Ed Tech UI Guy

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Stellar Validation Results

The new Stellar look now validates. I had to go in and change the way announcements are displayed pretty significantly. As an unintended benefit, I think the announcements are slightly easier to read now (not that it was hard before).

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Linky and exColor

I installed a little timesaving software today.

My colleague Stacy pointed me to exColor. She was using it to pick colors for another new Stellar template. It's nice small app that basically adds hex values every where in the OS X color picker.

I found a nice Firefox extension, Linky, through a post on Acts of Volition. Do you ever come to a page with a bunch of links and then end up opening each of them one by one. Linky is cool because you can select a bunch of them on the page, then control click and choose to open all the selected links in new tabs.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Navigation on edit pages

In Stellar there are two kinds of pages - "display" pages and "edit" pages. Display pages are the pages anyone sees when browsing the site - the homepage, the materials list, the class roster, etc. The display pages look the same to students and instructors, but if you are an instructor you see little red links that give you options for modifying the page - "add document" edit intro text" etc. Clicking one of those links takes you to an edit page - generally a form you fill in to add something or edit something. Submitting the form takes you back the display page you came from.

Way back when we started Stellar in 2000, we decided that the edit pages wouldn't have a navigation bar. The fear was that people would fill out the form, then rather than clicking the submit button, they would click something in the nav bar. For example someone might fill out the form to add a new reading, then click "materials" in the nav bar expecting they would see the new reading there. Nothing has been saved because they haven't clicked "submit." This is similar to the way Amazon hided most of the navigation as soon you start the checkout process - they want to push you in the right direction.

But now I wonder if we should just have all of the pages have the same navigation. People seem to understand the need to hit a submit button better than they were 5 years ago. I actually find it annoying to have the navigation missing on certain pages. We did a user test a couple years back with the nav bar always there, and didn't trip up any of the testers. It's time we make all of the pages work the same and see what happens.

We're planning user teting on the impact on user comprehension of saving navigation state in Sakai. I'm hoping the results will support my theses that most people understand and expect that clicking a link in the navigation while filloing out a form cancels that form.

New look for Stellar

Here's a look at the new default look for Stellar websites. The RSS feed is working, too.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Use Case for Sessions Manager

I'm proposing a new tool for Sakai 2.0 that makes content management more natural for students and instructors by structuring the content of the site using the class meetings (or 'sessions') as a frame work. I wrote up a very drafty Use Case for Sessions Manager this morning.

I don't know that anyone is reading this, but if you are there two things I'm really wondering here.

  1. Does this tool already exist as a tool that will be ported to Sakai by someone else?
  2. What's a better name for this tool? I don't think many people will know what a "sessions manager" is. You could almost just call it "class setup." It was originally called the syallbus tool, because syllabi are also commonly structured around sessions. But that name got taken by a new tool that basically lets you post a structured webpage on the class site.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Stellar RSS

We're going to add RSS feeds for Stellar websites in the Spring. The initial release of this feature will add a small 'RSS' icon to the Stellar templates. The RSS feed will include the 15 most recent items from these categories: New materials, updated materials, homework assignments and announcements. I think the homework assignments will appear when they are posted, and then again a few days before their die date.

It's going to be a great improvement for those who use RSS feeds a lot. I'm looking forward to it just to make it easier to keep track of project sites. I really wish Sakai had this feature now! I am getting overwhelmed by the number of special SEPP groups I've been signed up for. All of the activity in some of those sites is a great thing for Sakai, but it's hard to keep track of it all.

It's a shortened day at MIT today. Rather than commuting in for a 3 hour work day, I am working from local wi-fi enabled cafe. Craig and I have been swapping emails and instant messages all morning about RSS, while I've also been working on the new style switcher for Stellar (we've got some pretty spiffy features coming out even though it considered a minor update rather than a new version for Stellar). It has been a very productive morning, and it gives me confidence that I'll be able to maintain close contact with the team at MIT while I'm working in California.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


An enthusiastic new reader reported that she could not use the Atom feed this blog provides in her vesion of NetNewWire Lite. So I added a feedburner link to the side of the blog for your syndication convenience.

Standards vs. creativity

A colleague sent me a link to The End of Usability Culture, an inflammatory article about how usability experts have become more powerful than designers and now all sites look the same, so it's time to for sites to be more creative. It's an old theme, but I've been thinking about the broader issue of standards vs. creativity.

