Screencast: overhauled ‘Members’ area

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a three-minute screencast showcasing our overhauled ‘Members’ area within a yearbook (full-screen recommended)

We just launched a completely overhauled ‘Members’ area within our yearbooks. Instead of the slow, long list of members that it used to be, the Members page is now based around a fully-featured search that allows you to quickly see, at a glance, various useful things. For instance, our system now lets you see a list of members who:

  • Are in a particular yearbook group, e.g. ‘Teachers’
  • Aren’t in any of your yearbook groups
  • Haven’t written anything for their entry
  • Haven’t uploaded a profile photo
  • Who have uploaded the most photos

And that’s not all! The essence of the new system lets you simple type ‘smith’ into the search box and find all members with that name, Google-style. 🙂

Screencast: uploading many photos at once

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A quick screencast showcasing our improved photo uploading system (full-screen recommended)

To follow up from the previous blog post, this short screencast demonstrates how photo uploading works for our yearbooks. The much-demanded feature to be able to upload more than one photo at a time is here.

In the future, we plan to add a Flash-based file uploader to enable everyone to upload files on-the-fly 🙂

Screencast: photo management improvements

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A quick screencast showcasing the photo management improvements on an example photo folder (full-screen recommended)

Recently, we upgraded the photo management so that it’s now easier to use and work with. You can now navigate between photos in a fashion similar to websites like Facebook or Flickr; whilst viewing a photo, click on it (or click the ‘next’ link) to go to the next photo in the set.

The other major improvement is the ability to upload more than one photo at a time. We now allow everyone to upload three photos at a time, and each photo file can be up to 10 MB in size. (To save time uploading, we recommend you resize all your photos with the “Large” options using Image Resizer on Windows XP.)

Other notable improvements include:

  • Mass captioning and adding of descriptions
  • Browsing between: all of a members’ uploaded photos, all photos in a photo folder or all photos in your yearbook
  • Using left/right arrow keys to quickly flick between photos in a set
  • Rotation of uploaded photos

Our new updated chat system

We launched a major new feature on the 14th of October last year: a built-in chat system. Since then, we have chatted to a remarkable 144 different customers who have yearbooks with us and in that time over 12,000 lines of chat have been sent back-and-forth between the staff here and our wonderful customers.

When we launched the new features last week, the chat system let us get immediate feedback from you, our customers, and the new site updates were well praised 🙂

Today, we upgraded the chat system to iron out some bugs, and add support for a certain less-capable browser that is still installed in a large proportion of schools and colleges: Internet Explorer 6. Our chat system now works fully on Internet Explorer (version 6 and later), Mozilla Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera and more!

So, if you’ve got any questions about your yearbook, the website or anything else, simply login and start chatting to us. During working hours (and often outside of them!) someone will reply within a few minutes, sometimes seconds 😀

Yearbook, year book, year books, yearbooks – the linguistic solution

Since starting out working for AllYearbooks, I’ve been surprised by some of the linguistic spin that the English are prepared to put on the word yearbook.

Thankfully, we don’t see emails with a horrifying hyphen: year-book or year-books. But, we do see a LOT of emails asking about a year book or year books, and one of Jake’s earliest comments on ‘house style’ was about using the word yearbook without a space – I didn’t know you had a choice!

With a background in linguistics and language history, I am sad enough to find the distinction interesting, so I looked into the background of the word. (and you get to read about it 🙂 )

My girlfriend spent much of her childhood in America, and went to school there,  so that seemed a good place to start. Her high school certainly talked about yearbooks and not ‘year book’ or ‘year books’, and she gave a characteristic sardonic look at the suggestion that anyone might.

So far so good – as we know, Americans invented the school yearbook concept. Sadly, as well as a linguist I’m a pedant (they go together), so I looked further, and that meant Wikipedia…

Yearbooks are published in nearly all schools and universities throughout the US, and also those in Canada and Australia, but the form changes considerably.

In America, the yearbooks feature the entire school, with extra space for leavers and lots more feature pages for societies and sports teams. By the end of high school you’d have four yearbooks – not bad as a way to track yourself through and keep up with all the people you knew from different years!

In Australia, the yearbook is more like a magazine of events throughout the school year. It’s edited by teachers on the whole, and can be so lacking in student life that enterprising year 12 leavers will frequently make their own yearbook to publish separately.

Yearbooks in England – a relatively new phenomenon – take to doing a single school year, and so tend to give more like a quarter or half a page per student (depending on price). Apparently, it’s more common for year 11 to break down into forms, and for year 13 to have all the members alphabetically in one group (we’ll have to check our statistics and give some Beta!)

