“Come on buddy, let’s go out for a beer and let’s sit down and talk. That’s the whole attitude of the CramSession Web site,” said Deb Alloway, CramSession business development manager.

Curious about what drove a redesign initiative—as well as an attitude adjustment—at the popular certification site, I called Alloway recently. She revealed the site is serious about its content but is also willing to lighten up some. The site’s undergone “a major redesign,” and the newsletter formats have changed as well.

If you’re looking for a prim, haughty site, look elsewhere. If you’re seeking stiff, straight, blue-chip professional presentation of content, keep looking. The new CramSession isn’t going corporate.

Instead, you’ll find a blend of quirky humor and uncompromising certification content. The famous CramSession Study Guides are still there, along with new resources and a new look.

The site redesign
The first thing you’ll notice is, well, it’s purple (Figure A). The new site boasts a vibrant hue sure to grab your attention. Next, you’ll notice a new cartoon caricature of a harried IT professional burning the midnight oil while he studies with a cup of java.

Figure A
CramSession.com’s redesigned Web site

Other changes are afoot. Visitors must now register on the site to access CramSession Study Guides, post messages in the Discussion Boards, receive newsletters, and make use of other resources. The good news is registration is free, which is sure to help CramSession maintain its reign as one of the best free certification resource sites on the Internet. In fact, it’s likely the best certification destination on the Web.

You’ll also find that attention’s been given to simplifying the user interface. The goal was to make the site easier to use, navigate, and access. I didn’t have any trouble finding the resources I needed on the old site, which I thought worked pretty well. But new features have been added, and the CramSession staff wants to ensure that IT professionals can easily find them.

New utilities such as CramSession Training Alerts, designed to help IT professionals find local training options tailored to their specific needs, and old favorites, such as the daily CramChallenge Questions newsletters, can peacefully live side by side.

The site remodel still makes it easy to find CramSession’s core features quickly. All of the following are but a few clicks away:

  • Study Guides, which almost every IT professional I know reviews before taking an exam.
  • Info Center, where you can find tips and tricks for working with the latest technologies.
  • Discussions, where you can sound off on everything from IT exams and certification to holiday pranks.
  • SkillDrills, which you can use to help hone your skills and gauge whether you’re ready for an exam.
  • Newsletters, which offer regular installments on everything from certification news and stock tips to a cartoon of the day.

There’s also that new attitude to match the site’s new look.

Attitude adjustment
This isn’t a site that’s putting on airs. While CramSession is as serious as ever about its content, no one said it couldn’t have fun.

Depending upon your perspective, you may find some of the oddities silly, or you may get a kick out of them.

Take, for example, the Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie skit I found on the site the day I wrote this column. Clicking on a button encouraging users to “Have a little fun” opened a short animated cartoon satirizing life behind the scenes at Microsoft. It will appeal to some, but I expect not to others.

Another example of the site’s quirkiness is the use of tabloid headlines in the site’s Byte Back e-mail newsletter. One recent headline: “I was Bigfoot’s love slave!

Not exactly a riveting certification story, but you can’t read the serious stuff all the time without going a little crazy. And that’s the point.

The Byte Back newsletter, written by A.J. Axline, is almost entirely off-topic. It’s meant to be. The newsletter is advertised as a “hilarious, alternative take on the IT industry.”

But CramSession knows where to draw the line. In addition to the Byte Back newsletter, you’ll find more than a dozen other newsletters covering serious IT topics, along with numerous CramChallenge newsletters, which send practice questions to your inbox daily.

Recently, I subscribed to the CramChallenge Network+ newsletter. I received its daily challenge questions for a few weeks before taking the N+ exam. The questions I received helped reinforce key topics I’d be tested upon.

I took comfort from the fact that the CramChallenge editor had experience with certification exams too. Almost every staffer at CramSession has made a trip to the testing center, stared at the real thing on a screen, and sweated at the thought that real money was at stake. I believe there’s no better way to truly understand the IT exam experience than to study and sit for a test.

“We’ve been there”
Don’t mistake the new attitude as meaning CramSession editors are less serious about their work. They understand the importance of IT certification.

“Instead of saying we know everything, we’re saying we’re IT professionals the same as you. We’ve been there. Try us, give us a shot, see if you like it,” Alloway said.

“There’s only one person on staff who hasn’t written a certification exam. The whole idea is everyone’s been there; we’ve seen that little line go across the screen.”

Eckel’s take
In addition to redesigning its popular certification portal, the CramSession staff has clearly adopted a new attitude. While it will appeal to some and not to others, it’s safe to say you’ll be hard-pressed to find another certification site offering as much information as you’ll find at CramSession.

Will you find everything you need to prepare for an exam? Of course not. But that’s not the goal. And CramSession isn’t working to build a site that serves simply as a braindump, either. It’s much more. It helps you.

Adding a few quirks to lighten the mood could prove to be a clever strategy. It may just help the site draw a few extra folks it ordinarily wouldn’t have attracted. As long as IT professionals continue to find the resources there that they’ve come to depend upon, there’s nothing wrong with that.

What do you think about CramSession’s redesign?

We look forward to getting your input and hearing about your experiences regarding this topic. Post a comment or a question about this article.