PANFeed is currently undergoing a usability update, with two main goals planned. The primary goal is to make the site more accessible to non-technical users, those who may not know what an RSS feed is or what to do with one, by simplifying the terms used and stripping out the technical jargon.
The second aim is to make the PANFeed website more accessible on mobile devices – currently, the PANFeed site is structured in a very traditional fashion, which makes it difficult for phones and tablets to render. Bootstrap, a free collection of tools developed by Twitter, is particularly useful in creating dynamic, fluid layouts that work well on a wide variety of devices that use vastly different resolutions.
This new layout is still very much in development and is likely to change a great deal in the near future, to take advantage of some of the more appealing features of Bootstrap, so stay tuned for more updates soon!
As the summer comes to an end and, along with it, my internship, it’s time to reflect on everything I’ve learned. Firstly, one should never underestimate the effect of coffee and heavy metal on speed of coding. More importantly perhaps, and the lesson I’ll be sure to take away with me, is that it is absolutely essential to include your users in the development process. Obviously, this is incredibly advantageous for developers because it keeps the project on track by knowing exactly what the user wants (and how they want it), as well as making the process very adaptable and flexible by staying on top of any changing requirements before they spiral out of control. However, it is also important to the user as well – not only does it get them to engage in the development and let them see the influence they are having on the final product, but it also (most important of all) means they get a product that is useful to them, and one they can enjoy using!
While I’ll be leaving the WAIS team, work on the SLE doesn’t end here (not by a long way). Members of WAIS and iSolutions will continue to develop the web parts I’ve talked about in this blog, as well as coming up with more new and exciting features. The SLE is planned to be released for a trial subset of staff and students towards the end of this year, with a transitional period happening throughout 2012 as more users are added and more features developed.
I’ve really enjoyed my time here over the past three months and though I’m sad to be leaving, I’m looking forward to seeing and using an institution-wide product that I had a hand in creating.
The driving reason behind developing the SLE is to provide students and staff with a fresh collaborative environment in which they can build a community for themselves and each other. Communities are fantastic, because they give users a sense of pride in the software they’re using – and what better way to give users this affinity than by letting them develop features of the software to share with their peers?
However, as it stands now, if a user wants to help develop a feature they first need to find the appropriate feature request form (not an easy task in itself), print it out, decipher the three pages of business jargon, fill it in and return it. We want to make things as easy as possible for our users and all this achieves at the moment is badly filled in forms, or people simply not bothering to develop features.
As a result, one of the features we are developing is a sensible, online feature request form. Hopefully, this should make things either on both sides: users will be able to quickly and simply explain what feature they want and what support they will need, and the development team will know exactly what needs doing, how to do it and when it needs to be completed – and best of all, everyone will have an interesting new feature to use in the community.
Before the Southampton Learning Environment is made available to the university as a whole, the School of Electronics and Computer Science will have the opportunity to use a pre-production release as ECS’ current Intranet is phased out. Keeping this in mind, it is important that the SLE emulates (and strives to improve) the features of the current ECS Intranet such as electronic coursework submission and the university’s teaching and learning repository, EdShare.
EdShare, an extension of EPrints, is a university wide digital resource for all staff and students, and much of its content is also open to the rest of the world. The goal of adding this functionality to the SLE increase user knowledge of EdShare and, overall, to make it trivial to create, share and remix everyday teaching materials in a collaborative environment.
As with every widget so far, the first step was to create wireframes and mockups based on user’s needs in Pencil and HTML respectively. The most obvious use case was searching the repository for a certain resource (or set of resources). However, another use case put to us by members of the testing group was to show all the resources of a given module, arranged by the date they would be presented in the case of lectures, on that module’s page.
With these guidelines in place, coding could begin to create the Sharepoint web part shown below. As with all of the web parts mentioned to date, this is still in development and is subject to change as a result of constant user testing, in accordance with the agile development methodology.
An important element of the university’s current learning environment, SUSSED, is the noticeboard. This is a compilation of news and important announcements from a variety of departments. As a result (and as can be seen from the screenshot below), this means the announcements are not always relevant to every student – this was brought up in several focus group meetings.
To remedy this, one of the widgets in development is a news feed viewer which will initially contain a set of default feeds that are relevant to each student – for example, based of the school (and possibly the societies) they are a member of. This idea was translated to a series of Pencil wireframes and HTML mockups to give a starting point for the actual coding.
Important university announcements (such as campus closures) should of course be always visible, but if all other feeds could be added or removed by users at will this would make for a much more personalised portal. However, after programming a first draft of the widget an interesting problem was encountered.
As can be seen above, all of the news feeds from the university cannot be rendered, despite external feeds rendering with no problems at all. Further investigation, using an online Feed Validator revealed that all of the university’s news feeds do not comply with RSS standards (due to the formatting of the published date).
Among the highest demanded widgets for the SLE (at least, according to our survey) was a method of viewing the status of outstanding pieces of coursework and being able to submit completed works electronically. As with all projects, before any coding was undertaken, wireframes were drawn up to give an idea of the content of the widget.
The wireframe above was made in Pencil (free and open-source GUI prototyping software) and shows the initial draft of the widget. From this, a mockup was created in HTML (shown below). It has limited functionality and styling, but enough to give the illusion that it works for example, although the dates displayed are hard coded into the prototype, the widget itself can be dragged and dropped around the page.
With luck, there was a simple starting point to the implementation of this widget as ECS maintains its own electronic hand-in system called C-BASS. This is managed by Christopher Gutteridge, who very kindly compiled the publicly available information (such as module code, due date, hand-in url) into an XML document.
An implementation is shown below – however, this is still in development and some things are liable to change).
