Entries Tagged 'University Web Design' ↓

What’s Wrong with our Home Page

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.

Steve Greenlaw (one of our more outstanding faculty members, in case you didn’t know) sent me a link yesterday to a story about the new home page for Ozarks Technical Community College (screenshot below):

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?

Fear and Higher Ed Web

Alan Levine inspires as always when he blogged yesterday about the default attitude about privacy on the web in higher education. It’s easy to point to FERPA, copyright, and intellectual property concerns and their role in the development of the traditional authenticated LMS environment. But, there are other concerns that universities have with opening things up, and we have faced them quite boldly at UMW on multiple fronts.

Since before 2001, our web policy has had a few interesting passages in it, mostly related to clarifying the bright line between “official” and “non-official” websites:

“The University of Mary Washington assumes editorial responsibility for official University Web sites and official UMW on-line resources, which are defined as the official Web pages or on-line materials of UMW departments, divisions and other units. For these sites and resources, UMW is the content provider and not a content-neutral “Internet Service Provider,” or ISP. You may also find within the UMW domain — signified by the address “umw.edu” or within the range of Internet protocol addresses assigned to the University — Web sites or on-line materials over which the University has no editorial responsibility or control. Such sites include but are not limited to the Web pages or other on-line materials of individual faculty members or students, individual class sites and materials, and the Web pages or on-line materials of student organizations and other organizations not formally a part of the University. For these sites and materials, UMW is a content-neutral ISP.”

This is a perfectly normal and accepted type of policy on any higher ed website. The University is both protecting what is considered official messages AND protecting the first amendment rights of students and faculty. Like may policies, this does not exist to explain so much as to prevent legal action against the University.

The above is much easier to enforce when there is an LMS involved. Once UMW Blogs came online, and the website began to openly link to it, the game changed. Although the letter of the policy is still being followed, the spirit of it — to draw a bright line between official and non-official communications — becomes harder to enforce. How can a university celebrate and share what can be controversial academic debate in the context of its public communications and still maintain control of the message?

I was part of a presentation to the UMW Cabinet with Jim Groom addressing the fear of potential disaster should a student post something untoward. Jim made the argument that, for every possible “f-bomb” that is posted, there are thousands of great ideas that are shared every day online, and showcase the depth of the academic conversation at UMW. He was asking them to take a gamble, and they have.

I do believe that this fear of exposure of possible offending language — or (gasp!) bad grammar — on the part of those managing the public message is a contributing factor to institutional desire to hide academic conversation within authenticated environments. Once the classroom is exposed to the web, it’s in the ether and the bright line between official and non-official seems parochial at best. At worst, it’s a technique to avoid conversation about more complicated issues regarding free speech and what makes a university different from a corporation. If we are peddling the development of free thought and critical thinking, why are we so afraid of exposing just what it is we hope to foster in our students?

I leave you with a video clip that I’ve used in presentations in the last couple of years. It’s a favorite metaphor of mine: the university public website as the ridiculous freestanding tollbooth that anyone can circumvent if they just open their eyes.

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Web Professional Anger

Web Developer snarky tshirts.

Rockin the nastiness in 100% cotton.

I am trying to name an elephant in the room occupied by those of us who work on the web. A recent Twitter exchange with another web professional reminded me that if we are not careful, web professionals immerse ourselves so thoroughly in what we do on a day-to-day basis that we ignore the facts on the ground: people. Those darned people. You can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em.

The web is one of those things that works best when it remains transparent: easy to create, easy to find, easy to use. The bulk of what web professionals do every day is with the intention of improving the experience for others. But, the reems of code written, and the subsequent exponential growth of the web, create an environment where so much is going on that, unless you ARE a web professional, you just don’t get it.

Then, the elephant enters. We grow angry, impatient, and sometimes downright nasty about people not getting it. They are no longer people, they are “users,” “clients,” name your euphemism. We want the world to go along for the ride, to keep up, stop complaining, realize that it’s a new world and either lead, follow, or get out of the way. There is humor all over devoted to making fun of that naive world of “users” that we have created. A personal favorite is here: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/design_hell. A positively insanely funny episode of the IT Crowd called “The Internet” lays this out succinctly:

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Then, there are the t-shirts (above).

