Entries Tagged 'WordPress' ↓

Drop the Mouse. Put Your Hands in the Air. Back Away From the UI.

Our intrepid CIO, Justin Webb, has far too much common sense for his own good. He’ll never make it in this town.

Seriously, Justin and I were here together in 2008 for the coming of Sharepoint (before he was CIO). He and I slogged through the implementation of that baby over an 18-month period that felt like it would never end. It gave birth to a bouncing baby EagleNet.

Since November of 2009, EagleNet has been our University’s portal. “Portal” is one of those words that sounded SO sexy in 2003, but by the time we got to Sharepoint, we had seen the communications, training, and maintenance headaches that portals can bring. The dream of aggregating communications based on ERP data about a person’s role is a good one. The problem is, the companies that deal with data should be told to, “Drop the mouse. Put your hands in the air. Back away from the UI.” (and no one will get hurt).

Sharepoint is one of those nifty all-in-one tools that aggregates, collaborates, authenticates, productivity-ates, and gets-us-cute-prom-dates. It’s another of those motherships that promises all things wonderful.

The best thing about motherships is that they are, out of the box, pretty robust and sturdy. The trouble with motherships is that they are very, very hard to steer. That makes them GREAT for corporate environments with few differentiating factors within internal audiences. A single, sturdy, homely UI works okay in that mediocre kinda way when you stick with a vanilla installation and provision using the delivered tools.

But higher ed audiences are nothing if not idiosyncratic — not just within a University, but between universities. Student populations can be undergraduate, residential, international, non-traditional, in any number of major programs. And that is just one audience group. Throughout the year, each of these many audiences requires a clear way to get to information.

So the object was to use Sharepoint as a layer of targeted communications over the portal, essentially mimicking what we had with Luminis, providing single sign-on to our Banner SSB for students in the bargain. This involved a LOT of customization, including some pretty complicated code for maintaining a Banner session within the Sharepoint authentication scheme. The developer who did this (no longer with UMW) was truly a genius in getting this to work. But, not everyone has a genius on staff.

Bottom line: We twisted Sharepoint into a pretzel to make it do what it’s doing. And here’s what it’s doing:

  • Complicating getting directly to Banner SSB,
  • Delivering 3 widgets of targeted/authenticated information for the new incoming student, useful for 3 months out of the year, and too complicated to manage to allow for distributed content authorship, so content management stays within IT.
  • Delivering about 9 widgets of personalized information from Banner SSB to all audiences.
  • Hosting unused personal pages, called “MySites,” for all students, faculty, and staff.
  • Delivering a collection of about 80 or so collaboration sites, of which a handful are being used actively.
  • Serving as a pretty spiffy scalable reporting tools platform.

Other than the last two bullet points (in bold above), EagleNet doing very little for all the development and maintenance costs, not to mention the development and testing work involved every time Banner or Sharepoint is upgraded. Well, Banner SSB has an all new interface called Cascade, and Sharepoint is moving from 2007 to 2010. Time to commit to hiring more .NET programming skill for more customization and retooling of this enormously complicated environment for little UI benefit, or cut bait.

Then there is mobile. Delivering itty-bitty widgets of information just doesn’t cut it in a mobile UI. On mobile, you want to get the info, and get out, because, let’s face it, you’re driving.

Snide remarks aside, I would argue that this notion of having a web-based UI that provides pertinent GROUP and PERSONAL messages and data is a viable one. So, how to extricate that essentially sound idea from a UI that was developed in service to the infrastructure, rather than the user? I thought you’d NEVER ask.

Enter the work Curtiss and I have been doing on Banner and Active Directory data in WordPress, using Banner Web services. It is a lightweight infrastructure, without all the vendor lockin nonsense of a “systems-based” delivered UI. It is the notion of small pieces, loosely joined, coming to fruition in a very big and profound way. Here’s what we are going to begin developing (implementation quite a ways down the road, so don’t panic!):

  • Use WordPress for the UI.
  • Aggregate targeted web content from posts throughout the university Multi-network environment using RSS feeds, FeedWordPress, and our own Cross-Site Featured Posts plugin.
  • Deliver Banner Web Services (already doing that) to WordPress based on AD authentication (already doing that, too). That allows the viewing of targeted (WordPress aggregated) and personal (Banner Web Services) content upon login.
  • Implement a Central Authentication Service (CAS) server to maintain a session between authenticated WordPress and Banner SSB.

Here is what you get at the end:

  • A flexible, accessible, responsive, mobile-friendly UI that leverages skills on staff AND within a broad WordPress community
  • No more Rube Goldberg authentication code in .NET that needs to be retooled every time Microsoft or Ellucian decides to improve on their products, dragging their clunky, afterthought UI’s along for the ride.
  • Banner screens break out from frames and use standard form layout, minimizing re-styling and customization.
  • IT concentrates on security, authentication, hosting and data delivery.
  • The Web team concentrates on aggregation and UI.
  • University Relations and the rest of the University continue to deliver content to their stakeholders through WordPress, as they are already.
  • Open standards, application-agnostic methods for authentication and session maintenance that could potentially apply to any number of apps and aggregation layers in the future.
  • Complex, compulsory, EagleNet portal layer is replaced by an opt-in Sharepoint installation that continues to support its core functionality: internal collaboration and reporting tools.
  • No more supporting thousands of abandoned, hard to manage “MySites”. UMW Blogs and a Domain of One’s Own are, after all, the most useful personal web publishing platforms we have in-house, and the internet is lousy with cheap or free personal web publishing environments that people can share with the WORLD, not just internally, as MySites do.
I know this is a lot to swallow in words. I have a way to illustrate these changes in simple pictures but, for now, I’ll leave it at the above. I’m pretty jazzed — it’s so nice to be around so long that you can break the stuff you helped to build, and build it better. Also nice to have Justin Webb as a CIO who is interested in solving problems, minimizing costs, being willing to kill a darling or two in  support of the UMW mission in the bargain. Justin Webb (IT champion of the Domain of One’s Own) is an unsung hero — oh, and a Mary Washington alum, by the way.

