Resolving Door

Resolving Door

The University of Colorado School of Journalism brings crowdsourced answers to students' pressing questions.

Unlike most websites, which conceptually are typically places for people to consume information, and perhaps share back thoughts or content for others to consume — "Websites are conversations" — the Resolving Door project embodied the user experience characteristics of a web application. That is, it's a website in that it has a URL and can be accessed in a browser, but its purpose is to be a tool to help the user do something rather specific.

In this case, the site's purpose is to provide the means for University of Colorado students to ask questions and post answers.

Resolving Door's initial presence was entirely bootstrapped by the School of Journalism faculty and students. Working from a grant, they had assembled an application that had some problems, but also held great potential. They came to us to improve the user experience and rework the back-end code to achieve those ends.

A Web App (not a website)


Resolving Door screenshot

Resolving Door, redesigned and rearchitected. The new site has streamlined navigation with a user-centric experience as its focus.


The Challenge

Old Resolving Door home page
The old site had been running for a while, but had some serious UX and functionality problems.

Giving the old site's monochromatic look a "polishing up" was part of the goal, but first and foremost we had to address the UX problems: the site had the potential of leaving the user lost as to what to do. Multiple undifferentiated tabs in two rows located in the middle of page served as the main navigation. The main content was a sea of text, with no chunking or highlighting, making the questions difficult for the eye to scan.

The "Ask" bar, however, was brilliant. People clearly got the message to start here. The underlying functionality of that bar presented complications, though, as it led immediately to creating a new question, without checking the existing questions first. As a result, there were very many duplicate questions asked. And people weren't sure which one to view for answers.

Our challenge was twofold: To rethink the site design and architecture with a focus on user experience, and to fix, refactor or replace the necessary functionality required to create that experience.

Our Process

A community crowd-sourcing site is by its very nature an opportunity for iterative improvements. The old site had undergone many experiments. Now we undertook the redesign and implementation in phases.

The first thing we did is change the assumptive use case for the app: Instead of prioritizing the asking of questions, we decided to focus on the finding of answers. After all, why ask a question that's already been asked? If you have a question, your real goal is to find answers … and a site with thousands of questions and answers already posted had a high possibility of having ready answers to many question askers.

Solr search results
We changed the Ask bar into a search for existing Questions. By using Apache Solr for search, we could get excellent results, as well as fuzzy search and suggested alternative spellings. If a suitable existing question is not found, the user can then ask a new question in the form below.

By rethinking the site navigation, we were able to simplify the process of submitting questions, answering questions and retrieving valuable information. We integrated the "Ask" workflow with solr search, thus eliding the search and submission processes. Why ask a question that's already been asked (and answered)?

This change reduced duplications and allowed previously answered questions to be displayed as part of the submission process. By creating a top level navigation system, we were able to sort the various site features into logical destinations, cleaning up a cumbersome and confusing system of tabbed displays.

Carousel detail
The carousel is the most website-like feature. The rest of the functionality is more webapp-focused.

The design process was influenced by the client's embrace of handheld technology, as well as a desire for the site to be appealing students and funders. We looked to successful ipad and iphone interfaces to inspire our look and feel changes. Simple was the watchword. For the redesign, we created an introductory slideshow, gradient backgrounds, css3 rounded corners and dimensional buttons. The result is an appealing site that looks professional and authoritative while being friendly and easy-to-navigate.

Resolving Door at end of Phase 1
For Phase 1 of the project, we revamped the Information Architecture, redesigned the look and feel, and focused the User Experience on the asking of the question.

First we had to clean up the basics. Some functionality was coded directly in presentation layer. And some modules had been roughly upgraded from Drupal 5 versions, resulting in some real problems, including a complete incompatibility with Views module.

Meanwhile we mapped out new workflows, and leveraged some powerful Drupal modules to strengthen functionality and improve the overall user experience. The Ask bar was changed from a question submission into a search function (powered by Apache Solr). The Question and Answers module was reworked to function more appropriately with Drupal 6. Through iterations, we were able to respond to student feedback and work up improvements.

Results

The website was a hit last night at AEJMC! Thanks for you all of your hard work making that happen! I have received a lot of positive feedback from faculty and students on the website!

Daniel J. Schaefer, Instructor, CU School of Journalism

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