New Museums and Collections website

I say “new”, but the Museums and Collections website actually launched a good few months ago now. But I have been so busy over the summer that I haven’t got round to writing about it, until now.

I recall that the very first meeting I had when I began working here two years ago was about the Museum Collections Unit’s web presence. The ultimate result was this new website, which we worked on during the spring and summer.

Screenshot of the MUSA homepage

The visual design was created by Steve Evans, the Web Manager. It was then passed on to me to build within our content management system, TerminalFour Site Manager.

It is a fairly complex website, and definitely the most challenging project I have worked on. I really enjoyed stretching my limits and working with T4 Site Manager in new ways.

Creating the homepage

My first task was to create the ‘four panels’ page, as I called it. This is the overarching Museums and Collections homepage, which links through to the individual websites for each of the four museums. Each museum is represented by a square, which expands to reveal more information when the user hovers over it.

Screenshot of the Museums and Collections homepage

This uses JavaScript, which has not been a particular strong point of mine in the past. But I am beginning to wonder if that has changed, because I surprised myself when I managed to achieve this result quite quickly.

Personally speaking, this is not the sort of design I would normally opt for. But in the end I think it has turned out quite well and feedback from others has been positive.

Building the website in T4 Site Manager

The five websites themselves all share the same basic building blocks, but are subtly given unique identities. For this, I had to be quite creative in the way I built the website in T4 Site Manager, in order to avoid unnecessary duplication. I did not want to create several styles (which can be a pain to maintain in the long run) and templates that all looked almost but not quite the same.

This meant creating lots of navigation objects and ‘related’ sections instead. This is one of the trickiest parts to get right. It is a jigsaw puzzle with lots of different potential solutions, but each with their own little pros and cons. So it takes some careful thought. But it’s easily worth it for the long-run benefits it brings in terms of ease of maintenance.

A bit of creativity in using existing navigation objects was also required to give each museum’s website its unique identity. This allowed me to use the same style (page layout) for each website, while still being able to assign different CSS stylesheets to each website’s homepage, and separate stylesheets again for the lower level pages. This is what enables each website to have its own colour scheme, yet still all use the same style.

Screenshots of three Museums and Collections websites

Other interesting bits

While working on this website, I also used the Google Maps API v3 for the first time for the maps on the visitor information pages. As far as I know, it is the only part of the University website that uses this newest version of the Google Maps API.

I was surprised to find it pleasingly easy to work with, and I think it provides a smoother user experience than version 2. The newer version is designed to work better on mobile devices too.

Another interesting part of the website is the virtual tour of MUSA’s Learning Loft. This was another first for me, working with Flash as well as JavaScript (normally we only use Flash for videos). But again this turned out to be reasonably straightforward in the end, and looks really good on the webpage.

Visual design

Initially the Museums and Collections website was going to be a more conventional affair. But Steve was inspired to create something more striking after seeing some of MUSA’s physical promotional material. Steve’s decision led to him creating a brilliant design. The Museums and Collections webpages are now, in my view, some of the very best looking pages on the University website.

On reflection, the decision to go with an image-heavy design makes perfect sense for a Museums and Collections unit that can draw on 600 years of history for its visuals. There are some fantastic images of some of the objects in the collections, which helps make these webpages particularly appealing to look at.

Summary

The new Museums and Collections website was a brilliant project to work on. It threw all sorts of challenges at me, but this was a great opportunity to learn. It took a while to get it right, but I think the result is a really eye-catching website.

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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.