NASA Site Seeks to Draw the MySpace Crowd, NY Times

"The site, introduced over the weekend, has new blogs and widgets and more ways for people to view and manipulate content. A MyNASA feature has a "top playlist" that lets people watch clips of the space shuttle Discovery's return to Florida or the California wildfires viewed from orbit."

New Targets Young, Tech-Savvy: So, What Do You Think?, Wired

" got a face lift over the weekend. It went from black text in gray boxes, to glowing blue icons, roll-over sliding windows, and an elegant nebula backdrop. The update, the first major renovation since 2003, is designed to reach out to the 18-25 demographic (that has been the hardest for NASA to engage) and to appeal to the tech-savvy visitor."

Editor's note: So - what do you think of the redesigned Send your comments to Your replies thus far:

IMHO NASA's new web site has a feeling as cold as space itself...

Keith - I apologize for the length, but I really appreciate the opportunity to share comments on the NASA website re-design - this is probably one of the things I'm most passionate about as an employee at NASA. Before I start, let me just say that I applaud top NASA management for recognizing the value of the domain and kicking off an effort to maximize its outreach and knowledge transfer potential.

I don't think that the main concern is with the actual "design", look, feel of the frontpage at - I neither agree or disagree on its design. What is important, and what I do disagree with, is the approach taken by the website design team, the resulting product, and the vision for where the website is going. Someone commented "Do NASA's web designers ever read the advice of professional web designers" but I would add, "did anyone on the web design team work with the audience and/or anyone under the age of 30 who understand and are the main users of web as the main source of information every day?" It doesn't appear so. The website is advertised as a "web2.0" site that reaches out to the "younger generation." The does not live up to that spin and hype despite how it looks. Web2.0 is about participation, interaction, and customization. Its about involving the public in the mission of the site, not just sharing news. A commenting feature and customizeable news modules do not qualify as web2.0. Finally, the site fails to address the much bigger problem of integrating all NASA sites into one manageable, searchable framework. It appears the web design team gave up or just blantantly ignored trying to solve this problem and just pushed forward without establishing a good plan to do so.

So what do I expect from NASA? Only the best... which IS something that's achieveable and that is best explained by a user case:

{insert name} is a young NASA engineer with the mandate to start up the new lunar rover offfice for Constellation. He/she wants to share information on a website with the world but doesn't know where to start - he/she is an engineer, not a programmer or designer. This is where the NASA web team SHOULD step up and help out. In this vision, the NASA web team has leveraged existing technology that allows them to create a handful of "templates" that they can share with anyone who is interested. The engineer submits a simple email to the the NASA website team and immediately (within 24 hours) gets one back that says, "hey {insert name}, thanks for your interest. Your request to setup has been granted. You can now login to the webpage using your workstation username and password and start customizing your template." Adding information is as easy as clicking "submit content."

But what if you want to tweak the template? No problem, just open up the attached CSS file and start tweaking. What if you are a wiz kid and have developed a cool lunar rover interactive application? No problem, use some well defined open source standards and write your application up. Submit it to quality control for testing and verification (better yet, submit it to the open source community) and upload it to the site for the world to use. Hey, maybe the NASA team will like it enough to even put it on the front page.

What about resources? The NASA web design team has a limited budget, short schedule, etc etc. PERFECT! There has never been a better reason to LEVERAGE industry innovation, use the latest and greatest in website management, and empower and entire workforce and generation who is more than willing to help you out (and probably more capable than you in the first place). What about ITAR? That's what moderation features are for? Who moderates? That's why you empower then entire workforce to participate.

Maybe the ultimate problem is that the NASA webdesign team was given the wrong "scope". Maybe their scope should be to "facilitate participatory exploration online using". If you need more information on that, call up the young team at ARC who are pushing the limits here. Who are their stakeholders? There are many, but mainly the American Public, PAO, and the NASA workforce. Here's another way to look at this effort. It's more than just "designing a website" -- it's reaching out to an entire generation that will carry the majority of the tax burder for the Vision for Space Exploration. NASA is juggling strategies to reach out to this generation and "inspire" them - here's your opportunity. Invite them to help you make space relevant again.

So where do we start? Ask any competent web designer in Gen Y to do it for you and you'll have a website that meets NASA's mission, is truly web 2.0, and blows the socks off this effort, in less than a year (most likely in months). I know this can be done, just ask me.

