Redesigning the Writing Lab and OWL Pages
The Purdue OWL you are using today is the result of collaborative work from many talented developers who have contributed to the OWL since its GOPHER / FTP days in the early 1990s. The latest design builds on the visionary work of Dr. Karl Stolley who redesigned the OWL in 2005 to incorporate standards based resources for better Web accessibility. Dr. Stolley's efforts also included a data base-driven content management system that made it easier for Writing Lab staff to work on the OWL.
So in the past three years, the OWL has experienced a number of changes. In some cases, these changes have been slow and a bit confusing for users. But this process reflects considerable theoretical work (user-centered/participatory design) and detailed empirical research. In short, with such a popular and helpful writing resource on the line, we wanted to get it right.
Most recently, the team working on the OWL redesign included:
Dr. Linda Bergmann, Director of the Writing Lab
Tammy Conard-Salvo, Associate Director Purdue Writing Lab
Dr. Michael J. Salvo, Associate Professor in the Purdue Professional Writing Program
Allen Brizee, Purdue OWL Coordinator and member of the OWL Usability Project
Jeff Bacha, Purdue OWL Webmaster
Morgan Sousa, member of the OWL Usability Project
Brandon Patton, Purdue OWL Assistant Webmaster
Bonnie Stockwell, Purdue OWL Assistant Coordinator
How we got here
The current OWL home page and the new interior pages are part of a combined effort between the Writing Lab, the Purdue Professional Writing Program, and OWL users to improve usability and accessibility of the OWL. In 2006, user-centered design theories and usability research produced data that assisted Writing Lab staff in redesigning the home page and the interior pages, as well as the navigation features of the OWL. This research continues with the OWL Usability Survey and new work with blind and low-vision users.
What we accomplished
OWL Family of Sites Home Page
We redesigned the OWL Family of Sites home page. The new portal page reflects research participants' design preferences. New features on the portal page, also user-driven, include a suggested resources list for our various user-groups, a most popular resources list, and a search box. This design was released in Fall of 2008.
Writing Lab and OWL Interior Pages
We redesigned the Writing Lab and OWL interior pages. The new interior pages also reflect research participants' design preferences. New features of the interior pages, also user-driven, include a more navigable format: links to all areas of the OWL, a three-tiered navigation bar, a new search function on all resources, and a wider page design. The new Writing Lab and Purdue OWL News pages were released in March 2008. The OWL interior pages (housing the handouts, also known as resources) were released in January 2010.
New Content Areas
We have added two new content areas to the OWL: Engagement and Research. These sections were released in March 2008.
The Engagement area of the OWL hosts outreach efforts between the Writing Lab and local organizations. While the OWL itself reflects an ongoing and serious commitment to engagement that has global impact, less work has been accomplished in engaging local institutions in greater Lafayette and Indiana. We believe projects and resources housed in the OWL Engagement area help address this gap and align nicely with Purdue's land-grant state university mission.
The Research area of the OWL hosts complete works or citations of research conducted on or about the Purdue OWL and other writing centers. We believe the Research section answers the call from scholars like Davida Charney (“Empiricism is Not a Four-Letter Word,” 1996) and Richard Haswell (“NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship," 2005) who underscore the value of empirical work in rhetoric and composition studies.
Redirected Resources from the Old OWL
We redirected all of the old resource (handout) Web addresses (url's) to the new OWL site. During the latest redesign, some users were confused by the OWL's dual personality: one OWL resource was on the new site, another resource was on the old site. Some OWL resources reflected the latest APA and MLA guidelines while others on the old site did not. It's enough to drive teachers crazy!
We agree. And it's been a bit crazy trying to handle research on the OWL while shifting the vast library of the old OWL material to the new site. Due to this laborious effort, we were not able to make changes to the old site. But we still had to "bring over" and update all of the OWL material into the new area. We hope that by redirecting the old Web addresses we have solved users' confusion regarding the old and new sites. If you cannot find an old OWL resource on the new site, please contact the Purdue OWL Coordinator or the Purdue OWL Webmaster.
Despite these notable changes, the current OWL maintains many of Dr. Stolley's design elements. For example, different areas of the OWL still feature different colors in order to help users navigate such a large Web site. Also, we retained the clean, retro style Dr. Stolley used when he redesigned the OWL in 2005. We believe these features are a unique and branded look for the Purdue OWL, and we have received positive feedback from users regarding the crisp design.
Important changes users do not see
A New Back End
A new "front end" - pages OWL visitors see and use - is accompanied by a new "back end" - pages staff use to maintain the OWL. We are still using the database Dr. Stolley built, but a new content management system now drives OWL work - Archimedes. Archimedes, the brainchild of Dana Driscoll and Brandon Patton, helps less technically inclined staff work on the OWL.
Archimedes is also used to track content errors and programming bugs on the OWL through a bug tracking system. Lastly, Archimedes helps manage content development through a project management application. Even though users do not see this part of the OWL, it is important to note that the new content management system will contribute to the sustainability and the quality of the OWL for many years.
What is on the horizon
While an online, technology-driven, user-focused resource like the OWL should never be "finished," most of the major redesign efforts are being completed during 2009-2010 (for now). However, based on user feedback and work with blind and low-vision research participants, we will continue to make moderate adjustments to the OWL. We are anxious to observe how the latest changes will affect users' OWL experiences, and we look forward to corresponding with you in the future.
Please let us know what you think and how we can continue to help you access and use the OWL resources you have depended on for the last thirteen years.
Allen Brizee, Purdue OWL Coordinator
Jeff Bacha, Purdue OWL Webmaster