Texo Blog…

Adding a new school year in MyHomeSchoolPlan.com

August 3rd, 2009

When we built myhomeschoolplan.com and launched the service back in January ’09, we only had the functionality of having a single school year. Were we shortsighted, or lacking in confidence, thinking we would only make it through May? No and no :)

We didn’t need it at the time and there were more customer-facing features to add. Plus, it was a great feature to get feedback from users as they used our service to create their first school year. Now that they have done that, they can tell us how to create school year number two, three, etc. And creating a ‘next’ school year is different than creating your first school year. In many cases, customer want to move their courses from one year to the next. Some times they want to move the course but have a different child take the course this year.

The point is that had we built this at the outset, we would have built it differently than building it now, and it would have been worse. This fits with our attempts to follow 37 Signals Getting Real philosophy, specifically the “It’s a problem when it’s a problem.”

MyHomeSchoolPlan.com – an update

June 29th, 2009

Several months ago we launched myhomeschoolplan.com. It was a very soft launch; we twittered the launch and posted on a couple of homeschool forums.

It has been interesting watching how the site grows since then. We now have over 330 hundred customers using the service. There have been weeks where the number barely moved, then would jump 25 customers in a day. Typically we could trace this to word-of-mouth. Someone would ask a question in a homeschool forum about what options are out there for homeschool scheduling and tracking, and another person would post a positive response to our service, and our numbers would jump. This would also occur via twitter.
My advice from that is to make sure you monitor twitter and forums in your niche to see what is being said. One compliment we got was our quick response time, and that was often because we were listening to those channels.
The tools I use to monitor:
  • Eventbox: this is a mac-only desktop tool for social networks (twitter, facebook, etc.) What I like most is I can set up searches right in the app. So I used this for twitter.
  • Google alerts and Techrigy: I used both of these services for monitoring what was being said about the product on the web. Techrigy is a terrific service; my needs were small so I used the free version. I use google alerts as well. Between these two I feel I am getting what I need on the web.

Speaking at Ignite Event

April 8th, 2009

Minneapolis joins the ranks of other cities hosting Ignite events. What is Ignite? From the site:

Basically, a person prepares a brief presentation on any topic. They get exactly 20 slides to tell their story, and each slide displays onscreen for exactly 15 seconds. So that’s 5 minutes per presenter.

As someone who can speak extemporaneously, but can also meander, I think this will be a fun challenge. The 20 slides will be fun and easy. The 15 seconds will be a challenge.

I plan on weaving my my experience in user experience with the launch of myhomeschoolplan.com into one presentation, focusing on how user experience can lead to innovative new ideas.

I’ll post back when the event is over and link to the slides after the event.

The event is April 22nd at Solera in downtown Minneapolis, MN.

Launch of MyHomeSchoolPlan.com

January 7th, 2009

We’ve posted about it here and hereMyHomeSchoolPlan has launched.  Many thanks to Dave Reid who has worked tirelessly on this application.  To Mike Lieven who has contributed to the building of this application as well.   And a special thanks of my wife Jenn who has had to be our chief tester and customer along the way.

We’ll be writing much more about the product on the blog.MyHomeSchoolPlan.com site, but on this site we’ll talk about how this came to be built.

Been away too long – launch coming

January 3rd, 2009

We had really meant to tweet and blog our way through a product launch and it would have been interesting to go through the process here, but frankly, life has been too busy and I’ve refused all along to post for the sake of posting.

That said, this week we are launching our first product, a web application for homeschool parents.  Currently, if you go to myhomeschoolplan.com you will see our blog for homeschool site.  This week, the blog will go to the blog page, and the URL will be the home page for our application.

I’ll start posting our experiences in retrospect since I didn’t write them real-time and hopefully they’ll still be interesting.

Our product is a web application, written in Ruby by TexoDev co-founder Dave Reid.  The inspiration for this product arose from a personal need.  In 2007 my wife and I decided to homeschool our three children.  We have not been happy with the products available to keep track of the courses, course material, and most importantly, work the children are doing.  They like to see their work for the week and be able to check it off as they go.

Out of that need we create MyHomeSchoolPlan.com, a web application where you create your student schedule and record activities, and look at reports such as report cards or hours worked.  The tool works for any type of homeschool curriculum, online school, classical curriculum, or unschooling, to name a few.

