Bristol newbie

Kirsty at Digifest 14

Hi, I’m Kirsty and I have recently joined the team as web content editor on a secondment basis. I will be with Jisc for a year working alongside Ben, Rich, Nathalie and Vix on the unified web presence project.

I’m based in Wolverhampton but you can come and find me at Castlepark on Thursdays. I’m looking forward to meeting as many people as I can over the next 12 months, and as a newbie to Bristol, I hope to get lots of tips from the Bristolians about the sights to see during my lunch break, and of course, the best places to eat 🙂

Before joining the web team, I worked for the Jisc Regional Support Centres (RSCs) as Information Officer. I have also worked for a motor yacht manufacturer, the University of Wolverhampton, a conference and wedding venue and an Internet service provider. My background is predominantly copywriting, marketing and communications with the web featuring heavily in each of my job roles since graduating from university.

During my time with the RSC’s, I got involved in a project to unify their disparate web estate. It was an exciting and challenging project and something that I’m proud to have been involved with, particularly having seen the project through from the start, and continuing to look after the unified site on a daily basis. I love taking content and organising it into a more user friendly format – something that speaks to the user in plain English and gets the message across clearly and concisely.

The Jisc unified web presence project is something I’m hugely excited about. It will give me the chance to create and organise content on a much bigger scale and bring some cohesion across the Jisc web estate. I’m looking forward to learning new skills, meeting new people and utilising and building on my experience of the RSC web project.

I’m a self-confessed web geek, social media advocate, blogger and obsessive surfer, despite the perceived geographical barrier. When I’m not in the Atlantic catching waves, I’m writing about surfing, either on my personal blog or for surf websites such as The Surfing Sumo.

So, next time you are at Castlepark, please stop by, say hi, and share some of your top Bristol tips – must do things to see and places to eat during the next 12 months.

I look forward to meeting you 🙂

Content strategy in Higher Education

issues-wall

Last week was IWMW and David Cornforth and I presented a workshop session on content strategy (resources and slides here). We asked attendees to write up their content problems on post-its and stick them on the ‘issues wall’. We filled it.

The positives – we all get that content is important, critical. Otherwise our session wouldn’t have been full. But all those issues? Also, oddly, positive. We recognise where things aren’t working. The biggest problem? Getting everyone else to see it too.

Governance?

An earlier session on governance was full of talk of beleaguered editorial staff hoping for a silver bullet. Surely someone has a cast iron governance document that has somehow stopped the random requests to “just add this to the web”. The new content, pages or even sites insisted upon without considering the integrity of the rest of the site. Ignoring user testing or good practice for the sake of just getting it done.

The consensus seemed to be it wasn’t out there. That a governance document signed off at the highest level may stand for a short while. That editors out in the faculties may do the right thing for the first few weeks after their training. But that lasts until someone higher up or with a louder voice has an idea.

The truth is even with the paperwork we’re still constantly having to cajole, prod, persuade and sometimes outright argue, and partly this is down to the area in which we work.

Don’t worry – you can just put that live

There is a wonderful quote from the GDS Government Service Design Manual

“You can add up, but it doesn’t mean you’re an accountant. You can write, but it doesn’t mean you’re a content designer.”

Unfortunately – not everyone believes it.

We have expertise that sometimes feel transparent. When we look at content we’re trying to juggle user need, organisational need, brand, tone, style and strategy. We don’t just look at a page, we’re considering the user journey, the context of the user, the integrity of the rest of the site, all while trying to identify and solve the problem the content is trying to answer.

Listening to how heartfelt the issues were in our session we don’t just see the importance of the user experience – we feel it.

Later Richard Prowse said something that chimed with comments from our session. That when content people get together it almost feels like a therapy session. A common refrain from participants was it felt so good to know it wasn’t just them – that other people were struggling with the same problems.

Change is possible and coming

It’s not great that Higher Education, with all the challenges it’s facing, still seems to have a problem with trusting their experts to do the right thing. That, in one example, a VC can ring up a web manager and insist a link be added to the homepage based on a passing remark from a friend.

That is the situation – but it will change. Outside the sector it’s already changing. Private finance put huge weight behind their content strategy (but when each of your users is worth a few million pounds it’s perhaps easier to remain focused). And when government can do it – despite the characterisation of being sclerotic, risk averse, sprawling, fragmented and ego filled – there has to be hope for universities.

HE will get there eventually. They’ll have to.

One quote from Paul Boag’s talk which should have terrified everyone in the room (he has a gift for those) was the digital experience you create isn’t competing with that of your peers. That students have come to expect services such as those from Facebook and Google for free. If their £9k experience isn’t close there’s a problem.

And traditional reputation will only get you so far. We heard of a large top 10 university talking of how they expect online and distance learning to become an important part of their future. They also admitted that their brand has much less of a draw online, and that differentiation will come from user experience.

Content is a key part of this.