Everyone in the world produces sponsor pages to get money flowing – EVERYONE uses ‘yearbook’ and not ‘year book’.

But Wikipedia’s not the best for etymology. It does, however, disambiguate to ‘year books’ which were English law reports detailing precedents and legal tradition from the 13th through to the 16th century.

This looked promising, and sure enough an online etymological dictionary gave the original sense of ‘yearbook’ as a book of case reports from the law-courts for that year. It comes from a compound of year+book.

The earliest citation of yearbook in this sense was 1588, conveniently placed to be the English language’s continuation of the ‘year books’ mentioned on Wikipedia.

Much later, in 1926, you get the first appearance of ‘yearbook’ in the sense of a school annual in American English – so, yes, the Yanks really did invent it.

There’s your answer. Year book and year books is out; yearbook and yearbooks is in. (year-book/year-books doesn’t even get near the door)

Obviously, spellings tend to be governed by current linguistic trends, but more to the point, there was a conscious shift from year book to yearbook, and it happened a long time ago. Not only shouldn’t we use the two-word ‘year book’, but we shouldn’t have been using it for the last 500 years 😉

Yours faithfully – comments from the Cod

Site Development – Part 2: Yearbook PDFs

As David pointed out in the last blog post, we are currently under heavy development here at the AllYearbooks’ offices busy developing new and exciting features for the coming academic yearbooks. Apart from the chat system (which is already working) we’re well on the way to implementing a new way of generating the final PDF file for each yearbook.

Our system is quite unique in that as you progress building your yearbook — inviting new members, uploading photos, adding custom pages and so forth — you are given the opportunity to preview exactly how your book will look once it’s gone to print. 🙂 We’re keeping this useful feature but making important changes:

  • Allowing members to upload two profile photos each
  • Making our templates accommodate this second photo
  • Text that wraps and flows professionally around objects on the page
  • Rounded corners on borders and photos

The greatest change, though, will be that because of the new programming of our PDF system, we will soon be able to create unique, custom templates when one of our lovely customers requests it. For example, if the selection of templates provided doesn’t suit you or you like the look of one but would prefer it with a few tweaks here-and-there, we will be able to modify an existing template or create a brand new one for your yearbook.

Compared to our competition, I think this is getting the “best of both worlds” — everyone uploads their entries and photos online, the editors choose or requests a template and the final yearbook feels impressive and gleams with professionalism. Plus, unlike some of our competitors, you won’t need to wait a week or more for your template to be generated for you 🙂

Site Development – Part 1: The live chat

It’s site development season!

The last few months in Jake and Jamey’s room haven’t just been about increasing monitor volume. While Nic and I keep on top of everyone’s needs, they’ve been programming like demons.

So what’s new? There’s even better security and backups for the online information and enough server capacity to support all the yearbooks people can throw at us. And come New Year, something else — a new and more versatile PDF creator for the online yearbooks!

First though, we should mention the yearbook chat!

This little feature — found now in the bottom right corner of the online yearbook — lets us give instant support and advice to editors, and editors can also use it to talk to each other. What’s more, Jamey spent an entire afternoon stocking it with open source smileys 😀 .

Jake intends to extend the system later in the year to have a separate ‘room’ for editors to talk to each other without our help desk getting involved, and potentially another room for all members to talk to each other too. It’s going to make for an awesome community within each yearbook.

I can’t speak for the tech side of things (although I know J&J gave a talk at a local Cambridge programmers’ meet that went down really well: Refresh Cambridge) but for helping customers it’s amazing! We can help with little queries instantly.

Even a little random chatter goes down well while it’s quiet still. Shows people are on the site and enjoying it!

Chat history has all the conversations stored, and so it’s a great place to gather tips. And from our end, all those emails with typos in are a lot less hassle 😉

Web-based yearbook systems: AllYearbooks vs. the competition

Hmm… we’ve spent a bit of time recently testing our online yearbook system versus ‘similar’ systems offered by our primary competitors here in the UK. The results were… umm… interesting.

In brief: we believe that we are far, far, far and away the best. [1]

It would probably be unfair to name names. But we’ve tried three web-based systems so far by three of our competitors, and they’ve actually made us laugh out loud – they really are that bad [1]. They just don’t get it and they don’t understand what the customers want. Usability is terrible, security is severely lacking in various instances, and the lack of important features is criminal.

