Using feedback to improve my projects

I thought I’d take a detour from discussing the development of ESL Jobs World and address a strategy that has helped me in the past on similar online projects. It’s really quite simple, but very effective when followed.

Ask for feedback, and then act on that feedback to make improvements!

A few specific tips that I have used in the past to make this strategy actionable:

Get email addresses

This is very basic, but without doing this step, you basically have no way to have a conversation with your visitors. Whether it’s via a registration process or a newsletter subscription, make sure your site has some glaringly obvious way for people to give you their email address.

Confirm email addresses

In addition to being good form for opt-in marketing and staying on the right side of the law, you have to make sure your process to get email addresses requires confirmation. It goes without saying that a bad email address is of no use. Whatever your method, make sure visitors get an email with a confirmation link.

Ask specific questions

Asking “what should I do to make my web site better” is pretty broad, and “do you like my web site” is pretty much useless. Asking “what can I do to improve my registration process” is much more focused and as a result much more likely to get a useful response.

Ask about competitors

One of the questions I love to ask is “What’s your favorite web site in , and why is it your favorite?” It’s great to be able to find out who the competition is, and what’s helping them stand out.

Ask about best/worst

Another favorite question I ask is “what do you like best about ? What do you like least?” If you ask that question enough, certain themes should begin to emerge that can help you focus your efforts on what to improve.

Ask one question at a time

Nobody likes paging through gobs of questions. If someone feels like they’re filling out a census form they’re going to delete your request for feedback in a heartbeat. Pick one question, ask it, and leave it at that.

Don’t be a pest

Don’t spam people day after day with questions. They’ll get annoyed and will unsubscribe or unregister or worse. I typically reach out about once a month. Don’t be a pest, and people will be far more likely to respond to your questions.

Follow up for clarification

If you get a response and you’re not quite sure what they mean, say so. One of the things I like to do when I get a suggestion is to ask for examples from other web sites where it’s been done well. You’d be surprised how frequently someone will kick back a few links for you to review.

Follow up on changes

If you get feedback and make changes, let the person know and ask them for their opinion. Sometimes you’ll get a nice thumbs up, but sometimes you’ll learn that you’re not quite there yet. You need to know.

Always say thank you

You’ve just asked for help, someone has actually gone against the odds and been kind enough to respond, and then you don’t have the common courtesy to say thank you? Do you think that person is likely to help you again? Exactly. Always say thank you.

Drupal or Joomla? Picking a CMS

I’ve decided that a Content Management System (CMS) is the best foundation for my site. My next step is to choose the right one.

A great place to start is OpenSourceCMS, a site with user reviews of pretty much all the major players in the CMS space. What sets them apart is that they also provide live demos of each CMS they cover. You can actually log in to the front end or the back end of each one, reconfigure it, and make changes to your heart’s content. Every two hours they “reboot” and put everything back to a fresh install. It’s a great way to experiment without having to go through all the time and hassle of installing each system yourself.

Installing Drupal and Joomla on my host

In addition to testing each platform on OpenSourceCMS, I also wanted to install them myself to gauge how easy they would be to work with. Fortunately my hosting provider, Host Gator, uses a product called Fantastico which makes installing Drupal and Joomla as simple as a few mouse clicks. Both installed successfully with minimal effort. Purists abhor Fantastico, but for my purposes, it was a quick and easy way to get up and running quickly to be able to start kicking the tires of each product.

Installing Drupal and Joomla locally

As I’ll need a test environment before long, installing both products on my local machine is a good idea as well. Before I can do so, though, I need to install the LAMP (or WAMP) stack commonly used by Open Source software. LAMP enables my desktop to act like a web server, so that I can run everything from my local machine just as if it were running on my host.

For the curious, LAMP stands for Linux Apache MySQL PHP, and they are the four products that make up the foundation that Drupal, Joomla, and countless other products use. WAMP is essentially the same thing, but uses Windows as the operating system. Each product offers its own installer, and I got WAMP working on my local machine in no time.

The local installations of Drupal and Joomla were a bit more involved. I had to understand how to setup MySQL databases, and know the right answers to a number of questions, although the wizards that each product offered were pretty good. A complete novice would probably be overwhelmed, but I found it pretty much a snap to get both going quickly.

Picking the best CMS

At the end of the day, neither product stood out as being an obvious, dominant solution. Each had its own quirks and metaphors for organizing information and accomplishing tasks. As might be expected, there were a lot of differences between them. Like learning a language, becoming an expert in either platform would likely be a long process.

I spent a considerable amount of time in each platform creating content, changing around templates, activating modules, and doing my best to get a reasonable feel for what it would be like to work in each environment. I downloaded a number of add ons that were commonly available to assess how easy it would be add to their core functionality. I evaluated the search engine friendliness of the URL’s they generated. Above all, I tried to get a sense of how comfortable I felt in each product, understanding that I would likely be spending a lot of time with my final choice.

It seemed that Drupal had some incredible abilities to define different types of content. I could create a “job” object and define what attributes (title, country, description, etc.) it should contain. It was pretty powerful. I liked how everything was available from one page, without loading and reloading all the time. Adding and formatting content was easy. There were a large number of included modules that could be enabled, from forums to blogs to comments, so that I could extend its functionality quite easily. There’s a lot to like about Drupal.

Joomla draws a hard line between “front end” (what a visitor sees when visiting the site) and “back end” (what an administrator sees to control the site), which is more consistent with other applications I’ve used in the past. The types of content are essentially fixed, although there is a considerable variety in how you can display them. Joomla also comes with fewer bundled features than Drupal, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective. The number of unique add-ons, though was impressive. In fact, Joomla has a whole section of their site dedicated to Joomla extensions. It took some time to figure out the difference between a component, a module, and a mambot, but once that was clear, I was able to extend Joomla quite easily.

To make my decision, I finally decided to look at the community that surrounded and supported each product. As a test, I made a general inquiry into the support message boards of each product. My Joomla post received a number of helpful responses in a relatively short time frame. My Drupal post languished for days, and even after asking a second time for feedback, was still unanswered. As I’m going to be learning each system, and relying on others to help me, this experience ultimately swung the pendulum to Joomla.

With this key decision out of the way, my next task will be to choose the right mix of extensions to add to my base Joomla installation.