T44U 2013 conference in Dublin

Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin—Venue for T44U 2013

Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin—Venue for T44U 2013

Introduction

On Wednesday 20 November 2013 I flew from Edinburgh to Dublin for TerminalFour’s (T4) sixth annual global user conference, T44U.

Or as I preferred to call it: T44Me.

While there were more attendees this year than any other—demonstrating amongst other things TerminalFour’s growth over the last few years, particularly in the education sector—there were fewer from Scotland than in previous years. Seven Scottish universities use Site Manager (SM), and were represented this year by (as far as I remember) Abertay Dundee (1 attendee), Dundee (7), St Andrews (1), Stirling (1); unrepresented were Abertay Dundee, Glasgow and Glasgow Caledonian.

These are my highlights of the talks over the two days.

Thursday

Introduction

Over the last 12 months TerminalFour’s strategy has focussed mostly on two things:

  1. Outbound sales activities, particularly in the education sector in the English-speaking world. Of their new clients 53% are in the USA, 14% in Australia and 11% in the UK.
  2. Digital engagement integrating different systems using Site Manager as the hub, e.g. search, mobile, social media, course searches, etc.

Treasure chest

A large portion of the morning was given over to demonstrating a number of SM features, some new, which some users may not be aware of. I’ve emboldened those that might benefit us here:

  • External Content Syncer (content to external databases or CSV files, for example, to import data into Site Manager, or migrate data from one content type to another within SM).
  • Keyword search (demonstrated in a course search section of the website)
  • Hierarchy builder (import site structure from an Excel file, available in SM 7.4.3).
  • Newsletter integration using “auto-mirroring”.
  • Improvements to publish and preview (cache handler and changesets).
  • PHP access control (using PHP and the T4 user groups to restrict access to sections).
  • New PHP calendar (this looks very useful).
  • New personalisation options (e.g. use of GeoIP to display different content to users depending on their geo-location).

Clarity Grader

Fergal McGovern from Clarity Grader gave a very interesting demonstration of their product which checks to see how clear and consistent your web content is, then gives it a grade accordingly.

Hook, line and syncer

Maurice Ryder from University College Cork showed us how he has been using External Content Syncer to point SM at itself to migrate content from one content type to another as they’ve been simplifying the way they use SM. He also shared some of his experience of working on a responsive web design (RWD).

The fundamentals of digital engagement

Simon Nash, a strategist and marketer from Reading Room gave a fabulous and inspiring talk about digital engagement. Customers are now hyper-connected, using multiple devices to connect to the web, he said. We need to adapt or die. We need a strategy. Give them something:

  • Interesting
  • Useful
  • Helpful
  • Relevant

He talked about how engaging with people works best using a storytelling narrative (conversational, content and narrative led). He spoke about the importance of ‘slicing and dicing’ on spreadable formats: a multi-channel web; the importance of structured data and he touched on schemas, meta data and Twitter cards. “How do people move between online and offline?” he asked. We need to tap into that. Understand your audiences and develop a coherent strategy.

I could have listened to him all evening, to be honest. He was fascinating.

Update: You can read Simon’s blog post about his talk on the Reading Room blog: Five key challenges facing digital professionals in 2014.

Our T4 wishlist

In the evening I was able to speak with Paul Kelly (T4 senior software architect) and Mary Ryan (T4 product manager) for about 30 minutes to discuss a few suggestions about how SM might be improved for both the average user and administrators. I felt it was a valuable discussion, and they were certainly keen to listen and receive my short document of bullet-points which we have compiled over the last few months.

I also got a private demo of SM version 8. T4 have employed a UX expert to work with them on improving the product, which is very encouraging.

Friday

Platform as a Service

TerminalFour spent 30 minutes describing the benefits of their Platform as a Service (PaaS) package. This offers a cloud-based stack (SM, MySQL, Apache httpd, Java, PHP) for running SM. They tend to use RackSpace as a host. This tends to be: 1 x CMS cloud server, 2 x Web cloud server, 1 x Load balancer, hosted in a choice of data centres located in the USA, UK or Australia.

Prospectus Editing Tool at the University of Bristol

Mike Jones gave a presentation about how they are using SM for editing their university prospectus. Interestingly he’s written his own frontend which uses to the SM API. The driver for this was that they didn’t want to have to train 100+ staff members to use SM. (A comment there, perhaps, that the usability of the SM frontend needs to be dramatically improved.)

High turnover of research and conference websites at the University of Newcastle

Paul Thompson and Mike Sales gave a most impressive demonstration of a SM ‘broker’ they wrote for which automates a number of common tasks they are asked to carry out, such as create a new sub-site, batch create new users, move a site from dev to live, bulk create training sites, etc. Some of these tasks can now be done in only 2-3 minutes rather than 2-3 hours. A tremendous time-saver!

