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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Review of CMS promotional pens

In keeping with my 2008 review of browser umbrellas, it seems about time I reviewed something else. So how about enterprise web content management system (CMS) promotional pens?

Three pens

Are these as effective content creation tools as their promoters’ products? Let’s find out…

As these pens were freebies from three of the leading content management system providers (in alphabetical order): Jadu, Squiz and TERMINALFOUR I thought it would be appropriate to follow Paul Boag’s criteria from March 2009 for selecting a content management system. These are:

  1. Core functionality
  2. The editor
  3. Managing assets
  4. Search
  5. Customization
  6. User interaction
  7. Roles and permissions
  8. Versioning
  9. Multiple site support
  10. Multilingual support

Here’s goes.

1. Core functionality

The three pens on review today are all ballpoint pens.

Each uses a different system for protecting the nib: the Jadu pen has a removable lid, the Squiz pen requires a cheeky wee twist to reveal the point, while the TerminalFour pen uses a spring-driven mechanism making it a ‘clicky’ pen.

The core functionality of each product, therefore, is essentially the same:

  1. Reveal the nib
  2. Write
  3. Protect the nib again

I’m 100% sure that you could also find other uses for these pens but that would most definitely be the subject for a team-building exercise rather than a serious review.

Update: It occurred to me that I missed out a key aspect of these pens, certainly when comparing them with content management systems: the publishing workflow.

The workflow for each pen is identical, and not necessarily in keeping with the workflows of the CMSes they represent. Which is a good thing. As we keep saying in our writing for the web training: writing for the web is different from writing for the printed word.

Each pen allows you to write directly to the page. There is no need for a ‘staging pad’ to write to first before copying it all neatly to the final document. Although, demonstrating the flexibility of these products, that is an option that you may like to employ… or indeed a combination of both workflows.

2. The editor

Unlike a web content management system, a pen doesn’t have a standard GUI editor.

Instead the editorial duties fall to the human using the pens. Editing is something that I rather enjoy. I have copies of both Guardian Style and The Economist Style Guide on my desk which are very useful tools when editing content.

3. Managing assets

Each pen requires other tools to help manage assets, whether they be documents or images. I use a rather natty document wallet which I picked up at a Butler Group seminar in London on Agile. We also have a filing cabinet.

If you want to include other assets on your page then you will literally need to cut and paste them, using scissors or glue/sellotape/spit/blu-tak, etc.

4. Search

Unlike very many Bic biros, I have to date not lost any of these pens, so haven’t had need to test their searchability.

5. Customization

All three products are pre-customized in the sense that they have a ready-to-use design. All three are primarily black with silver or white text and/or logos on them. The Squiz pen is the only one not to include the company’s website address on the product.

There is no extensible or built-in way to further customize these pens. One immediate way to customize them would be to decide whether they should be stored with the nib protracted or retracted; I tend to use the latter option.

The Jadu pen, being the only one with a removable lid, obviously also has an additional customization option to store the lid on the ‘other end’ of the pen. It looks nice that way and the pen still feels balanced with the extra weight on the end; however, the nib remains exposed which may be an issue for some users.

You can, of course, also do away with the lid altogether. If you are crazy!

6. User interaction

I think this element is really at the heart of how successful these pens are or not: how easy are they to use? How comfortable are they to hold? How pleasant are they to use while writing?

The Jadu pen is a cuboid. It has square corners. It feels comfortable to hold and has a rubberised feel. It does feel very light and cheap, though, to be honest. The flow of black ink is reasonable, although if you do write quickly the ink does appear to thin in places. The ink stroke width is reasonable, slightly wider than a fine Bic biro, but narrower than a standard ‘Crystal’ one.

The Squiz pen is the heaviest of the three by quite some margin. It feels solid and substantial. It feels like an expensive pen. It too has a black, rubberised finish which helps with grip, and the twist to reveal the nib has a very smooth, satisfying feel to it. Writing with this pen is a pleasure. The black ink flows nicely and you can write very quickly with it. The stroke width is wider than the Jadu pen, comparable with a standard Bic biro. This pen offers by far the most comfortable writing and drawing experience—something that my four year old twin boys also said. Although not in those words.

The TerminalFour pen is the only one with blue ink—I’m not a fan of blue ink. It is also the only pen that has a more standard circular design to the barrel. The ‘click’ sound is hollow and plastic-y. This feels like a very cheap pen. Writing with it feels a little patchy, with the ink thinning in places, even at a reasonable writing pace. I didn’t really enjoy writing with this pen, regardless of the colour.

7. Roles and permissions

These pens can literally be used by anyone. No special permissions are used. There is no built-in way to prevent certain users from using these pens. Just ask my children who found them in my bag and started to draw with them, without my permission. They are not like Judge Dredd’s gun which will explode if someone else tries to fire it; these pens won’t blow your hand off if you use them incorrectly.

8. Versioning

Versioning is entirely manual with these products. You need either to copy out your work onto a new page, or simply make notes and then by hand write “version 1.0” at the top of it. (Other version numbers are available.)

The downside of this is that it can take a long time to create versioned copies of your work.

Update: You might consider using a photocopier and then write on the copy using one of the pens.

9. Multiple site support

Absolutely! These pens excel at being used in different contexts. For example, I’ve used each of these pens for

  • Writing notes in meetings
  • Writing lists
  • Doodling
  • Taking messages down from phone calls
  • Signing my name on forms or official documents (not the T4 pen as it has blue ink)

10. Multilingual support

Support for other languages is restricted only by the person writing, or indeed the language itself. For example, the Indian language of Sentinelese it is said has no written form.

All web languages, e.g. HTML, CSS, JavaScript and PHP can easily be handled (but not automatically interpreted) by these pens.

Conclusion

Bronze award

A disappointing performance from the T4 pen puts it in last place. It might have scored more highly had it used black ink, but even then its build and ink quality let it down.

Silver award

Second prize goes to the Jadu pen. It was very comfortable to hold and didn’t slip but it felt cheap and the ink quality again let itself down in places. This has more of the feel of a disposable pen than a ‘keeper’.

Gold award

First prize, therefore, goes to the superb Squiz pen. It has a solid build, has a very fluid feel when writing, and aside from some of the rubber coming away next to the point looks very substantial.

This pen definitely gets my gold award. (If only their content management system was as intuitive to use.)