New look, new tools

    You've all probably noticed that the website looks different, feels different, acts differently than it did the last time you played around with it. Here's an official run-down of the changes we launched on March 16, 2012. Since 2009, we've spent a lot of time listening and watching how the site has been used, and hope you find these updates as motivating and useful as we do. Special thanks to Misty, Liem, Neil, and Dana from Image Works for their heroic efforts pulling this off in time for the spring field season!

Vital Signs website evolution, 2009-2012
The Vital Signs website was initially designed to explain to potential participants our vision for the community and learning environment, and to introduce them to the tools available to support their efforts. Its purpose was to invite students, teachers, citizens, and scientists to participate in a community that had not yet taken shape, published data, contributed projects and resources, or engaged in online conversation. This original design served its purpose well for the first two years.

As the community grew, it was clear that active participants needed a different flavor of site to support interests, needs, and connectivity with other participants. In response, we launched a small suite of website enhancements in February 2011, and then a much larger suite in March 2012 to start addressing these needs.

Home page
We simplified the home page considerably, and changed the overall message. It is now an invitation to do Vital Signs instead of information about Vital Signs. A scrolling image-rich marquee now draws attention to key resources the website, upcoming events, and great investigations, data, and projects. Underneath the marquee, we highlighted a common investigation-driven pathway that starts with choosing a Field Mission, and then answering questions with data, creating a project that shares investigation results and conclusions, and connecting with the community. The home page still shows the three most recent species observations.

Field Missions & Analysis Missions
Students, educators, and citizens were interested to know what specific research questions the scientists in the community were asking, and which species they really wanted data for. In 2011, we built a “Field Missions” section, and an “Analysis Missions” section to address this need. The 2012 updates elevated this content on the home page and in the navigation, and improved the content entry process for administrators. Users can now scroll through summary Missions pages to key in on questions that are of interest to them. Each Mission has a commenting section to encourage discussion among the scientist and data collectors. We are inviting anyone in the community to share their Mission.

Going forward, we would like to connect relevant data directly to each Field and Analysis Mission to make it easier and more direct for scientists to access data associated with their Mission. We would also like to automate the Mission posting process.

Navigation & Site Search
As new resources were created and added to the site after launch, it became increasingly difficult for participants to quickly find the resources they needed to do investigations or plan classroom experiences. In response, we made our main menu headings very action-oriented, added mega dropdown menus for quick scanning, and added a global site search.

We included in the menu an “Educator Tools” section specifically for active educators. While many of the resources in this section can be found elsewhere on the site, it was important to give teachers their own space on the site so they can use their planning time most efficiently.

Data Quality
The quality of data published to VS has been remarkable from the start. We wanted a place to showcase all of the incredible observations participants are publishing that would acknowledge current efforts and motivate more of the same. Teachers had also been asking for exemplars that their students could look at, critique, and aspire to prior to doing their own investigations. In response, we built a new section called “Best on VS.” It is a growing library of the best observations, photo evidence, written evidence, field notes, comments, and projects. We started populating the library, but will encourage the community to nominate observations going forward.

Public Profiles
A goal of the 2012 website updates was to enhance the social aspects of the website, and move the VS community from a largely anonymous one (mostly due to privacy concerns around under-13 users) to one that felt more human and personal and encouraged more interactions among participants.

When we first launched the site in 2009, participants could click on any username to learn more about the individual or team. Information on these pages was limited. We did not have money at the time to design these pages to be visually inviting. The interface was unfriendly at best. In 2010, after a series of privacy-related issues with these pages, we decided to stop making these pages public.

We decided to tackle the underlying public profile issues in this last round of updates (both the technology challenges and under-13 user challenges) to open the door for future development of this public profile space. Profiles are again public, and now include links to each participant’s contributions (species observations, comments, projects, curriculum resources), and a nod to the school or organizations with which they are affiliated.

We imagine building out this public profile space so each participant has an identity on the site that recognizes their contributions, interests, and academic/social growth as they do more with Vital Signs.

Mapping & Data Searching
When the database hit 1,000 species observations in 2010, there was a noticeable slow-down in the map’s load time. As the number of observations climbed toward 2,000, it became almost impossible to use the map to search for and make meaning of data.

