Express Yourself! By Order of the Dept. of Defense...and Elmo?
FG has great respect for our country's service men and women and the sacrifices they and their families make. In 2011, FG joined Sesame Workshop and the U.S. Department of Defense to revive their social networking site intended for families with members serving in the military. The previous version of the site was less than a year old but it had some usability challenges and very few people were using it before FG was hired to refresh it.
As the name suggests, Military Families Near and Far is designed for families with members in the military –although, anyone is welcome to join. As a Sesame Workshop project, the site features Sesame Street and The Electric Company characters who may be friended by preschool and grade school aged users and offer words of encouragement to individuals and family groups. One of the chief initiatives of the site, aside from keeping families connected during times of separation, is to provide children with tools that will enable them to express their feelings.
Networks on the site are closed to family members only and the administrator of the family account must approve new connections. This feature was necessary to ensure the space remains a private one where the members feel safe to express their emotions.
The basic network units include a family wall, titled the Family Scrapbook, and a profile for each family member. The Family Scrapbook aggregates the content generated by the family members while profiles display content created by the user as well as content shared with the user from other family members. Users can customize their profile picture and a mood widget enables them to display how they are feeling.
The site contains several tools for self-expression. An Art Tool enables children to create artwork by selecting a template to draw on and add stickers, photos, and text to. The Music Tool enables users to remix songs from The Electric Company by ordering animated graphics that are mapped to loops and sound bites on a canvas. Users can even capture custom audio to add to their musical creations. The Writing Tool provides templates for creating letters, greeting cards, and stories in addition to journal-like entries that are saved to the user’s personal Notebook. All templates include Story Starter text to help users articulate their feelings; a useful feature for children and adults alike! Additional tools enable users to capture photos and video using a webcam. Whenever a piece of content is created with any of the tools –with the exception of Notebook entries– it can be posted to the user’s own profile and shared to other family member profiles. In both instances, the asset will also display on the Family Scrapbook.
The Resources for Grown-Ups section includes written content and videos to help parents discuss topics ranging from deployments to changes and grief with their children. Some of the videos are available for parent-child co-viewing, star the Sesame Street Muppets, and focus specifically on presenting these topics to a younger audience.
FG designed Military Families Near and Far to be fun and easy to use for all its intended users. Contextual video tutorials provide additional support for users looking for additional guidance with the site’s various tools. It is also 508 compliant and includes Spanish translation on all written and audio content.