A lot of this humor is legitimate. People do ask me to fix their home wireless network which has nothing to do with html, css, Photoshop, Illustrator, or any other of the technologies that I can actually negotiate as a web developer. The computer, to the average person, is a black box of magic, and any magician will do. As a community in the aggregate, web developers seem as incapable of grokking onto that reality as those pesky “users” are incapable of seeing that with respect to routers, wifi, and DNS servers, we, too are merely humble clients (who know enough to be dangerous, but not effective). This is one of the reasons why I find web developer conferences so uncomfortable: Half the equation is missing — that is, the actual people that use the tools and environments we are building. I realize that conferences are necessary to exchange information and to grow, but, I’m extremely socially uncomfortable at them. Faculty Academy is the only conference I’ve attended where the people (educators in specific) and the developers meet in a non-judgmental exchange and — surprise! — understanding ensues all around.

I’m not immune to this attitude. I laugh at this stuff, and I complain about “users.” But, it’s not something I hold as a badge of pride. Internally, I do wish that there were a way to exponentially grow compassion within the web development community and, closer to home, within myself.

One point of frustration for me is that I see so many sites not being updated. Since folks have a WordPress installation like no other in the world to work with, I was kind of hoping that they’d catch on to the whole blogging thing. Unfortunately, since we tweaked WordPress so well to make it a viable CMS, posts are not being used so much as pages, and this is starting to wreak havoc on information architecture, which, of course, makes me want to design a snarky t-shirt {“It’s a blogging platform, stupid!,” “Blog for once, will ya? It’s WordPress!”,”Gravity Forms much?” ). DON’T PEOPLE SEE ALL YOU CAN DO, FOR GOD’S SAKE??

So, with all deference to my legitimate frustrations posted earlier this year, the choir I preach to is not the audience with which I’m most frustrated, and for whom I sincerely want to make things better.

When I hear comments from those in my profession, mirroring back to me my own impatience, I begin to wonder if what we are doing is building a better world for others, or for our own aggrandizement, which makes me feel just a few yards shy of noble.

Walkin’ the Talk

In the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, part of my summer’s intention is to immerse myself into the social media culture that’s all the rage with the young folk. Nothing’s worse than a “we have to have better social media for the university” pronouncement from someone with a Blackberry who relies on Outlook for most of her online conversations. Not that I am describing myself, but due to a focus on the conventional meaning of what a web communications professional does, I’ve been only a hair’s breath away from that. I’ve dipped my toes into social media, but never dove in.

Email is where I have to live for the mechanics of my job. It’s not, however, an entirely habitable space when it comes to conveying larger ideas and for connecting beyond my comfort zone. I have found that traditional web conferences, which are rich in information about technology and trends, tend to not push creative boundaries beyond the immediate group of self-selected web developers, all talented and capable for sure, but not largely discussing what I’d like to be discussing, which is the notion of connecting people and ideas as the goal, with technology as a way to do that. When ideas about effective higher education web communications arise, they are frequently in service to marketing, which implies that the web is nothing more than a marketing space. I believe that this is deadly on the web, particularly the increasingly mobile web, and that universities who think they can formulate an effective social media strategy from a marketing perspective have essentially lost the battle before it is even fought.

Nothing smells more phony than marketing in social media, and the prospective student knows it. IMO. FWIW.

So what to do? Well, to me, Twitter is now feeling like a game of jump rope where the rope is turning, turning, turning and it’s up to ME to hop into the conversation. This past week, I’ve made a point of jumping in, getting back to blogging, creating an alter-ego presence on the web, and participating in conversations about stuff I’m wholly unqualified to converse about! I’m doing this in service to the joy that comes from the connected mind.

This is an entirely different mindset than my familar one which sits in the office and pours over information architecture and page layouts while answering email. Those are mechanical tasks that must be done, for sure, but done in the consciousness that what we create when we create a web presence for a university is not to pander, but to invite, not to preach, but to inspire, not to tell someone to “click here,” but be vulnerable enough to put out authentic experience and deeply held, half-baked ideas, trusting that someone new and interesting will want to jump in and play, simply out of the joy of discovery.

Gotta go check my email now.

Crossing the Academic – Administrative Blood-Brain Barrier.

