As far as I can make out, “efficiency” means that we ought to discover everything about a machine except what it is for. – G.K. Chesterton
Aurora Bedford writes about the phenomenon of “more efficient” website workflows that nonetheless flummox users who are used to more complex, “inefficient” versions of the same tasks:
…it’s common for many websites and applications to try to reduce the amount of steps—often, clicks—that a user must do in order to complete a task. However, interaction cost is more than just the number of clicks (or other physical actions)—it also involves mental effort. There are times when focusing purely on the number of steps actually backfires: instances when users are so accustomed to the “inefficient” process that streamlining it is perplexing and breaks the task flow.
Bedford recounts the example of an Email Settings form with no Save button:
What is missing from this otherwise fairly standard form? There is no Save button! How do we apply our changes so they are saved in the system? Computer-savvy readers may realize that the form is likely saving any changes whilst they are made, thus gaining efficiency by not requiring an extra save button press. However, most users are not this savvy, and even the savviest amongst us are more used to the pattern of having a Save or Submit button at the end of a form. This is an excellent example of how even the smallest deviation from a standard can cause confusion and increase cognitive load.
I recently encountered this myself when trying to post an image to a blog hosted by Squarespace.
First, I went to the New Post editor:
The title was easy enough to place. And if I wanted to write, I would just click in that text area with the two gray blobs and start typing. But how would I post an image? I hovered over the text area:
Hm. Okay. None of those look like the usual add media options. See, I’m used to WordPress; it’s far and away the most common blogging tool out there (it runs this blog, for one). And for all of its various irritations and flaws, its WYSIWYG editor is unambiguous when it comes to uploading media:
I scrutinized the Squarespace interface, even going into the blog’s settings to see if I needed to somehow enable images. Nothing worked. Finally, I clicked the Help link and searched their articles for How to post an image. This article enlightened me. Turns out I needed to start by clicking one of those gray blobs:
From that point on, posting the image was simple and straightforward. But to get to that point, I had to jettison everything I know about adding an image to a blog post and learn how to use an idiosyncratic interface element I’ve never seen anywhere else.
…users spend most of their time on other sites… When reaching your site, they expect it to function in the same way as on those other sites—any slight deviation from their norm snaps them out of autopilot and forces them to think and try to find an action that matches this novel situation.
How does this dynamic work with Populi? What expectations do people bring to our software? Here are a few things we’ve learned and observed…
- Being web-based, we can build on the ready-made language and conventions of web design to help new users intuit how to use Populi. There’s a lot about our service that requires no explanation.
- For many schools, Populi replaced other types of software. Perhaps a spreadsheet program from a productivity suite. Maybe a homegrown database. Or another program repurposed for running a college. When a school leaves such a program behind, it’s a pretty clean break: users don’t expect a web app to behave like Excel.
- Other schools came to Populi after years of using terrible purpose-built college software. Some systems didn’t do as much. Other systems did a lot “more”. Some were just unreliable and incompetent. Each one inflicted a peculiar kind of suffering that drove the school into our embrace. This provided another clean break: as long as Populi isn’t anything like that last system, we’re good!
- We’ve run into this phenomenon with Library. Populi Library is built on the web-capable Dublin Core, but most libraries (and their software) traffic in the more established, but creaky, MaRC format. We’ve designed our search for simplicity; most library software gives you every search option, ever, on one screen. These, among other differences, have coaxed us into a different approach towards Library improvements than we initially envisioned.
- Nothing exposes this like a feature update. Our customers use Populi day-in, day-out, so new features invariably break old habits. For example, when the Admissions overhaul improved Populi in every way. But several users told us they preferred the old version—simply because they were used to it! Better as it was, the Admissions rewrite nonetheless caused the cognitive strain Bedford describes. Something similar happened when we rewrote Courses, and even when we changed the old search field to a “hidden” search tab. It wasn’t that these features were a devolution; new users had no problem picking them up. But for those who had gotten used to the old way, the “improvements” didn’t improve their workday (initially, at any rate).
Good software is built on a basic empathy for the user. Usually that means that we reduce complexity and pare things down to their simplest, most efficient expression. But people are complex, and we can’t just mechanically assume that software simplicity begets efficiency. Hopefully, we’ll always keep learning this lesson.
After all, software is for humans, and humans are not for software.
New in Populi: recurring donations and payments!
