Entries Tagged 'Uncategorized' ↓

New Day, New Domain

Dear followers,

I have moved my site out of UMW Blogs and into my new domain. You can follow me now at:


See you there!

The Transparent University Gains Support

So much work on the new UMW Web site has been accomplished in this past academic year that I’ve neglected to continue blogging about the ideas that inspired it, primarily this notion of the Transparent University, the title of this blog. That’s why it has been gratifying to lift my head from the grindstone temporarily to present the idea, now poised for implementation, to those at the University who have not been party to the day-to-day process.

The charge has been a “new UMW Web site,” which, due to our pretty robust collection of content on our main Web server and on UMW Blogs, has been a more complex process than most institutions face with a project of this nature. When your site houses everything from Admissions materials to where to recycle your office waste, and when you now have thousands of student and faculty postings, updated daily, that comprise the online academic life of this institution, this project can’t be a facelift. To take best advantage of this moment in time when we are re-positioning ourself in the marketplace, the new Web presence has had to be a wholesale revisiting of what a higher education web environment means.

In short, unlike many institutions, we HAVE the content, we don’t have to dream it up. And the “upper levels” of the site need not comprise “brochureware” — they can pull from the content we already have, using site architecture to contextualize feeds from multiple areas, giving a rich and deep meaning to what UMW life can be, and indeed is, in these days when core issues like the academic experience rank below the look of a residence hall in the priorities of the incoming student and their families. How does UMW, alongside UVa and William & Mary, deign to put forth academic experience as a main driver in recruitment?

That’s not an easy question to answer. And, surely, the appearance of our campus, the likelihood of post-graduate employment, and quality of non-academic life, are “brand drivers” that will remain in these highly-competitive times with shrinking state budgets, and shrinking family tuition dollars.

The Web site can only play a small part in this effort, but if you hang around Jim Groom enough, you become convinced that perhaps, just perhaps, it may be bigger than you think. I mean, who else but The Bava can elicit a roomful of applause at a UMW Cabinet meeting?

Since May, Jim Groom, Curtiss Grymala (our resident WordPress guru), and myself, have had occasion to present the ideas behind the coming UMW Web site within three contexts: Faculty Academy, University Relations and Advancement’s division meeting, and the UMW Cabinet meeting. These presentations have come at a time when the thinking behind this new Web site has been fleshed out beyond the conceptual, when we are developing, testing, and designing in a real environment with real people. And the responses we have gotten in all three presentations have been overwhelming — this institution gets it, is willing to take a risk, is willing to be out in front of the pack rather than following and imitating what others are doing.

This is a good thing because, as I’ve mentioned in many contexts over this past year, no one institution has a lock on how best to “do” the web. Indeed, most research into higher education Web sites can leave you feeling a bit of despair. You’ll see forays into mobile, video, blogging, social bookmarking, flash, jqueryUI fanciness. Behind many of these, you can almost hear the strategies: “We’ve got to have a mobile presence! We need a Facebook page? Get students who want to blog!” It’s as if the overall thinking is that the purchase of or participation in new technologies somehow makes your site more current and relevant.

I understand it — it can be hard to feel like the Web is passing you by and leaving you to irrelevance. It’s a temptation I’ve resisted, despite the clamouring of many a vendor to get UMW’s attention during this redesign process. I took some heat from a consultant on this recently, but I just don’t see the point in taking precious resources towards developing a confection of interaction like cute little flash or html5 apps just so we “look cool and relevant.” There is no research that tells me that the quality and quantity of admissions applications go up when you spend all your Web development dollars on cute interactive apps and microsites. As a matter of fact, there is research that states that this “microsite” approach works best when it includes quick access to relevant information rather than marketing content.

If there is one lesson I’ve learned from UMW Blogs, from Facebook, and from Twitter, it’s that the technology doesn’t matter. All three of these environments are based on very simple Web-based applications that have grown organically through “crowdsourcing” and iterative improvements, taking advantage of simple technologies coupled with the network effect (i.e., human behavior and ingenuity). It’s one of the reasons why the new Facebook video chat announcement seemed so ham-handed: who cares about video chat technology? The cool stuff that made Facebook work was the simple ability to find that guy you went to the prom with and realize why you broke up afterall. Now I cringe that he could hit that button on the right-hand column and actually ask me to video chat — EWWW!

