Monday, 27 April 2009

Bob the Alien's Tour of the Solar System - How do you solve a problem like Bob the Alien?

Something that has been concerning me for sometime about Bob the Alien's Tour of the Solar System is the site's name. Sometimes I don't think it suits the website's content. Obviously the Solar System part of it is okay seeing as the site is about space, but the Bob the Alien bit of it it can be seen as a bit childish. This wasn't a problem when the site was being planned and initally developed, seeing as it was originally aimed at children in their last three years of primary school (aged 8-11). However, feedback from visitors suggests that the site's users are older than the original target audience, and as such, newer content has reflected this and is more in depth. I wouldn't say it's more complex, but it tends to go into more detail. A typical example can be seen by comparing one of the site's earliest pages (Jupiter's Great Red Spot) with one of its more recent (Journeys to Jupiter). However, the information provided on the Journeys to Jupiter page, which may be useful for anybody wanting to know about Jupiter missions, is likely to get ignored by a lot of visitors simply because as soon as they see the website's name, they instantly think it's for children. Although children are of course the site's primary audience, I think that the amount of content on a page, such as Journeys to Jupiter, may put off that audience too. In other words, who is a page like Journeys to Jupiter aimed at? It may be too detailed for children but at the same time give the impression of being too "immature" for older readers.

I suppose part of the problem does stem back to the original planning of the site. As is explained elsewhere on the website (although I'm not too sure where - I know I deleted a load of old pages recently so may have got rid of it!), where was I? Oh, as explained elsewhere, the site was originally designed as an experiment. Back in the summer of 1999, when I was at University, the internet was becoming more and more important, and the role it would play in education would be vital. My "experiment" was to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the internet in education. It basically came down to the question 'Could computers replace teachers?' Originally I planned to evaluate a load of educational websites and find out what users liked and didn't like about them. However, that seemed too much like hard work, and I couldn't really find a site that suited the aims of my research, so I decided to design my own. I deliberately had to set quite a narrow audience age range, and experimented with different navigation techniques (images, texts, hyperlinks), different kinds of multimedia (graphics, photographs, animation and sound - which is why the site used to play music!) and based the design on the learning theories of the time. The Solar System was chosen as the subject matter primarily because it is a topic I enjoy and one which is sadly under-taught in schools, at least here in the UK. Also the circular nature of the Solar System suited the learning theories quite well since web-based learning was largely thought to be about the user forming their own path rather than being told where to go. Come to think of it, I think I mentioned all this in an earlier entry. Oh well, I shall continue anyway. When planning the site, I decided that it would be good for the site to resemble a spaceship console with a window in the middle of the screen with an image of what can be seen through the window, and information about the image next to/below the image. I then decided that, due to the age range, it would be good if the spaceship belongs to somebody else and the website visitor was a passenger on board the spaceship. I decided that the owner of the spaceship should be an alien and, as a temporary measure, decided to name that alien Bob. My next step was to design a logo for the site (think I had to have one ready as part of my project's proposal) so quickly put together one with the title "Bob the Alien's Tour of the Galaxy" never with the intention of actually using it on the site. And that was it. No more planning of the site was done until development began in early 2000 and since I hadn't really thought about alternative names for it, decided to use its proposed one and got on with putting it together based around the idea that the user was being taken on a tour by an alien. Due to time constraints, I changed it to a Solar System tour meaning that I could narrow the site's scope and only concentrate on the objects of the Solar System rather than the entire galaxy. Originally there was going to be one page about each of the planets, one about the Sun and one about the Moon. As development progressed though, it became obvious that there was too much about each object to squeeze onto one page, so I had to split each planet into sections which would go onto different pages. Broadly speaking for each planet, there would be an introductory page (usually just below the planet's main menu), a page about any of the planet's main features, a page about the planet's moons or its most famous moon and ten facts about each planet. As the site talked about the Sun, it became clear that a page also had to be written about stars and that too then had its own section. This then caused the need for a section about galaxies, although the two sections have since been combined. It was also important not to ignore the minor objects in the Solar System: asteroids, comets, etc, so these received pages. Some of the pages about planets mentioned space missions, so a section was created about space exploration. The site grew rapidly from its original design of 12 pages and, on completion, ended up with 96 pages. Throughout the expansion, it kept to its original aim of targetting children between the ages of 8 and 11. But this was not easy, and I found it sometimes prevented me from going into as much depth as I would have liked. After completing the site, I visited a school to see how pupils in my targeted age range used the site; this was to find out what they did and didn't like about it and to observe how they browsed it. However, because the site was also put onto the internet, it meant that anybody anywhere of any age could visit it. And it quickly became clear that, despite the site's design and targeted audience, it was getting visitors of all ages and one thing they wanted was more detailed information.

