Things of interest on the internet

Every so often, we find something of interest on the internet. This week, three things caught our attention...

Money, Feedback, and Pressure

Jason Fried of 37signals wrote a column in Inc. Magazine pitching advice to small businesses about, well, how to make money. We find his advice worthwhile—he built a great company that sells really useful products and eschews conventional business advice. Much of what he says is relevant to any organization that faces constraints and limits... like a lot of our customers—smaller schools with limited resources.

Here's what caught our eye:

Charging for something makes you want to make it better.

When you put a price on something, you get really honest feedback from customers. When entrepreneurs ask me how to get customers to tell us what they really think, I respond with two words: Charge them. They'll tell you what they think, demand excellence, and take the product seriously in a way they never would if they were just using it for free.

As an entrepreneur, you should welcome that pressure. You should want to be forced to be good at what you do.

This quote encapsulates a lot about the company we're building here. We charge our customers—schools who don't have the time or money to burn on stuff that doesn't work—and so they (well, you) are very forthcoming with their feedback. In turn, charging for Populi has contributed to the company-wide restlessness we feel about our service. As good as we think some things are, there are always things we want to make better. Whether it's a software bug that a customer discovers or a workflow issue that screams for improvement, there's always something. Knowing who our customers are, and charging them for the service we provide has given us that pressure to be good—and get better—at what we do.

Requiem in Limbo, IE6

Microsoft, the company that unleashed on the world Internet Explorer—a web browser that's actually made out of chewing gum and baling wire—has a site called The Internet Explorer 6 Countdown. The site says that it "is dedicated to watching Internet Explorer 6 usage drop to less than 1% worldwide, so more websites can choose to drop support for Internet Explorer 6, saving hours of work for web developers." According to their interactive map, IE6 currently has 2.9% usage share in the United States; the vast majority of this likely owes to recalcitrant IT departments who won't let their organizations upgrade. Microsoft is pretty mum on most of the reasons you should quit using that browser, like, yesterday (horrifying security issues for the most part), but its basic incompatibility with the modern web should be reason enough.

We're looking forward to seeing similar countdowns for IE7 and IE8.

HT: Daring Fireball

Apple and Liberal Arts

And, finally, Apple released the iPad 2 this week. Steve Jobs' concluding remarks about how Apple approaches the design of their products were particularly interesting. "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it's technology married with the Liberal Arts, married with the Humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices."

As a tech company (one way humbler, we think and hope, than Apple!) staffed in part by Liberal Arts graduates, we hope we're able to strike a similar balance. Technology can do a lot, but without keeping human needs in mind—the needs for elegance, simplicity, to understand, to be understood—it's just another burden.

Which brings us back to the first point: that need to improve Populi that presses on us almost always comes back to tempering the demands of technology with the harder-to-gauge needs of the people who use it.

New release features more improvements to student financial info

Our last release (about a week ago) included a number of improvements to student financials that we incorporated after taking in some good feedback from our customers. True to form, our customers had a lot to say about the new statements, and we're releasing some improvements to our improvements tonight. It's all in an effort to make a tricky lump of information easier to understand—for your staff and your students.

Here are the improvements we have slated for tonight's release:

We collapsed Pending Charges and Invoiced Charges into one concise panel on Student > Financial > By Term:

Invoice pages are even more detailed, now showing Pending Aid and a new invoice summary showing everything that affects the Amount Due:

You can manually apply Pending Financial Aid to invoices before you disburse it; when you do disburse the Aid, it hits invoices according to your selections:

Pending Aid now factors into the Amount Due shown on Student Financial > Dashboard and By Term:

The Unpaid Invoices export now includes a column with Pending Aid for each invoice:

We added the ability to auto-apply Unapplied Payments & Credits when you issue a new invoice (and a Yes/No setting to enable or disable this behavior):

The net effect of these updates is to mitigate the confusion caused by having differing Amounts Due for the same student—which we acknowledge has been a real headache for some of our customers. We've been looking for a good way to show what a student needs to pay your school given the wrinkles caused by Term-specific charges, Term-agnostic charges, pending Financial Aid, Payment Plans, and so on. And we think we've found it; we're certainly happier with this arrangement than we've been with our past handling of this information.