Security and privacy

Security and privacy concerns should be really, really important for anyone looking to do a yearbook online. You want to be able to trust your yearbook company with the data you give them, know that your private data is well protected and use a system with complete confidence.

I’m a web developer and I created AllYearbooks and I still work as a web developer for AllYearbooks. I’m a complete geek and know an awful lot about secruity. Unfortunately, it appears as though some of our competitors are technologically clueless and unfortunately this is reflected in how they handle security and privacy.

Within minutes of signing up to one of our competitors’ web-based yearbook systems we were able to exploit a critical flaw which would enable a normal member of that yearbook to gain access as an editor without the editor ever knowing.

Another competitor shows a complete disregard for the privacy of their customers. It’s possible to run a script against their basic login page to collect the name of every single student and teacher in their yearbooks as well as what school they belong. Truly shocking.

At AllYearbooks we take both security and privacy very, very seriously. We regularly audit our code and systems for potential flaws, taking action immediately if we find anything that needs fixing. We get the feeling that our competitors either don’t know or don’t care.

Usability

When using our competitor’s web-based yearbook systems at various times we were completely flummoxed and just went “Whaaaatttt????”. They’re just really, really hard to use and to know what you’re doing. You click one link and it takes you somewhere and you just have no idea what’s going on and how to get back to where you were. In Firefox and other browsers that aren’t Internet Explorer some things just don’t work or don’t look right at all. That’s about 25% of visitors who they don’t care about.

Features

We have loads and loads of features we’d love to add to AllYearbooks and are working on them all the time. Yes, we haven’t built them all yet but they’re in the pipeline!

Key to our web-based system is this: collaborative yearbooks, created by everyone, sharing the workload. Few competitors seems to understand how important this is. One has a system where only editors can login; another has a system where members can also login but can’t see what other people are doing; the other… well… we were so confused by their website we had no idea how it worked to be honest.

No competitor offered anywhere near the quality and quantity of features offered by us at AllYearbooks.

Slowness and downtime

We couldn’t even access some of our competitors’ websites all of the time. They were down, or massively massively slow. This would absolutely infuriate me if I was one of their customers.

We’ve had about an hour or two’s downtime in the last three years. When we get busy, things get a tad slower, but then we upgrade to a new server and everything runs well again. We track performance with eagle eyes and constantly tweak and optimize code to make things run smoothly.

Conclusions

In some ways its nice to see that we’ve still got one of the best online yearbook systems. We’ve been a little slower in developing new features over the past two years than we’d have liked (due in part to Jake’s 11 month old baby!) but we’re still way ahead of the competition. It feels like we’re comparing apples with spaceships.

But there are also downsides. We can imagine our competitors having plenty of customers attracted by their hard-sales techniques and misleading marketing – then they use their web-based system and hate it so much that they never want to use a website to make their yearbooks ever again. And that hurts us.

[1]: Though please do try out our competitors’ systems and see for yourself 🙂

2008-2009 yearbook website launched!!!

Woo… we’re there! After lots of debugging, last minute error catching, tweaks, geeky Linux commands and general mayhem, we’ve finally launched the new website 🙂

At around 13:37 this afternoon with only about 2 minutes of down time. Unfortunately there was no big red button to press, but the ‘launch sequence’ was something like this:

$ vim /etc/httpd/conf.d/allyearbooks.conf
[edit virtual hosts here]
$ service httpd stop
$ mv public_html 08
$ service httpd start

… that’s geek talk for “make new website work and stuff”.

So, what’s changed? Umm… not an awful lot for you. The main changes are behind the scense to make our lives easier and hence keep our time down and hence the costs for you! But apart from that, we have made some minor tweaks here and there, and we’ve also added the ability for you to create a web-based yearbook all yourselves, without having to contact us at all first. So if you find us at 2am and want to get going straight away then now you can. Top banana.

Also important is that now that we’ve finally launched we can begin adding in lots and lots of new features on top of the new code base. So back to coding for me then.

Ready for 2007-2008 Yearbooks

Just a quick hello to say yes, we are still here, and that we’re now ready to make yearbooks for the 2007-2008 academic year (though we still have 2 or 3 stragglers from the previous year yet to complete their yearbooks!).

We’ve been extremely busy in the last academic year, making yearbooks for over 60 schools, colleges, universities and other groups. And we’ve found the feedback to be amazing – just have a look at our testimonials page to see what we mean. It really does make us very happy 🙂

We’ve also moved address twice in the last year – firstly from Bromley to London, and then from London to Cambridge. The main reason for the last move is that we’re expecting a baby in two months – we can’t wait!