Brain

I had a great conversation yesterday with a faculty member. She later read my recent blog post regarding the need for us to leap beyond our idea of the web as a technology component of our jobs, and to see it more as students see it, which is an integral part of their lives. The faculty member reminded me that administrative staff do not always have day-to-day contact with students in a way that develops relationships and nurtures understanding. Faculty have that opportunity, but staff may or may not depending on their position. As a result, it may be asking a lot for staff to keep up with what students know and do in their everyday lives, contributing to communicative silos and reliance on the way things have always been done. I know for myself that I have very little contact with students, and rely on my academic friends, and daily reading, to keep as up to date as I can.

Her response helped to kick me out of my judgmental state of mind and back into the truth for a lot of our administrative staff, many of whom manage the majority of web sites within the UMW public web presence. Now, where to go with that.

During my years at Lippincott in the 1990s, I learned a lot about effective communications. I learned that a communications plan is NOT an implementation plan — the latter is a component of the former. But, the way we have traditionally trained our web administrators is during the implementation phase. In short, they are taught how to use the tools to do a web page. First Netscape Composer, then Dreamweaver, Contribute, and now WordPress. Although we spent a good deal of time during the Dreamweaver days speaking to information architecture, the current notion of interactive design is so very new, and involves a higher level of sophistication than our training now embodies.

This is largely the result of a lack of time and resources. However, it also points to a myopia of mine, and a fear of mine, in this regard. First, the myopia.

There is so much work that goes into migrating a web system, many late nights, many lines of code, lots of photoshop, meetings, emails, and error de-bugging. My self-imposed silo says “of course everyone is thinking what I’m thinking about the potential of this.” Which, of course, who can? I’m not thinking about Banner course data either (although I know a few folks at the registrar who are consumed with that day in and day out). The point is, these folks have a job, and it’s not mine. So, strike one against me.

Now for the fear I have: Folks within their “silos” feel they command a strong understanding of their audiences, and I hesitate to be an interloper in that. However, as technology becomes more and more ubiquitous and mobile among our students, I fear that there is no administrative staff member who can possibly understand the way students today inhabit technology. I have trouble keeping up with DTLT who are probably the best at keeping up, and that’s THEIR ENTIRE JOB — to not only keep up, but push the edges.

Since 2001 (when I first took this job), the paradigm of the job description for a website administrator has been, essentially, a tacked-on duty in an EWP — we have had few (if any) employees in functional areas whose sole job it is to manage electronic communications with their audiences. Electronic communications involves so much more than it did then. Once confined to email and websites, it’s now one-to-many, many-to-many interaction in multiple directions.

So, how to raise my consciousness and the consciousness of those who need to effectively engage audiences and efficiently exchange information within the media that our students inhabit? Now that the WordPress-as-a-tool horse is out of the barn, how do we train those using it to not just have pretty sites (which is NOT an end goal), but to be masters of their information domain and key contact points for students?

Absent staffing specialists, I believe that this poses a new opportunity for training not on the tool, but on how to inhabit the online space. To that end, I propose the folllowing:

1) DS106: Every staff member who is a website administrator can be required to submit at least one DS106 assignment (which may get them addicted). This should count as a professional development activity. The advantage of this approach is that it costs the university nothing in person hours or resources. It’s our own online, hetergeneous community where people can opt in to join a community learning how to communicate within a networked, online environment. The experience will give staff members not only practice in the core principal of online storytelling, but make them part of a community of students who are using the web the way many students are and WILL use the web to create and express ideas. It makes the staff member PART of that community, instead of only reading about it in the Chronicle :)

2) Supervisors Should Require Department Web Administrators to attend Faculty Academy: This year, Faculty Academy is being held on the Fredericksburg campus. For staff members who don’t know about it, it’s an annual FREE conference at UMW that attracts the best-of-the-best speakers in the field of teaching and learning technologies. Although staff members are not in the business of teaching courses for credit, web administrators ARE in the business of teaching students all they need to know to negotiate their college careers during our time here. Techniques used by faculty and instructional technologists are very easily translated into the administrative environment. Indeed, the beginnings of higher education online environments were largely in libraries, so, there is ample history for this notion of cross-pollination. And where do you think we got the idea for WordPress in the first place (HINT: umwblogs.org). Register for Faculty Academy NOW – the deadline is May 11! This should count as a professional development activity.