This was one of the most talked-about presentations of the two days.

Mental health in tech

Possibly one of the most inspiring talks, and certainly the most moving, of the two days was given by Christopher Murphy (@fehler on Twitter) about mental health in tech.

I want to write and reflect on this talk more fully in a future blog post.

Web search

In the final session of the morning Brian Colhoun from T4 asked why is web search often left to the end of a web project? A site is only as good as its content, so considering search should be integral to any content strategy.

SM version 8

Unfortunately I missed the afternoon session as I needed to leave for Dublin airport and my flight at 16:50. That final session of play was dedicated to looking at the next version of SM, plus the future format of T44U.

Conclusion

An interesting thread through many of the presentations from universities was about their using SM as a data repository and publishing engine to output the same data in multiple formats, and how so many have written their own frontends to interact with the data, to avoid the default user interface.

I certainly found this a far more valuable and practical experience than my last visit to T44U a few years ago. I’m encouraged by the direction that Site Manager is heading, particularly now that T4 are taking usability for the average user more seriously.

IWMW 2012 in Edinburgh

Neil Allison presenting on Experiences in User Centred Design at the University of Edinburgh

Neil Allison presenting on Experiences in User Centred Design at the University of Edinburgh

About a month ago (this blog post has taken ages to write) I travelled down to Edinburgh with my colleague Duncan for the annual Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW) which this year was being hosted by the University of Edinburgh under the theme of “Embedding Innovation”.

Venue

This was my fourth or fifth IWMW conference, since I started working in higher education in 2006, and was by far the easiest to get to. I know Edinburgh fairly well, having lived there for five years; two of those years was spent in Marchmont, just a stone’s throw (using a bionic arm) across the Meadows from the conference venue at Appleton Tower, which I discovered was named after physicist Sir Edward Appleton (1892-1965).

Appleton Tower—bless it—isn’t the bonniest of buildings, either inside or out. It is joked that Appleton Tower offers one of the best views of the Edinburgh skyline as it is the one view that absolutely guarantees that Appleton Tower isn’t a part of it. In my experience, it wasn’t the most comfortable conference venue but it also wasn’t the worst.

The accommodation on the other hand was lovely, at nearby Pollock Halls.

View from my room at Pollock Halls

View from my room at Pollock Halls

In fact, it was lovely in both my rooms. I noticed that the shower was broken in my first room, which had a pleasant view (above) of the accommodation office and St Leonard’s Hall, which you’ll notice was built in the Scottish Baronial style, so I was moved to a room with a fabulous (and gently uncomfortable) double bed and a view of the Salisbury Crags.

Workshop sessions

I signed up for three workshop sessions:

  1. #A2: Experiences in User Centred Design at the University of Edinburgh, with Neil Allison (University of Edinburgh).
  2. #B3: Large-Scale Responsive Websites: Tools and Techniques, with Keith Doyle (Navopia) and Paddy Callaghan (University of Bradford) .
  3. #C1: Responding to the Cookie Monster, with Claire Gibbons (University of Bradford) and John Kelly (JISC Legal).

Each ‘workshop’ session was 90 minutes long—too long in my opinion, and suited more for those whose learning style has ‘lectures’ right at the top. The thing about workshops is that I expect to leave it with something useful, something usable. To my mind ‘workshop’ implies a more hands-on approach, more discussion, more trying-it-out for ourselves.  The word ‘workshop’ implies that something is going to be built; the context implies that it’s me that’s going to do the building. Criticisms aside, I enjoyed at least something from each of the sessions.

A few things that I took away from each of the sessions:

Experiences in User Centred Design

I particularly enjoyed Neil Allison’s explanation of user personas: “hypothetical archetypes of actual users” who represent real users during the design process, such as departmental secretaries, heads of school, international students, etc. One neat tip was to use alliteration in choosing their names to make them more memorable, e.g. Angela Admin, Herbert Head-of-school.

I would have enjoyed working in a small group to create a persona for ourselves, as an exercise. That would have really given it more of a hands-on feel.

Large-Scale Responsive Websites: Tools and Techniques

This was a very popular session that would have had the building’s fire officer sweating with worry; in fact it had us all sweating the room was so packed.

This workshop was in two parts. Paddy Callaghan gave a high-speed tour of a recent responsive web design project he’d been working on. There were two main elements here: the design decisions about what should show or hide at different sizes, and the practical coding of the responsive site (meta tags used, how media queries work, etc.) I would have appreciated 90 minutes on this alone—even given my previous comments about workshop length.