It seems as if we’ve learned that people respond less to applications than to each other, and that works best when the application is most transparent and usable. We’ll see that heat up once Google+ starts decreasing its nerd:normal people ratio. It’s cool, but my 7 brothers and sisters (ranging in ages from 53 to 71) aren’t going to be on Google+ anytime soon.

What does all this mean for UMW’s Web site? Well, content and relationships are king. So, we’re keeping the app simple and extensible (WordPress), we’re encouraging subscriptions to existing media hosting environments (YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Picasa), and we’re integrating, through simple RSS, our academic life into the body of the Web site.

On possible scenario: You’re a prospective student looking for a college with a great Study Abroad program. You can visit the catalog page that describes the program, you can go to the Center for International Education program page which goes into more detail. But what if that “institutional” content served also to contextualize a feed of posts by students stationed around the world at that moment in a host of countries, blogging about their experiences, enabling a direct connection between the prospective student and the student abroad? The simplicity of this proposition is at the heart of what we are trying to do: Not bypass the official communications about the university, but allow it to exist side-by-side with the actual work of this institution, enabling direct communications between people with the University acting as one of many hubs.

UMW is in a unique position to accomplish much with this simple idea. In reality, our Web site now is so old anything will look revolutionary, but don’t be fooled by appearances. The shift we are planning on making, if successful, is a bold one, and our Cabinet is to be applauded for its courage and its faith in the folks driving this project. Stay tuned.

Incremental Process for Eventual Web Re-Design: Start with the Data

In the process of the site redesign for UMW, we will go through the usual committee process. However, I’m wondering if the project itself that this committee will be charged with could be a more iterative one.

Many folks who came into Web design in the early 2000s, and today, are from a print communications background. This has led, I believe, to a notion that a “Web site” is like a piece: You plan it, edit it, publish it, go home.

But we all know that a Web site is like a shark: It has to keep swimming or it dies (Yes, I’ve seen “Annie Hall”). To that end, is there any reason why we can’t test drive ideas live, read analytics over a period, then make adjustments as we go along?

UMW Blogs is, by it’s nature, incremental and organic in growth. It comes from the content up, not from the home page down. It’s nice that folks redesign the home page now and then, and I love those little flippy things in the primary navigation, but the little flippy things are not what’s cool about it.

We have a unique opportunity in that the current site is so stale that any change to the home page would be seen as a welcome sign. I’m proposing that, based on the following data over the past year, maybe the committee would want to test drive a few before a wholesale change:

  1. Visits to “Featured Faculty” encompass 0.8% of the home page traffic.
  2. Get Recognized gets 1.0% of the home page traffic.
  3. The home page links to only 6 of the pages that are in the UMW Top 20 for the year (measured by page views since we have many repeat customers internally). Not included is a link to the library, which is a consistent #3 in terms of site traffic.
  4. The most visited page linked to from the home page is the “Student/Faculty/Staff” page.

What does all this tell us? First of all, I’m using Google Analytics data here in the broadest sense, settling on a single piece of data over a period of one fiscal year (6/30/2009 through 7/1/2010). But, at first blush, we can conclude:

  1. The majority of site users are internal.
  2. Of the links we provide that are geared towards external users, the two least popular features take up a majority of the real estate.

This is not to say that the perennial argument about who is the primary audience for the site should be questioned. We should strive for a more externally-facing site. And, although the click-throughs to the “Resources” page indicate that folks are using the site internally, that should not really affect the real estate on the home page all that much.

So, I’m going to propose that some adjustments be made to the current home page to see if it can be made more efficient for external users. The externally focused links in the top 20, in decreasing order of traffic, (factoring out the home page and the resources page), are:

  1. Admissions (22.8%)
  2. Directory (17.3%)
  3. Academics (14.9%)
  4. About UMW (9.1%)
  5. News Release (with photo and teaser at bottom) (5.4%)
  6. Student Life (4.8%)

In addition, if you simply compare by site visits for the year, UMWBlogs site visits amount to 17.4% of the UMW Web site visits. That’s popularity we can “leverage” (I used that term to make Jim Groom happy). That would put them just under Admissions for popularity.

Are you sensing something here?