After enabling recurring donations and payments, donors and payers will be able to select whether to make a one-time or recurring monthly payment. To help you keep track of recurring payments, the new Recurring reports in Billing and Donations show you all the details, including amounts, timeframes, and payment methods. You can also manage a person’s recurring payments on their Profile > Financial page.
Stripe makes it possible
We’re really excited about what Stripe integration lets us offer our customers: easy signup, recurring payments, and better, more straightforward pricing than the other processors—2.9% + 30 cents for credit cards, 0.5% + 25 cents for eChecks. To get the most out of online payments in Populi, go to Financial > Settings > Payment Gateways and set up a Stripe account. It’s easy to sign up and easy to try it out!
New in Populi Financial: Donations.
Donations lets you keep track of fundraising campaigns, accept online donations, record other contributions (checks received in the mail, etc.), and, of course, generate reports on any of this activity. Paired with Populi’s communications and contacts features, Donations helps you manage your school’s relationships with its donors—while giving you brand-new ways to help get money in the door. Here’s a look at what you can do…
If you’re set up with credit card processing, you can start accepting online donations. Online donation pages give you options for what amounts your supporters can donate, which funds they can donate to, and whether donations received through that page should be connected to particular campaigns and appeals. You can embed your pages on your website or email newsletter and customize their appearance with your own custom CSS. Online donation pages are a great way to make donating to your school easier than ever.
Campaigns and appeals
Campaigns and appeals help you track your progress towards your fundraising goals. Appeals are fundraising communications or events used to solicit donations—anything from a “Remember to Give” postcard to a fundraising golf tournament. You can link donations to campaigns and individual appeals; Populi can also calculate the return on investment by comparing costs with results. Campaigns help you gain insight into what approaches work—or don’t—when it comes to fundraising.
The new Donations tab, available on organization profiles and the Profile > Financial tab, collects all the information you have about a donor’s activity. You can record new donations, link to past donations, and print yearly summaries.
Reporting includes the new donations Dashboard, which summarizes donor activity, and the Donations and Donors reports, each of which feature the upgraded report filter. The new filter includes some built-in report filters that let you quickly find commonly-desired information—Donors who donated last year but not this, for example. It also lets you save your filters as custom reports that you can share with other staff or keep for your own use. Report actions let you do a number of tasks—including printing receipts and summaries, tagging your donors, and exporting your report to XLS.
Communications and contacts
Of course, Donations works in concert with Populi’s existing communication and contact features. Want to email everyone who donated to the Library? Want to put all of your alumni donors on a Communication Plan? Want to tag businesses that have donated in the past three years? Want to print envelopes and mail out summaries before tax season? No problem.
Read about how to set up and use the new Donations features in the Populi Knowledge Base.
Also, a special thank-you to the customers who participated in our limited beta roll-out of Donations. You really put it through its paces and gave us some great feedback, and we truly are grateful for your insight!
The developers have been drinking their coffee and eating their energy bars, and as a result, Populi now does dozens of new things it didn’t do a few weeks ago. Where to begin? How about with the…
New file uploader
The new file uploader lets you drag-and-drop files—up to two gigabytes in size—right into your browser window to upload them into Populi. It’s available to all users wherever you can upload files: everywhere from ID photos, activity feeds, and course assignments to applications, page layouts, and library resources (among many other places).
Of course, you can still do the whole search-for-the-file-you-want-to-upload thing, but why do that when you can do this?
Digital library resources
You can now offer digital resources through your Library. Simply upload the files to the resource, and they’ll be available for viewing and downloading to your patrons.
Enrollment verification letters
You can now print proof of enrollment letters for your students. For that matter, your students can print them, too! To get you started, we’ve included a customizable Enrollment Verification document in Communications > Page Layouts. Contact Populi Support if you’d like us to fix up your enrollment letter layout.
New tuition schedule options in Data Slicer
You can now use the Data Slicer to add, remove, or replace the tuition schedules for groups of students.
What used to export as an .odt file—transcripts, custom statements, etc.—can now be exported as a PDF.
A zillion other things have gotten out there over the past few weeks. If you care to find out more, have a look at our Release Notes.
Joel Penney isn’t much of a talker. “We hired Joel in October, 2012, and he got to work right away,” Isaac Grauke reminisces. “I still remember the first time anyone here heard him say anything. Must’ve been late March, 2013.” Toby Robinson wasn’t there when it happened, but he trusts “the guys who said he said something.” Joseph Schoolland was laughing at a cat .gif at that moment, and thinks that must have drowned out the sound of Joel’s voice. “Still haven’t heard him talking, but I’ve seen his mouth moving around lunchtime,” he comments.
