How To Win Features and Influence Populi Product Designers

So, you want some new functionality added to Populi. Where do you begin?

The Populi Feature Request forum, that's where.

Here's a look at the forum, what we use it for, and how you can go about writing a winning feature request.

A low fly-over of the forum

The Feature Request forum lets you submit ideas for new features and improvements in Populi. You can also search for existing requests, comment on them, and upvote them. The Populi team reviews everything that happens in the Forum, occasionally weighing in or seeking clarification in the comments; we'll also mark individual requests as Planned (or not), Answered, or Completed. The Forum is tremendously valuable to us: it helps us decide not only what to work on, but also how to design features so they actually solve the problems you bring to our attention.


Voting. For many, it calls to mind one thing: democracy. Well, banish all such thoughts: the forum is not a democracy! We don't wait for a request to get a certain number of votes in order to build it. That said, we want to see which features get upvoted. Why? Because it shows us at a glance which ideas have the most interest. Your upvotes are a great way to get requests on our radar.

How to write a winning request

Here are some tips to set your request on the path to success (although, remember the obvious caveat: we can't guarantee that we're going to build any particular feature...)

  • Search first. The forum has been around for a long time and has many, many, many requests already. There’s a decent chance there’s an existing post you can add your support to instead of creating a new one.
  • Name your request well. The title you give your request is the primary way others will find it when they search the forum (see above!). Summarize your request with a precise, descriptive title so others can discover it and add their upvote.
  • Be succinct. We got a lot of feedback, and there are only so many hours in the day. The reality is that a more concise request is easier to process—for us and for your fellow users—which gives it a better chance of gaining traction.
  • Be specific. A request that we “add this button on that page” often results in someone here thinking, “Oh, terrific idea—I can’t believe we don’t already have that...” And then we add this button to that page in short order. On the other hand, requests like “Fully Custom Everything” might sound exciting, but are too broad in scope and vague in detail to help anyone (and experience has taught us that there are usually simpler solutions).
  • Present a clear use case. If we can’t truly understand a problem, we can’t really consider how to solve it. Having a clear example of the problem lets us test different ideas against it to find the best solution.
  • Provide documentation. If your request contains something like, “we are required to do something by someone”, make sure to include links to relevant documentation. If we’re going to put work into a solution we need to be sure it’s addressing the specific requirements instead of an interpretation of those requirements.
Some comments about comments

Commenting on feature requests is a great way for other Populi users to flesh out and clarify what problem the post's author is looking to solve. Comments give us ideas on how to build a feature that suits all of our users, and so they're tremendously valuable to us. That said, there are a couple things that often happen in the comments that are worth, ahem, commenting on.

This happens a lot: someone posts an affirmational comment, but doesn't upvote the request. Instead of just posting, “I like this idea!”, make sure you also upvote the post to help it rise to the top.

This happens almost as often: someone posts a different request altogether as a comment. You’ve been a good forum citizen and searched first. You find a post that sounds related and maybe it already has some upvotes. And so you post your request as a comment. Unfortunately this doesn’t make your comment part of the request, and so your unique feature idea ends up getting lost in the churn. There’s a fine line to walk here, but before posting a comment first consider whether it’s within the scope of the original request. And if it isn't, just write a separate request.

Keep 'em coming

The Feature Request forum is an essential resource for us, and we read every request, consider every comment, and observe every upvote. If you have an idea for how we can improve our software, we'd really like to hear about it. So keep these things in mind, and keep those requests coming!

Plagiarism and Similarity

Turns out that Turnitin doesn't detect plagiarism. A recent pair of blog posts (here's one and here's the other) go to great pains to distinguish between similarity, which Turnitin does detect, and plagiarism, which it categorically doesn't. "As far back as 2013, Turnitin has been writing blog posts, speaking out, and generally finding any opportunity to clear up the question of whether our products detect plagiarism... The answer, however, is simple: Turnitin does not detect plagiarism."

