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.

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T44U – TerminalFour global user conference

Last week saw the annual T44U conference take place in Dublin. T44U is an annual event run by TerminalFour. It is designed to allow users of the content management system, Site Manager, to share their experiences with each other, to meet the staff of TerminalFour and to input into the future development of Site Manager.

This was my first time at T44U. Last year Gareth and Chris went. As we operate a strict rota system in the web team, it was the turn of me and Steve to make the sacrifice and spend some time in Dublin. Gareth made do with his T44Us conference, which he has told me was a roaring success.

The Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin

The Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin

Site Manager version 7

The morning of day one was a good opportunity to catch up with the latest developments in TerminalFour and Site Manager. There are lots of promising improvements in version 7. Although we feel that some elements of the interface could still do with some improvement, there have been some promising changes in this area. Chief among them is the WordPress-style dashboard with customisable widgets. I particularly liked the sound of the new chat feature, which could allow you to work collaboratively with another Site Manager user.

Worryingly, I have heard some grumbles that version 7 runs rather slowly on Internet Explorer 8. That would be a problem for us. However, we were surprised to learn that almost half of T4’s customers are now using version 7. Given the improved features that are available, we are now considering upgrading sooner rather than later.

New features

One major new feature that many of our users may be interested in is direct edit. This allows users to update content in preview mode. Hopefully this will make it easier to update content, although I feel there is still scope for great improvement in this promising feature.

The introduction of a pagination navigation object and custom fulltext filenames are other exciting feature that I can imagine making great use of, particularly in news sections and the like.

Powerful-looking personalisation features also seem promising and we are interested to learn more about that as we assess version 7 in the coming months.

Focus groups

For me, the best part of the whole event was the focus groups that were held on Friday afternoon. I found it hugely useful to participate in these group discussions about certain features of Site Manager.

TerminalFour staff seemed really receptive to my ideas, particularly on navigation objects. I think there is great scope to simplify the process of creating navigation objects. Site Manager users from other institutions also frequently report that they are creating several navigation objects that are very similar to each other over and over again.

Thinking about ways to possibly prevent this and to simplify the process of creating navigation objects in general was an interesting puzzle to think about. I think in our discussions we came up with some good ideas about how to make this features more user-friendly as a whole, and I look forward to seeing if these ideas can filter through to become real improvements to the feature.

I also took part in discussions about publish states. This is a more complex issue than I first thought! It is a real can of worms, but despite the complexities I think something resembling a consensus was reached as to how this aspect of Site Manager should be improved.

The Guinness Storehouse

View into the "pint glass" from the Gravity Bar

View into the "pint glass" from the Gravity Bar

The venue was the Guinness Storehouse. Not only is it one of Dublin’s top tourist attractions, it is also an impressive conference facility. Unfortunately the room on day one was a bit too small. The ceiling was so low that it was quite difficult to view the presenters’ slides.

However, that was soon forgotten as we were taken on a tour of the building at the end of the day. It is a cleverly designed museum. The building was redeveloped about ten years ago, and has been designed to look like it has a giant Guinness pint glass in the middle of it!

Once you reach the top, you are challenged to pull the “perfect pint” of Guinness. You even receive a certificate upon completion. I cannot express the deep privilege I felt upon receiving one of these certificates, which are no doubt extremely rare.

Then it was up to the seventh floor and the Gravity Bar. Going up the lift, you emerge out of the top of the giant pint glass. It is quite a dizzying sensation to suddenly be surrounded by spectacular views of Dublin, seven storeys up. The views from the Gravity Bar are astonishing.

In there, we were treated to excellent Guinness-based food (in the form of beef and Guinness stew, and a Guinness chocolate mousse!) and even more excellent Guinness-based booze (in the form of Guinness Guinness). Sadly the music, although good, was a bit on the loud side. This made it rather difficult to do much in the way of talking. So it was just as well the plates of beef and Guinness stew kept on coming.

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.