Author Archives: Brian Dunbar

Changing the site nav: it’s not (for) us, it’s (for) you

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So, what did we learn from our navigation study? That even after more than a decade of trying to organize NASA’s website along lines that make sense to you, the public, we still do some things that make more sense to us. In trying to create a minimum of top-level nav categories, we grouped some things together in ways that confuse you.

All of this has given us good input for this second round of tests. Colleen Kaiser, our user experience engineer, has created two versions of a new test. You’re welcome to try  either or both. I won’t tip off the revisions we’ve made – go and see for yourself. Thanks again for helping us.

NASA Nav Test 2, Version A

NASA Nav Test 2, Version B

NASA: The People’s Choice

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Webby Award Winner iconThank you.

It’s that simple. For the seventh time (and fifth in the last six years), you — the Internet public — have awarded NASA the Webby’s People’s Voice award for government websites. When the last results were published before voting closed, NASA’s site had 57 percent of the vote.

Though it has been nice to win the judges’ Webby in 2003 and 2012, it means more to the NASA web team to have won the People’s Voice Award in 2002, 2003, and from 2009 through 2012. We are grateful for the continued support you have given us, not just by voting for us but by visiting the site every day. More than a quarter of a million of you do. The NASA.gov team takes that as validation that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing: conveying the excitement of exploration to the public.

That takes a considerable team. Including infrastructure team members, more than 100 people work on www.NASA.gov. They sift through a considerable amount of content to bring you the best of what NASA does. Some days there’s so much going on that a story will make it to the front page in the morning and be forced off for newer, bigger stories before the end of the day.

I’d be remiss in not congratulating the other nominees: our federal colleagues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and web teams from the city of New York, Sweden and Wales. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was an honoree in the government category, and Space Center Houston, the private group affiliated with NASA’s Johnson Space Center, was a nominee in the science category.

And we’re not finished. As I’ve noted on the blog before, we headed into redesign that will address some of the problems people have (primarily visual clutter that makes navigation difficult) and turn www.NASA.gov into a responsive site that works much better on mobile devices. Stay tuned.

Help Test Navigation for the New NASA.gov

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It doesn’t sound like much fun: take everything you’ve been doing at work and figure out an entirely new way of doing it. But it’s a fact of life on the Internet: technology changes so rapidly, driving equally rapid changes in how people use it, that as soon as you’ve brought everything up to date you start falling behind again. At NASA.gov, we enjoy that challenge.

NASA.gov image map 1994

From 1994 through 1997, the NASA Home Page featured this image map as the primary navigation tool.

Which brings us to today’s topic: a new design for www.NASA.gov (the fourth major overhaul since I started managing the site in 1995) and how you can help us realize it. Since we last reworked the site in 2007, the digital world has changed radically. Social media effectively takes content off of websites and puts it wherever people are, quite often on mobile devices rather than computers. We need to adapt and update how we manage and present the site.

The new design will have five goals:

  • Address users’ pain points with current design
  • Modernize the look and feel
  • Be adaptive, so users on mobile devices have as good an experience as users on desktops or laptops.
  • Structure content so that other people and sites can reuse it.
  • Differentiate between dynamic content, like news and multimedia meant for the broad public, and more static content intended for smaller, more specialized audiences.

Each of these goals is worth a short blog post, which will come out in the next few weeks. For the time being, it’s back to first principles.  Before we do any design work, we need to establish the site’s organization. According to our customer-satisfaction data, the basic structure still works, but we’re going to have to present it a little differently to achieve our goals.

That’s where you come in. Through an online service called Treejack, we’ve set up a mock navigation structure and a set of tasks for you to try to accomplish using it. You point and click to tell us which navigation elements you’d use for each task. Based on what you do, we can see if we need to move things around or relabel categories to try to help you find things. There are no right or wrong answers; we’re testing the navigation, not you.

If you’d like to help, visit the NASA navigation exercise. It shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes, and you will not be asked to provide any personal information. Thanks for taking the time to make this site better.