The distinction Turnitin makes between similarity and plagiarism is that of evidence and judgement. The Similarity product merely "takes what a student submits and [compares] it to a massive database of content, including internet, academic, and student paper content, and [looks] for similarities." Plagiarism, on the other hand, is "intentionally representing someone else’s work as one’s own" (emphasis added). Similarity might be evidence of plagiarism, but strictly speaking, it's never more than that. A number of other factors—assignment requirements, genre, student skill level, to name a few—must also be weighed to determine whether student work shows that intention. Computers can count words. Humans can weigh the factors of a situation. Similarity can be detected by a computer, but the existence of plagiarism requires the judgement of a person.

It's good that Turnitin has this down in writing—because the marketing page for their Similarity product (which Populi integrates with) isn't shy about using the P-word. Web searches for "plagiarism-checker" invariably stick Turnitin's site at the top of the results (not least because Turnitin has bought, like, every other company in the market—and none of them ever hemmed or hawed about the phrase). For that matter, our own marketing materials blithely state that you can use Populi to "Help students stay responsible with... plagiarism checks for all kinds of assignments".

That's marketing for you. It takes shortcuts to get its point across. Turnitin has no desire to expunge phrases like plagiarism-checker from its site in favor of a nuanced discussion of similarities, evidence, and human deliberation. Marketing speaks in shorthand, and "plagiarism detection" is the shorthand for that whole discussion. We could talk about whether that phrase over-promises, whether it suggests that an endeavor of human judgment can be offloaded to a computer, but such subjects are amply covered by others. For now, the question is this: in light of Turnitin's profession that it "does not detect plagiarism," does Populi need to find a real plagiarism-checker to work with?

The short answer is No, not least because no such thing exists. Turnitin is a tool that efficiently checks work for similarities to other work; this is exactly what every other so-called "plagiarism-checker" does (or did before Turnitin bought them). We'll go on providing the integration for our customers, and, for better or worse, we'll continue to use terms like "plagiarism-checker" as shorthand for the service it provides. At the same time, this whole episode serves as a good reminder of what exactly we're doing here. Populi is college management software designed to serve the people who run schools, people who themselves are there to serve the other people at their schools. Ultimately, that comes down to providing a tool that helps you come to conclusions and make decisions on your own.

New in Admissions: Pages, Conditional Fields, Custom Inquiry Forms, and More

We've gone and updated Admissions with some substantial new application features—conditional fields, pages, and various other items—and the long sought-after customizable inquiry form. Let's take a gander at all the new features...


Adding a page break to a Populi application

Pages let you organize long application forms into smaller, more manageable sections. So, rather than a long scroll, the applicant is given links to the previous and next pages at the conclusion of each page. When designing the application, you can add a new page anywhere you need to by clicking add page; you can then title the page, fill it in with new fields and other items, and even set it to Conditional.

Conditional fields

Adding conditions for a conditional field to a Populi application

Conditional fields (pages, too!) remain hidden to the applicant unless he answers a previous field in a particular way. You'll get the option to make a field conditional after you've added a field with pre-set answer input options—Multiple Choice, Checkboxes, Dropdown, and Yes/No. You can then set up conditions that specify when the new field will appear to applicants, and these conditions can be as simple or complex as you need.

Inquiry Forms

Design options for Populi's new inquiry forms

A name, some contact info, and a message—with a couple other options, for a long time, this was about all you could collect with an inquiry form. We've now made them customizable, giving them many of the same features as application forms. The new inquiry forms let you add and organize sections to your heart's content, including linked fields, conditional fields, and headings and text blocks. Of course, we strongly recommend brevity: they're meant to initiate a conversation between a student and your school. The new inquiry forms let you start that conversation just the way you want it.

This'n and that'n

A hidden field is only shown to Admissions staff users.

