the event is on or what it is about. The new structure looks like this: http://events.wayne.edu/2009/12/25/holiday-closure-16879/ It shows the year, month and day of the event and part of the title. A user will know a little about the event before clicking on a link.

rsvp

RSVP’s for everyone

For the past year we have been rolling out the RSVP system to a limited number of users around campus and now it is ready to go mainstream. Anyone who has access to create an event will now be able to create an RSVP for that event. The RSVP can be fully customized with fields, order, examples, thank you information, limits and waiting lists. For the time being each RSVP will need to be submitted for approval before they go live, this will not only help us ensure the system is working correctly but also refine the calendar as we see trends. In the next few days we will be releasing screencasts to walk everyone through the system.

Calendar categorization

Instead of a drop down with the full list of ~160 calendars we have begun separating the calendars into categories. For example in addition to the Main Calendar we also have a list of the Schools & Colleges, Administrative, Departments, etc. This list is still a work in progress and we will continue to refine it each day.

Mini navigation calendar now functions as it should

On the old calendar navigating between days, weeks and months was cumbersome so we refined the top left calendar area to work as it should. It now includes previous/next month days for the first and last weeks. It also remembers where you were at as you move through pages and is over all easier to select date ranges.

Streamlined adding/editing events

The add an event form has been completely redone. The page is now split into sections, What, Where, Who and When. This will make is easier for both a first time user and seasoned veteran to add events with ease. In addition to the page structure change we also changed how you select multiple calendars. Before it was a clumsy multi-select box that forced the user to ctrl+click every calendar, you let us know how big of a pain this was, so we changed it to a simple checkbox of the calendars you have access to.

An overview of your events page

Most users who enter events enter more than one. Now when you login you are presented with an overview screen that in one glance show you “Your Recently Added Events”, “RSVPs”, “Images” and “Videos”. This way you can quickly edit something you were recently working on. We are planning to expand this page to also include statistics about your events or calendars.

Next steps

This is just the first phase in a larger plan to integrate events and event promotion throughout campus both online and on screens. The old calendar served its purpose but now students, faculty, staff and alumni are demanding more and we plan to deliver. Over the next few weeks we will be analyzing statistics on how the categories are being used and plan to make other modifications on the fly.

View the new calendar at: http://events.wayne.edu/

Upcoming changes to the university events calendar

events-preview

Something big is happening to the university Events Calendar.

A little bit ago Rob Vrabel mentioned we were working on the events calendar and I would like to confirm that we are and we have some great things in store.

We will be running down all the new features in detail closer to launch but here are just a few things to look forward to:

  • Completely new interface
  • Better listing and search for events by interests and audiences
  • Upcoming Deadlines and Reminders are broken out from main calendar
  • Images now supported for event promotion
  • Image and video gallery available for every event
  • RSVP’s to be created and managed by anyone
  • Ability to show interest or say you are attending an event even if there is no RSVP
  • Calendars will be better organized in the left menu
  • Featured event promotion
  • Addresses for location of off campus event
  • Subscribe by RSS to a category or audience
  • Email subscription for upcoming featured events each week

You can view the current calendar at: http://events.wayne.edu/

hCalendar microformat support in the events calendar

In our continuous effort to support microformats, we are proud to announce expanded hCalendar support on the Wayne State University Events Calendar.

If you are not familiar with microformats the goal is to use plain HTML and embed through classes and Semantic HTML information about the content. Similar to XML to describe content but in plain of HTML so an additional document is not necessary. Recently Yahoo released Search Monkey which takes advantage of microformats to mesh search results with the information on the result pages.

Support for hCalendar is on both the event listing page and the individual event pages. Below are some screen shots of the pages and what can be pulled from them.

As of right now we don’t have any plans to implement a Search Monkey app just yet but this is the first step for us or the community to pull from these events. Especially since the Academic Calendar is now in the events calendar.

This is just a small change to the calendar but it shows our contuned support and drive to support web standards and initiatives.

iCal makes its debut on the events calendar

We are proud to announce you can now subscribe to any calendar via iCal or save any individual event in iCal format. This will allow anyone to keep up with university events without having to check site every day. Just subscribe to a category of event you are interested in or a specific calendar.

Subscriptions

You can choose your calendar or subscribe to the main events calendar (really large list, you have been warned) by visiting the iCalendar page. Subsequently if you want to subscribe via RSS you can still do that at the RSS page.

Saving individual events

When viewing an event, below the contact information is this bar, with the last option on the bar a single ical file will be downloaded and can be imported into your favorite desktop calendar, Outlook 2007, iCal…

save-event.gif

Subscribing via Google Calendar

Google calendar is a popular web based calendar and the process to subscribe it straightforward and can translate to most web and desktop calendars.

Step 1:
Find the iCal feed you would like to subscribe to at the iCalendar page, right click on the feed link and select “Copy Link Location”

http://events.wayne.edu/ical/theatre/calendar.ics

Step 2:
Open Google Calendar and click the Add link on top of all your calendars. You will want to “Add by URL”, I have it highlighted below.

gcal-add.gif

Step 3:
Paste in the URL and click Add.

gcal-url.gif