Here is my proposal for an interim change to the Home Page (which, of course, would need to go through the proper channels). I submit the following suggestions for your comment:

  1. Replace the “Featured Faculty” section with an RSS feed of faculty blogs on UMW Blogs. This would give more Faculty home page exposure, and eliminate the overhead of writing a story and producing a single web page for faculty. Faculty members could opt-in,  or, we could settle on a taxonomy of tags to select for home page inclusoin. It would end any resentment about who gets to be on the home page, too 🙂 Added bonus: The content always changes.
  2. End the “Get Recognized” Campaign on the home page and replace with a navigational Flash animation that shows our campus, people, and mission, and links to Admissions, Academics, Athetics, About UMW, and Student Life prominently.
  3. Upgrade and standardize the look and feel of the primary pages linked to from this graphic.
  4. Re-work the text navigation to put all internal links in one place, and clean up the navigation on the right.
  5. Since most home page traffic goes to the Admissions site, and not to the “application” site (which has an “apply now” button prominently displayed), I’d take that button out. It’s kinda cheesy anyway (I have no data to back that up).

Do you think these adjustments would be a good idea? Do you have any other thoughts? I’m all ears.

The Unfulfilled Promise of CSS at Universities

I made a suggestion at a meeting the other day that was met with “That’s impossible!” That’s when I know I’m on to something good.

CSS (Cascading Stylesheets) has the ability to separate presentation from content. At a University, with the multiplicity of content providers (PR folks, faculty, administrators), and the heterogeneity of content and Web missions (teaching, information, transactions, development, etc.), you’d think that the current more favorable state of the browser world would have everyone clamouring for Web standards. And, to a certain extent, they clamour. However, the notion of what Web standards can do is frequently discussed within the realm of a chosen technology environment.

Here’s how it goes: We want to purchase Ingeniux, or Sharepoint, or Documentum, or fill-in-the-blank CMS, or we are adopting Drupal, or WordPress, or SAKAI or some other open source tool. One of the ways that we evaluate them is adherence to Web standards. We go in and edit our style.css, home.css, main.css, or the other standard stylesheets and we are using CSS to control the environment.

But, I’m here to tell you, that is SO February 2009.

CSS gives us quick ability to manipulate presentation without touching the code that actually displays the content. Heck, you can point to a CSS file on another server, which means a central pool of designers doesn’t even have to touch the systems themselves. Add to this the democratization of content management through the open source movement, and lots of faculty members using WordPress, Drupal, Joomla and the like, why, oh WHY do we ask them to use a central system?

The “It’s impossible!” comment I got was from a mindset rooted within that old framework. “We’d have to support multiple systems!” Yet, resistance is, over the long haul, increasingly futile.

Well, branding is important to recruitment, and University Relations folks need not be viewed as the long arm of the law if they are willing to think long-term. It’s the at times coercive and inelegant way that PR and IT folks (myself among them) go about standardizing the brand on the Web that I have a beef with. How about, rather than proposing that folks to come to YOUR party where you may not be serving what they need, you meet them where they are already comfortable. Creating and managing CSS files centrally for disparate systems solves many problems in terms of branding, and allows for systems to scale on their own.

There are only so many technologies that a single University employs on the public Web. And there are only so many pages or sub-sites that are critical to branding. So, if a Webmaster needs to skin WordPress, Drupal, Django, Joomla, Moodle, Ingeniux, even Web-enabled ERPs like Banner*, or any other system that our users want, they are now empowered to do that freely. The technology chops come in how to get that accomplished on the backend in terms of possible Web services, chron jobs, and scripts to ensure availability of central design elements and sharing of CSS elements across systems, keeping up with upgrades. The need to be an application administrator (SO September 2008) goes away, freeing up time for this new cooler stuff. That’s the Webmaster. Then, the design chops come in how to make it all look good, look the same, and support that brand. That’s the Web designer. Outsource the occasional “cool” stuff to crack Flash and multimedia developers rather than keeping them on the payroll until they find something that pays better which they will — trust me.

