What we've been up to

Wow, it's been busy here lately. So busy, in fact, that we've barely had time for this poor ol' blog. So here's some news about what we've been up to...

Since May, we've brought on some 25 new colleges, seminaries, and other institutions. We have another 5 ready to launch in the next few weeks. As I write this, almost all of our current customers are in the midst of course registration for the Fall 2010 Academic Term. At any given moment during the day, Populi is handling hundreds of users and thousands of students, much more than ever before.

This is a thick time of year for our customers—and so it is for us, too! We spent the summer training registrars, bursars, other staff, and faculty. Thanks to Adam Sentz's constant scrutiny and improvement of the interface, many of our new users have just logged in and figured it out themselves. Meanwhile, further improvements are in store for the look and feel of Populi, making it easier to use (and easier on the eyes).

Aaaand... we've been very busy designing, testing, and releasing new features. The past two weeks we've trickled out several items of note and numerous back-end improvements, constituting almost a mini-release. The new stuff includes:

Google Calendar Integration Improvements: Having built out Populi's integration with Google Apps, we're happy to announce that it now supports full Course Calendar syncing. When you add a course to an Academic Term, it automatically creates a corresponding Course Calendar in Google. As you add faculty and students to that course, they're automatically subscribed to its Calendar. The Calendar feeds directly into the Events on their Populi Home pages, and even includes assignment due dates, special meeting times, and so on.

Payments/Refunds Report: Thanks to feedback from some of our most thorough financial users, we built a report in Billing that gathers together all Payments and Refunds in a single table. Filter it to see different types of payments, amounts, and date ranges—and print the receipts with a single click. We also added receipts to the custom Layout options in Communications.

Online Application Enhancements: In addition to an email verification field, there's some new Javascript on the back-end of the Online Application that lets you connect it to an external, online marketing campaign (say, your Facebook page). It lets you (among other things) track "conversions" from your campaign to the application, giving you a better sense of how your marketing efforts are working. We're eager to see what our customers come up with for this—this, too, was based on a customer's suggestion. If you want to put it to work for you, the complete details are in the Populi Knowledge Base.

Our work hasn't been the only thing keeping us occupied. Isaac recently ran a triathlon (and check out these wild pics from his trailcam!), Mark's two bands have been gigging around town, and Toby recently welcomed a son into the world. Some of us have gardens, others are finishing their degrees, and one has a motorcycle.

We've been busy, we're busy now, and there's no sign of the busy-ness letting up anytime soon. Thanks to all our customers for keeping our days interesting and full of stuff to do.

Populi iPhone App Updated

The App Store just approved the updated Populi iPhone app and it's available right now.

Though anyone with a Populi user account can use it, the app is primarily aimed at students and instructors. The general idea is to give you access to the Populi stuff you'd want to see on a phone—calendars, contacts, and courses—and link it up to some of the neat stuff iPhone lets you do. For instance, you can look up your Populi contacts—and tap to make a call, send an email, or map their address. Instructors who take attendance on the iPhone get to use one of the simplest, most intuitive interfaces out there. Anything you update using the App shows up in Populi in real-time, and vice-versa.

The updated app includes support for iOS4 and the Retina Display, access to your To-Dos, and the inclusion of Lessons with your Courses. Go get it! It works on all iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad). And if you want more out of your mobile Populi experience, the built-in Safari browser apps on those devices can access the whole program. What's more, our last major update introduced a new, more mobile-friendly layout that we'll be rolling out to the rest of the program in an upcoming release.

Feature Requests

Feature requests inundate most any software company. Populi is no exception. While we bring a certain expertise and understanding to college management software, there are still needs we don't anticipate. Consequently, we might miss certain features or approach something from the wrong angle—and so one of our users has to tell us that something's off. We love that kind of feedback. We're not perfect, and some of our users have really good ideas that we're privileged to hear about.

Of course, there are things we don't develop because they just won't solve a problem—or might create a new problem. Some features might complicate the workflows we're actively simplifying and streamlining. Sometimes our customer requests fall into this category—for a variety of reasons. Their old software might have forced a workaround that they "can't live without" now. There could be an administrative procedure that Populi doesn't directly support. They have staff who need particular access to this thing but not that thing. And so on. While we're sympathetic to their needs—and we do all we can to figure out how to make it work—oftentimes we reject the request because it would mess with how thirty other colleges do something.