We’ll blog the launch here and at the site.  The homeschool site will focus more on feature / function (as well as other homeschool topics) while the TexoDev site will focus more on the business side, and technical side.


Plugin Developed to Eliminate Hard Coded Theme Values

August 6th, 2008

To hard code or hard coding (also, hard-code/hard-coding, hardcode/hardcoding) refers to the software development practice of embedding input or configuration data directly into the source code of a program or other executable object, or fixed formatting of the data, instead of obtaining that data from external sources or generating data or formatting in the program itself with the given input. (According to Wikipedia)

During the creation of UrbanMilwaukee.com one of the obstacles we faced with utilizing the BranfordMagazine theme was the use of hard coded values to control the layout of the site.  Specifically this value was used by the theme to determine which articles appeared in the “Featured” section and which categories should display in the two article columns on the homepage.  I’ve written code for years and one of the oldest rules in programming is to avoid hard coding of values. The reasons to avoid hard coding are numerous but in this case the hard coded values limited the theme’s flexibility, added to the possibility of errors, required the mapping of a code to a category name in multiple locations, and made configuring the site difficult 

To eliminate these issues and allow the site to be more flexible we decided it would be best if we could manage the categories through the WordPress Administration Panel.  To do this we needed to develop a plugin which would allow us to set the categories as needed.  Due to time constraints the plugin was designed with a limited number of options which is a design limitation in itself but this design resolved the flexibility and configuration problems we were facing. 

The code utilizing the hard coded values that set the “Feature” is located in ui.tabs.php.  The line of code is below:


This was replaced with the code below

query_posts('showposts=1&cat=' .get_option('urban_mag_config_lead_category1'));

To store the option ‘urban_mag_config_lead_category1’ the plugin needed a dropdown to select the Category.  The code for this is below:

 $categories = get_categories();
 $catid = get_option('urban_mag_config_lead_category1');
 wp_dropdown_categories('hierarchical=1&name=urban_mag_config_lead_category1&selected=' . $catid);

This was just one example of the hard coded values that we replaced with dropdown settings in the plugin.  By making these changes we are now able to change the featured category whenever needed.  Additionally with these changes in place instead of code changes when we setup a new WordPress site utilizing this theme it will only require configurations.  This is just one small example of the changes we’ve made to the BranfordMagazine. In future blogs I’ll continue to highlight other features and enhancements to hopefully give you some ideas for your next theme.  And of course, if you are interested in a WordPress site, drop us a line and let’s talk.

UrbanMilwaukee.com “Championing Urban Life in the Cream City”

July 9th, 2008

Urbanism: “The culture or way of life of city dwellers.”

I moved to downtown Milwaukee in 2002 and have since become both a fan of the city and a fan of city life.  I found that the lifestyle of living, working, and playing all within the city could allow me to make a great living, enjoy more of my time, interact regularly with people from a wide background, live green, and enjoy a higher quality of life.  It is this passion for urbanism and Milwaukee that grew into a new joint venture between Texo Development and fellow Milwaukee tech shop Fresh Coast Ventures.  Jeramey Jannene co-founder of Fresh Coast Ventures started UrbanMilwaukee.com in early 2007 with a similar passion for Milwaukee and urban life.  Our combined efforts intend to allow UrbanMilwaukee.com to cover a wider array of issues including mass transit, public spaces, local government, and economic development projects in Milwaukee.   Truly our goal is to “Champion Urban Life in the Cream City.”

Not only did we teamed up with  Fresh Coast Ventures to be partners in content creation but also to develop the look and feel of UrbanMilwaukee.com.  First we selected WordPress as the platform for this project because it gives you the tools you need to get a site up fast, yet the flexibility to make the site your own. Next, we considered a variety of themes including a more businesslike look and feel, a web magazine style that allows a clean split of categories, and enough open spaces for customization. The base theme we settled on was BranfordMagazine because this theme had many valuable features and displays content in the style of magazine.  Although the BranfordMagazine theme was a good starting point it required numerous updates to achieve what we had in mind.  The five major improvements we made were:

  1. Plugin to Manage theme settings – This plugins handles which categories are displayed on the homepage’s.  The BranfordMagazine theme based category selection on hardcoded values which would make data conversion from an existing site difficult and took away from the ability to customize the homepage. 
  2. Enhanced Top Level Navigation –  The navigation was customized to support both categories and pages as part of the dropdown menuing system.
  3. Custom Header Image – On category pages the header image changes to match the category page a user is viewing if a matching image is available.
  4. flickr Integration – On category pages flickr images from the flickr group “UrbanMilwaukee” display in the right hand sidebar based on matching the category to the tag.
  5. del.icio.us Integration – On category pages del.icio.us links display in the right hand sidebar based on matching the category to the tag.