Those are the big new features; here are some of the other new things we've added:

  • Hidden fields are concealed from applicants and inquirers; Admissions users can fill them in when processing the form to keep track of items for internal use.
  • The new Published setting determines whether applicants and inquirers can view and fill out the form. For applications, this was previously determined by the Show Online setting, which now simply controls whether applicants can start the application online.
  • There's a new Multiple file upload field type, finally letting applicants upload more than one file to a single field. We've also added a Signature field option.
  • Linked fields now let you choose financial aid fields.

Beyond that, there are multiple small improvements to the interface as well as a new internal data model that enabled these improvements.

Have a look at the Knowledge Base for the updated application design and inquiry form design instructions. As always, if you need help with any of the new features, get aholt of Populi Support.

Low-key Releases

Every Friday we publish release notes, a digest of features, improvements, and bugfixes (and videos and whatnot) that have trickled out of our office over the previous week. Sometimes there's a marquee release—some big new feature that adds something significant to Populi's abilities—but most weeks, it's all small-potatoes kinda stuff. But it's these minor updates that best depict what we're doing here. The small, iterative items that either improve how you do what you're already doing or smooth out the small interactions you have with Populi are more likely to impact your day than something that merits front-page news.

So, here's the inaugural installment of some periodic looks at some of these low-key releases.

Last September ↗️

"There's a new Unmask/Copy button for SSN's so you no longer have to edit the field to see a student's full SSN/SIN."

We've always been pretty finicky about Social Security Numbers. In addition to the security measures we have in place for all your Populi data, we added a few extra access controls and "masked" the SSN on profiles (e.g. displaying ***-**-1234 instead of 123-12-1234) to make them that much harder for unauthorized people to get at. But those extras also introduced some headaches in some legitimate use-cases. Before, you’d have to edit the SSN to even see the whole thing, and that introduced some potential issues—say you were trying to copy it for inclusion in a report, and you accidentally edited part of it. So, the unmask option lets you lay your eyes upon it (for 30 seconds, then it disappears again), and the copy option lets you easily copy-paste it, no risky editing required.

Last November ↗️

"The Advised Students report has the new checkbox functionality we've been rolling out across Populi reports."

In May of '22 we started adding checkboxes to reports around Populi. These handy little squares let you select specific people returned by your report filters to include in bulk actions or exports. They were initially developed to let you perfom apply/forfeit actions en masse on the Deposits report, but it quickly became clear that most of Populi would benefit from this kind of granularity. The initial rollout of this feature speckled checkboxes over a variety of reports in Academics, Admissions, and Financial, and now we're working our way through the rest of Populi. Checkboxes really come in handy for a report like Advised Students, where the more options you have to attend to the needs of individuals, the better.

Last December ↗️

"Awhile back we'd undertaken an effort to update the code underlying Populi's online payments features. That effort seems to have been completed with this week's rewrite of the online donation page to better handle credit cards and ACH charges that require two-factor authentication."

Periodically we rewrite swathes of Populi's back-end code to make it more efficient and compatible with the constantly-evolving requirements of web security. Thus with this rewrite, which we unfurled across three or four releases with barely a single perceptible change visible to regular users. Frankly, this is the kind of update that can produce a lot of problems—slapdash updates to online payments would inflict some stupefying headaches on our customers. We have a few defenses against that. First, we employ some truly nerdy coders who enjoy putting all the dots and dashes and brackets and whatnot in just the right places. Second, we have another group of nerds who perform QA, or Quality Assurance; their job is to find problems with what the coding nerds crafted and try to break all their stuff. Third, we have a cautious development philosophy here. That is, it's far more worth it to us to provide uninterrupted, consistent service than it is to rapidly modernize code we'd like to replace. In this case, we turned on the new stuff for a select few customers and watched it like a hawk; after enough time elapsed without any issues we updated everyone else's Populi sites. Even though this update didn't produce anything flashy, we're confident that it will nonetheless provide you with a stable, boring, surprise-free way to fetch funds from payers and donors for the foreseeable future.

