I am going to go out on a limb and speak to something that gnaws at me regularly. You know, that kind of staying up at night wondering about the conversation you COULD have had if you had the presence of mind, or the courage, to have had it. Believe it or not (for those who have worked with me and know how obnoxiously outspoken I can be), I do hold back my opinions a lot for many reasons, mostly related to job security 🙂 But things gnaw at me sometimes nonetheless, and I’ve reached a point of feeling like I’m doing a disservice to UMW without raising an issue. So, consider this issue raised.
This hearkened back to a conversation I had with DTLT years ago. Jerry Slezak (another UMW hero/genius now leading Information Technology Services) suggested at the time, as we went round and round with discussions of home page designs for the new Teaching Center, simply suggested that a search box would be the most effective tool to get people to what they want. We joked about simply redirecting our umw.edu url to Google — that it would be more efficent.
This is a seductive idea which places efficiency above all, and gives the driver’s seat over to the site visitor completely. Indeed, designing home page navigation is a crap shoot at best, frequently driven by internal politics and assumptions about “what students are looking for.” And, believe me, at UMW, I have learned that students are looking for whatever the content is that a particular stakeholder comes to me to complain about not being sufficiently visible on the home page 🙂 Okay, I’m being harsh, but there is more appeasement than design, more compromise than art, more smoke/mirrors than science, involved in this notion of a “splash page” to introduce the University to the wider world. It’s just a fact.
Knowing this, I can see where the Ozarks folks may have arrived at this solution. They used actual science — the stats on how folks navigated their site using primarily the search box — to inform their bold choice. But, although clever and efficient, I am not so sure about its utility at a more complex institution with multiple colleges, where programs may have similar names, and where content creators are highly decentralized, as they are at most larger institutions (and at UMW). That’s putting an awful lot of faith in your search algorithm, Google search or otherwise, as well as in the ability of the content creators to get the right stuff in the right places, and then have the metrics bear out so that the most relevant stuff in the more obscure categories of information come out on top. I think this could have been effective at Mary Washington College prior to 1999, when the Stafford campus opened and introduced a set of redundant content owners, more than one campus, degree program and prospective student audience. Search for “registering for classes” and you could have been sent anywhere because there were dual functions on both campuses.
When I came along in 2001, sorting through the redundant content on the James Monroe Center site, and having endless arguments about who owned what function (read: web content) became a staple argument that kept on going until CGPS became a campus, and organization of student service functions was better defined. If there had been only a search box for a home page during those days, I honestly don’t know if the phones ever would have stopped ringing with complaints and confusion.
Assuming my above argument addresses why the home-page-as-search-box model may not work for UMW from an efficiency/customer service standpoint, what exactly is the beef I have with the more conventional home page we now have? In a word: SEO relevance. Ask any SEO (search engine optimization) expert (and the world is LOUSY with them these days) what is the number one way to move your rankings up and keep them up and they will tell you: CONSTANTLY CHANGING CONTENT THAT IS CONSIDERED RELEVANT BY RECOGNIZED AUTHORITATIVE WEB SITES. Period.
Here’s where I lose my job: For all of our redesigning, we have bowed to the pressure of the print-design mentality of a nice “cover” to our university that will succinctly capture the essence of UMW. We argue about the brand platform elements, and how the images and their captions convey a message about the Great Minds brand. We are not serving the needs of our SEO, but of a good print marketing campaign: consistent messages. SEO does not care about consistent marketing messages — it cares about interesting, dynamic content competing for daily air-time with larger institutions. Google doesn’t care that we are a liberal arts institution and we are awesome. It cares about what we are doing NOW, TODAY, and whether it’s any different from last week. Because if it’s not, our rank drops.
Google does not rank our home page based on whether the picture of that student and a pithy caption capture our essence. It cares if the picture of that student is essentially a headline about NEW story, posted as a newspaper would post a story, dated and attributed to an author. It cares that we regularly have new stories featured in the main content area which, for all intents and purposes, is our big photo rotation area.