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.

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)

But Can it Core a Apple?

One of my favorite things about infomercials is the way they define the problem that their particular product or service is designed to solve. Using some of the most hilarious bad-acting pantomimes, we see people ineptly struggling to do the most simple tasks. It’s like they occupy a parallel universe where no one can negotiate the perils of their own living room. YouTube Preview Image

These people don’t exist in real life. If anyone WERE that inept, let alone that prone to overblown emoting while no one is watching, they’d need medical attention. It’s the people themselves in these ads that are the problem. They are largely not mindful, and turn their troubles with life outward on the circumstances surrounding them.

If they are tripping on things, why didn’t they pick them up in the first place? If their couch smells bad from the dog, why do they let the dog sit on the couch? If they can’t find their keys, why don’t they put them in the same place every day when they get home? You get the picture. The PRODUCT comes along to solve problems of their own making. Money is spent on some THING that, inevitably, will be as misused as all the other unmanageable things that surround them.

No product can solve a lack of mindfulness, responsibility, and acceptance. It has not been invented yet. There is no widget, lotion, toy, consultant, or app that will make up for the work we need to do ourselves.

I have come across this issue time and time again in over a decade of work in web design. We think the next web authoring tool, or content management tool, will instantly make us all communicators. But, it doesn’t. Even in our current WordPress environment, which is as scalable, extensible, and user-friendly as it gets, you can’t get anything out of it if you’re simply transferring old habits into a shiny new system. Sites that had their slide show set up in October, with a set of static links, that have not been changed or updated are the norm — even with the system we have set up which is “so easy a child can do it.”

We continue to ignore the fundamental problem: we need a sense of ownership and responsibility for managing and sharing content in the online world. It is no longer okay to laugh off managing your website with an “I’m no good with computers!” infomercial-before-ineptitude. There is no computer, and no application, that will turn such a mindset into a creative, engaged, communications machine. It isn’t ABOUT computers or technology or “the web” at all. It’s about valuing clear communications with the people you care about — when that’s a priority, it’s amazing how only a few simple tools can support that mindset.

But, still, we maintain this belief that some new app will take care of the lack of actual creative thoughtfulness, coordination, energy, and — dare I say it — CONTENT that is the issue.

I was at UMW for the Luminis (“EagleLink”) implementation. Then, the Sharepoint (“EagleNet”) implementation. Indeed, I was deeply involved in the development of the interface and content organization within both of these platforms. I’ve presided over the implementation of Dreamweaver, Contribute, and WordPress. So, I know a few things about the impact (or lack of it) made by “systems” on the way people actually communicate in the digital space.

After the Luminis implementation, where this supposedly “dynamic” platform became just an encumbrance on the way to Banner Self-Service, I learned that you can’t BUILD a network, build user input, from a central point. If you build it, they won’t necessarily come. And they didn’t — except to get to Banner (which you could get to on the web already).

Sharepoint became Luminis on steroids. It was a hard sell, most of all to me. This is not to say that Sharepoint has no value — on the contrary, it can be a very useful collaboration tool. But, it’s only as good as the collaborators. If you are not invested in sharing information and collaborating in a digital space, applications like Sharepoint, or Luminis, or, dare I say, WordPress are USELESS.

I implore the decision-makers at higher education institutions to think before acquiring more expensive technologies before we solve the problem of our spotty engagement in communicating via the web and new media to our constituent groups. (NB: some notable exceptions in our WordPress community DO exist). University-wide communications is not a technology acquisition problem. It is not a technology training exercise. It’s not a “rally around the brand” initiative. It’s simply an ingrained understanding that we live, largely, online in terms of institutional communications. That simple understanding would have us all tweeting, facebooking, blogging, vlogging, texting, and using all sorts of freely available tools.

The shift has to be away from emulating how we did it in the flesh and in print to doing it altogether differently — not regarding the web as “technology,” but a palpably human space we all inhabit together with a new, engaging and challenging set of rules. I hate to tell you, but the prospective and current student are already there. People like Jim Groom, Alan Levine, Tim Owens, Martha Burtis, and Andy Rush are already there. I fear most of us are still are living in our file cabinets, tri-fold brochures, memos, portals, meetings, training sessions, enterprise systems, and emails — all with “matching” web pages inside a system that can provide so very much more with resources we already have. And that is very, very unfortunate indeed.

In closing, to lighten things up a bit, below is the granddaddy of all infomercials, with Ed Norton providing one of the BEST “before” pantomimes in television history:

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