NASA.gov Gets 2014 Webby Nomination

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The NASA.gov team was very happy today to learn that the Agency’s website has been nominated for the sixth time for the Webby for government sites. It’s always an honor when any group compliments the site, but we get really pumped when it comes to the People’s Voice Award.

The Internet community has awarded us five People’s Voice Awards, including four in a row from 2009 to 2012. We take that as a significant endorsement that we’re running NASA.gov effectively for its primary audience – you, the public. We’ve got various metrics, including traffic and customer-satisfaction data, that tell us we are generally getting it right, but a direct vote of confidence like this is even better.

NASA.gov represents the work of dozens of people across NASA, including content editors, infrastructure vendors and staff from our CIO office, Communications and all NASA offices and centers. Together we are a 24/7/365 news operation working to bring you news on all of NASA’s programs whenever it happens.

2010 NASA webby

NASA’s 2010 People’s Voice Webby Award

(Don’t believe me? Join the Marshall Space Flight Center for its Up All Night chat on next week’s lunar eclipse. The chat room opens at 1:45 a.m. EDT on April 15.)

Now you have the opportunity to speak your mind again, by voting in the 2014 People’s Voice Awards.

(You will have to create a user account and presumably allow a cookie or other tracking technology to be used, as the Webby organizers are trying to prevent multiple votes from any account.) Once you’re signed in, you can search for NASA or find us under the Web > Government category.

NASA.gov is up against other worthy sites, of course, including our federal colleagues at NOAA for climate.gov. All of the nominated sites reflect a lot of hard work on someone’s part, so give them a look and cast your vote for the one you think best represents government on the web. And whether you vote for us or not, thank you for your support over the years.

What's Next for NASA.gov?

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We’re starting on the next go-round of what NASA.gov looks like and want to know what you think.

The digital universe has changed radically since we overhauled www.NASA.gov in 2007. When we released that version (NASA.gov 5.0) we were most concerned with reorganizing our content so that it reflects how the general public sees NASA and its work, making things easier for people to find. (Your feedback said we largely succeeded, though with a site as complex as NASA’s it will never be perfect.) We also added blogs and the ability for users to rate and comment on our content.

The biggest change since then has obviously been the growth of social media. You’ve probably seen some of the numbers: NASA has 1.3 million Facebook likes and 3.1 million Twitter followers, and more than 280,000 people circle us on Google+. I was wondering if that would mean a drop in visitors to the site as people became content with the information they could get on social media. In fact, visits to the site dropped from 2008 to 2009 and again from 2009 to 2010.  Then we set a record with 150 million visits to the site in 2011 and already have 166 million this year. With four years of data, it’s now no surprise that they don’t correlate: while there’s some overlap between the two audiences, almost 70 percent of our site visitors aren’t really influenced by social media. 

Meantime, we’ve been trying to bring the conversation back to NASA.gov. Social media sites are great for flashing the latest news or multimedia item around the world, but the depth and context are here on the site. We want to make sure people know that they can always learn more about what they’re most interested in by coming to the site. 

We also want our regular visitors to know that there’s NASA content available off the site. We’ve embedded the @NASA Twitter feed in the home page so visitors can see the latest updates. We’re pushing streams of NASA TV to Ustream and videos to YouTube, and offering programming there that isn’t on NASA TV. We’ve covered recent news events by putting up a splash page that combines live NASA TV with Twitter feeds and active commenting.

Hand-in-hand with social media’s growth has been the public’s adoption of smartphones to access websites. We launched the mobile version of www.NASA.gov a couple of years ago and have watched its usage grow. We recently put it through some user testing and made some changes based on the results.

So — do you like something you’ve seen? Is something missing? How do you interact with NASA online? Where else do you get your NASA news from? We’re opening up an online forum at Ideascale to take your feedback. You can offer ideas of your own or comment and vote on others’ suggestions. You can post comments here. We’ll take all the data and do some prototyping, then see what you think.

