Updates Coming to United

SBNation United will receive its first major overhaul within the next couple days. Here's the scoop on the changes.

The folks at SBNation have been tinkering with the United platform since it came out this fall. While their efforts have been concentrated heavily in making the mobile experience function better, they've also heard the suggestions and critiques about community participation. In a couple days they're going to make their first major overhaul to the community aspects of the platform.

You can see a mock-up of a front page under the revised format here. Here's a list of the changes and their purpose, quoting directly from that SBNation post:

  1. FanPosts, FanShots and Sidebars Moved: We are moving all sidebar modules to the right side of the page and increased their size. This makes FanPosts and FanShots modules more visible and makes it easier to see the lastest posts from community members.
  2. FanPosts Featured in the "Cover." FanPosts from site members can now be featured alongside the lead stories on a site. AND New Shorter, Hero-Style "Covers." We are adding some new formats for displaying the lead story or stories of the day that occupy less vertical space, to help push FanPosts up higher on the page and improve the scanability of the front pages.
  3. Local Site Navigation at the Top of all Pages. For some users the current double navigation, with SB Nation network navigation at the top of the home page and the local site navigation below the top stories, creates a disconnect between the content and the community on a team site. We have switched to a single navigation bar on each community that highlights the community elements rather than network blogs by default. But if you roll over "SB Nation" in the new nav, the full network league and blog navigation appears. So we've retained network navigation functionality while calling out the local site navigation (and particularly FanPosts and FanShots) first and foremost. This change will also carry down to all pages on the blogs, including article pages, FanPosts and FanShots.
  4. SB Nation Network Bar with User Login and Profile Information. The Login/Sign-up, Profile and My SBN links will be moved from the current placement just above the site just above the SB Nation menu items to a stand-alone network bar placed at the very top of the page, above the ad. This change is being made to call those links out a little better, as well as provide the basis for an improved and more personalized network navigation bar hat will include more notifications and expanded utility for users.
  5. Community widget. We have added a module on the right hand side of the page with easy access links to write a FanPost, create a FanShots, see who is writing for the site on the Masthead, and to read the Community Guidelines.
  6. Easier to scan river. By reducing the weight of photos and bringing consistency to how items on the home page are displayed, the river of content on the home pages will be easier to scan for new posts, new comments and updates to posts.

It's important to realize that these are the first changes to the format, not the last. The platform will continue to evolve and improving community interaction will be one of the main focuses, if not THE main focus, of the near-term evolution. If you suggested changes beyond the ones that have been implemented, they're likely being weighed and they, or something similar, could be coming down the pike in the next iteration.

Having lived through the angst and frustration many of you expressed during the change-over a few months ago, I want to share a story with you.

I built my wife a new computer for Christmas. It's cool. I decorated it myself, made sure the case reflected her personality, and the insides don't run so bad either. Last night I hooked it up to our home network. Piece of cake. I was done around 11:30 p.m.

Like many people my wife is a fan of Apple products. She has an iPad and iPhone. I know some people deride Apple but I can really see the appeal of the hardware they put out. It's simple and intuitive. My daughter knew exactly how to operate the iPad before she was one and a half. Babies to grandmas...anybody can pick it up and use it. Apple is to hardware functionality what SBNation is to facilitating discussion in online sports communities.

Notice I'm saying Apple "hardware" here. That's intentional, because you know what? Apple software sucks. Hardcore. They take the most simple, intuitive functions and bury them behind unexplained, layered riddles. It drives me up a wall.

You remember how I said the new computer was hooked up to our network by 11:30? I had to make one adjustment to get my wife's Windows 7 machine to talk to the older Windows XP machine that the bulk of our music is on. I had to look it up, but it was right there: put the two machines in the same Workgroup. Bingo. They talk.

Then I went to set up iTunes.

Apple has this nifty thing called "Home Sharing". They advertise it thus: "Home Sharing makes it easy to share music between your home computers!" Perfect! Simple. Just what I need.

So I go into iTunes. I turn on Home Sharing for the computers. Done, right?

Wrong.

It doesn't work. So I go to look it up online. A ton of people are talking about how Home Sharing doesn't function in Windows under the new iTunes format. But I dig deeper and find that Apple has some suggestions. They tell me to look on the left side of iTunes and find this certain frame and a symbol. So I look. No frame, no symbol.

I back up a layer in my problem solving and look up stuff about iTunes. After more research I figure out the problem. As it turns out, the new version of iTunes made some functionality changes. Instead of giving you all the potential information you need--sidebar and top menu and the like--and letting you turn off what you don't like, they give you nothing and make you turn on anything you want. It took me half an hour just to research this and figure out how to turn on the sidebar in which the Home Sharing icon was supposed to appear.

So I turn it on, relieved, and...oops! Still no Home Sharing icon.

Sighing, I began to do more research. Very long story short (-ish), it turns out you have to find another menu in the top bar of iTunes (also not displayed on start-up) and click another thing and THEN you have to make sure you have iTunes actively running on every computer that's sharing. This information--even the accurate bits--is scattered through four different support documents, each one of which has to be found in order to make the system work. No centralized information, no clear documentation, no easy help. I have researched and written 15-page term papers with less trouble.

It's now 3:00 in the morning and finally I see the Home Sharing icons appearing where they should. I import the old library, double-check, and find that the playlists are not actually imported. They're all empty. You have to go to the Home Sharing icon for the other computer in order to play your music, not the normal place in your sidebar. The only way to make iTunes function the way you're used to is to manually copy songs from the old computer playlist to the new which, you, know, makes Home Sharing redundant.

So I begin doing this, copying the playlists one by one, only to find that for some ungodly reason even though it shows all songs are copying into each playlist only some of them actually end up in there for real. I have to check each copied playlist against the original, find which songs didn't copy over, and then manually add them one-by-one until the playlist is complete.

By 4:00 in the morning I had copied exactly six playlists by hand. I went to bed, figuring I'd finish another day. It took five and a half hours to figure out and follow a process that "makes it easy to share music between your home computers" and it turned out to be unsuitable when all was said and done.

My point here is not to rail against Apple...though I think they deserve some railing against. Rather the point is that we're talking about the biggest, most successful, and in many ways most responsive and in-tune technology company of the modern era here. They're not stupid (even if they seem like it at 3:26 a.m. when you're swearing at iTunes). They're not intentionally borking the system (though they could hardly do a better job if they tried).

The take-home point: this is hard to do right. It's hard because things are more complex nowadays than they've ever been. It's hard because a million different people have a million different expectations and use things a million different ways. It's hard because the people who make decisions are always the people closest to the process and thus most unaware of its peculiar conventions. Somewhere right now there's an Apple software engineer going, "What you're trying to do is easy! Just click the frippawazzit and change the wackadoodle while inverting the magna-frizzer and then port over the whole flurmin' thing." Meanwhile there are people leaving messages on forums that Home Sharing doesn't work at all, not because it doesn't but because they can't figure out Step 3 of the 22-step process required.

If this can happen to the biggest, most successful company on earth it can happen to anyone.

Don't diminish the significance, therefore, that SBNation people are listening and implementing these changes. Your comments have made, and do make, a difference. They are trying to learn from you, from how you use the site, from what you value. Ain't no Apple engineer calling me today. I could plea to their tech support for hours and still not get that kind of response. Those engineering poobahs wouldn't even hear about my call, nor my troubles.

Even if changes aren't coming as quickly as you'd like or even if your specific suggestion wasn't taken up in the first round here, there's value in what's happening here. It shows something. Keep making suggestions, as they are being read, heard, and acted upon. As you do so, appreciate that fact.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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