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Social media widget

This week, we launched a ‘social media widget’ on the JISC homepage (the eagle-eyed among you might have noticed it was launched last week but quickly pulled when it fell over!).

We didn’t just want to provide a link to YouTube, Slideshare etc. We wanted to surface some of the actual content JISC provides on social websites; in usability terms, to provide good ‘scent of information’. The widget needed to be accessible, scalable (as more social media channels come online) and fit within a small space on the JISC homepage.

Big thanks to Stuart Church of Pure Usability who turned our rough spec into a rather elegant solution. The widget is a feed aggregator from multiple sources with a form filter to select a single source. It’s very scalable in that we could at least triple the number of sources without needing to change the interface design. Scent of information is strong, with direct links to content on 3rd party sites and use of familiar logos to increase user understanding that this is external content. The widget is accessible, working as a simple HTML form with Javascript turned off.

The development itself was not always fun owing to the vagaries of working with 3rd party services and feeds. We had to build in error handling for when 3rd party feeds suddenly died or changed. As feeds came in various formats or were simply invalid, Feedburner also came to the rescue with its ability to convert feeds into other formats (we standardised on RSS 2.0). Anyone who works with feeds will know the benefits of using a service like Feedburner but I discovered another one during this development. Twitter (and probably other services) implements various methods to reduce the amount of data it is sending out.  This is normally done by reducing the number of feed requests from any one source. However, certain sites like Feedburner and Yahoo Pipes are ‘whitelisted’ and allowed more requests.  Another advantage is that if a 3rd party service goes down, the feed should display the content that has been cached at Feedburner. So yay for Feedburner …but hold on; it doesn’t seem to like Twitter feeds very much 🙁 Our developer managed to set it up but now we can’t change it and it seems to be a well-documented issue that Feedburner and Twitter feeds do not play nicely together.

We did also try implementing a bit of AJAX to refresh the widget if a feed updated when a user was viewing the homepage. This proved very fiddly and, on reflection, we thought ‘well how long do people spend on the homepage anyway’? Nice to have but not worth the hassle.

Many thanks to Kieran Marron of Eduserv as the lead developer on this project. And also to jwloh for his free download of web 2.0 icons. They look great.

By Ben Whitehouse

I'm head of web at Jisc. My team manages and other web services. I'm responsible for ensuring the overall user experience of the Jisc web estate is simple, clear and consistent

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