A Brief Guide to End-of-Term Tasks in Populi

You might be in the thick of your school's End-of-Term workload, or maybe you're just staring at it through a crack in the bunker wall as it shambles towards you. Wherever you're at, we hope you'll find this breeze-through of academic term wrap-up tasks useful.

The life-cycle of a course

The course life-cycle detailed in the Knowledge Base involves jobs typically handled by faculty and those that fall to Registrars and Academic Admins (whom we'll refer to as "Admins" in this article).

When preparing for the term...

  • Admins set up the term (add/drop dates, registration periods, et. al.), populate it with courses, assign faculty, oversee enrollment, and attach evaluations to courses.
  • Faculty add content to their courses: assignments, lessons, files, discussions, and suchlike.

During the term...

  • Admins handle one-off situations—late enrollments, withdrawals, status changes, and other items that would directly affect a student's transcript.
  • Faculty run the course. They grade assignments, run discussions, administer tests, schedule conferences, take attendance—the quotidian stuff that feeds into students' course grades.

At the end of the term...

  • Faculty enter final grades, compose grade comments, mark the occasional student Incomplete, and finally—DEEP BREATH—hit that finalization button and hand the course off to the admins. Around this time, depending on settings, they can view their course evaluations.
  • Admins may sometimes intervene to unfinalize and then refinalize courses due to complications like grade adjustments and so on. As student course evaluations come in, Admins can run reports on these.

The main job: finalizing courses

Grading an assignment

Finalizing courses is where you summarize a student's class performance in a grade and plug it directly into the larger story—things like the student's transcript, his degree progress, and even financial aid eligibility (among many other things)—with just a few clicks. When you finalize your course or individual students:

  • You submit your students' grades for incorporation into their permanent academic records and lock their coursework to any further changes.
  • You lock the course itself to any further changes—course content, individual students' coursework, and even stuff like bulletin board posts (except for incomplete students—more on them, below).

Before you finalize, you'll want to make sure you've entered everything you want to be part of a student's academic record. Primarily, this will involve grading assignments—a quick scan of the gradebook will show you anything that requires your attention. If any students need to be marked Incomplete, you'll note that on the Course Roster. That done, you can turn your attention to reviewing and entering final grades and course comments, consulting the Student Course Summary page for an overview of the student's performance and participation.

The manage finalization screen

When you're ready to finalize the course, you'll go to the Manage Finalization screen, which you get to via the Course > Settings view, Gradebook, or the Final Grade screen. It presents you with a summary of your students' grades, attendance, and any course comments. If everything looks good, you can finalize. Check next to individual students whose fates you wish to seal, or simply finalize the course and all students. Once you press Submit, those grades and stats are instantly in the Admins' hands and have been incorporated into the students' academic records.

As the term rumbles to a close...

Marking an incomplete student as complete on the course roster

Most of the work is done! Here are some of the things you'll likely deal with after courses are finalized and you finish buttoning-up the term:

  • In some cases, admins may need to unfinalize the course or individual students to make updates or corrections—generally to fix a grade or update an enrollment status. After the adjustments are done, it's time to refinalize.
  • If you have Incomplete students, faculty and admins can grade their work as the students hand it in; once they're done, go to the Course Roster and set the Incomplete status to No. Nota bene: taking care of Incomplete students doesn't require unfinalizing/refinalizing!
  • Course Evaluations aren't available for faculty to view until 60% of students have completed them; admins might also require that the course be finalized as well. Faculty can view their evaluations in Course > Reporting. Admins can view evals as soon as they start rolling in and can also run reports on them.
  • Throughout the term, but usually after students have seen their grade reports, faculty and admins may field questions about how grades are calculated. To give you a leg up on these questions, this video describes how assignment grades are transformed into course grades.

What To Expect During Implementation

After a few demonstrations of the software and several rounds of question-and-answer with us, your school has decided to sign up for Populi. Now it's time to get up-and-running: the implementation process. Here's a look at what you can expect as your school starts using Populi.

