Oxplore has officially launched for all to see, use and share. Phew.
At one level, this launch marks the end of technical development which has pulled together a robust site which meets our vision for the Home of Big Questions and responds to user feedback. It also marks a point where we have delivered a substantial enough amount of content that we are sure our users can get lost on the site and dig deep into resources.
However, any good website is an organic thing. We’re already working on more content and our communications going forwards. Now that users can register we can’t wait to engage more with them.
A hard date, though, is a good time to reflect on a few facts and figures from our past 18-months!
Over the coming weeks the team are taking some down-time as well as reflecting on the success of the launch activities. (More on those another time).
Throughout the summer, our technical development team have been working hard on the Oxplore site to add new features. These haven’t been released to the main site yet – we’re waiting until our national launch. We have been adding some new Big Questions to the live site over the past two months though – including Can money buy happiness? and Should under 18s be allowed to vote?
The first feature the developers worked on was a reworking of our homepage. In the current site the format was in block panels of 1 question, 6 questions, 1 question, 6 questions etc. Our focus groups showed that young people liked the principle of this design, but they wanted different ways to navigate too. They’ll soon be able to see new, trending or topical questions first as we have a way to pin questions to the top. They’ll also be able to navigate questions through themes (since as we’re nearing 35 questions, it can get a bit overwhelming). You can preview it in the short video below!
Under the hood, we’ve also developed user registration and a whole host of related features including commenting on Big Questions after voting, bookmarking resources you liked for later, controlling your contact and privacy options and navigating the homepage as a logged in user. We also needed to do a little set up for the live stream element of our national launch.
Plus, to allow us to make the Big Questions themselves more dynamic we’ve developed some new resource types like scrolling image galleries, pros and cons lists, and (better) ways to display images in existing resources like articles and lists.
And, finally, we’ve also been addressing bugs with how the site performs on different devices and enhancing the analytics we can gather to help us monitor the effectiveness of the portal.
It has certainly been a packed summer for the developers… It is exciting to see the site growing in this way, and to know that we have been building functionality that has been rated highly by the users we spoke to in our pilot (particularly our May/June pilot which fed into what we prioritised and how they work).
The last development sprint ends tomorrow – on schedule! Phew.
In the first half of 2017, our work has been largely defined by the two pilot phases in which we’ve been sharing Oxplore with specific groups and regions. When we haven’t been travelling to schools to meet with young people, we’ve been planning these visits and working out what feedback we most need to shape the development.
Gathering this feedback has been incredibly helpful – and taking the time to pilot Oxplore has been very worthwhile. We have run 12 focus groups with 162 young people, and each one of them has surprised us with their ability to grasp not only what we are trying to achieve, but how we can use the digital tools to achieve our aims. Their digital upbringing was particularly noticeable in our recent visits to the East Midlands where we were discussing UX, interface and technical features. They were clear on what they expected from a website – and many even bandied about terms like ‘OAuth’, ‘CAPTCHA’ and ‘hamburger menu’ like developers!
A challenging aspect of these visits has been coming up with activities that help us to gauge their true feelings in an engaging way while still getting the data we needed. We were clear that the traditional focus group format of sitting around talking was not going to work for our groups – we needed something to keep their attention. We merged our need for qualitative feedback with sessions designed to be both reflective and interactive. To gauge their preferred other websites, they voted in ‘Web Awards’ which not only asked them to reflect on the features of the sites they most like to frequent, but gave us evidence of user interfaces we might seek to emulate. To help us prioritise the development of new features, they spent ‘cash’ (ahem, stickers) on the features stuck up around the room. To help us refine the scope of those features, they looked at site designs and answered prompts about the process of registration, commenting and more.
While collating the outcome of these activities and more, we’ve also been reflecting in the team and with our developers how simply letting the young people loose with a tablet or PC in a computer room is in itself an excellent barometer of how well the site achieves its aims. In many cases we struggled to get the young people off of the site and onto the tasks. In a few schools they even used the Inspect Element function to view the CSS and temporarily edit the site to what they thought it should look like… (more Big Questions about footballers, apparently).
With technical development now back underway, our next task is to ensure that we make the very best of all this input.
Oxplore will be on limited release from next week with our first portal pilot. To get the portal to this stage we’ve had many things to bring together in the past few weeks. It has been fairly intense…!
Before the pilot, we’ve had to finish off aspects of our work that have been central to our activity for the past 6 months. We had our last technical development sprint of this phase, and we’re delighted that our development team have ticked as much as was possible off the to do list. The site is functionally ready for our pilot – and is optimised for mobile and tablet.