Keith Doyle then gave us a tour through a design pattern library for responsive sites, which I found particularly interesting and helpful. I took copious notes… and then lost my notebook on the train on my journey home. Bah!

I wasn’t surprised how popular this session was. Responsive web design is on a lot of people’s radars. My only criticism, really, is highlighted in a post by Garr Reynolds about scope vs depth. This presentation tried to cover both. In the end I experienced quite a bit of information-overload. I would have happily listened to half of the material but in greater depth.

Responding to the Cookie Monster

Ah! The session looking at the recent EU cookies legislation was, as you might expect, popular; unlike the legislation.

While it was interesting listening to someone from JISC Legal, I didn’t leave with any clearer an idea of where we go from here. Except that I now have a sneaking suspicion that we need to do more about this.

Conclusion

Like many of these conferences the most valuable thing that I got was the opportunity to network with members of other university web teams, to make new connections and build on existing relationships.

A huge thank you to everyone who was involved in making IWMW 2012 such a success. I’d better go now, I’ve got some innovation to embed…

Hardboiled Web Design

This time next month my colleague Chris and I will be sitting in the Surgeons’ Hall on Nicholson Street in Edinburgh at Andy Clarke’s Hardboiled Web Design workshop.

I’ve just started reading his latest book, of the same name, published by Five Simple Steps and it is excellent.

20110322-hardboiledwebdesign

As it says in the blurb: “It’s for people who want to understand why, when and how to use the latest HTML5 and CSS3 technologies in their everyday work. Not tomorrow or next week, but today.”

We’ve had some interesting conversations within the Web team about when to start using HTML5 and CSS3. I’m all for using it now, others seem a little more hesitant. It ties in with recent posts here about when to stop supporting certain browsers <cough>IE6</cough>.

Clarke is pretty clear on the matter: websites do not need to be pixel-perfect clones in different browsers. Instead, adapt for the browser’s capabilities.

The hardboiled approach pushes graceful degradation further and demands that we use our creative talents to design experiences that are responsive and tailored to a browser’s capabilities. Hardboiled web design redefines graceful degradation for the challenges we face today.

If we’re going to create the inspiring websites that our customers expect, we must look beyond how we’ve approached progressive enhancement and graceful degradation in the past. Simply ‘rewarding’ people who use more capable browsers with rounded corners and drop shadows and generally settling for less isn’t enough.

Instead we should take full advantage of new technologies, and craft every user’s experience so that it’s appropriate to the capabilities of the browser they’re using. That will likely mean that designs will look different — sometimes very different — across browsers.

(Hardboiled Web Design, Andy Clarke, p.20)

Of course, that may require more development but who ever said this Web designing lark should be simple?

I’m really looking forward to the workshop.  Why not join me? Book online £299 + VAT (£358.80)

A few highlights from IWMW 2010

A couple of weeks ago I attended my fourth Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW 2010), which this year took place at the University of Sheffield. (Twitter tag: #iwmw10)

The event provides an opportunity for those involved in institutional Web management (mostly universities and colleges) to hear about case studies, share best practices, find out about new, emerging technologies and develop professional networks (mostly around coffee, in the pub, or sitting around a table in Pizza Hut with a handful of Welsh blokes looking very damp and hungry … it’s a long story!).

Turbulence

The theme of the event this year was ‘The Web in turbulent times‘ and as you might expect the message at times wasn’t entirely encouraging, particularly when one plenary speaker invited us to look around the hall and told us that a lot of us won’t have our current jobs this time next year. Cue nervous laughter.

I’m fairly confident that the magical St Andrews bubble that we inhabit in this small corner of Fife will hold out, particularly since we’re currently advertising for a new post: Website Migration Project Officer, but I certainly wouldn’t want to become complacent and I welcome anything that can help us to become more efficient and effective.

Mobile and Agile

It was encouraging throughout the conference to see both mobile Web and Agile practices popping up in a few plenary (keynote) presentations, as well as in workshops and barCamps.

The mobile Web is something that is clearly going to grow and grow, and it was both encouraging and inspirational to see how universities are addressing it.  It was equally encouraging to hear the debate between device-specific apps (e.g. iPhone apps) vs open-standards (e.g. HTML5-based apps). I don’t have an iPhone, and love my Opera Mobile browser on my Windows Mobile-based device, so no guesses on which side of the debate I sit on.

HTML5

One of the presentations that I was most eagerly looking forward to was HTML5 (and friends) from Patrick A. Lauke from Opera and he didn’t disappoint; you can view his slides here …

… except that I could have listened to him for another 45 minutes. And probably the 45 minutes after that too. HTML5 is one technology that I’m really looking forward to exploring more of this year.