In general, implementation includes:

  • Initial site setup—establishing your school's unique Populi site and filling in some ground-level settings
  • Data migration—transferring data from a legacy system to Populi (not all schools need to do this)
  • Training your users—adding people to Populi, giving them user accounts, and letting them dig in
  • General setup tasks—getting Populi ready for everyday use: tasks like creating admissions applications, building degree audits, detailing fees, and so on

Implementation is a big job, but you can do it! Not least because at every step of the way you'll have full access to all of our support resources, and your account manager will always be near at hand to answer questions and walk you through anything you need to know about Populi.

Initial site setup

Your Populi account manager starts by sending you a link to a brief "Data Survey", in which you specify your school's basic details (approximate student count, contact people, whether you need data migrated, etc.) and then an account setup page. The setup page lets you pick your school's unique Populi URL—something like—and we use this information to create your Populi site and one or more user accounts. Your school's new site created, you'll start filling in base-level account settings and add a few other users to assist in the implementation steps that lay ahead. A crucial setup step: since you'll rely on Populi to send a lot of email on behalf of your school, you'll need to add your Populi site's DNS and SPF records to your domain so your email won't be marked as spam. It's an important step, but also a very simple one that's easily accomplished by your school's IT staff.

That completed, you're now ready to begin setup in earnest. The next steps depend on whether your school is migrating data from a legacy system. If it isn't, you can dive right in and start setting up Academics (the foundation of much of what else Populi does), Admissions, Financial, and then the other areas you'll be using—this is outlined under General Setup, below.

Data migration

Data migration lets you pick up where you left off in your previous system (while also cleaning up old errors in your data so it's more usable for your school). Not every school migrates data, however, and if that's you, your Populi site is ready for setup as soon as you complete the signup form—skip to the next section of this article.) But if you are migrating legacy data, keep reading!

After completing initial site setup, you'll start transfering your data—in the form of data backups and transcripts generated by your old system—by uploading it in your Populi Account section. At any given time, we'll be migrating data for several different schools; the sooner we get our hands on your data, the quicker you secure your place in the migration queue.

Your school will have two Populi sites in operation during this phase. One will be your live site—the permanent site that your entire school will eventually use. The other is a temporary site we use for data validation, which refers to the process of migrating data and testing it for accuracy. Depending on the queue and how quickly you'd like to begin using Populi, we may encourage you to do some live site setup that the migration process might otherwise have accomplished.

Validation generally takes from four to sixteen weeks. During this time you can continue using your legacy system as usual. Validation begins when a Populi Data Manager (DM) uses a script to translate your data into Populi's database structure. We've migrated data from numerous systems over the years and have many translation scripts at hand; we're also quite experienced in writing new scripts to fit migration situations we haven't encountered before. The DM then uploads that translated data onto your validation site. You (and others at your school) will examine the data and flag any errors for the DM so we can further refine the scripts.

Transcripts sum up just about everything in your academic data, and the legacy transcripts you provide are crucial for helping refine the scripts. One of your main jobs during validation is to compare legacy transcripts to the new ones generated in Populi. Common issues include grade scales, transfer credits, retakes, and any unusual academic situations. Any errors you spot at this point will indicate systemic data issues, so you need only look at some representative transcripts covering unusual situation. For example, to test how transfer credits have been migrated, you need only look at a couple transcripts with transfer credits. To test pass/fail courses, just look at a few such transcripts. And so on.

As you provide feedback on the data, we refine our migration scripts. And as we refine the scripts, data issues disappear, and eventually the academic data will function as it ought to within Populi. When you are ready to sign off on the migrated data, weʼll schedule a date to "go live"—that is, to push the finished data to your live site.

For a more detailed look at the data migration process, have a look at this article.

Training users

The first user account was created when we brought your live Populi site into being (as described in Initial Site Setup, above). This user is given all of Populi's "root-level" user roles and is listed as one of your school's Populi Account Administrators (PAA)—which gives the user access to your Populi site's most sensitive settings (security, billing, etc.). It also lets the user add other people to your Populi site; as a super-user, so to speak, she can give anyone any user role and even add additional PAAs.