To cope with the deluge of suggestions—through our support system, over the phone, random emails from customers, other correspondence—we're now steering our customers to the new Feature Requests forum on our help desk. The forum, made possible by some enhancements to Zendesk, our web-based help desk software, lets our users submit feature requests, vote for other requests, and weigh in with their own comments. It's a great way for us to not only hear about what our customers need, but also to gauge the demand for a particular request. Further, it's an opportunity to be a bit more transparent about our decision-making process. What we do with Populi affects a lot of people, and this forum, we trust, is another way for us to communicate clearly with the people who have a stake in our development.

Our users can get to the Feature Requests Forum by clicking the orange help icon in Populi and going to the Knowledge Base. Adding new requests, voting for others, and leaving comments is all pretty self-explanatory... and our users who already know about it have dived right in. We look forward to hearing from y'all.

Does spam... work?

A friend's email account was compromised, and this morning it sent out the following to everyone in his address book:

hi!
I find a good website: www.icbcshop12..com
On this website ,you can find many new and origianl electronic products .Now they are holding sales promotion activity, all the product are sold at a
low cost and good quality ,and the delivery is on time .
It is a good chance that you should not lose.
If you need some, visit this website .
Let us enjoy the happiness of shopping.
Greetings!

Now, before you run off to that website looking for great deals, please note that something about this seems, uh, shady. Spam usually attempts to look somewhat legitimate, but this one doesn't even try. And even if you're one of those people—presumably such folks exist—who compulsively clicks whatever blue text you see, that double-dotted .com would crash your party real fast, perhaps giving you time to think about what you're doing. This really is a stupendous piece of work.

But it got me to wondering... does this stuff work? Now, this isn't the Federal government, which freely spends money it doesn't have on things that don't get results. Somewhere behind this email there's some sleazy organization or business or... something... that's paying people to write this stuff, hack email accounts, and put some kind of site or malware on the other end of that sloppy URL—and, oddly enough, is turning some sort of profit. True, avarice motivates some strange and cynical doings, and the kind of undiscerning malice at the heart of most internet scams could care less about looking attractive. Still—somehow, someone is getting something out of this, and it's probably money.

All that spam in your junk e-mail folder, all those Viagra/Acai Berry/Weight-loss pop-ups, all those dodgy animated loan offers—those most hated and reviled features of the internet, loathed by everyone we know of (including, especially, us)—they're of a piece with this poor little email because, for some reason, people will go for it. It's a depressing thought, but something about spam... is working.

Baffling.

Our new release: New Profiles, Communications, Google Apps, iTunes U, and lots more...

We stayed up late last night to push out what's probably the biggest one-time update we've ever released. We've been previewing this release for a few weeks—check out our posts on the Profile, Communications, and the Activity Feed—but there was a lot more stuff we didn't mention ahead of time...

...like Google Apps integration. If your school uses Google Apps, Populi's brand-new Single Sign-on capability will let you log right into your school's Google Mail and Calendar accounts right from Populi.

And iTunes U integration. Link to your college's iTunes U site from Populi, and even link your courses directly to their own content.

Besides Google Apps integration, we released a few updates to Email. Giving someone an email address when you add them as a user is now optional, and new visibility settings let you plug emails right into the Activity Feed (or keep them private).

Academics got some love, too: Custom Transcript Layouts let you use a custom Page Layout (see above) for your Official Transcripts. Contact Populi support to get started. The new Schedule view shows you the Term's master course schedule in a week-view Calendar. This replaces the slow, boggy Enrollment report (that's now an export option in the Students Table). And we've simplified how you add Grade, Transcript, and Financial Locks on student profiles.

In Admissions, the new My Prospects view lets Admissions Staff keep track of specific Prospective students. The Activity Feed and new Communications features will also enhance Populi Admissions.

