New EduTech Website – One Month Update

Ok, so it’s not exactly one month yet, but November 15th was supposed to be the go live date for the new EduTech website until Kael decided to arrive a little earlier than planned. I think enough time has passed to make a few observations and discuss some of the lessons learned.

First, the feedback I’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive. Shortly after the launch, we did receive a few messages from customers using obsolete web browsers – Internet Explorer 4 for Macintosh and Netscape 6 in particular. They were having some display issues because of the heavy use of style sheets on the site, which the older browsers have trouble correctly drawing on the screen. To be honest though, they’ve got to be pretty used to seeing funky page rendering, because more and more sites are using CSS for page presentation. I’m not doing anything out of the ordinary on the new site, so I have to assume that the problem is the browser.

Probably the biggest problem I’ve seen is that people are having a hard time finding some pages on the site. This is to be expected after a major overhaul since people often memorize the clicks it takes to get somewhere. I used the redesign as an opportunity to reorganize much of our content so it’s easier to find using the “Don’t Make Me Think” rule, but it’s very possible that my expectation of where something should be is different from some of our customers. Overall, not very many complaints, and I believe I’ve fixed the major ones that came up, so I’ll continue to watch and tweak as we go along.

One thing that’s stuck with me from the Web Design World conference this summer is the idea of “search as a symptom“. Meaning, if a lot of people are searching for the same piece of information, chances are they’re having a tough time finding it through the normal page navigation menus and links. I’ve been keeping an eye on our search logs in order to identify any problem areas, but for better or worse, nothing has really been screaming, “Fix me! Fix me!” yet. What’s been most interesting to me is the things people search for on our site. I’m not sure if they think they’ll get normal Google search results or what, but I’ll just say that the vast majority of searches have nothing to do with EduTech services.

While I’m still thinking about search, here’s anything interesting thing I’ve discovered: About 1/5 of the people searching for the EduTech website from a search engine (Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc.), actually type the entire URL into the search textbox. Why they would do this instead of just typing it into the address bar? I have no idea. Maybe there’s some confusion about the difference between the two, or maybe it’s something else completely. Whichever the case, I’m intrigued…

All in all, everything went much more smoothly launching this website than when I put up the one two years ago. One thing we did that turned out to make a huge difference was creating a completely separate web space account on the server for the new site. This let me make mistakes on my own time without affecting our customers and, as an added bonus, cleaned up the years of crap that had been building on our old site.

Because I moved and renamed so much content, there was the very big problem of broken links. While I could have left people to figure things out on their own when getting the dreaded “404 – Page Not Found” error, I’m a follower of Tim Berners-Lee’s philosophy: Cool URIs don’t change. Before the launch I made every effort to find and redirect missing pages to their new locations so that it would be completely transparent to the customer. And after the new site went up, I quickly discovered the remaining broken links thanks to a handy little computer script that automatically emailed me whenever someone followed a link to a page that’s no longer there. I was even able to use the often forgotten “410 – Resource Gone” error to let visitors and search engines know that certain pages aren’t missing, but are gone permanently.

I discovered last week that I had a number of underlying accessibility problems that, while not critical in nature, were being counted against us in the monthly state report. I worked all of yesterday morning identifying and fixing the problems, so we’re now left with a few minor ones that are only temporarily there because of some dynamic content. Unfortunately, my fixes were a little too late to make it into this quarter’s report, so I’ll need to wait for next month to see the big jump in improvement.

What’s next? I still have a few smaller things in store for the site. Several of our regional staff would like to have blogs available to communicate with customers in their areas, so I’ll be setting those up soon. I’ll still continue to make tweaks and changes as needed so we can get our customers accomplish their tasks. The next big thing on my list though, is an overhaul of the training management program I created about a year ago. Our needs have changed somewhat in that time, but more importantly, we were able to identify some weak areas of the program that, if fixed, would really let our staff do their work more efficiently. I would absolutely love to rewrite the whole thing in Rails, but unfortunately there are a lot of technical issues preventing me from doing so. Whatever happens, I’ve learned a lot in the past year that should make the updated program a lot easier to change, manage, and use. Stay tuned…