Category Archives: feedback

Fight Bad Web Design

Anyone who’s ever been in the web design industry knows this: there is a war between what clients want, and what users need. If you’ve built a website for someone else, it’s a familiar dilemma: there’s this disconnect between the person footing the bill and the audience they hope to attract or the customers they serve.

There’s a facial expression common to all web designers. Clenched teeth and furrowed brow – the result of intense concentration as we silently hope, wish and pray that the client gets it: that helping their customers in return helps them. Too many hours have been wasted changing colour-schemes because clients liked the cover of a book they were currently reading.

So there it is, the user’s need for efficiency versus the extravagant indulgence of the owner. We often end up with webpages garnished with unnecessary graphics splattered about by committee, navigational devices that are more cute than functional, websites that perpetuate the narrow worldview that everyone has broadband, big screens, perfect vision and hand-eye coordination.

We’ve been trying really, really hard to change that. Really. But truth be told, it’s been 4 years and we’re no closer to helping the Singapore government achieve the epiphany that is needed.

So we’re going to ask you to participate in the irony of ironies – to vote for the MOE website at Singapore Government Web Awards. Yes we know that the voting site is everything we’ve railed against, but it only stresses how immediate and great the need for us to shift the government’s mindset towards good design.

We’re not saying that the MOE website is the best site there is or there ever will be. But when we crafted it we wanted to send a message, primarily to the rest of the government: that good web design stems from a profound sense of empathy for those that use the site, and manifests itself in bold strokes clothed in intricacy – the result of countless hours of poring over tiny details – all culminating towards solving the problem, answering the question and serving the user.

So help us send this message. Vote. Much as we’d like to send you directly to the MOE voting page, we can’t, because of bad web design.

It really needs to stop here.

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Learning Points from Teachersday.sg 2009

Thought I had better write this down or I’ll never get to it. I leave for the States in a few hours.

The use of existing online services was the marked difference in our online efforts for Teachers’ Day this year, namely using Flickr to create a slideshow of photos or videos submitted by contributors and using Twitter as the means to send dedications to the teachers.

Complexity

The overheads that come with using existing services are substantial – most of our participants would likely have to create a new account and learn how to use the interface. All we actually need, from the user’s perspective, is a means to upload photos, and a means to type in a message. Riding on Flickr and Twitter served some of our needs on the backend: the slideshow would be dynamically generated once we approved the photos and messages would be constrained to a reasonable length (a constrain we wanted) and the creation of the Twitter account would ensure some level of spam control as users would need a valid password to acquire a Twitter account.

The problem of complexity is especially pronounced in our use of Flickr as an image uploading tool. Flickr is an online service with a vast amount of functionality, and we were using its “Send to group” function to enable users to submit photos for the Teachers’ Day website. This function is an advanced feature within Flickr that even longtime users ignore. After approximately a month, we received only a handful of submissions from a grand total of two users.

We were also surprised to learn that users need a minimum of 5 photos in their accounts before their photos could be generated on the slideshow (shown in the group).

Twitter’s beauty is in its simplicity. We were originally concerned that Primary school children, which traditionally sent in the bulk of Teachers’ Day messages, would not be able to navigate it. We had intentionally shifted this year’s focus on a more retrospective note, hoping to see greater participation from adults. We were pleasantly surprised that many Primary School students started sending messages. Rulang Primary, I believe, created a school account @rulang to help their students send messages, bypassing the need to create individual accounts. Mr Kwan Tuck Soon (@mrkwantucksoon), a teacher at Rulang, even created a screencast giving students instructions on how to send messages. I was personally pretty ecstatic to see empowered users. 🙂

Control

One of the first considerations when embarking on using user-generated content is that of editorial moderation. In my experience, this is the aspect least likely to be overlooked by the public sector. It was a calculated move on our part to pull a live Twitter feed off the hashtag #tday09 without any moderation primarily because we felt it would take a considerable amount of malice to slime teachers on Teachers’ Day. To be perfectly honest, there was a healthy amount of fear on my part that the conversation could spiral downwards.

We had planned a few levels of control that we would implement should that happen.

1. The use of filters. We had to invoke the use of language filters to exclude specified words to the live feed. A user had used the #tday09 hashtag with a uncouth colloquialism for “go home”. It wasn’t malicious by any means, just careless.

2. If things really got hairy we would only display favourited tweets. The brilliant suggestion to use favourites as a means of moderation came from @choonkeat who had picked it up at a recent barcamp.

The other factor was that when we used these services, we were subjecting ourselves to their reliability. This became an issue as Twitter showed sporadic quirks, such as us being unable to favourite a tweet, or deletions taking a long time to effect themselves.

Response to Feedback

A lot of the feedback was positive, though there were some reactions to the display of above-mentioned uncouth colloquialism. It was revealing that the initial reaction on the twitterverse was akin to students egging on a fight. 🙂 There was a bit of talk about us clamping down on the user who had posted the tweet. It was revealing because it showed what the public thought of the government: heavy-handed and authoritative. Perhaps so for more sensitive topics, but I’d like to perpetuate this fact:

The government is made up of people serving other people. We are as diverse as the human traffic on Orchard Road.