As can be seen from the screenshot above, the course code links to the module hompage and the assignment title links to the appropriate description (if one is supplied). The “Go to hand-in” link directs the user to the submission page for that particular assignment. The date is dynamically checked against today’s date – if the coursework is overdue, it is highlighted red, if there is less than a week until the hand-in date it is highlighted yellow.
To find out what students (and staff) wanted from the new learning environment, we drafted a short survey which asked participants to rank several potential widgets (similar to those on the iGoogle page) in order of preference.
Before producing a fully fledged survey however, we reviewed several of the many online survey tools freely available on the internet (you can read the review here). The two strongest candidates from this were SurveyGizmo and iSurvey. Both were very easy to use, as administrator as well as participant, and generated very professional reports. In the end, we chose SurveyGizmo, as the ranking questions in iSurvey are still in beta and this was the key element to the survey.
The survey also collects a small amount of demographic information such as faculty and year of study, so we can be sure the results are a reflection of everyone’s needs rather than a select few.The main body of the survey is made up of an interactive panel, allowing participants to drag-and-drop responses into the order of their choosing – several participants commented on how novel and engaging this method was.
After only a day, we had enough results to take a snapshot of the data (strengthening our view that students are eager to share their opinions on how the SLE could be developed and improved) and generate a report. The survey will of course stay open, so that more data can be collected to give a larger overall sample size for more representative results.
From this chart the breakdown of faculties can be seen and it is clear that the Faculty of Physical and Applied Sciences (containing the schools of Physics and Electronics and Computer Science) makes up the majority. The is perhaps because these respondents are more comfortable taking online surveys (or just check their computers more often!) – whatever the case, this majority of (assumedly) technical users must be taken into account while the initial results are analysed.
The next question asked the participant’s year of study – in this chart as well there is a clear majority (of second years in this case). However, this is not as much of an imbalance as if there was, say, a majority of staff or PhD respondents.
Above is a subset of the top ranked widgets that people want to see in the new SLE. As can be seen, the top four (so far) are a teaching timetable, linked with a map and a method of quickly viewing the status of outstanding courseworks and submitting them electronically. This gives us an excellent starting point to begin developing tools that users of the SLE will find helpful.
If you are a member of the University of Southampton and want a say in how the SLE is developed you can take the survey here.
The first part of any large project is finding out what your client actually wants. We want the SLE to be not only functional, but enjoyable to use as well and, with this goal in mind, want to include the student body as much as possible during development.
Focus groups have been an integral part of early planning, but to reach a wider range of opinions online surveys are invaluable. There are many options of survey tools available on the internet, of varying price and quality. A selection of the free services are looked at below:
This site is very popular, and easy to use – when you create an account it is possible to take a short tutorial in the form of a questionnaire to show how the final product could look.
While containing a wealth of features when creating surveys (such as randomizing questions to remove order bias) it is let down by many of these being restricted until a full account is bought.
Also an easy site to use withe a wide array of online support, and has the added benefit of offering prebuilt templates on top of the option to build surveys from scratch.
Various themes can be applied, including several that are smartphone friendly.
Reports are particularly professional, showing not only a table of responses but also demographic information such as which country and city the respondents are from.
Zoomerang is a very business orientated tool and (possibly as a result of this) has a heavily restricted free version. It is not as intuitive to navigate as any of the other sites – however, the questionnaires themselves are visually appealing, such as interactive drag-and-drop ranking.
Zoomerang also offers prebuilt templates, with industry specific questions.
The results are a little difficult to read in the provided table format, and there are very few options for analysis available in the basic tool.
Although some users may not realise it, Google Docs also allows its users to create and publish simple surveys (under the “Forms” category).
Though not as popular as the sites looked at so far, it nevertheless provides a very functional service, with the added bonus of being able to integrate the results directly into a Google Docs spreadsheet.
It is let down by its “bare bones” style – not being a dedicated survey tool, it does not offer all of the functionality as other sites such as ranking questions or demographic information.
If you only want to ask one question to a large (potentially huge) number of people, it is worthwhile considering social networking. Facebook, for example, provides a “Poll” function which gives the user a simple interface to ask a question and post it to their wall. Friends can then either respond with the given options or (if the asker permits) add their own.
Once they have responded, the poll is added to their wall and so on – in this manner popular polls can reach a staggering amount of people in a short amount of time. However, the poll may not be relevant to all of the people who respond (as in the case of the SLE) and the results are publicly visible which can cloud the accuracy, making it unsuitable for a scientific survey, but perfect for a quick survey of popular opinion.
The University of Southampton provides its own survey tool to staff and students, iSurvey. This stands up surprisingly well in comparison to the “big-name brands”, offering wide customization (right down to the labels of the “Next” and “Previous” buttons).
Like SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo and Zoomerang it offers many different question styles and in addition has the added benefit of knowing exactly where the data is stored. The obvious downside is that it is only open to staff and students of the university.
There are various options open to result analysis including charts, tables and statistics.
My internship consists of helping develop the new Southampton Learning Environment (SLE) – “a 24/7 ‘one stop shop’ for learning and living needs at the University of Southampton” as the research team’s website puts it. When finished, it will include various “apps” such as email, news feeds and more, as chosen by the student body.
One element of my part in this project entails gathering student opinions on the current environment (“SUSSED”) and how they think it could be improved.
This will be supplemented by finding data stores that would be useful to staff and students (such as bus time tables or swimming pool booking databases) and converting them into a machine readable format (if they are not already), so they can be integrated with the SLE.
Associated with this will be drawing mockups in Pencil (an open-source 2D animation software) to give an idea of the way the environment will look. These mockups will then be used to create a more realistic looking (but semi-functional) HTML mockup of the final product.