Agile project management

When I signed up for the conference I chose to attend a workshop entitled “A little project management can save a lot of fan cleaning … or (Agile) project management for the Web” because we’ve begun to employ Agile methods in our project management and developments and I wanted to hear more about what an experienced Web team is doing.

The workshop abstract promised:

  • Common misapprehensions about project management.
  • Nightmare situations when dev work goes pear shaped.
  • How project management can save your sorry ass.
  • The ‘light’ project management approach.
  • Is agile a better model for the fast paced work of the Web?
  • Are agile and traditional project management complimentary or mutually exclusive?
  • Sexy web based tools to avoid the dreaded MS Project.
  • 100% death by PowerPoint free, guaranteed!

Unfortunately, the workshop also appeared to be largely Agile-free.  I was disappointed to discover when I turned up that about 50% of the workshop was looking at PRINCE2 project management, which follows a more ‘waterfall’ project management approach, rather than Agile.

I got the feeling that the person who was presenting the Agile aspect of the workshop had been thrown in at the last minute (which I guess fits in with the Agile Manifesto: “We … welcome changing requirements, even late in the development”!) but I’m not sure that it really did Agile, and SCRUM in particular, justice, unfortunately, and didn’t go into the depth that I was either hoping for or the abstract suggested that it might.  Unfortunately, the workshop didn’t do as it said on the tin.

WordPress

The other workshop that I attended, WordPress beyond blogging, was really encouraging.

There can be a tendency in some sectors to dismiss WordPress as not robust because it runs on PHP and MySQL (rather than, say, Java and Oracle database), but it was great to hear how WordPress is being used in other institutions (and for some pretty key services) and gave me a courage to return to St Andrews and explore how we might be able to use it in a number of projects that we’re working on.  Besides, there are currently 11.4 million blogs hosted on WordPress.com which is running their own software, so I guess they must be doing something right.

What I bought back

From most other IWMW conferences I’ve returned with something practical to try out: in previous years it’s been microformats, RSS auto-discovery, OpenSearch, etc.  but there wasn’t so much of that this time.  Maybe I just attended the wrong workshops and barCamps, but what I did bring back was:

  • A desire to start exploring HTML5 now.
  • Encouragement to blog more, and encourage the Web team to blog more (which is why we moved our 3 post WordPress blog from a self-hosted installation to WordPress.com!) Brian Kelly will be so proud of us!
  • Keep exploring Agile/SCRUM and build on the progress that we’ve already made.
  • Explore how we can use WordPress.

And of course, one of the most valuable aspects of IWMW was that I returned with existing friendships strengthened and new ones made.

Horizon scanning at IWMW10

Earlier this month Gareth and I attended the Institutional Web Management Workshop 2010 (IWMW10), held at the University of Sheffield. It was my first time at IWMW, and since I still feel slightly new to the Web in a higher education environment, it was a good opportunity for me to take in the sorts of issues that are commonly faced by institutional web teams.

Turbulece (sky before a thunderstorm)

Turbulent times - we certainly experienced that in Sheffield's weather

It turns out that, right now, the main issue is the effect of the economy. The theme for this year’s IWMW was ‘the web in turbulent times’. Many of the presentations focussed on the doom and gloom. This, coupled with the horrendous weather we experienced while in Sheffield, did little to dispel the stereotype that it’s grim up north (or, in our case, a couple of hundred miles down south).

Luckily, there was plenty of techy chit-chat too. It still fits in with the theme. The web is permanently turbulent. (I think it was designed like that because turbulence creates bigger waves, leading to a more enjoyable surfing experience.)

One of the key characteristics of the web for me is the fact that it is always changing, always developing. Once you’ve got on top of it, something else comes along for you to learn. That is what makes working in the web such an interesting challenge.

An update to the language of the web

Two of the biggest developments on the horizon were covered by one speaker, Patrick H Lauke from Opera Software. The first was HTML5 (and friends), the upcoming update to the language of the web.

The headline is that HTML5 does not replace the existing version of HTML. It is the same but with “more bling”. By the looks of it, it will be much easier and more intuitive to code as well. But the specification is not yet complete, and there are hurdles still to leap in the form of compatibility, accessibility and a question mark over video formats.

We were given a demonstration of some HTML5 functionality in the Opera browser. A lot of what HTML5 adds is exciting and sensible. But I think there will be a rough period while the creases are ironed out. The demonstration was promising, but it is clearly not yet the finished product.

Nonetheless, I read an interesting article recently outlining five reasons why you can use HTML5 today. It’s definitely something we should be turning our attention to sooner rather than later.

