Monday, April 7, 2008

Progress Report: One Month of Alpha Testing

FromThePage has been on a production server for about a month now, and the results have been fascinating. The first few days' testing revealed some shocking usability problems. In some places (transcription and login most notoriously) the code was swallowing error messages instead of displaying them to the user. Zoom didn't work in Internet Explorer. And there were no guardrails that kept the user from losing a transcription-in-progress.

After fixing these problems, the family and friends who'd volunteered to try out the software started making more progress. The next requests that came in were for transcription conventions. After about three requests for these, I started displaying the conventions on the transcription screen itself. This seems to have been very successful, and is something I'd never have come up with on my own.

The past couple of weeks have been exciting. My old college roommate started transcribing entries from the 1919 diary, and entered about 15 days in January -- all in two days work. In addition to his technical feedback, two things I'd hoped for happened:
  • We started collaborating. My roommate had transcribed the entries on a day when he'd had lots of time. I reviewed his transcriptions and edited the linking syntax. Then my father edited the resulting pages, correcting names of people, events, and animals based on his knowledge of the diaries' context.
  • My roommate got engaged. His technical suggestions were peppered with comments on the entries themselves and the lives of the people in the diaries. I've seen this phenomenon at Pepys Diary Online, but it's really heartening to get a glimpse of that kind of engagement with a manuscript.
I've also had some disappointments. It looks like I'll have to discard my zoom feature and replace it with something using the Google Maps API. People now expect to pan by dragging the image, and I my home-rolled system simply can't support that.

I really planned on moving developing printing and analytical tools next, but we're finding that the social software features are becoming essential. The bare-bones "Recent Activity" panel I slapped together one night has become the most popular feature. We need to know who edited what, what pages remain to be transcribed, and which transcriptions need review. I've resuscitated this winter's comment feature, polished the "Recent Activity" panel, and am working on a system for displaying a page's transcription status in the work's table of contents.

All of these developments are the results of several hours of careful, thoughtful review by volunteers like my father and my roommate. There is simply no way I could have invited the public in to the site as it stood a month ago, which I did not know at the time. There's still a lot to be done before FromThePage is "ready for company", but I think it's on track.

If you'd like to try the software out, leave me a comment or send mail to


Karin Dalziel said...

Have you ever looked into Zoomify? ( We use this at work to provide zooming and panning of images. There are plugins for several software suites and a free standalone program.

Ben W. Brumfield said...

Thanks for the recommendation!

Since I need to integrate it with my work/page upload system, it looks like I'd have to purchase the $795 version, which I'm not sure runs on Unix.

I've seen at least one post on an open-source Javascript tile-server, which I'd like to play with before I shell out that money and introduce a commercial dependency into my app.

Karin Dalziel said...

Aww, that's too bad. I'm not sure how we worked zoomify into our routine at work, but I'm pretty sure we didn't buy it. Have not tried on Linux- wonder if the free version runs through Wine?

Good luck finding something that works liek you want!