Monthly Archives: August 2009

Cartoons on the Homepage

Screenshot of old site

What we used to get away with

First of series of trips down memory lane with the aim of rediscovering some of the lessons of our history.

A review of the web presence of the University has just been completed and that process of examination has made me reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of our current site and the way that we are doing things. To that end, i thought it’d be useful to take a look at the way we used to do things and see where we’ve improved, how the web world has changed and what lesson our particular history tells us. It might also be an educational journey for those who don’t remember some of the things we’ve done.

My five year old could do better

As critiques of University web pages I’ll bet that not many have had that particular sentence thrown at them. It all came about when we decided that the existing style of home page that we had at that time was not really appealing to our target audience, so we resolved to produce something more in line with a younger audience. Looking back through at older versions of wired.com and my sketchy memory it seems that the web at that time was louder, bolder and brighter.

Web guru Jeffery Zeldman’s site from then was very different. The language of the time was the limited color palette, bold, often pixelated graphics and blocks of color. We were all using tables for layout back then. It’s funny looking back through the archives of pages I remember, and illuminating that the general excitement and enthusiasm of the time seems to come across. It was in that context that we decided to be bold and create some character illustrations that would be different from the stock images other places used at the time.

I’d produced some illustrations for various parts of the site and I’d love to be able to say we did some in depth user testing, allied to extensive market research but that would be a lie. In fact we spoke to the representative from marketing at the time and outlined our plans to take the site in this very bold new direction and to his/her credit they went with the idea.

So how far have we come?

What strikes me during this meander down memory lane is the lack of links – eight in total, linking to broad categories of information. The absence of a search button reveals that we were very much in the business of guessing what users might want and laying out browsable options for them. In the intervening years the web has changed very much to a searchable medium, where users expect a quick interaction will deliver the info that they require.

The intense demands for space on the modern day homepage make it feel that we need to revisit our search and really explore how it’s being used and how we can improve it. Perhaps the desire to be up front and on the homepage stems from anxiety about all the stakeholders’ information being discovered. The decision to put things in these broad categories was , i remember taken with marketing. The overall site was smaller which probably explains how it was possible to collect things in these areas.

The size of our site has grown dramatically, reflected in the 60+ links currently on our homepage. As a team we will need to really examine the function and purpose of the different parts of the site, and reassess the role of the homepage in that process. Should the home page function like a table of contents, or a brochure, or a billboard, or a directory, or a storefront. All the analogies are relevant but if we try to do all of them in one place then we will end up failing at them all.

My thoughts on IWMW2009

Where I went

I had the opportunity to attend IWMW2009 at the University of Essex in Colchester. To digest all I saw and did I thought I’d write a post.

What I saw

Headlights on Dark roads

Described on http://iwmw.ukoln.ac.uk/iwmw2009/talks/law/ ‘Derek will review the recent history of libraries and the challenges now facing them.’ In fact, the talk was far more interesting than that sounds and a wide ranging meditation on the state of current literacy, the culture that libraries have traditional worked in and the large changes that technology has wrought.

One of his interesting ideas was the shift from a literary culture to a visual one. He used a great slide to emphasize how images stay in our memories rather than words. With a challenge to name all the images. I think I got a few, but he didn’t put all the answers up.

Also very good from the whole conference was the use of twitter. Brian Kelly talks about this on his blog.

So, we can see what other people thought of the Plenary at the time via twitter

An Introduction to WAIARIA

I attended a BARCAMP where Dan Jackson from UCL took us through the concepts and some possible ways to implement ARIA. It was very good and you really need to view all the slides to appreciate how much info is there. Dan was an engaging speaker who helped me get to grips with a subject that I’d been putting off learning about because the whole issue seems wrapped up in a big W3C bun-fight at the moment.

Servicing ‘Core’ and ‘Chore’: A framework for understanding a Modern IT Working Environment

For me, this talk was a call to get to grips with the the emerging reality of users not being dependent on IT departments for their tools and the IT departments taking a much more active role in helping users. They are increasingly able to help themselves to the menu of external IT tools that give them what they need very quickly. Rather than competing with them perhaps we should form a relationship with users of our services that helps us and them work out where our best efforts should be directed. It seems very sensible that IT should be an unobtrusive part of people’s work and external services are part of our set of tools to achieve that.