Our designers have put some finishing touches to the site designs. We’ve also had some posters produced which have some of the same visual impact as the main site. These have already been distributed to schools in the North East of England – and are hopefully going to be adorning the walls of corridors and classrooms there soon,
Our content writers have sent us over the last of our content, we’ve loaded it into the site CMS and a team of reviewers including early career researchers and educational specialists have been reviewing it and suggesting tweaks. Live next week, we’ll have 15 questions for our users to explore – with over 225 different content items including lists, quizzes, podcasts, videos and articles. Not too shabby.
While this point has marked the end of some of these aspects of our work, having a live portal ready for our users also marks the start of wholly new tasks and challenges for the Oxplore team. In the coming weeks we’ll be running school workshops, focus groups, presenting at a student conference and firing on our social media cylinders for the first time. In the background, we’ll also be planning more content and for what further technical development we need to undertake before the national launch.
While our development timescale has been incredibly swift, I feel like I’ve been telling everyone I meet to ‘watch this space’ for a long time. Finally, that space is about to be filled!
Development of the portal continues apace. In the past few weeks, days and even hours we have made decisions and signed off on hosting, domain names, logos, page designs and templates and more.
A crucial aspect of this period has been pinning down the finer details. From the start we’ve been bubbling with ideas – but now that technical development is firmly underway and we are receiving slices of fully functional content each fortnight, we have to make our choices.
We’ve settled on a number of different page templates that can accommodate the resource styles we want. In itself, that is one decision, but we have to dig deeper. Is our ‘listicle’ resource flat or does it accordion out when a user wants to find more? Will our audio resources appear with or without an accompanying image?
We were largely happy with the page designs and they were tweaked in some way every time we discussed them. But, when push comes to shove – is the strap-line text big enough and should it be centred or left aligned? Is the text legible when overlaid on the images?
These decisions, of course, are the building blocks of a polished and final product. Making them now will hopefully help us to meet our deadlines and ensure our requirements are crystal clear with the development team.
We still have much to build – but we feel like the foundations are very much there.
How do you know what young people think about learning, exploring and developing a portal for them? Ask them.
Yesterday we held our first consultative group session with eleven young people based in the Oxford area. Our hosts were the Into University centre in Oxford who are used to working closely with young people. The individuals in our group have been specially recruited as representative of future users of the digital outreach portal. We’ll be meeting with our Oxford consultative group weekly over the next six weeks.
The purpose of the consultative group is to receive ongoing feedback from our core audience as the digital outreach portal develops. We will ask their opinion on everything from content and design to navigation and naming. We know that young people can be a challenging audience to reach, and particularly with a first of its kind project like ours. This is why we’re going out to meet them already – we want them involved in its development. What’s more, we know young people use the internet and engage with digital technology in a way that is completely different from us older folk.
The primary focus of the first consultative group was to get to know our participants better, in particular the way they like to think and the kinds of questions they find most interesting. Just as importantly we’re interested in what devices they use and what they use them for. Participants were asked to bring to the session the device they most commonly use to access the internet. Unsurprisingly all of our young people brought their smartphones with them, with one even bringing a tablet too. Guess that supports our view for mobile first design!
One key take-out from yesterday’s session was simplicity and ease of use, rather than design, were key criteria identified by young people for the site. This will surely impact on the site navigation and look/feel. Another key issue is the potential challenges of accessing the site using mobile data as opposed to Wi-Fi – especially if you don’t have lots of data on your phone contract.
Overall we’re thrilled with our first consultative group and are looking forward to continuing to work with such brilliant, thoughtful and engaged young people – we’ve got a great bunch!
This week we are very delighted to be starting work with our chosen technical developer One Ltd. Based in Oxford, we will be working closely with their team of technical and creative professionals on developing the portal in the coming months.
We will be taking part in intensive ‘discovery’ workshops throughout this week to help clarify our ambitions and goals to help One Ltd set about making them tangible. Within our small team (and from our colleagues) we’ve already got lots of ideas for what our portal should be able to do, but refining those into technical work packages and specifications is a substantial challenge. (For example, my vision of a digital learning ‘mind palace’ has some fairly advanced technical requirements!) With so many approaches floating in the ether, we need to focus on our outcomes and outputs from this early stage to ensure we can achieve them.
Of course, we also need to work out how we work best with One Ltd, how we manage the risks inherent in our ambitious schedule, and how we deliver what we need to provide. This is without a doubt a significant milestone for us – but an incredibly exciting moment as we really start to shape the portal and make it a reality.