In one sense, Joel doesn’t have time to talk. He is utterly given over to his work as a developer. Since first taking his seat here, Joel has re-worked substantial chunks of Populi. His biggest project thus far was the stem-to-stern overhaul of Admissions; he’s also responsible for graded discussions, an ongoing rewrite of Academics, and a bunch of other things. James Hill says that Joel “naturally takes ownership of things and works them over until they’re perfect.” However self-deprecating he is when asked to describe his own work, Joel nonetheless produces really stinkin’ excellent code.
We can’t do what we do without him.
Born and raised in Eastport, Long Island, Joel lived out where the boundless subdivisions occasionally give way to pine barrens and potato fields. Tinkering came naturally to him. “As a child I liked building models. Planes, trains, automobiles. If I wasn’t doing that I was probably taking something apart and putting it back together. Toys. VCRs. Power tools. That progressed to computers, printers, cars. Few of these things had any hope of ever functioning again.”
Eventually, Joel found himself working for a small printing company, using Photoshop to tinker with wedding photos, pet portraits, and graduation pics. At that company, he was more or less the IT guy. He wrote computer scripts to automate rote tasks and was on call to fix the stupid printer when the thing inevitably broke. In 2003, he married Grace, and they soon had two children.
The interesting thing about Eastport is that it’s preposterously expensive to live there, what with the proximity to Martha Stewart and that Barefoot Contessa lady. His job being rather portable, the Penneys stuffed a U-Haul full of their things and motored it out to Moscow, Idaho. One of those things was a 550-pound laminator. It took six guys to schlep it fifty feet from the U-Haul to his back door. None of them would ever so much as touch a laminated ID card ever again.
The printing business dried up and blew away in late 2012, just about the time Populi was really, really needing a new programmer. Despite not saying anything, Joel made all the right impressions during the interview. His signing bonus was some company stock and a laying hen from Isaac’s home flock.
The Penneys now have five splendid children and occupy every last square inch of an old house with high ceilings, drafty windows, and a super-weird chimney. Joel’s tinkering now involves lumber, sheetrock, and windows; unlike the days of yore, his handiwork now results in considerable improvement. Meanwhile, Grace’s kitchen features various items in states of guided fermentation—home-cured bacon, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickles—and her daughters goof off gilded in her elegant needlework. Sprawled on the living room floor, Joel’s sons build things out of Legos with a meticulousness one can only assume has been inherited.
It’s a humble, modest life, perfect down to the details.
We announced our current pricing back in February 2010. We’ve since supplemented that with a few optional items: SMS Emergency Notifications and File storage (the price of which has dropped several times the past couple years). As for Populi itself, well, we’ve added a thing or two, I guess. And all along we’ve held fast to the free essentials that make it all go for our customers: implementation, training, support—and, most important, our annual Christmas photos.
It recently struck us: our Pricing Page has remained all but unchanged for the past five years. Web companies commonly experiment with their pricing—adding new tiers, shuffling features around, annual subscription discounts, and so on. You could attribute this to the flexibility of web-based software; it’s simple to justify a change in price for an easily-changed product. But such changes have never even crossed our minds. Populi’s price has remained steady for five years. The service itself, on the other hand, offers vastly more than it used to. How’d that happen?
Concerning the price, we’ve never had a good reason to raise it. Every year, our infrastructure dollars have gotten us more—in terms of utility, service, and storage. We have Moore’s Law to thank for that; the popular version purports that, every 18 months or so, computing power doubles in speed and drops in price by half. In turn, that has helped us scale up and take on more schools. That spreads our overall costs over an increasing number of customers. And finally, the revenue we take in gets plowed back into our people, our company, and serving our customers. Being privately-owned, there’s no obligation to meet the preposterous financial goals of distant, disinterested investors.
Concerning the service, we’ve only ever had reasons to make it better. Our customers ask us for lots of good things that we want to give them. Some bigger schools need things we don’t quite offer yet. The new feature we just released could use refinement. And then there’s our own temperament. We’re relentlessly dissatisfied with Populi. No matter how good it is, how many features we add, or how well it all performs, there’s always some way to make it better. Now, it’s not that our work is lousy. It’s more that we’ve been given the opportunity to do this work—so why not swing for the fences?
So. We’ve never had a reason to raise the price, and have always been compelled to make Populi better. That’s worked out well for us, and I’d wager, for our customers. Schools that came aboard in 2010 are getting a lot more than they signed up for. For that matter, so are the schools who signed up in 2011, 2012… even customers who came aboard six months ago now have something better than before.