This would take out of the Web shop all other geeky skills like managing applications and developing content at the same time, and trying to recruit folks with a ridiculous range of skills that never occur in one organism (I saw a job post the other day that had Flex, Flash, Multimedia Design, Adobe CS, and UNIX 🙂

This notion of a centralized CSS control across disparate systems fundamentally changes the role of the Web communications office and the Webmaster. Now, their role is to figure out how to “skin” multiple systems, how to give folks the ability to link to the institutional stylesheets, how to structure the presentation of multiple systems. It gives central University Relations folks the ability to reach into systems heretofore unavailable to them, but not have to manage multiple technologies. It accepts that the current democratization of technology comprises a horse that has left the barn.

In short, it encompasses how to use CSS as it was meant to be used: the way to definitively separate design (one set of competencies within University Relations) from content and functionality (multiple sets of competencies across the institution).

Impossible 😉

* I’ve skinned 3 of the above systems so I know what I’m talking about. It ain’t rocket science.

The Human CMS

Anyone who’s been involved in technology rollouts and training knows that there are not enough hours in the day to address every issue that will come up when the person finally sits alone at their computer using the system for real. As a result, you kind of take a chance and focus on the most critical skills: logging in, using basic features, finding documentation and help. In the world of Web training, the one thing that technology trainers lack both the time and the authority to do is to teach about understanding the nature of the content itself.

In the necessary rush to move University content online over the last decade, the issue of actual content in its meaning is probably the least addressed. Aside from the not-enough-hours-in-the-day phenomenon, there are other issues, to my mind, that complicate Web content creation and organization in the largely Web 1.0 world that is University Web communications.

The UMWBlogs project is a great indication of what happens when content is owned by the content creator and not the institution. Even pushing aside UMWBlogs inherent luxuries of the first amendment and personal expression, there is something else afoot in what makes UMWBlogs content more comprehensible than the stuff on the UMW Web site.

I would argue that it comes down to the motivation on the part of the person sitting at that terminal to post something on the Web. Posting to your blog involves understanding the nature of the post relative to the rest of a blog that you created. That’s a relatively small universe of content, and it’s content that you created, so you have a natural understanding of it. The result is a kind of narrative that builds over time, and the blog becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. It tells a story. The more personal investment that the content creator has in the blog, the more likely you are to want to follow the story over time as it unfolds.

When, however, your job is to post Web content within a container called “the University,” and you are only a small part of that universe, it is nearly impossible for the content creator to understand the context. We create organizationally-driven architectures with department Web sites simply because, for the individual author, that narrows down the context enough to be able to plan where content is going and when.

We all know the perils of organizationally-driven site architecture, and how difficult it can make finding things for the person navigating the site. It’s the kind of architecture that screams “go to the search box.” Indeed, Google’s home page may be the way every University site should look: One big search box with the organization’s logo. At least, that would be an honest response to user need.

The promise of content management systems is that, by making content, rather than pages, the focus, content can appear and re-appear in multiple contexts without being relegated to a page buried deep inside the organization. The problem with this promise is that those who have editorial control of the overarching site architecture are not organizationally positioned for an in-depth understanding of all areas of the institution. Usually, it is the folks in university relations and development that have ultimate editorial control over University Web sites. This area of competency is great for single-facing, targeted and mass media messaging to shape perceptions of the institution: talking to the press, news releases, public events calendars, development.

The trouble is that, at a community as diverse and complex as a University, the synergies that could possibly arise from all the things happening and being said at any given moment cannot be leveraged in any interesting way as long the University site is seen as primarily PR. So much of what happens at universities, from sales at the bookstore, to registration activities, to menus at the dining hall, to what-did-you-think-about-that-visiting-lecturer, live outside the scope of public relations. This is not a statement in any way on the myopia of university relations professionals. By and large, they are very good at what they do. However, what they have been tasked with doing vis-à-vis the Web is more complex than the print and media relations world alone. They’ve been asked to do an impossible task: taking an essentially modern approach (throw newer technologies at the problem) to what is in essence a postmodern problem: harnessing the collective by truly empowering understanding of the larger university context. That is, reaching in and creating meaning every time a person sits at their terminal to post something to the institutional Web site.

If we can define the problem as building meaning for the Web author, rather than selecting the “best CMS,” we can then begin to shape solutions to address THAT very human issue. When people feel as compelled to post and manage quality, relevant, and timely content on an institutional Web site, rather than throwing things up only because they were asked to by their supervisor, we will have advanced institutional Web communications further than any CMS technology, no matter how seductive and “robust,” can do alone.