My first reaction was to remove the offending tweet via filters, but we found that the user had already deleted it after discovering his tweet had appeared on our website. It was still showing due to Twitter’s caching of search results and the lag between deletion and removal of tweets. By this time there were a number of tweets signaling the anticipation of punishment as the user was a student in one of the schools. I hurriedly sent a direct message ensuring that no action would be taken, and that we knew that no malice was intended.

If you were wondering, at that time I added a filter to remove mentions of the person’s twitter nick. It wasn’t to remove all his tweets (besides, the filter doesn’t do that). It was because in my own carelessness in asking him to remove the hashtag, I had mentioned the hashtag, thereby adding my own unintended tweet on the Teachers’ Day homepage. The filter was to remove my own tweet.

The other piece of feedback comes from Daphne who helped us poll teachers’ awareness about the website. She was astounded that none of the teachers she had asked knew about the Teachers’ Day website.

I conceded that publicity could have been better managed, but I do not agree that the entire effort is implementation gone awry. Publicity was two-pronged: 1 for the public so that they’ll send dedications, 2 for teachers so they’ll know if dedications were sent to them. Posters were widely circulated and put up, electronic billboards in Suntec City and Ion Orchard were used. There was a hard deadline for the submission of dedication messages (Teachers’ Day), but teachers could, and still can, search the dedications.

Conclusion

It was a learning experience for us, and we have absolutely no regrets doing it. The cost of setting up the site was extremely minimal – I designed and coded it outside of office hours, no thanks to the office network that crawls like a dialup modem on LSD.

I appreciate all the feedback received, good or bad. On a personal level I don’t deal well with criticism, but I’m learning to roll with the punches and glean what I can, hopefully producing better products the next time round.

It takes a village…

“…to raise a child”. The adage is used ever so often here at MOE, but it is something all parents would attest to be true. One of the most comforting things I’ve discovered about parenting is that I’m not in the trenches alone. When I blogged 3 years ago about how hard it was to take care of newborn Anne I received quite a number of emails and comments, telling me of their own experiences with their newborns. The encouragement saw us through those long hard nights.

Here at MOE we would like to provide parents as much support as we can give, and it is becoming evident that one of the things we could do is to help in the building of a parenting community. We started taking small steps with Schoolbag last year.

Schoolbag is primarily a place for parents to find out about what’s going on in schools these days, but we’d like to take it a little further in creating a more vibrant interactive online environment. We’ve asked around a bit and some parents have asked if we could have discussion forums.

Would you use a Schoolbag.sg discussion forum? Is there anything else you might like in terms of online support?

Around the block

It’s been a little less than 3 weeks since we launched, and feedback regarding the new site design has slowly died down as people settled in.

We’ve had some very committed web developers out there who gave great pointers on what they liked and what they thought could be improved:

We had a few of their suggestions implemented almost immediately.

  1. Choonkeat’s suggestion to use an icon of a lock, rather than the words (login required) beside intranet links in the dropdown menu under “Teachers”.
  2. Choonkeat’s request for rss/atom (implemented in Media Centre).
  3. Vinay’s suggestion for custom 404 error pages.
  4. Vinay’s suggestion to make the masthead narrower (we made the skip navigation link a little less visually obtrusive)
  5. Vinay’s observation that feedback forms administered via iframe could lose the submit buttons on larger text sizes (we went back and set the height of the iframe in ems so it would scale)

No Javascript, no navigation

The most glaring bug at this point is the sliding navigation we used which doesn’t degrade gracefully when javascript is turned off. If you have any ideas, please do leave a comment. We could definitely use some good ones.

The sliding navigation

The implementation of the navigation has a whole didn’t sit too well with the tech-savvy. Yuhui is absolutely correct when he points to the fact that the links being flushed left after dropdown meant users needed to move their mouse quite a distance. Quite a number of people commented that a fast trigger-happy index finger could drive the script crazy and break the navigation. Sliding down takes time, which sacrifices efficiency for flashiness.

All of these are great comments, and we’re definitely looking into ways we could improve the interactivity. We originally had the menu appear instantaneously when users click on the “Students” or “Teachers” link, and the feedback we had from some users back in beta was that they were disoriented. So we thought a little animation would guide them from pre-click state to post-click state.

Jekyll and Hyde Information Structure

Yuhui and Divya both commented that there was some disconnect in the breadcrumbs and the top navigation. When you clicked on something like “Student Admissions“, the breadcrumb would say “Home > Education System > Student Admissions” when in fact you came from clicking the “Parents” navigation.

When we first constructed the information structure, we created intuitive silos to store information. Silos like “Education System” and “Careers” were set up to store information which existed in any one silo at a time. However we also understood that our users were segregated into a few main roles, which you see on the top navigation. These different roles often need the same information. For example, both Parents and Students were probably interested in “Student Admissions”.

So rather than have crumbtrails denoting the users point of entry, we set the crumbtrails to introduce the formal information structure in a macro to micro sort of filter.

Conclusion

The greatest reward we received from revamping the entire site in-house was the freedom and degree of control we now have over the site. We can now react to feedback given by our users almost instantaneously. The previous iteration of the site was locked down in a gargantuan content-management system in a format readable only by the vendor. This made changes extremely hard to implement and we often had to shrug our shoulders when we couldn’t find workarounds.

So if you have any feedback regarding what could be improved, or even if you’d like to tell us that you really liked what we did, do feel free to drop a comment here.