We once likened the college software scene to shopping for a car. In a market cluttered with custom tour buses and shady used cars, Populi was the dependable Toyota minivan—affordable, room for everyone, and a great warranty. Now, imagine that you bought the minivan, and every six months or so, the dealer automatically upgraded it to the next trim level. Or installed a new motor. Or gave you a sunroof. All without you paying more or having to do anything.
That’s pretty much the deal you get with Populi.
Some recent improvements…
Organizations can make donations
Yup, you can now record donations made by organizations. Just go to the org’s profile, click the Donations tab, and then Record a Donation. The screen includes records of all previous donations, a breakdown by fund, and the ability to print a tax receipt.
You can also now export PDF receipts in bulk from the Donations report—for both individuals and organizations.
Multitude of Library improvements
We’ve improved the way Populi handles Library holds, making it easier for your Library staff to manage your resources.
- Populi now sets the hold expiration date when you pull the copy, rather than when the copy was simply assigned to the hold. Previously, when setting the hold expiration date based on the assignment, this frequently resulted in holds expiring before the copy was even pulled.
- The Holds report now shows you which holds do not yet have a copy assigned to them.
- You can also now print a hold receipt to attach to the resource copy you’ve pulled.
Additionally, we’ve added three new fields to resources:
- Acquisition Source (an Agent)
- Acquisition Date
- Replacement Price
Some other items
We improved the display of equivalent courses in the Degree Audit, clarifying how a course requirement has been fulfilled by the student’s completion of an equivalent course.
Course equivalencies now impact both course and course group prerequisites. Say ENG101 and WRI101 are equivalents and ENG101 is included in the “Core” course group:
- A student who passes WRI101 would qualify for courses that require ENG101 as a prereq
- A student who takes WRI101 would qualify for courses that require the Core course group
On the API front, you can now upload files via the API, including to term-based custom student fields.
The Financial Aid API has several new calls:
You can now set up Bookstore tax by ZIP code to accommodate schools in states that allow differing tax rates at the county level for online sales.
Nicholas Carlson’s recent New York Times Magazine piece, What Happened When Marissa Mayer Tried to Be Steve Jobs, is a fine overview of Yahoo’s troubled two-year course correction. Most interesting, though, is how Carlson’s understanding of the Yahoo board comes from how he shares its assumptions.
Dynamic and wildly profitable Internet companies like Facebook and Google may get most of the attention, but Silicon Valley is littered with firms that just get by doing roughly the same thing year after year — has-beens like Ask.com, a search engine that no longer innovates but happily takes in $400 million in annual revenue, turning a profit in the process. Mayer, who is 39, was hired to keep Yahoo from suffering this sort of fate. She believed it could again become a top-tier tech firm that enjoyed enormous growth and competed for top talent.
Silicon Valley is “littered” with “has-beens” that “no longer innovate” but are nonetheless “turning a profit in the process”. Marissa Mayer was brought on as CEO so Yahoo could keep “from suffering this sort of fate”.
Generally speaking, there are only a few ways to make money on the Internet. There are e-commerce companies and marketplaces — think Amazon, eBay and Uber — that profit from transactions occurring on their platforms. Hardware companies, like Apple or Fitbit, profit from gadgets. For everyone else, though, it more or less comes down to advertising. Social-media companies, like Facebook or Twitter, may make cool products that connect their users, but they earn revenue by selling ads against the content those users create. Innovative media companies, like Vox or Hulu, make money in much the same way, except that they’re selling ads against content created by professionals. Google, which has basically devoured the search business, still makes a vast majority of its fortune by selling ads against our queries.
E-commerce and marketplaces. Gadgets. And for everyone else, advertising. These are the three ways people have figured out how to make money on the internet. If you’re not making piles of dough off one of the three of these, you’re a has-been. You’re litter.
Or, it seems, you don’t even exist.
Yet, hundreds of companies have figured out how to make money on the Internet by solving everyday business problems. They may not be innovative—they’re usually built on advances made by others. They may not be flashy—rather than absorb attention, they disappear into the background so work can get done. They may not be “dynamic and wildly profitable”—they tend towards corporate stability because their customers require steadiness and reliability. But it’s more than likely that, were their numbers made public (most such companies are like Populi—privately-held), this part of the internet economy would hold its own against the hotshot innovators whose raison d’être is to sell ads on gadgets you buy from e-commerce sites.