Do we have news releases? Yes, but they are at the bottom of the page. Would they make great splash photos? Well, mostly not, because what it takes to get a great splash photo is a photo journalist on staff 24/7 who can capture incidents as they happen in high-quality images. High-quality images mean waiting for our once-a-month photographer to take photos of features that are scheduled ahead of time. The images that come out of breaking news are frequently stock photos of faculty, or of campus, because it’s what we have.
So, what am I saying? Well, perhaps it’s that where I don’t think a single search box would work, I’m not convinced that coming to a home page with a big-honkin’ image and caption is really useful from a user, or SEO, perspective. And I wish I had the nerve to say it when we were doing our re-design. But, the beauty of the web is that it’s fungible. If we have courage, we can tear this thing up and do it again.
In essence, I would like to see less print-think both in design AND in maintenance of our site. Constant changing home page content is not constantly updated canned photos and captions — it’s actual stuff going on day-to-day. Which gets to UMW Blogs and our new faculty content aggregator — who knows what up-to-the-minute content we’ll have access to in a few months? Our home page could actually look less like a book cover, and more like an open book. Ain’t that higher ed anyway?
After watching Jim Groom’s talk on DS106 and open education, I started to think about all the energy that went into re-thinking what is possible on umw.edu, and all the potential that we now have.
For now, lots of activity is swirling about responding to a stream of complaints, fixing bad links, improving server performance, making navigational adjustments for our internal users, getting folks used to “thinking” in WordPress, documentation, training: essentially housecleaning. These things are important. I’ve learned one thing in the past 11 years at UMW: As much as the institution may want the Web site to be primarily a marketing piece for external audiences, it has become so much more to our internal audiences, and we owe them basic functionality before we move on to the cooler things ahead. Balancing those two things is not a science, and involves a willingness to be flexible and to respond to user need, to keep a cool head, to admit mistakes, and sometimes to kill our darlings. There are a few darlings strewn alongside the road right now, and that’s to be expected.
Jim’s talk brought back to me many reasons why I wanted to do build the foundation of the new UMW Web site in the way we did it: No big corporate vendor-interloper, open source tools, working in ways that people already work and think, paying attention to the Web as an academic space, building a community of ideas. As with any iterative process such as this, spiraling back and forth between the initial idea and its execution, and you see that every decision that you’ve made actually potentiates the next decision, then you know you’re on to something. And complaints and fixes notwithstanding, we are onto something. So, what next?
So much is next that I get giddy just thinking about it. But I’m most excited about building a core piece of the Transparent University environment: showing the world what it is like be a part of the various disciplines at UMW.
Currently, as with most higher education web sites, we have kind of a dry list of academic disciplines that link to the various department sites. From an information perspective, it’s bare bones. It does not communicate a compelling argument for studying THAT discipline at THIS institution. If we are communicating that we are Great Minds, a list doesn’t cut it. We need something more. We need to expose our community of ideas, and invite participation.
The traditional student recruitment model on the Web involves a lot of showmanship: cool design, perhaps some video, twitter, facebook, maybe some student blogs, for the resource-rich, some interactive flashy stuff. The trouble is that this type of thing is largely expository rather than participatory. Playing with a canned “immersive experience” on your own is not quite the same as being in community. Enabling people to ask a question of the admissions office on facebook or twitter is a start. But, the activities and the flavor of the institution cannot be embodied within our admissions office alone, as amazing as those folks are. A simple list of faculty with their areas of expertise (the Media Resource Guide) is a great tool, but again it’s not compelling in and of itself.
We have an embarrassment of riches at UMW with regard to online, easily-accessible, and aggregation-ready academic content. UMW Blogs unchained the higher thinking of this institution from the shackles of the LMS and, on a minute-by-minute basis, exposes our student and faculty activity to the world. What UMW.EDU needs is a way to aggregate all that good stuff, along with data from the Media Resource Guide, maybe some Banner data on courses, catalog information, social media, and all that stuff into a meaningful environment that fosters scholarly discussion and invites the world — of which the prospective student is a part — into the conversation.
