Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Social Networking in NetCommunity

I know it's been a while since my last post. Things have just been very busy all around and I haven't been able to make time to blog.

Today I wanted to showcase one of our latest (and biggest) projects, the new Social Networking app, USNAConnect. We're making use of NetCommunity's User Networking Manager part here but we have customized many aspects of it. I need to give credit where credit is due, this was a massive project in development since December 08 and we have a lots of sharp folks here that have been part of it. Props to Kate, Nick & Larry for all their help.

For those not familiar, the User Networking Manager part is a Social Networking app that leverages your NetCommunity database. It was released in v5.5. This part is a little different from many older NetCommunity parts because it was designed to allow developer's to integrate their custom parts very tightly with it. It's actually pretty hard to tell what is custom and what is out of the box unless you are familiar with the User Networking Manager part. Props to Blackbaud on this one, I really hope this ends up being the design model moving forward for other NetCommunity parts.

Just a quick note about "private" or closed social networks. We're not trying to compete with Facebook. We want to leverage our database in a way Facebook just can't and offer functionality that is unique to our constituents. We're still on Facebook and at some point even envision a layer of integration between our two networks. So don't think we're expecting to grow to 300 million users in 4 years, but that would be nice. :D

So before I try to explain what exactly we're talking about here lets just have a look at the application.


This is the page you see when you first enter USNAConnect right after logging into our website. One of the main requirements for this project was to design a page with the constituent in mind. It needed to be Web 2.0 and user centric.

  • Greeting - If you look at the top we have customized how we address each person based on their chosen preferences. We are a military organization so you can imagine that can add a layer of complexity to the whole bit about greeting. We give people the option to choose if they prefer to be greeted with their military or civilian titles and if they have chosen a nick name we also honor that. That greeting is completely custom to each user that logs in and they can change it at any time.
  • Information Box - At the top we display various messages that are targeted to the logged in user. These can range from information about a chapter event in your area to a link to your class reunion page. We allow you to hide that box for up to 30 days. This saves some real estate on the screen for your gadgets if you have already read all the messages. At any time you can show the box again if you want to. Each messages can be targeted using NetCommunity roles. We also pre-populate a few messages if your profile or other information is out of date and ask that you update it.
  • Gadgets - This custom part is modeled after iGoogle functionality. A gadget is actually it's own little custom part. This page is basically designed to consume both custom and non custom parts and display them to the user. Each of those gadgets can be dragged and dropped where you want them and the order is saved so when you return your gadgets are where you put them. As we make more gadgets available they can be added from the bottom section. If you are not interested in a gadget you can simply remove it. The goal here was really to allow users create their own landing page with the content they care about. Check out the video below to see that in action.
    • Suggested Friends - This gadget uses some back-end SQL to determine other USNAConnect users that you might know. You can choose to "view/add" them or if you wish, "hide" them.
    • Your Membership Info - Displays your current membership information from The Raiser's Edge and it will prompt you to upgrade or renew if you are close to expiring.
    • Top pages - Shows the top pages on our website in the past 30 days.
    • Top New Articles - Displays the top news articles from our site in the last 30 days.
    • Interactive Tools - This is actaully a menu 2.0 part in NetCommunity and we're using some of the new API stuff in v5.5 that lets you pull the XML out and parse it up. Coolest part? It honors NetCommunity roles so it won't show you a link if you aren't in a role that can access it. That saved us a lot of development time. There is an open source example of this on Labs if you want more information. This one just displays some links to a few apps that we really couldn't work into this page.
    • Your Friend Map - Shows a map of all your friends that can be geo-coded in our database. It honor's their privacy settings so if their address is private we don't display their location.
    • Your Events - Displays all of the upcoming events you have registered for with us and the most recent 5 other registrants that have also signed up for that event. Best part? You can subscribe to the feed of registrants with RSS so you can easily monitor the event as other people sign up. This is great for reunions.
    • Volunteer Leadership - This is another menu 2.0 part that shows a lot of the apps specific to our volunteer leadership folks.
    • My Top Pages - Shows a list of the most recent pages that you have visited. This is great for folks that use one feature of our site a lot and if you recently found a page and need to locate it again.
    • Alumni Lookup Lite (Not Shown) - This feature is only open to Alumni. It allows you to do a quick search for any alum in our database by name and class year. This is one of the most popular activities on our site so we wanted to provide an easy way for our alumni to search from their USNAConnect landing page.
    • My Class News (Not Show) - Here is another feature only open to our Alumni. Similar to Top News Articles but it's filtered on only news specific to the class year of the logged in user.

video
USNAConnect Drag and Drop Demo (Full Video)

One final point about these gadgets. The development time is low because most of the framework is built into USNAConnect the only thing I need to do is write a web service that returns an object with the information to display. This has made development cycles for the gadgets very agile.

If you look across the top of the page above there are a few other tabs. These are all out of the box features in the User Networking Manager part with the exception of the last one, View/Edit My Profile. Another great feature of the User Networking Manager is that you can add tabs. So if there is something that it doesn't have you can build it and then integrate it right into the menu structure.

Messages - This allows you to handle in networking messaging amongst users.

Friends - Displays a list of all of your friends and allows you to search by name for any one else in the system.

Photos - Shows your photo gallery and lets you choose a profile picture from it.


Preferences - Just a few options that each user can change for their account.

Administration - A list of administration options that all site administrators have access to.


View/Edit My Profile - Links off to my profile page where I can make any changes. Something not shown is that if you are viewing someone else's profile, it'll display any mutual friends that you have. That is out of the box NetCommunity functionality, not custom.


It's worth pointing out one final bit about the User Networking Manager part. It's 100% customizable from a style and verbiage perspective. If you don't like the word "friends" you can change it everywhere in the application to whatever you want to call them instead. You'll also notice that "groups" aren't displayed in the examples that I showed you. That's because for the time being we have decided to not include them. It's a very flexible application and I gotta hand it to Blackbaud for going this route again.

USNAConnect is technically still in public beta but we're planning on going live with it in early October.

So that's pretty much it. I'm going to try to get back on a regular posting schedule but I can't make any promises.

As always be sure to check out the Facebook page.