We look forward to evolving UrbanMilwaukee.com, and to continuing development work.  If you are interested in a WordPress site, drop us a line and let’s talk.

Working for the “shoe”

May 28th, 2008

Dave’s and my mutual friend and mentor recently took a position as the CIO of Red Wing Shoe. His post about his first couple weeks is here.

When you hear agencies or other marketers talking about “authentic” communication and being real, Red Wing is a great example. It’s why I agree with Kathy Sierra when she pushes back (slightly) on community building as an end rather than a means to an end.

You first build loyalty, authenticity and community by creating a product that is so kick-ass that it inspires loyalty, authenticity, and community. Unless you are a site like twitter where the value is in the people itself, it rarely is the other way around.

Congrats to our friend Joe, I look forward to hearing about what inspires this inside the company.

Friday Photos Version 1.2

May 16th, 2008

This release corrects two minor issues and implements a new feature. First, the most significant issue corrected was that the number of photos added to the post wasn’t always returning the amount specified by the option “Max Number of Photos to Display”. This was happening because the number of uniquely titled photos requested could be more than the number of photos recieved from the Flickr API call. Essentially the correction required calling the Flickr API until the “Max Number of Photos to Display” value had been reached or no more photos were available that matched the search criteria. The second issue required the renaming of the more_reccurences() and all references to it, to fridayphotos_more_reccurences(). This was to insure no collisions would occur with other plugins implementing this function. A new feature was also added to this release it will allow for posts to be generated in statuses other than “published”. This is managed on the Friday Photos’ “Option” screen through a new DropDownBox titled “WordPress Post Status” that allows the user to select the appropriate status. You can download the Version 1.2 of Friday Photos here.

What would ya say ya do here?

May 11th, 2008

I spent yesterday at the Minneapolis / St. Paul MinneBar BarCamp, my first BarCamp attendance. I thought it was terrific. I’ll write more about that later. What struck me yesterday is trying to explain what I do succinctly when asked. So I will expound upon that here and then perhaps with help come up with my ‘elevator pitch’ explanation that allows me to portray my work both at TexoDev as well as Gomoll Research + Design.

I’m thinking something like “I make stuff easier.”

At Gomoll Research + Design, I focus on the user experience design element. We are a small company with amazingly talented people (and I don’t throw those words around loosely.) Someone like me focuses on Field Studies, watching people interact with something, software, hardware, people, stores, and derive important information from these observations. Working collaboratively I then work on paper prototypes and conceptual models to come up with design options.

Now with Gomoll it’s more like “We design elegant product experiences.”

I then include visual/graphic designers who take these ideas and implement them in presenting fantastic mock-ups that we can then test.

At TexoDev, we partner with Gomoll and, to use the cable companies phrase, work on “the last mile” i.e. the development. We do a lot at TexoDev beyond our work with Gomoll, on helping companies get a web presence using tools like WordPress and Drupal.

Now with TexoDev it’s “We build cool stuff.”

At a personal level, both Dave Reid and I are increasingly getting involved in our respective communities, Dave in Milwaukee, me in Minneapolis. We blog, twitter, and attend various events such as UPA, MNteractive, PDMA, web414, BarCamps, and many more. Dave is active in the Milwaukee community on urbanism topics; I talk a lot about social media and how the local aspects are interesting.

Not sure where that goes on the scale but I think it is going to be more important.

I think that last one should be something like “We engage talented people beyond our company walls”.

That gives me three short sentences to capture my focus in my work life. I work for Gomoll Research + Design where we design elegant product experiences, at TexoDev we build cool stuff, engaging talented people beyond our company walls. The last question, why, is easy “because the user experience IS the brand.” We help our clients create stronger connections with their customers.

Thanks for listening… :)