New website for the Writing Room at St Andrews

A few weeks ago the web team had a visit from Jonathan Falla, a local award-winning author and course leader for both the Creative Writing Summer School and now The Writing Room at St Andrews. It was about the latter that he came to see us about.

The Writing Room at St Andrews is an online creative writing course that is part of the University’s Open Association programme which begins in October and runs through to March the following year. Jonathan wanted a new ‘brochure’ website to help promote the course.

Having listened to Jonathan’s requirements, and having sketched out a rough page structure Jonathan went off and wrote the text for the site. Ah! What a refreshing difference working with a professional writer: it was short, clear and submitted exactly when he said it would be.

The Writing Room at St Andrews

The Writing Room at St Andrews

We decided very early on that we’d use WordPress, using the Twenty Twelve responsive design because that’s the platform we use now for this kind of site, and Jonathan already has experience of using WordPress. It made sense as we just wanted to get the site up-and-running as soon as possible.

This has possibly been one of the fastest multi-page websites I’ve worked on, taking a little over four hours to complete, including image selection and editing. I’m pleased with how the site is looking, it’s been a fun short project to work on and I definitely, definitely recommend using a professional writer when requiring well-written copy… more of that please.

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The Town and Beyond sections now have content!

After nearly a year and a half of saying that we should do something about it, I’ve just added more content to the previously sadly lacking The Town and Beyond sections within Current Staff and Current Students.

Most of the content is now links to external websites (no use making more work for myself than is necessary) but at least this should now offer a little more guidance to staff and students, particularly those who are new to St Andrews.

One idea possible development will be to display the latest weather update/forecast into the right-hand column … but that’ll have to wait for another day.

Launch of new website design

Screenshot of new website design

Screenshot of new website design

Following consultation with staff and students, and nearly nine months of work we launched the new website design for the University of St Andrews during the early evening of Monday (8 September).

Unlike the website launch in May 2007, which combined for the first time all 27 of the support unit websites into one enterprise-wide site, this re-launch was more of a design update than a radical restructuring of information.

Feedback sessions

Back in February 2008 we meet over the course of three lunchtimes with both staff and students to elicit feedback on what people

  • liked
  • disliked
  • thought was missing (both information and features)

Those sessions were very helpful, and feedback from those were thrown into a melting pot of ideas that had also been compiled from Helpdesk calls received since the launch of the new site in May 2007, as well as our own thoughts and observations from using the site for nearly a year (remember, we had access to it for a few before it went public).

Re-design goals

Our redesign goals were quite clear:

  • Make the site easier to read
  • Offer more variety/flexibility in terms of layout, e.g. 2, 3 and 4 column
  • Ensure that it works in more browsers
  • Add new functionality

On the whole we’ve managed to achieve this, and the feedback during the last month when the site was quietly released to staff and students within a closed preview has been very positive.

The techie bit

When designing and building a new site you have to decide from the start which technologies you will definitely support and which you will try to break as least as possible.

We’ve built the site around a grid-based CSS framework called Blueprint CSS, which offers us a number of advantages such as ensuring that the site is built using accepted Web standards, a well-designed and attractive typography. It also makes it painlessly simple to develop new site designs and layouts.

Much of the new functionality (such as the carousel of images on the homepage, and the tabs on the Current Staff and Students’ pages) is largely provided using the jQuery JavaScript library.

While writing new features using JavaScript can be a long and arduous process the jQuery library allows you to do it in a fraction of the time — some of the functionality added to the site took less than a minute to write! It also works with a lot of modern browsers (Firefox 1.5+, IE6+, Safari 2.0.2+, Opera 9+).

Browsers

Speaking of browsers, based on statistics gathered by our Google Analytics account as well as Yahoo!’s guidelines for Graded Browser Support we settled on ensuring that the latest browsers received the best experience possible.  This included:

  • Firefox 2.0
  • Firefox 3.0
  • Internet Explorer 6
  • Internet Explorer 7
  • Opera 9.x
  • Safari 3.x

We tested the site back to Firefox 1.0, Internet Explorer 5.0, OPera 7.5 and Netscape Navigator 7.0, with varying degrees of success.  On the whole though the site is still usable in these older browsers, even if it doesn’t look exactly as it does in a modern, standards-compliant browser.

One major issue that we have become aware of is that the site crashes when viewed in Safari 2.0.4 (419.3) on a Mac. The issue it would appear is to do with how Safari handles JavaScript.  According to JavaScript expert, and jQuery author John Resig:

“Safari 2 has serious memory issues that are impossible to work around – simply loading and executing too much JavaScript will cause it to crash.” (J Resig, jQuery discussion group)

Our advice, following the graded browser support guideliness, would be to either disable JavaScript or upgrade to a more modern browser, such as Mozilla Firefox (the site works in everything back to Firefox 1.5).

Going live

Going live with a site is a strange experience of mixed emotions. There’s a combination of both elation that the site is going live, mixed with a little anti-climax and the nervousness of waiting for support calls to come in, hoping that we haven’t missed anything obvious.

On the whole, as a Web Team we’re really pleased with the results and the encouraging feedback that we’ve had from users, but we won’t stop there … there’s much still to be done, content to be improved on, sections to be reorganised and even more features to be added.