3) Group Usability Sessions: Conducted by my office, groups of web administrators will be asked to perform a usability test from a student’s point of view on another department’s website and report anonymously. They will be given a series of interactions that a current student needs to perform at UMW, and to see how effectively that student can achieve their goal in a set period of time. This can be done online or in a lab together. I like the idea of doing it online so people can do it in their own time and not feel observed by others. We can then have an online session together to discuss what principles we learned from the exercise.

4) Group Mobile Usability Sessions: Brian Fling of pinch/zoom, an internationally-recognized mobile developer, emphasizes the importance of putting mobile front and center as the PRIMARY means by which we will get information in the future. As a result, the student’s experience of mobile is much more important to them than it may be to many of us, and this will only increase over time. Although we have a way to graphically adjust our sites for mobile using a plugin called WPTouch pro, and although there are more dynamic ways (called “responsive design“) to achieve layout flexibility it is not so simple as a layout change. Mobile is a different experience altogether. In a usability test that Fling did for a BBC site that was supposed to promote their programming, he observed this:

“Users felt that they were in control of their iPad, that it was THEIRS, and that this experience — you granted them access to their brains, their eyes, and they took that trust very seriously. So they said that if they were feeling that they were overly marketed to, that they would remove, close, or delete any sort of application that they perceived to be as marketing and advertising activity. We’d never seen users in a lab session feel so strongly about being marketed to.”

Testing each other’s sites on iPads and iPhones may elicit some interesting discussion about what our department home pages now do from a design perspective (much improved), and what they now don’t do from an interaction perspective (not so good). It’s a new metric for measuring success, and something we need to get a command of.

All this is to say that, to the extent that I am currently frustrated with our level of consciousness about online content, I am equally eager to help raise it (and my own along with it).

Photo: Scan depicting blood/brain barrier (by: Christopher Lewis)

It’s About Community, Stupid!

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.

We’ve got the barn. Let’s put on a show!

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Charette

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.

Man, We Were Good

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.

The Redesign Begins

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.

Meanwhile, I’m attaching the Powerpoint that lays out our process for beginning this project, as well as some background information.

Real-World Organic Web Development

Cell Cleavage and Site DevelopmentAs an initial manifestation of my post on the potential of CSS to open up possibilities for cross-platform institutional Web publishing, I am in the final stages of developing a “skin” for WordPress that is identical to the the UMW Web site. It also allows for two- or three-column layout.

I’m sure to many folks this is a big snooze. The NOT big snooze part of it is that it was so darned easy. With the exception of footer content and some plugin customization I am working on, it was a snap to re-skin a theme called “ET-Starter” and make it look just the way I wanted it to in a few days.

Why would I do this when we are embarking on a new design for the site? There are multiple reasons. First, because it’s a great proof of concept. Second, because I can :). Third, the SACS Re-Accreditation committee needs a public Web presence right now, and it has to live for about 3 years. I didn’t want to create that in our aging Contribute/PHP environment — we’d have to re-create it when we move to WPMU for the public site. Rather, the idea here is to allow the SACS committee site to appear as another  part of the official UMW Web site, but to live within WordPress Multi-User in a production environment.

This approach will be a great way to protoype functionality that this site is going to need and that our current public Web infrastructure can’t deliver in a scalable way: internal logins for private documents, easy Web publishing without a local client, rss aggregation and consumption, discussion forums, etc. When we are ready with a new graphic design, we simply skin this theme, port the SACS site over to the new server maintaining the same URL, ask IT to update the DNS, and voila!

What “skinning” and CSS allow us to do is to take advantage of the separation between content and presentation allowed by accessible, standards-based Web design. It lets us test, in a real-world application, much of what we will need in the live site without having to re-do tons of code when the institution decides on a look and feel. My fantasy is to have all the kinks so worked out on the backend so it will take a week to get us into full production after a new design has been chosen.

In the long run, and Jim Groom will kill me for blaspheming against the gods of WPMU, I see the possibility to roll this approach out to multiple platforms, not just WordPress. The goal of the Web for communications is to respond quickly as communications needs and goals change. By porting a skin from our home-grown environment to WordPress so quickly, we are proving that anything is possible moving forward.

Hey, I can dream. Even if it’s longer (like a month, probably), this is vastly different from the way we used to do the web with endless, amorphous wish-lists of functionality, creation of non-functioning prototypes, followed by months of development, testing, and then presentation design.

This is the kind of thing that gets me up in the morning, when my kids don’t do it first.