Posts tagged HTML

Recently there’s been a lot of noise made about mobile applications for universities and colleges. Apparently what students want to see is a dedicated app for their institution, providing them with bits and pieces of information on just about everything. There are plenty of examples, a quick search of the iTunes App Store reveals several universities which are keen for you to download their slice of application goodness. Entire products have sprung up to address this market, and some places have even gone all out and written their own.

All this is good. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to check things like their timetable, their library fees and the state of the university’s IT services from their phone? What could be cooler than tapping a button and being told where your nearest free PC or copy of a book is? We like the concept so we’re having a look at mobile stuff, especially given that according to our analytics an appreciable fraction of our users are now trying to access services from their mobile.

However, we’re not entirely convinced about the route of apps. Sure they let you hook straight into things like geolocation and local storage, but with HTML5 so can a website. Apps also need to be made for the whole range of devices out there. iOS and Android are the big players, but you’re then cutting out Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, WebOS and Symbian devices. Apps also have an approval process to go through, or if not then they have a slightly complex installation route. There’s also a requirement either to pay someone a lot of money to make an app, or to spend a lot of money on in-house development.

All this means that we’re steering away from apps as much as possible, but we still want to make sure we provide kick-ass mobile services. “How?” I hear you cry. The answer is amazingly simple – we’re going back to mobile-optimised websites.

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Further to the revelation that there are students out there capable of voicing an opinion, we now have to deal with the resulting fallout. At this point I need to quote Joss, the nice man from CERD, who likened my approach to IT support to this:

Whilst I’m tempted to staple this notice to the front of the helpdesk and watch confused students ask “will you really set us on fire?”, it’s actually better to deal with stupid questions by documenting your response, on the basis that the universe never ceases to provide a constant stream of the terminally confused, people who don’t bother to read the dialog box which pops up with important information and clear instructions, and people who believe that the helpdesk are there to actually operate the computer on their behalf.

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This week has been one of tidying up loose ends. LUNA has had several minor HTML and typo fixes, and is currently undergoing a bit of JavaScript development wizardry to let users select their location during registration. JSON data from the server encodes how rooms, apartments and blocks are organised which is then extracted by the magic of jQuery into something usable. I’ve got the basics working (and the full thing if I generate a lot of unnecessary files), now it’s just a bit more work on extraction of arrays from within the JSON.

In other LUNA nonsense, working out which combination of technical features to use to let people provide feedback on Phase 2 changes (the compulsory anti-virus and anti-malware) is proving challenging and may lead to a new server being temporarily put together just for handling the feedback. I’m going to push for a LAMP stack, but since Lincoln is a Windows shop I’m not holding my breath.

Finally, balls are rolling on my posters project – a meeting for scoping and specification is booked where key parties can bang heads together until we get something reasonable before I begin doing hardcore implementation stuff.

Now, back to JSON.

As promised not long ago (earlier today, in fact) more work has been done on the Common Web Design to make it a bit shiner and a bit more ready for prime time. In all honesty, Alex did a lot of the work to actually make the design fit together, and now the challenge is how to make it friendlier for things like large text browsers. I suspect there will be much mucking around replacing pixel values with em values.

Anyway, regardless of what needs to be done I thought I should share with you some of what has been done – specifically mockups of a shinier Print From My PC support website, and the beginnings of my.lincoln. I’d like to point out that these designs aren’t put together in Photoshop, they are genuine renders by the browser, in this case Safari. They also work in Internet Explorer as far back as IE6, Firefox, Opera, Chrome and even Lynx (people using screen readers will love us).

Mockup of Print From My PC using CWD.
Mockup of Print From My PC using CWD.
Mockup of my.lincoln using CWD.
Mockup of my.lincoln using CWD.

Shiny, huh? A nice side-effect of this design – and one which was planned to be doable from the beginning – is that they are easily tweakable to be touchscreen friendly with big, chunky menu buttons and fixed height presentation. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what we could do with touchscreens and a nice web interface to University services, because we don’t have any plans (or even solid ideas) at this end.

Update regarding the state of emails: I’ve not heard official words from IT on the state of play of the email server, however my account (which was out yesterday) is now back in action. I’m guessing this is a good thing.

Today, along with 1/3 of the other staff and students at Lincoln, I’ve been devoid of emails. This is down to a problem with one of the three email stores at the University, and includes staff accounts beginning with letters A, B, M-O and V-Z along with a third of student accounts (pretty much at random). People are working on fixing it. You can keep up to date with it on Get Satisfaction.

Oddly enough this has let me spend a couple of hours working on stuff without being distracted by people asking silly questions. Instead I’ve been looking at the user interface tweaks necessary to encompass some changes to the student halls network access controller, and thinking more about the dream of a common design and components for web services.

Put simply myself (along with my partner in crime, Alex) have been throwing ideas backwards and forwards for a couple of weeks now on the subject of a single coherent way into all of Lincoln’s web services, inventively dubbed my.lincoln. The idea is of a single website which collects and collates everything you might need to know from the myriad of services as well as letting you fine-tune how they work for you.