Making a change

So we have an idea how to make content work – but keep hitting barriers. We can keep talking about what the user wants, but the feedback from the conference was that doesn’t cut it with the people we need to listen.

We can try putting the user in front of them. Through data, through evidence, and perhaps it will eventually sink in.

I still think getting your senior staff to sit in on user testing would be hugely helpful. It’s hard to keep arguing when you’re watching a user struggle with your site, completely ignore your prize content, or describe their suggestions for navigation as meaningless.

What if you can’t get the VC in on the testing? We can (and should) change our emphasis.
For those who respect it – we need to start bringing data. Data of what’s wrong, data of what’s working.

And for everyone else?

From Ross Ferguson and Paul Boag we heard that we need to start using language managers understand, risk and cost.

I also think we need to start talking problems. We keep hoping people will start to bring us problems rather than solutions, but they don’t. By the time someone has come to us with one of those solutions they’ve probably moved on to worrying about the next thing. The people coming to us are probably weighed down by a mountain of problems. If we can get to them first – book in time to see what’s coming and how we can help – perhaps they’ll be more receptive to working with us.

And where that doesn’t work? While the importance of the user and creating a coherent experience for them is still a nice to have? Perhaps we should take Richard Prowse’s advice. Relax a little. We see every time we’re overruled as a failure. It’s not a coincidence one participant said talking to other content strategists was a bit like going to AA.

We should keep up the good fight, but have the wisdom to know what we can’t change. Yet.

IWMW 2014 – Content strategy

If you’re heading to Newcastle later this week for IWMW 2014 then do grab me and say hello.

I’ll be up there with David Cornforth running a workshop on content strategy. We’ll be looking at practical tools and steps to help you get (and keep) your content focused on the user’s (and organisation’s) needs.

We’ll also be exploring strategies (both from our experience, and that of the audience) to tackle the pitfalls and barriers that you might face.

If you’re not booked on our workshop but have an unnatural interest in content, then we’ll also be having an mini content meet-up on Thursday evening*.

See you there.

*The Hancock Pub after the drinks reception

Happy 1st birthday, Jisc website

We launched the current Jisc website on this day last year. My, how the time has flown. This is a little reminisce about the highlights and challenges of last year, plus a look forward to the next.

Highlights

Keeping it pure(ish)

You know the score: you agonise over redesigning a website around user needs only to have it slowly but steadily eroded as powerful internal forces act upon it over time.

We were determined to protect our infant site and I think we’ve done a pretty good job. Yes, we have made changes and compromises but we are beginning to move people away from coming to us with solutions (‘add this page’, ‘change that label’) to articulating their problems. We’ve used evidence (analytics, user testing results) as well as trusting our ‘gut’ more to make our case and design the best solutions.

Choice images

I’m very proud of our use of imagery. We practice what we preach as an organisation in promoting the good use of open and creative commons licensing. We’ve trawled the web for beautiful, appropriate images that add meaning and mood to our web pages and we’ve fully acknowledged their generous and talented creators with our image attribution feature.

Constant tweaking

We’ve kept up a good pace of development over the past year. There have been no big changes but we’ve been subtly and continually improving the site in response to user behaviour,  feedback, obvious problems and shifting priorities – or just tackling things we didn’t get to do for launch.

Unlike the fanfare of big projects, this is the kind of development that few people notice or acknowledge unless we shout about it. But the big projects rarely get it all right first time and it’s the cumulative effect of these little tweaks that really improve the user experience in the long term.

Still pretty

Nothing ages a site like visual design. So I’m pleased that the Jisc design still looks fresh (well, to my eyes anyway) after a year in the wild. In fact we are currently looking at ways to extend the design concept with the new R&D section which will be launching later this year.

Challenges

Mired in R&D

We launched last year with some high-level pages and a modest visual makeover of the R&D section but very quickly users found themselves in the deep, confusing and untransformed content of old. We wanted this to be a very temporary measure – we’d already started the project to transform the R&D section and we hoped it wouldn’t be too long before the changes were live.

But for all kinds of reasons the R&D project has taken a lot longer than I hoped and it pains me that, 1 year on, we still haven’t launched the new section.

Flat out

Our commitment to maintain the quality of the website and deliver on our objectives means we are all working flat out, have been for a while, and will continue to do so. Although we are able to add in resource on a project basis, I’m beginning to realise how small our operational team is. I’m always interested to hear about the size and composition of comparable teams (so if you feel like sharing :-))

Looking forward

R&D section launch

The R&D project is motoring happily along now. It’s really exciting what we’ll be doing with this section and a real change from what we currently have. I’ll write a separate post about it soon. The launch is expected towards the end of this year.

Unified web project

The site will really be put to the test soon as we start to bring in some of our many (80+) satellite websites. You’ll be able to read lots more about that here as we get going.

Taking you wayback…

If ever I’m feeling melancholy about the challenges of my job, I travel back in time to what was on my screen on 11 June 2013. The site has come a huge way in a year and we’re committed to keep that up.