So now the Amounts Due that you see will be the same numbers your students see when they go to pay with a credit card (oh, yeah, "Pay Now" will now also say "Amount Due" everywhere except when recording a payment). Here's an example:

You issue invoice #99 to Joe Adams in Fall 2010 for a $500 Auditor Fee, which he doesn't pay. You issue #100 to him in Spring 2011 for $1000 in tuition. He has a $500 scholarship pending in Spring, and you've put #100 on the "50/50" Payment Plan, which splits his invoice into two payments for 50% of the invoice—one due mid-term, the other due at the end of the term. Joe, who has a habit of parking his monster truck in the Faculty parking lot, has also accrued $1000 in parking tickets—for which you've invoiced him on his Financial Dashboard (Inv. #101). Joe logs in mid-term to settle up what he owes you at that point and sees:

  • A Fall By Term Amount Due of $500 from unpaid invoice #99
  • A Spring By Term Amount Due of $250 from unpaid invoice #100 ($1000 - $500 in pending aid - $250 to pay later)
  • A Dashboard Amount Due of $1750 (#99-$500 + #100-$250 + #101-$1000)
  • When he clicks to pay with his dad's credit card, his Pay Now says $1750 and he also sees he'll need to pay another $250 later

New release improves Search, Degree Audits, Relationships, and Statements

Last night we pushed out a minor new release that includes improvements to a variety of existing features...

Degree Audit

We put the most work into a refresh of Degree Audits, accompanying some aesthetic updates with a number of improvements that will make them even more useful to advisors, registrars, and students.

On the back-end, we now point Degree Audits to the specific Course Instances the student has taken. On the front-end, this lets us include a student's grades on the Audit—and, for Courses that permit retakes for credit, you can apply a course taken multiple times to more than one Course Group. We've also clarified how Courses are applied to different Course Groups, making it easier to see how the student is fulfilling his Degree Course Requirements. Another little thing—Degrees are now displayed in chronological order in both the Degree Audit and Transcript.


It turns out that sibling, spouse, parent, child, and roommate don't cover all the possible relationships among people. Taking a cue from—well, life—we added a bunch of new Relationship types—Guardian/Ward, Student/Teacher, Friend, and... plain ol' Relative! To help you keep track of genetic similarities and other shared physical traits, we also added pictures to the Relationships panel. Perhaps most important, you can also now designate any related person as an Emergency Contact. Quite a few customers have asked for that, and we're happy to finally release a way to track that important piece of information.

Statements (and some other Financial items)

In response to some thoughtful customer feedback we've received about student financial statements, we updated those, too. Now you have two options for Statements: the Term Statement, which details the student's financial activity for a given Academic Term, and a new Statement available on the student's Financial Dashboard. This new Statement collects all of the student's outstanding invoices into one printable document. Accordingly, you can also print these Statements in a batch right from the Unpaid Invoices report in Populi Billing.

Two other items of note... The new By Term Summary gives you a more detailed snapshot of the student's balance. We also moved all of the commands to the action gear in Profile > Financial.


Simply put, Search is a lot faster and lets you search by a wider variety of information fields—Addresses, Phone Numbers, Email, Student ID, and more. Watch the video to get a sense of it... or, if you're a user, log in to Populi and try it out yourself!


Facilities got moved up to the Account Bar. We added some user account status tracking, so you can now see the last time a user logged in, or if they never have. We clarified the transfer credits interface to help ensure you pick a Program for each transferred course. Student ID numbers now display right below a student's name on their Profile. Plus the usual round of bugfixes, minor interface tweaks, and other little things that don't merit being mentioned by name in a blog post (those are all covered in the Release Notes in the help desk...).

Built-in info fields now available for online applications

Among the twenty-dozen new and upgraded features we put out with our last release, we added the ability for you to include some built-in information fields (like SSN, website, and so on) with your custom application components. Previously, we made you create custom info fields for this purpose—but what a terrible solution! That forced you to create custom fields for information Populi already tracked (something we even warn you not to do in the documentation!), and potentially led to all the bad-information problems double-entered data can cause. That's no longer the case!

Happy New Year! New Populi release rewrites Academics, plus a lot more...

In the wee hours of January 4th, we released the first major Populi update since June 11, 2010. Featuring an overhaul of Populi Academics, brand-new Account Management features, continued refinement to the navigation and interface, and some new API capabilities, the release encompasses a half a year's worth of development time. We released literally hundreds of features, updates, bugfixes, and tweaks which make Populi more flexible and accommodating to the wide variety of schools we count among our customers—including liberal arts colleges, seminaries, nursing schools, and technical colleges.