Over the years, we have talked about this notion of allowing the prospective student into the UMW experience prior to their actually plunking down the deposit. Our technology, heavily dependent on student system data, was always a stumbling block: Students cannot have access to the portal or any online system until they are in the student system, which doesn’t happen until the deposit is paid. So, if we are going to rely on our systems to allow students into the UMW experience as a recruiting or “yield” tool, it can’t get there from here.
But if there’s anything that UMW Blogs has taught us is that we don’t need to let a little thing like an ERP system stand in the way of letting the world know how cool it is to study with the Great Minds at UMW. We have enough out there right now that we can shape its delivery in such a way that, for instance, a student in New Jersey who is really interested in communications just may join DS106 because they saw it in the mashup “Communications” site on umw.edu. That kind of magical connection can’t be bottled in a costly flash application — it’s real connection with real people where the technology takes a back seat in service to human need, not the other way around.
The branding effort for the new Web site, with all the fancy graphics, was, to me, only a start. The real UMW experience is not one of unlimited resources, a pristine campus, or dazzling residence halls. It’s the people, the Great Minds, students included. Who would not want to belong to this club? It’s where all the cool kids go.
It was 1979 when I first learned the concept of “charette.” It was orientation at my first semester at Parsons, and we were scared straight by the department chair about what design school would be like. All-nighters would be a regular thing, some of us would graduate to make big bucks, most of us would make a living, some of us would struggle. The term “charette” was used at the Beaux Arts to describe this frantic rush to meet a deadline for a “crit” (critique, when they’d tear your work apart in front of everyone). The word apparently means “on the cart,” evoking an image of working while running towards the studio to pin up your drawings. We were told that although this would be physically demanding, it was imperative that, as designers of the environment, we should remain “awake” and focused, no matter how blurry our minds from the sleep deprivation.
After the lecture from the chair, a group of us got into the elevator, and the chair accompanied us. No one pressed the button, and he admonished us that “if we were awake, we would have known to press the button.” This guy was harsh, no doubt about it, but this concept of being awake and aware of the details stuck with me. It kind of gave a purpose to my usual racing thoughts and unending stream of consciousness of seemingly disjointed ideas that always seemed to add up to something, but I wasn’t really sure.
The chair didn’t lie. The next three years were a bit of a blur running all over Manhattan for the late Sunday-night supplies at Sam Flax. Surrounded by tourists with subway maps and kids, you’d be on the R train on a Sunday morning not having slept the night before, heading to Canal street to buy some model plastic and solvent glue, wondering what the parallel universe of “recreation” must be like. I wondered if my life would always find me trudging through crowded trains not having showered that day, with wooden building models,hoping they don’t break on my way to a presentation, hoping my blueprints wouldn’t delaminate from the poster board, hoping that I could afford to pay for the the contact negatives of my pencil drawings.
I wistfully now go through another charette. I’m walking around with that ashy-skin look, dark circles, messy hair, laundry to the ceiling, no spare emotional parts. Back to 4-5 hours per sleep per night (hey, I’ve got little kids, and I’m 52 and that’s as close to an all-nighter as I can get), I’m again in that parallel universe where I watch other folks “go to lunch” or the gym, and it feels like a million years since I’ve done anything remotely resembling that.
There are no more building models, plastic, solvent glue, ammonia-riddled blueprints — I carry only a laptop these days. But the worries, and the process, are the same. Iterate, iterate, iterate through every detail, back up to the concept, back down to the details, like you’re swimming the butterfly stroke to the finish with your eyes open all the way.
I know we are all looking forward to saying goodbye to our Contribute environment at UMW. But, before its imminent demise, I want to point out a few really good things about it.
Over 7 years ago, we put our hearts and souls into investigating and standing up a web environment that would be easier to manage than our previous environment was. At the time, Macromedia (now Adobe) Contribute was pretty much revolutionary: a low cost content management system that provided users with an easy interface to edit Web pages. It was a barrier remover in its time.