Courses have some new features. In addition to iTunes U integration, we updated Forums to included nested replies and added a new Teaching Assistant user role. A few new things now make some previously pesky tasks a lot easier on course instructors. For instance, you no longer need to unfinalize a course to enter grades for an incomplete student. You can now reset tests for students who need to re-take them or missed them due to illness, etc. And, in the midst of fixing an Internet Explorer bug, we updated the text editor in Lessons; it does a much better job of just about everything than the previous editor.

After the jump, there's more detail about what's new with Profiles and Communications. And all the details are available for our users to read about in our help desk.

People and Profiles

We gave the Profile a complete overhaul... new navigation, improved presentation of information, social networking, and lots of other things. 

Overall: Tab navigation, accessible via top-level navigation (alongside Home, Files, etc.), improved presentation and handling of Roles and Tags, Utility button for exports (like ID Card, Transcript, etc.).

Activity Feed: Shows Scheduled Communications, Notes, Sent Emails, and person-specific To-Dos.

Bulletin Board: Upgraded to become a light social networking feed. Post and leave comments on others' bulletins; follow people and have them follow you.

Info: Contact info, basic information (gender, race, etc.), and relationships.

Faculty: Instructor Profiles (Faculty and Teaching Assistant) get course histories and some basic course stats.

Student: Complete student academic histories, including Transcript, Degree Audit, Course Mapping (GPA by Program); courses, degrees, student info, awards, and discipline.

Registration: We moved the Registration interface to a student Profile tab; we also simplified Registration Locks.

Admissions: We moved the Admissions interface to a tab; it works more or less the same. Don't forget that the Activity Feed was designed to help Admissions staff with Prospects.

Advisor: The Advisor interface is now a tab on Advisor profiles.

Financial: Three tabs: Dashboard (formerly Current), By Term, and History, which shows a filter-able list of all of the student's past transactions. Now you can pick and choose which pending charges to invoice, plus some other minor improvements and bugfixes. Also, a new Financial Lock.

Communications

We split out Communications from Admin and gave it its own tab. Now mailing lists and templates are all found in Communications... in addition to a few new things.

Communication Plans: Structure your correspondence with anyone in the system (we had Prospects in mind, but you can do this for Donors, current students... anyone, really) by gathering Email, Printed Letter, and To-Do templates into Communication Plans. You create them in Communications and add them to people in the Activity Feed. 

Mailing Lists have been improved, and now feature a History which shows what you've sent them and when (and for Emails, how many people opened it). You can also send Printed Letters to your mailing lists. Quick Lists work the same, but are now called One-time Lists.

Templates: Improved templates for Email, and new Printed Letter and To-do templates.

Print Queue: A filter-able list of all pending print jobs, plus reprint options for past jobs, and envelope and mailing-label printing.

Page Layouts: Customize your Printed Letters with your own Page Layouts. They work with Open Documents (which work with MS Word and Open Office), so you can make your Populi-produced printed materials look however you want them to.

New Features: the Activity Feed and the Bulletin Board

We have some brand-new new contact relationship tools and social networking feeds. They're designed to help keep the people at your college connected to what’s going on—at your school and with each other.

The features center around the Profile. The Activity Feed shows a stream of Notes, Emails, Printed Letters, Uploaded Files, and Completed To-Dos from Staff and Faculty. As people interact with this person, you’ll see updates in the person’s History, as well as upcoming To-Dos and Communications. The Activity Feed is designed so your staff can see what’s happened with any person in Populi, as well as what’s going to happen.

Bulletin Board & News Feed (Student Tutorials) from Populi on Vimeo.

The Bulletin Board is a social networking tool, sorta like Twitter. You can follow other people in Populi, and they can follow you. Post a bulletin or a comment and it appears on your followers’ bulletin boards; meanwhile, bulletins from people you’re following show up on your own.

And the Home page now features the Feed, which shows you bulletins from people you’re following as well as Populi News. Populi News is now open for comments, and you can even “pin” articles to the top of everyone’s Feed to make sure people see the important stuff.

The social networking features are totally public, so there’s no need to worry about anonymous users abusing the system or harassing people or sending out spam. And even if out-of-line comments are deleted, Staff users can still see them in case they need to look into something. The idea is to keep the conversations polite, focused, and relevant to the life of your college.

These new features just went live, so try them out and see what they can do.