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.

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.

Updating the University shield

Move and replace dialog box

Updating the University shield in my SVN working copy.

Here’s a minor update that I made to the University website this afternoon: I updated the University shield across most of the central website.

As you can see from the screenshot above, the problem with the old one was that, while it looked fine on a blue background, when it was embedded on a white background (for example, if someone linked to a University page from within Facebook, or was printed) then it looked awful!

So I created a new one, at the same dimensions (42 x 52 pixels) and for the first time it now adheres to the new corporate identity guidelines…

Dimensions for University shield on a webpage

Dimensions for University shield on a webpage

It the little things that make me happy!

Update

A couple of people have asked me on Windows Live Messenger and on Twitter why it was like that in the first place.

Well, it was to do with a slight colour mismatch between the graphic files we got from the designers (who were using CMYK values) and the web team (who were using RGB values). So we made the shield’s inner blue colour transparent so that it could pick up the RGB colour in the header behind it.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I’ve been meaning to change it for some time, since receiving the new batch of updated University crests months ago (in which those who pay attention will notice that the lion has lost his genitals). And with today being Fix-it Friday… I fixed it.

The next time we do a major refresh of the University website’s design I expect we’ll use a PNG and some tasty alpha transparency for that even smoother finish.

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.

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.

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.