Mobile web

Later, in a smaller breakout session, Patrick H Lauke spoke about the mobile web and how to make your website mobile-friendly. Phones are becoming ‘smarter’ and connectivity is advancing. People will increasingly come to expect to be able to browse the web while out and about just as efficiently as they can on a desktop machine.

But the mobile web throws up a whole extra set of issues, adding to the already-complex set of challenges we have been accustomed to facing for years. There is a huge range of screen sizes and browsers in use, and mobile web designs must try to accommodate them all. Then there is the question of how to streamline the website for mobiles without ‘dumbing down’ the content.

Like HTML5, the mobile web still has a bit to go. As we found out in Sheffield, the mobile web cannot yet be fully relied upon in the same way we can rely upon the web on a PC. But that is why HTML5 and the mobile web are for the future, even though we need to start thinking about them now.

Reflections on my first IWMW

Overall, I found my first IWMW to be a great learning experience. It has given me plenty to think about. Although I was of course aware of the issues surrounding HTML5 and the mobile web, what I learnt at IWMW has helped me focus on the key aspects to look towards.

In addition, there were plenty of other interesting talks. Particular standouts included Jeremy Speller’s about disaster communication in a crisis and Paul Boag’s persuasive presentation about cutting down the amount of content on an unwieldy website.

Due to the anticipated sector-wide cutbacks, there is uncertainty about whether IWMW will take place next year. I think it would be a real shame if it was not held in 2011, because at my first IWMW it was clear that the event is a hugely useful way to discuss ideas and meet people facing similar issues.

Opera Software University Seminar

Chris Mills, Opera's Developer Relationship Manager talking about Web Standards

Chris Mills, Opera's Developer Relationship Manager talking about Web Standards

Yesterday Steve and I attended the Opera Software University Seminar being held in the Jack Cole Building (the School of Computer Science).

Opera has been one of my favourite browsers for years — from the days that you had to pay for it! — so it was really interesting to hear from the company themselves what they’re up to, where their focus is and where they’re heading with their range of browsers.

The presentation

The presentation kicked off with an introduction from Eric Hoppe, Opera Marketing Manager, who then handed over to Roberto Mateu, Product Manager for Opera Desktop who explained about the four products within the Opera range, as well as the importance of the mobile Web browsing experience which is a vastly growing area, particularly in developing countries.

Four product ranges

If you don’t know about Opera, or haven’t tried it out, then I urge you to: it’s a great browser now available in four different flavours:

  1. Opera Desktop
    Browser for your Windows, Linux or Mac machine.
  2. Opera for Devices
    Browser for set-top boxes, games devices such as the Wii, portable media players and more.
  3. Opera Mini
    Browser for your Java-enabled mobile phone.
  4. Opera Mobile
    Browser for smartphones and PDAs.

I was interested to learn that there is only one rendering engine for all four product ranges, which explains why it’s such a nicely consistent and robust browser regardless of the platform.

I currently have 7 different versions of Opera installed on my PC in the office, for testing purposes you understand.  I also have Opera 5 on my Psion, Opera Mini on my old Nokia phone and Opera Mobile 9.5 beta on my PDA/phone.  I think Firefox Mobile which is in development just now is going to have to do something pretty special to beat the mobile Web experience that Opera offers.

Web Standards

Finally, Chris Mills, Opera’s Developer Relationship Manager (and the man behind the Opera Web Standards Curriculum) gave the longest presentation of the hour, about where the Web has come from, where it is now and the importance of open Web standards, before delving into a demo of some of the features of HTML 5 and CSS 3.

There are some cool features to look forward to once HTML 5 goes live and starts to be adopted by browser manufacturers.  Needless to say Opera are already embracing some of the new tags and capabilities.

Dragonfly

One nice feature of Opera for developers is their Dragonfly debugging tools, currently in Alpha 2.  While not quite as advanced as Firebug for Firefox, since Firebug has been around for much long, they do offer a good set of tools allowing inspection of DOM, CSS and JavaScript.  There is also the ability to debug pages running on another computer or even your phone, which is great.

My biggest niggle with Dragonfly though is that it displays all my nicely constructed lowercase XHTML tags in uppercase.  The IE Developer Toolbar does the same.

The latest version of Dragonfly allows you to add a Debug menu to the menu bar, which is a welcome addition, saving you from having to weave your way through Tools > Advanced… > Developer Tools to get to the features.  This has to be downloaded from the Opera Dragonfly page.

Chris promised that his slides would appear on his My Opera site sometime soon, so keep an eye out for those.  In the meantime download Opera and give it a spin.