The current 'gateway' style used by Online Services.
The current ‘gateway’ style used by Online Services.

As a part of this (once I’d beaten another kink out of how Vista behaves with PFMPC1) I began mucking around with some CSS, aiming to throw together a layout based on something Alex mocked up. The old ‘gateway’ style in use in several places is actually quite messy behind the scenes, is extraordinarily narrow, and doesn’t provide much flexibility. You can put buttons at the top, and then a load of text.

There is also a ‘new gateway’ style which I knocked out for PFMPC which fundamentally looks the same (or at least very similar) but which is completely standards compliant with the exception of some little bits of CSS. However, this still has the problems of being narrow, a bit dull, and lacking in anything which makes you go “wow, this is a great, well designed web service”.

Which is why Alex and myself decided a change was needed. Something wider, faster, cleaner, smarter, more flexible, more appealing, ready for Web 2.0, ready for single-sign-on, accessible, standards-compliant and ready for use in every browser we could think of (including Lynx, and even including IE6). We’ve nicknamed it the “Common Web Design” in the vague hopes that the name will explain what it should be used for and people can latch on to the idea.

The very first version of the CWD.
The very first version of the CWD.

Along with this will come a set of guidelines on how to write content for the CWD so that everything clicks together nicely. The whole thing is specifically designed to be portable between services (perhaps using the c.lincoln.ac.uk storage location for CSS, images and JavaScript). More importantly I feel that the CWD is a deliberate disconnect from the old look and feel. Things using the design won’t be a re-hash of the old systems with the same quirks, they will be ground-up redesigns with goals of ease-of-use and interoperability explicitly in mind.

This is very much a work in progress and probably won’t ever be seen in the wild, but we can hope. Ideally I’d like to get the design finished and roll it out for PFMPC and LUNA to help spread the message that ‘things are changing’, but since I’ve mostly done this in my own time and off my own back I may surprise people.

  1. Print From My PC []

During the saga of getting Print from My PC working, I had to build some pages to help people set the whole thing up. Predictably, this included clobbering some HTML and CSS around (and for the record, I still hate ASP with a burning passion).

Online Services already has an online ‘look’ which is visible on the Gateway, which seems to be used wherever possible. The trouble is, the entire layout and design is based on some very old HTML and CSS (and an inexplicable reliance on JavaScript, which I’ll ignore for now). Each individual subset of the online services provided by the University has a subtly different stylesheet and a different way of doing things, so for Print for My PC I decided to mostly scrap the existing code and start from scratch.

The result is visually almost identical, although in a few places it sports crisper lines and cleaner finishes. However, behind the scenes the CSS is smaller, faster, slicker, more standards compliant, provides better support for assistive technologies, makes greater use of flexible positioning and so on. There’s a ‘standard’ stylesheet to provide the unified look, and then an individual ‘tweaks’ stylesheet for some PFMPC specific colour adjustments. Finally, PFMPC makes use of some common JavaScript scripts to handle the nice lightbox effect for popup images.

Why am I blogging about this? Well, firstly this is a blog which in part aims to let you look behind the scenes at what’s happening. Secondly and most importantly, however, the code is specifically designed to be incredibly portable between various services. I envision there being yet another subdomain (sorry!) such as common.lincoln.ac.uk, which exists purely to store objects shared by all services. The stylesheets, the images, the scripts. The result once properly implemented would be ultimately beneficial – it would improve caching, reducing hits to services. It would enforce consistent appearance. Applying a code or styling fix would need to be done once and would be replicated to all services using it. Finally and most importantly, it would get people into the mindset of “data should only exist once” which is a key part of the Web 2.0 way.

Still, mindless code changes for such a minor improvement would be senseless. Which is why I’m going to suggest the following: create common.lincoln.ac.uk, add the resources to it, and when new services are created or services are updated make them use the common resources. It’ll be slow, but it’ll be worth it.

It has been brought to my attention that I need to point out some extra information regarding my post about iCal timetables, specifically this bit:

Which is why I’m happy to announce that a Level 2 Computing student has undertaken the monumentally complex task of taking your University timetable and turning it into an iCal format. The monumentally complex task which people assured me was technically very difficult due to the way timetabling was organised.

As Tim has rightly pointed out, the “monumentally complex task” of extracting the data has already been done in order to view your timetables at all, given that the data comes out of the timetabling system in somewhat of a mess.

So, kudos to Alex for hacking the data into iCal format, but equally kudos to those who managed to get it into HTML in the first place.

In future though, I would like to see more data being available in the open format (JSON, XML, REST and those other data exchange acronyms… just preferably not SOAP) and then being re-interpreted according to how it’s meant to be viewed. Ideally the data should flow from timetabling to the data repository, and then be extracted and reformatted into the HTML view. One definitive, authoritative source for the data.