Someone recently asked me how I could know enough from the Gradebook's requirements gathering to leap forward to the wireframes. The best I could do is say "Well, I'm a designer, I have to be creative. And then we do a review and try again until we're fairly happy." The idea has been planted for some people that we can get every thing we need to build a website from usability studies, and then just put the pieces together, almost without a designer getting involved.

Similarly, there has been a bit of turmoil around the Sakai style guide, and how much control it asserts. Does the style guide dictate a design for all future Sakai tools? From my point of view it doesn't assert much control. It should support consistency, without limiting creativity.

The style guide's goal is to support consistency. For example, clicking on a table header should has the same result from one page to the next within a website. Someone trying to teach a class doesn't know they are using the MIT/Berkeley gradebook, the Stanford quiz builder, and the Michigan announcement tool, the Cambridge discussion tool, etc. They are using one website, so there ought to be some consistency.

(The style guide has an additional goal of encouraging best practices in HTML markup and accessibility, but that's not my point right now).

But the style guide needs to be easy on designers- it's not going to cover every possible interface. If I'm solving a problem I need to do it in the most elegant way I can, without the style guide getting in my way. The style guide covers some common elements like forms, data tables and wizards. The style guide is not saying you can ONLY use forms, data tables and wizards. You can innovate and create new things. But if you are going to use a form please highlight the submit button, and include a cancel button.

456 Berea Street

I just added 456 Berea Street to my NetNewsWire. Check out the highlights of 2004. That's a lot of good articles on mark up.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Accessing OCW through DSpace

I just had a meeting with someone working on a project called CWSpace: "CWSpace, a Microsoft iCampus-funded project to investigate the standards and protocols necessary to archive educational material produced under the OpenCourseWare initiative into long-term digital repositories like DSpace." (from MIT Libraries Annual Report FY 2003-2004) Not only will CWSpace store archive materials from OCW, it will open up an API allowing other tools to access them.

It will be great when an instructor working in Stellar or Sakai can pull in useful learning materials from OCW right from their class website. Since Stellar sites are marked with Dublin Core metadata, and DSpace items are marked with Dublin Core metadata, it should be possible to have an automated suggestion. For example, I'm in the website for my Mongolian History class, and I click 'import materials.' I land on a page that has the traditional search fields for finding stuff in a repository, but also has right there a heading saying "here are some materials that might be useful" with the most relevant Mongolian History tagged items from the archive.

OCW has already vetted all of the materials for copy right, so the instructor isn't taking any risk. And OCW becomes an even better way for instructors to share - export from Stellar to OCW, and once the processing is done those materials will be available to other instructors. OCW even has professionals creating useful metadata, so the instructor doesn't have to.

Update: Here's the new CWSpace website.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Amazon's web services

Technology Review has article on Amazon's web services. I have been really intrigued by Amazon's open application. I've been thinking of pulling information from Amazon into Docwalla wishlists. So far i have only gone as far as creating an affiliate account and using that code when I link to Amazon (I did in a post here earlier today) - a step which has netted me about $3.50 since I got Amazon Hacks last Christmas (there I go with that linking again).

BBEdit XSLT Glossary

Marc Liyanage posted new BBEdit XSLT Glossary. I use XSLT for Stellar (and Docwalla) and wish I used the Glossary more - it's a habit I want to build.

New Stellar Templates

Today I am working on a new template Stellar websites (Stellar is MIT's Course Management System). Stellar community members select a template when they set up a class website. We designed the templates for Stellar back in 2001 before our design team was really hip to Designing with Web Standards. We're going to replace the old table-based templates with three new CSS-based templates. Some advantages:
  • The sites will be more accessible to screen readers (we were doing well before, but this will be better)
  • Page load time will go down fractionally do to the smaller pages
  • It's going to be much easier to design custom templates. In most cases we can edit just the CSS without touching the XSLT. This will open up new possibilities for community involvement.
  • The new templates are fixed width, which will make the text easier to read on wide screens.
The changes I'm doing are mainly to the HTML produced by the current templates. For the CSS I am going to use much of the same simple graphic design used for the gateway Stellar website. This will probably be the default choice for new sites. Stacy and Joanna, the other designers in our team will come up with other themes by creating new CSS files, that override the default rules. It's going to be beautiful. It's like building CSS Zen Garden into our Course Management System.

Flickr writeup on Salon

Salon has a short article on Flickr that's worth checking out. Flickr is one of my favorite discoveries this year - it's a big hit with my 2 year-old son as well who requests occasionally to see pictures of a carwash or a llama or fifi and other random things - Flickr almost always comes through. He's even learned to page through the slide slows using the arrow keys on the key board. If 2 year old can get into it, that's a nice UI.