After finishing university, the site remained on the Internet and, although I didn't initially do much with it (I think realising that had to do 8 times as many pages as I originally planned put me off going anywhere near it!) I gradually returned and began expanding on information that was already there and began adding new pages. But, because I was no longer doing it as a project, I didn't have to keep to its original design aims of targetting a certain audience and so, as the site began to grow again slowly, newer content tended to be more detailed in response to what its actual audience wanted to know about. As the site has evolved over the years, it has got more and more away from its original audience. Sometimes it has probably gone a bit too far the other way. The Visits to Venus page is rediculously lengthy and detailed. The font has changed and has been reduced in size and the pages have been given a more mature look. But, its name has stayed the same! I suppose its audience isn't that much older than its original target audience (my research shows most visitors are between 10-15 years old) but I sometimes think that even some of them may find it a bit childish to be going on tour with Bob the Alien. Plus I'm not too sure how appealing younger visitors may find the site now that it seems to have grown up a bit. And I also think that there are potentially a lot of older visitors which would benefit from the information provided but are instead put off the site simply due to its title. I recently put a survey on the site which asked visitors what they think of the site. I was actually looking for comments from people who don't like it seeing as guestbook entries tend to be positive (apart from the ones from people who think it's funny just to fill them with swear words and nothing else!). Although the vast majority of comments are positive, there are some that comment that the title is too childish. One person noted that the site was too "kiddish" for him so won't visit it.

So the question is, what to do about it? Renaming the site is an option but could prove disastrous. The site is now fairly popular and, when I look into reports about how people get to it, find it is linked to by many educational sites, particularly schools. It is getting a good reputation based on how the site is now, so it may not be worth changing it. As well as having built up a history and reputation, changing the name would mean registering a new domain and then having to remove all references of Bob the Alien from the site. But could renaming it result it in becoming more popular? And what would I rename it to? Another option is to split its content. Basically, to have two pages for each topic instead of one. For example, one page I wrote a while back was about the Space Shuttle. Originally, the page was very detailed, going into the reasons for designing it, the different designs for it and so on. While writing it though, I noticed it went on forever, kind of like this blog entry, so rewrote it and cut most of the technical bits out. In the end, I was left with a page which, like the Journeys to Jupiter one, covers the subject matter well but probably doesn't have the right audience on this site. So, if I split the content, there could be a page which gives the simple information and a page which gives more detailed information. However, this would mean keeping the name of the site so probably doesn't resolve the problem. Another option would simply be to design a new site. Keep this site as it is. Remove the more in depth pages and put them onto a new site, and replace the detailed content on this site with simpler content. But that would be a lot of work, and I get the feeling that the less successful site would probably get neglected. Oh well, I shall ponder over my thoughts and make a decision. It'll probably be to not change anything, but who knows?!! And just in case you were wondering what it looked like when I mentioned it earlier, below is the original logo for Bob the Alien's Tour of the Galaxy. It doesn't look too much different from the logo that was eventually used.

Bob the Alien's Original Logo (before production of site)

Bob the Alien's first logo