So what are my top 11 requirements for the new NASA website, here they are:

  • Provide framework for the open development of applications by NASA team members or contractrors. Don't hire a contractor who is going to sell you a proprietary solution.
  • Provide an easy to use interface for the user (user defined as anyone at NASA not just a webmaster) to upload information and content
  • Provide a content/information management system that efficiently and effectively organizes information (preferably not a proprietery system as is used now)
  • Allow for an integrated search of NASA media content (which can still be improved on even though they made some strides this time around)
  • Provide a readily available, robust, customizable template system (that takes into consideration the basic NASA constraints like branding constraints, points of contact, etc).
  • Provide a moderation feature that is not complicated and is well communicated to all NASA employees
  • Provide a "social networking" application so employees who volunteer to do so, can share information about what they do with other colleagues and/or the general public.
  • Provide a means to integrate industry innovation and applications in a timely manner (what comes to mind in the month of Dec 2007 is a facebook type application or better yet, facebook integration; a wiki type application to transfer knowledge between employees and the public (with varying permission levels); twitter feeds; etc )
  • Facilitate transfer knowledge internally (between subject matter experts, groups, divisions, directorates, programs, etc) and externally (between contractors, academia, non-profits, public)
  • Take into consideration the inputs from Gen Y and younger. What do THEY want to see on a website?
  • Facilitate a participatory experience for the user who can get indepth information about NASA from the engineers, scientsists, and other employees who do amazing work each and every day but aren't given an opportunity to share it with the world.

It's unusable without Javascript. I guess they have no interest in anyone with any vision problems.

NASA's new website package shares a number of traits with every one of its old website designs:

- it's sluggish;

- navigating around the site(s), trying to find specific information, remains beyond confusing, reminiscent of an M.C. Escher painting wherein you can never tell if the staircase or water is going up or down;

- it's chock full of golly-whiz fluff with extremely rare instances of well-hidden technical depth;

- most seriously (and harmfully), it suffers from the same malaise which pervades nearly every bit of written, video, audio, or web-based media produced both inside and outside NASA: a viewgraph mentality. Powerpoint, etc, now enables people to motorize their viewgraph-oriented presentations, but when it comes right down to it, a vast majority of what NASA personnel (and, by customer-driven imposition, their contractors) present, both to the public and even to each other in the most technical of meetings, is a spiffed-up overhead-transparency slide show rife with standardized banners, oversimplified bullet-delineated phrases, and a thoroughly static (even with video material!) perspective--REGARDLESS of which media they employ. (Yes, there are exceptions. Very few.)

But we probably shouldn't be surprised. Not even a reference in the CAIB Report as a potential contributing factor to the Columbia tragedy seems to have made a dent in this "minor" bit of NASA culture.

But hey, the pictures are GREAT...assuming you can stumble your way through the e-labyrinth to what you actually want to see.

The new look of the NASA TV page is another example of the Microsoft philosophy: It adds nothing of substance and prevents me from watching NASA TV on my PDA as I have done regularly since 2003.

I like the new look of the website. It definitely doesn't have a "government" feel to it, and I think young people in particular will be drawn to the design. I also like the menu buttons, which are arranged by subject area. I think this is a good job overall. I would love to see the FAA revamp their website, to be sure. The current design makes its aviation mandate seems as exciting as watching paint peel.

Keith, Anything done to is an improvement over what's been out there from NASA on the web for the past 12 years. From a public information standpoint, the new site it's a good resource and gathers feature and news released into one easy area (it's more like MyYahoo than mySpace though, IMO). Love the picture of the day, too. Finally, somebody sees that pretty pictures of the stars probably ought to be out in front in anything connected to NASA.

The search engine has always been a major complaint, and it still misses the mark. It's little better than what is has been in the past. A simple search of "Hubble Space Telescope" + "space shuttle" should bring up in the number one slot a link to STS-125 and the last mission to Hubble. Instead, there's a Dorian Gray galaxy news release that is almost two months old. Love the pretty picture, but I wanted to know details on the last servicing mission.

Unfortunately, for this search, STS-125 is fourth down on the list, and that's a manifest link. You still have to scroll down to August 2008 to find STS-125. Press the search again with the same items in the search field and same STS-125 link isn't even on the first page. Press it again and it's moved down to number eight. I gave up after that. However, Dorian Gray must be coded with some sort of "super search" code for it's always on top.

To me, this clearly means the best way to find anything on is to use

Here's what I wrote on the comment site when NASA employees were given the opportunity to comment on the redesign before it was made public:

Do NASA's web designers ever read the advice of professional web designers, or the results of surveys of web user friendliness? If they read such material, they certainly do not heed the recommendations. The redesign accomplishes something I thought not possible, making the current design seem tolerable. It also reinforces the perception that many people have of NASA: lots of flash without any substance.

My daughter and I went to the new page and the first part she tried was the So what do you think? Turns out all the selections were incorrect!

NASA did a reasonably good job. I sent in a suggestion that NASA take all of the 3D data taken of Mars, either from rover photos and orbital photos, and create a realistic 3D virtual Mars that the public could access. It may be a website, or build and install thousands of arcade-like machines in every mall! You could walk, drive, or fly your way along the paths of the rovers. You could rotate your view 360 degrees and "see" out to the edge of where the dataset ends. If you can't see the back side of a rock or a hill, so be it, move back into the region where the view from the rover gives you the full effect. People would lap at NASA's feet for more of that, and they'd fund NASA forever. As long as they're entertained, they'll keep coming back for more!

At first glance it looks good. There's a lot of potential there for drawing the general public in. The front end is colorful and captivating, the organization seems well thought-out, and the content is relevant and interesting. I expect it will be well-received. Good job, guys.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on December 4, 2007 1:41 PM.

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