Changes to Our News Section

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Back in January we changed how we presented the main news stories on NASA’s Home Page. Under the old treatment

image of www.nasa.gov news feature
News-feature treatment before January 2012.
some people said they could not find stories other than the top one, even though the stories cycled through the main slot. And with our upcoming events “ticker” above the image, it was easy to mistake that line for the headline, which was actually below the picture. Finally, we had had perpetual complaints about it being impossible to find older stories once they dropped off the main page.

So we changed to the current format, which has only one photo with nothing cycling. We pulled the headlines for other important stories up to the right of the main image, and visually separated the ticker from the main news box. We also added an archive to older stories.
image of proposed news-feature treatment
Proposed news-feature treatment.
There was no overwhelming reaction. Our customer-satisfaction survey showed the exact same ratings for overall satisfaction and look and feel for the three months before the switch and the five months since. The navigation rating dropped a single point.
Still there were some complaints, primarily about having only one image. People expected to have an image come up in relation to the secondary stories. We’ve tried to address that, and you can see the result on this mockup. Instead of headlines for other stories, you have thumbnails that link to them, with an additional link to the archive. In keeping with the original changes, nothing happens as you move your mouse. You have to click. When you do, the large thumbnail and text comes up for that story.
We’re interested in your feedback — please let us know what you think. And a heads up that we’ll be coming back to you within a month or so for your ideas on what the next major overhaul of www.NASA.gov should look like.

NASA.gov and Social Media: Where Do They Meet?

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We released our last redesign in 2007. Since then social media have exploded and changed how people get information online. Social media have also raised the question of whether its participants are using their newer tools more exclusively, or are they still visiting existing web sites.

One of the questions we ask in our customer-satisfaction survey is how frequently a visitor accesses certain kinds of content or engages in particular activities. They respond on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (always). Here are the results for 2011, with each activity, followed by the percentage of people who answered 3, 4, or 5 (in other words, with some frequency), and then the percentage of people who answered 1 (never).

Images: 86%, 4%
Feature stories & news updates: 81%, 6%
Video Features: 70%, 10%
NASA TV streaming: 48%, 28%
Interactive Features: 48%, 23%
NASA calendar: 45%, 27%
Bookmark or tag pages: 32%, 43%
e-Mail updates: 28%, 57%
Read blogs: 26%, 47%
Use social networks to find out about NASA: 22%, 65%
myNASA: 27%, 53%
Podcasts: 20%, 57%
Add comments, ratings or reviews: 19%, 60%


No surprises at the top. Images and video have been the most popular elements on the site since I started editing it in 1995. The most interesting thing to me is that 2/3 of respondents say they don’t use social media to find out about NASA. We have a related question asking people what other tools besides NASA.gov do they use to find out about NASA. The responses:
  
  Watch NASA video on YouTube: 37%  
Visit newsmedia sites like cnn.com: 27%  
  Other: 20%  
  Participate in online communities like Facebook regarding NASA missions: 12%  
  Read blogs: 9%  
  Follow NASA Twitter feeds: 9%  
  RSS feeds: 5%  
  None: 5%  
  SMS/Texting: 1%  

Taken together, the two questions suggest that NASA’s web audience and social-media audiences are still distinct, only overlapping a small amount. As we move forward into the next version of NASA.gov, which we hope to start working on in the next few weeks, we’ll need to keep this in mind. We want to integrate more social media into the web site, but we can’t move totally in that direction because there’s still a large part of audience that hasn’t done so at all.

Please offer any feedback you’d like to in the comments section.

Changes Are Coming to NASA TV on the Web

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We’ve been streaming NASA TV on the web in earnest since 2004, when the Mars Exploration Rovers landed. Then 50,000 people watched our mission coverage on RealMedia, in windows probably not much bigger than today’s smartphone screen. Seven years later, more than 560,000 people watched the launch of the last space shuttle mission, many of them on an HD feed in Adobe Flash that filled a 22-inch monitor quite respectably. Others watched on their phones and tablets. Over the course of the mission, all that video meant that in two weeks we shipped almost as much data (1.2 petabytes, or more than 1.2 billion megabytes) than we did in all 2010.