Setup, with or without data migration, is a big job, so right away the super-user should start adding new people to Populi and giving them user accounts, taking care to assign each person the appropriate user roles.

And then, start training them! Actually, that's our job: Populi Support is here for you, especially in this initial phase of learning the system. Here are all the ways to get a hold of us. We want to hear from you, so don't hesitate to reach out with questions and requests.

In addition to written resources, we provide a wide variety of training videos as well as live Focus Sessions, which are small-group tutorials—you can find a list of upcoming sessions right here.

General Setup

Training and general setup generally go hand-in-hand. Once your people have access to Populi, their first jobs will be to set up their respective areas of Populi, leaning heavily on our support resources to walk them through building applications, courses, tuition schedules, and so on. A common theme throughout Populi: provided you get the basics established, Populi lets you use as much or as little of the system as you find necessary; you can make a big push to get it all set up or you can take your time to phase in use of different features. Nearly all of our schools use a combination of Academics, Courses, Admissions, Billing (together with supporting features in Contacts and Communications), and Financial Aid; most also use Campus Life, Donations, Advising, Bookstore, and Library. That, more or less, is also the order in which we generally recommend you approach general setup.

As mentioned, Academics is the core of Populi and is foundational to everything else you'll be doing with the system. You'll start there, beginning with essentials like programs, grade scales, academic years and terms, the course catalog, and degrees (and degree audits, too!). You'll move on to building courses, working with your faculty users to build assignments, the gradebook, lessons, discussions, and any other features they'll want to employ (some faculty will want to use everything, some just want to record grades and attendance).

Of course, Academics is nothing without students, so you'll want to get them entered and learn how to register them for courses.

After the basic Academic setup is completed, you could begin on either Admissions or Financial. Admissions looks to Academics for information about years and terms, programs, degrees, specializations, and some other matters; Financial also depends on that information, and if you wish to charge fees related to specific courses, you'll want the course catalog underway, as well.

Admissions setup builds the framework for adding and contacting leads, receiving inquiries, processing applications, and admitting students. The two most intensive tasks will be designing applications and building online reference forms. Since admissions work leans heavily on things like mass email, there will also be some work to do over in Communications, to say nothing of getting familiar with adding and importing people in Contacts.

Financial has three facets: Student Billing, Financial Aid, and Donations. Behind all those three is Accounting, which is where financial setup begins. With your Chart of Accounts filled in, you would first tackle Billing: start building tuition schedules, fees, and online payments. As we look at it, the ideal setup for Billing in Populi is one in which all (or nearly all) student charges are generated automatically based on enrollment and you have provided students with low-friction online payment options. The closer you get to that, the more work Populi takes off your shoulders.

Financial Aid is essentially a payment method for student charges. Depending on what kind of financial aid your school accepts, you might only need to add a few institutional scholarships; if your school takes Title IV Federal aid you can set up the DOE integration.

With those areas underway, you can next turn your attention to these other features, whether during the implementation phase or at a later time when you want to phase in their use:

  • Campus Life handles facilities, student housing, violations, and any fees (or penalities) associated with these items.
  • You'll get the most out of Donations if you implement online payments; building on the work you did in your Chart of Accounts, you'll add funds, donation pages, custom fields, and any associated items in Communications and Contacts.
  • Advising builds on Academics; to set it up, you'll add advisors to your students and set up the academic flagging system.
  • Bookstore setup involves creating inventory and organizing it, not to mention establishing ways that students can pay for items.
  • Library can be a big job, which is why we can import MaRC records to get you started (sometimes this is handled during data migration). Beyond that, you'll be establishing locations, loan policies, and other settings that let you loan out resources and keep them properly indexed and organized.

It's a big job...

...but you can do it, not least because you'll have our dedicated help every step of the way.

Welcome aboard!