Because a high functioning map has so much potential for data analysis and community awareness, we poured a lot of resources into making improvements. To improve load time, we introduced map clustering and a time-default we can change. Map clustering may also introduce some friendly competition and motivate activity. We simplified the map table, and added a key to improve participants’ understanding and map use.

The old “advanced search” underwent significant changes. Participants can now search both the map and the data. The data search is in a modal pop-up box, and lays out for participants the different types of searches they can do (by place, username, species, time, etc.). This new data search is also on the Eplore Data and Export Data pages.

We added a series of map tutorials made in comic book format to encourage map use, and to highlight some of the more interesting questions you can answer using the map.

Evaluation Tools
We added to our suite of website reports one that captures student activity by teacher. This lets us see how active a teacher’s students are, and in which parts of the process their students are contributing most (observations, comments, projects). This is a great tool to help us measure institute impacts on activity, and to see changes in a teacher’s participation over time.

A majority of the content on the site was revised or deleted during the 2012 updates. We cut the content pages on the site by at least half. Revisions were aimed at making the site appear lighter, less complex, and more supportive of active participants. Landing pages and secondary pages were turned into “action” pages, and many of the purely informational pages were combined and moved to less prominent locations on the site. The new Fieldwork Toolkits page is one example of how we took old, clunky content and created a much more accessible resource for those who are curious about or ready to do fieldwork.

Forum Focus
For years we experimented with different ways to use the forums, and never quite got it right. (To be fair, some good stuff happened in this space. Field Missions were born here. Teachers shared best practices here. Some species experts found their voice here….) It became clear early on that forums needed one of us to drive attention to them, and then spark and sustain discussions over time. Because the most exciting and productive online discussions happened during teacher institutes and webinar series, we decided that in 2012 we would focus forum use on our educator participants. Forums are now “Educator Forums” and are found in the “Educator Tools” section. We plan to continue to encourage forum use during institutes (reflections, sharing best practices & challenges, capturing ideas), and for institute pre- and post-work.

Species Observation Detail Pages
On the species observation detail pages, we simplified the summary information so it would read more clearly. We made the expert review status just as prominent as the “Found/ Not Found” claim to avoid potential misunderstanding that invasive species had been found in places they really had not been found. This was in response to concerns expressed specifically by scientists at the Maine Forest Service. We made the “Map this species” link, number of comments, and printer-friendly version link more prominent at the top of each page.

After seeing/ instigating a fun surge in the number of comments participants were making starting in 2010, we decided to draw attention to comments on the home page, species observation detail pages, and Missions index pages. Small comment bubble icons show the number of comments made on each observation and Mission. Comments are also summed and better presented on participants’ My Vital Signs pages and public profiles.

Soon, participants will be able to include an image with their comments. We imagine this will help species experts and mentors better explain a species’ key identifying characteristics. It will help teachers who want to encourage more peer collaboration on investigations. It will help any data collector who wants to revisit a site a report changes without having to publish a new observation.

Special Datasets
Datasets from the Department of Environmental Protection and the University of New Hampshire were painstakingly added to the site in 2010. This improves participants’ ability to make meaning, especially in regard to questions about how species are changing over time.

"Little" things with big rewards
Teacher tools
-Teachers can now select more than one team when they are adding teams to a new investigation
-Teachers can no longer add student names to a team account – a nagging privacy concern gone

Create, Share, Connect section
-New emphasis on the entire scientific process
-Multi-media project ideas each with a how-to page

Data entry
-We didn’t have a budget to remodel data entry or Science Notebooks in 2012, but did fix theming issues, updated the tide resources, and added (>) between each tab to show the work flow a little better (all band aids!)

Sidebar boxes
-We changed the content in the sidebar boxes to point participants to resources and actions relevant to the page content they were looking at
-VS administrators now have control of sidebar boxes and can change content and move boxes as needs change

Phew! The Curriculum Resources section and Project Bank are next on my list of improvements. Stay tuned for those updates. In the meantime, let us know what you like, what you don't, and what wishes you have for our next round of enhancements.