And, unfortunately, we can’t afford to keep that up. Before adding HD and iOS streaming, we were streaming about 50 TB a month. Now we’re averaging five times that. This doesn’t fit well under a firm fixed-price contract. So while we’ve been able to find some additional funds, we’re also going to have to reduce our usage somewhat. Specifically, we’re going to:

  • Continue streaming the NASA TV public channel in HD at its current top resolution
  • Continue streaming to iOS devices at the current top resolution
  • Shift the ISS video stream to Ustream. (The mission audio stream, and the NASA TV media and educational channels, may also switch to Ustream.)
  • Discontinue streaming in RTSP format.

That last will affect users of older Android phones, those operating on OS 2.1 or earlier. Unfortunately, the cost of the RTSP stream was quite high (higher even that the main HD feed of NASA TV) and the audience was never very big, fewer than 800 during peaks that saw hundreds of thousands of users on other formats. So it simply didn’t make sense to keep doing it that way. While we hate to shut down any capability, we do have to manage the taxpayers’ money smartly.

You’ll see these changes take affect late next week. We’re sorry for any inconvenience.

Why Do You Have to Type out ‘www’ to Get to our Website?

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Itseems really simple – just three letters. But they seem to annoy some of ourusers, who have let us know: “Why do I have to type www.nasa.gov and not just nasa.gov? Don’t you people even know the basics of running aweb site?”

 

Theanswer goes back to the early 1990s, when the Internet existed – but the WorldWide Web did not. NASA was on the Net very early in its history, and thenasa.gov Domain Name Servers (DNS) – the Internet’s version of a phone book(OK, online directory) – handled bulletin board systems, Gopher and more. Whenthe World Wide Web came along,  www.nasa.gov becamethe agency’s primary home online.

 

Todaythe World Wide Web is still one of the many, many networked services NASAprovides, all based on the nasa.gov domain. But along the way the web became thepublic’s most widely used aspect of the Internet, so much that the “www”became almost implicit. It started to disappear from the URLs of popularwebsites. NASA never made that switch, and our domain servers still do notforward users looking for nasa.gov to www.nasa.gov. (Though many web browsers now do that automatically once you’ve visited asite.)

 

Settingup our infrastructure to do that is technically straightforward: we need to addmore servers to handle a lot of additional traffic on the front end, beforepeople get to content. There are both implementation and ongoing operationalcosts to doing so, and that’s where the decision point is. Is this the best useof NASA’s resources?

 

Weare in the age of zero-sum budgets: when we spend money in one area, we don’tspend it on another. In the last year we’ve been improving our on-demand video capability,optimizing our mobile site and expanding the reach of our live video viaUstream and smartphones. All of those things are increasing the reach of www.nasa.gov, probably more than the DNS fixwould.

 

Still,we’ve got the plans and are evaluating them and the opportunity costs ofimplementing. We’ll keep you apprised.

A Webby three-peat! Thank you!

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The 2011 Webby Awards are out, and one more time you have named us your favorite government site. The whole NASA.gov web team says thank you. The editors, videographers, multimedia developers and infrastructure managers all do their best to provide you with compelling content that brings you back time and again. This makes three awards in a row for NASA.gov, and four overall. Again, thank you.

Our colleagues at JPL were honored by the Webby judges, who chose NASA’s Global Climate Change site as the best science site. Another JPL site, Solar System Exploration, was nominated in the government category.

Over the past year, we’ve been working on both infrastructure and content to try to keep our momentum going. We’ve got multimedia pieces on the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch and the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. space flight. We’ve streamlined our video presentation into one player and created an optimized version of the site for mobile devices. Developers around NASA have been releasing apps for iPhones, iPads and Android devices. (We’re still working on our TV streaming for the latter. The different flavors of Android make it less straightforward than streaming to iOS devices. But we hope to have it running for the next launch.)

This summer we’ll be covering the end of the shuttle program, as well as transitioning to a new web-services contract and probably some new tools. But after that’s done, it will be time to start thinking about what the next version of NASA.gov looks like. As always, we appreciate your feedback. And thanks for your support over the years.

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