We did a near-complete overhaul of Populi Academics, focusing on a new dimension: Programs. Programs enable you to partition your Courses, Degrees, and students into unique courses of study with distinct GPA's. You can have Graduate or Undergraduate-level Programs, and define each using credits or hours. Each Program can have a unique Grade Scale, Pass/Fail Threshold, Full-time Threshold, and Academic Standings (complete with custom system tags); additionally, you can define particular Degrees, Courses, and even Tuition Schedules to apply only to students enrolled in a given Program.

To accommodate Programs, we've re-designed Transcripts, the Degree Audit, Courses, Transfer Credits, and Student Profiles. Populi's built-in reports and reporting tools have been accordingly updated to let you sift through your data in light of the new improvements.

Awards, too, have been completely overhauled—now they're called Honors, and they tie in with Programs, Degrees, Academic Terms, and transcripts in much more useful ways. We've re-tooled Academic Settings, giving Academic Admins the ability to manage Grade Scales, the Retake Policy, and a lot more. We also added a setting for vocational and nursing schools that enables tracking of Clinical Hours—contact us if you'd like us to flip this switch.

Account Management

Populi Account Admins can now manage your school's account details right from Populi. The new Account bar shows up to five tabs, depending on your level of access. Account Settings features everything that General Settings used to include—address, phone number, etc.—but with additional options to allow students and faculty to upload their own ID photos, manage high-level access to SSNs, and even change Populi's header color. Integrations lets you enter credentials for 3rd-party apps like iTunes U and Ebrary. Backups lets you download your core Academic and Financial data in CSV format. Payment Settings lets you manage your Pricing Plan and Payment details. And Invoices/Payments lets you view your invoice history, check your billing details, and make payments (and even pre-payments).

Lots of Other Stuff

As described in some other posts, we've improved the navigation and interface throughout Populi—but most dramatically in Admissions. Our gradual movement towards top-level tabs (as opposed to our past mix of top-level tabs and sidebar navigation) lets us use your computer screen more efficiently—and improves how Populi looks and behaves on devices like the iPad.

Besides the new navigation design in Admissions, you can now print applications and enjoy simpler adding of Prospects in My Prospects. The Term Book List has moved from Academics to Bookstore, and we've tightened up the linkages between course Book Lists and inventory management in Bookstore.

A new text editor (in News, Lessons, Bookstore Settings, and many other areas) gives you lots of ways to easily format text, include pictures, embed links, and so on. And now you can embed videos hosted on YouTube or Vimeo right into Course Lessons and News items just by copying and pasting the video URL.

We've improved and clarified the welcome email, set-password screen, and login screen (with a new option to Show Password to help you type it in correctly!). And we've built out the API to expose the data you'll need if you want to integrate Populi with Open Directory.

Keep reading after the jump for a list of things we've trickled out over the past several months...

Minor stuff since June 11, 2010

Many minor releases have intervened since last June; numerous features, large and small, have gone out to you. Here they are, in rough chronological order (oldest to more recent):

  • Campus and section now displayed when adding courses on Student tab and when importing courses to a Term
  • Fixed an issue where you couldn't grade incomplete students in finalized Pass/Fail courses
  • Students can see their overall percentage grade for a Course
  • Financial Aid users can select an account to credit when refunding Financial Aid
  • Numerous fixes to minor display issues here and there
  • Added a new Attendance Report to Academics > By Term
  • Students can now have multiple Advisors
  • New filter options permit an Aging Report in Financial > Billing > Student Balances
  • Added the ability to handle Foreign Currencies and Exchange Rates in Accounting
  • Custom receipts
  • Payments/Refunds report in Billing
  • Numerous improvements (and bugfixes) to Google Calendar integration
  • Online Application enhancements including some Javascript to track conversions from external websites (like your Facebook page).
  • Fixed up a dozen issues with foreign phone numbers
  • Academic Admins may export SSN's via Data Slicer
  • Fixed a tabbing issue in the Online Application
  • You can now share test questions among different Courses via settings in the Course Catalog
  • Numerous improvements to IPEDS reports
  • Student Loan Clearinghouse report
  • You can now charge Bookstore Tax and Shipping charges to student accounts
  • Re-tooling of Payment Plans to make them more understandable and simpler to use
  • Staff users can add News Items that are visible to students
  • Fixed a really pesky attendance-taking bug in the iPhone app
  • Numerous tweaks to online application and component notifications
  • Fixed some issues that permitted users to duplicate course abbreviations in Course Catalog
  • Improved access to online tests—students can now review tests they've already taken in the Test "History" view