Making your killer applications killer

Despite a technology failure, Paul Boag gave an enthusiastic talk about the context that Universities release their course information into. The rest of the web is increasingly using dynamic and interactive features on screen that give people the chance to try things like comparisons and reviews that help people make their choice. He contends that University’s need to start providing richer and deeper experiences around the course information. He rattled through some examples of sites that provided interactivity, and personality. I found this point particularly interesting, because it’s often the case that an organization’s persona becomes pretty dry and conservative. It’s quite a leap in mindset to have a clear and distinct character shine through the writing. Hard to do, but probably highly rewarding.

He also touched on the reasons why things are as they are, with Universities taking their requirements to produce accessible sites seriously, Limits on resources and a lack of experience in producing this more engaging and interactive experience. Universities have traditionally offered large amounts of rather dry information, but the nature of the web and the audience requires us to adapt the way we get our message over.

He then encouraged Us to ‘just do it’ – especially with regard to creating proof of concept things. He acknowledged the importance of showing a new feature rather than trying to describe it to get the go ahead to do the work. He presented the idea of HIJAX (which I’d never hea) to help with accessibility. To cut costs he advocated not reinventing the wheel and using existing libraries, APIs and third party websites.

Overall, a good call to arms if perhaps a little daunting. If we implemented at least some of the things he talked about we’d be heading in the right direction.

What is the web

James Curran ran a brave experiment in presenting an idea. He talked around the nebulous question of ‘What is the web’ , I think with the idea of getting people who work on ‘it’ every day to consider the fundamental concepts to help us have a vision of where it is taking us. The brave part was the continually refreshing twitter feed being displayed on the screen that James was attempting to respond to. It was intriguing, especially when people in the room were critical; I thought people might be too polite. Quite a tricky task to maintain focus of the talk, but thought it was definitely worth a go.

Hub websites for youth participation

I have to admit this talk didn’t really do much for me. I think I was expecting a more fully formed idea, and perhaps it suffered by being in the early stages of the project. At this stage it gave me the impression of a heavily academic treatment of a potentially very interesting project. Maybe it is too large in it’s scope. The idea of the opinions of a generation who are growing up with a technology, having a way to express that opinion seems good, but I wonder if the web itself will provide a place for those opinions to be expressed.

iTunes U

Attended a session on iTunesU, again, just to find out about something that I knew nothing about. It was great to see how much great content is available from the various universities, but Barry did a great job of explaining just how much work needed to be done around that content. Oxford had lecturers who had established podcasts well before the opportunity for iTunes U existed, which helped them greatly. There are lots of things that you need to do when creating the content and if you are thinking of this then Barry’s slides are a comprehensive guide to just how much work you are proposing to take on.

How the BBC make websites

Enjoyed the BBC session the most. Obviously, they have brilliant content as the organization’s whole business is producing great stuff. They emphasized that they see their main job as making that resource available, so everything is geared around that end. The bit about hackable URLs provoked lots of sage nodding from the audience. I was also surprised by how much thinking goes into things before they get anywhere near writing code. They did lots of paper prototyping, wire-framing and story-boarding, and once the code was written they emphasized testing, testing and more testing.

What I missed

The only thing I was midly disappointed about was not being able to catch some of the other barcamps, and hopefully some of them will appear online over the next week or so.

Resources

Lots of slides can be found on slideshare

What I did

All the talks were only one part of the experience for me. The rest of the time was taken up with meeting people from lots of other Universities, and realizing that we are facing the same issues and that sometimes we come up with ways to solve them. It was an eye opener for me just how many other Universities were in the looking for or implementing CMSs.

We were unusual in that we take a pretty open source approach to the CMS systems that we use, and talking to people it was clear that every CMS has strengths and weaknesses. If the mythical CMS exists that will magically transform business processes, make people better writers, satisfy end users, manage it’s own infrastructure and take University web presences to a new level, then I don’t think anyone there has found it.

On a personal note. I found it really useful to go on my own, which forced me to get out and say hello to people, which as it turns out is much easier than I’d thought. Despite being engaged in the dreaded ‘networking’ i enjoyed the chance to tell some people how impressed I am with the work they are doing. Hopefully I can go back next year with a list of things that we’ve done that we started by going to IWMW2009.