The unfortunate thing throughout the life of our “Contribute” environment was that Contribute wasn’t the amazing part of it. Calling it “in Contribute” is a misnomer. Our Web development team Blaine Donley, Edward Gray, and myself created a PHP application on the backend that filled in the blanks that Contribute could not. Our application stored all the urls, their relationships, and their structure, in a database. It allowed people to create new pages and arrange them through a Web interface, something that Contribute could not do natively. Something that no one else was doing with Contribute at the time.
Then, the content itself lived within the familiar notion of a “page” which our highly distributed team of Web managers could understand and manipulate.
The result was a really fast-performing CMS that only had to retrieve urls instead of delivering and parsing all the content. Considering the speed of servers at the time, this was a great decision that allowed us to scale up to the creation of over 22,000 Web pages, with 8,000 active at any point in time, and very rarely has there been a performance issue. As a matter of fact, I can’t recall one time when performance was an issue.
But the interwebs have moved on from directory structures and stored collections of html files. I knew this was coming, but I also knew, back then, that the technology to deploy a real CMS was too expensive, immature, clunky, and overpromising. I knew that this system we were building would be an intermediate step while the Web got its act together, Web standards settled in a bit, XML grew up, browsers got a clue, and our folks became more Web savvy.
I chose Contribute because, unlike its predecessor Dreamweaver, it could lock out the user from marking up text with font tags, sizes, colors, and other non-standards-compliant markup that was just beginning its deprecation as CSS2 was looming on the horizon. A few people did not like that they couldn’t put big, green, ugly text on their home pages. But, it was a decision that had to be made to ensure the integrity of the markup. Always, in the back of my mind, was some notion of an XML dump of everything in the system, and that had to include standards-compliant markup or we’d be in a world of hurt with manual editing, copying, and pasting.
I think that I was a lot smarter back then than I remember being. Now, folks are able to import their content from our old environment to our new, amazing, beautiful, multi-network WordPress installation, with the click of a button. And only a few error messages in the bunch, which were easily addressed.
It wasn’t simply a script that I wrote that did this, although I wrote a script. It was all the thinking and foresight that we had years ago when we built that now ghastly Contribute system. I’ve always been fond of building and creating systems — it’s why I’m not very good as a one-off designer or Web developer. I like the larger context, the longer view, the seeing what’s around the corner, solving problems on a larger scale. It’s part of my narcissistic grandiosity.
So, before we say goodbye to Contribute, I’m patting myself, and my two former colleagues on the backs. Our system may be on the way out, but by thinking through the larger implications, we created the basis to enable an import thousands of standards-compliant Web pages into a state-of-the-art CMS so painlessly that all folks asked after training is “Now how do I make my site look good.” They are jazzed up, rather than overwhelmed, wanting more rather than less.
Part of that is the power of WordPress. But a big part of getting there is the power of our team back then. Blaine and Edward, we did good.
Today was the first meeting of the University’s new Web Advisory Committee. It’s a great group of people. To a person, they are engaged in the conversation about how to make our public Web presence work better as a marketing tool and as a better-organized resource for information the University community needs.
For sure, there is an appetite to change the content management system we are now using. Contribute has run its course, the design is dated, and the servers are huffing and puffing. Jim Groom did an awesome job of extolling the virtues of WordPress, and I believe folks in the room were on board. Jim showed us how Lafayette College used WordPress to re-tool its Web site. We also talked, in earnest, about the possibilities of better use of UMW Blogs content as a tool to market all the cool things that UMW students and faculty are doing. The transparent university lives!
First on our plate is to answer, once and for all, the age old question of internal vs. external content. We’ve talked about portals in the past. What other tools are out there? With the lions share of total Web pages on our site targeting internal users, it seems that this issue needs some major attention if we are going to re-tool it with a focus on marketing. Folks on the committee were charged with finding out how their respective cohorts at other institutions handle this issue. It’s important to ask these questions at the functional area level since each area of the University has different business, regulatory, and communications needs. We may indeed find that one size does NOT fit all, but the only way to begin to tackle that question is to know what’s out there.
Our next meeting will be held on Friday, October 15. If you have feedback for the committee, or would like to know more about the process, please feel free to submit your comments on this blog.