Notes from the future

A few highlights from my first Future of Web Design which I attended on Tuesday 8 April 2014.

“the best work you do may well be on a sketch pad”

Paul Adams (@Padday) claims we’re all too often restricted by current tools, parameters and what we think is in the realm of the possible.

In a bold statement he pondered a future with no websites, but a series of personalised experiences; where the New York Times would be distributed purely via social media and the website, as we know it, would be rendered obsolete.

“If you don’t add something you don’t have to remove it”

Stephen Hay (@stephenhay) is exhausted with unnecessary clutter getting in the way of clean user experiences and, ultimately, a perfect ‘zero interface’ – although even he admits Amazon’s 1-Click ordering is just a step too far.

A few more words to the wise:

  • use family as user testers (ie, your mum)
  • don’t assume people understand icons (more people recognise the word ‘menu’ to the ‘hamburger’)
  • Once you find a solution, stop – only refine if really necessary

“Making our content clear and understandable has done more for accessibility than almost anything we could have done with code”

As a plain English evangelist I loved that statement from GDS’s Josh Marshall (@partiallyblind), who gave a rousing talk on accessibility (be that for users with a registered disability, a broken wrist, prescription glasses or just an excess of alcohol in their bloodstream) and indeed ‘accessible ux’.

Throughout, he encouraged us to take pride, as web professionals, in ensuring we’re not locking anyone out. Separate apps or mobile versions of sites shouldn’t be necessary when accessibility for all is the focus from the start.


Other highlights from my day included Senongo Akpem’s gorgeous talk on digital narratives; fellow Bristolian woman of web Bonnie Colville-Hyde’s inspired use of comics for clients; and little details like Chris Jones team presenting Graham and Brown with a user journey sketch on the back of a wallpaper roll.

(Digital) Festival spirit

We’ve just returned from two fabulous days at the Jisc Digital Festival.

As well as soaking up the atmosphere and exploring the various talks and exhibits, we’re really pleased with what we achieved. We uploaded presentations and resources from each of the sessions almost as soon as they had taken place. We gathered personal feedback on the website from delegates and even recruited a few for future user testing.  We supported the social media team as the #digifest14 hashtag went ballistic (over 13K tweets!)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we managed to get a team photo….

web-team-digifest

The question is, can you tell who’s who?

 

We’re at Digifest14 – come say ‘hi’

The team are at the Jisc Digital Festival #digifest14 which starts tomorrow, Tues 11 March, in Birmingham.

We’re going to set up camp in the Hangout where we hope to recruit some user testers for our next round of web development plus get face-to-face feedback on the website from the main people who we built it for.

If you are at Digifest, come and say ‘hi’.

If not, and you are interested in being a user tester, leave a comment below or email us at web@jisc.ac.uk

Ongoing developments

As most of you know, we’re busy pushing on with phase two of the Jisc website redevelopment, which focuses on the R&D section. But while this is taking place, we’re also working hard to keep the shine on the jisc.ac.uk you see now.

Our wishlist

We have a long list of developments for our site. It’s a heady mix of the functionality we didn’t have time to implement for launch, a wishlist of ideas we’ve thought of since, and recommendations made by our users.

I thought it might be nice to highlight some of the more recent changes we’ve rolled out, which you may or may not have spotted.

Wishes granted so far

inform-module2

‘always on’ Inform article titles

It sounds basic, but images on feature boxes are now links. When we launched, you had to click the text in order to move on.

Previously you needed to interact with the Jisc Inform module on the news page in order for the articles to appear. User testing showed these should be always on – and now they are.

One of our favourites is the lovely behind-the-scenes functionality to help searchers. Looking for someone you met at a conference called Bex? Before, unless a nickname like this was included in the page content (which felt rather clumsy) you might have had trouble finding who you were looking for. Now, typing ‘Bex’ in the search should help you find the person you met at that conference. Perfect.

bex-results

Hidden search fields help you to find a friendly face

We’re delighted to have finally cracked the staff directory. Gone is the ambitious ordered-by-firstname technique and in comes a much friendlier A-Z (by surname) bar, on a single page, complete with ‘back to top’ button in case you get lost.

Jisc’s advice is predominantly presented in quick guides, guides and infoKits (detailed guides). We already had the ‘too much info’ boxes on our guides, but now have ‘too little detail’ boxes on our quick guides for when you just can’t get enough of that particular topic.

i-will-be

Meeting people is easy

Jisc folk are a busy lot, so the ability to show where you can meet them on staff profiles and the events listing page is a feature we hope to use more and more.

And that’s just a few…

Your thoughts

What do you think? It may sound cliché, but it’s true: your feedback really is valuable and might lead to some more interesting and helpful developments. Get in touch web@jisc.ac.uk.

Sprint finish

Egg and spoon race flickr/llgc

Remember remember the month of November. I will. It’s been a busy one. And it’s not over yet.

This month we’ve had an above-average number of brilliant but meaty projects come our way. There’s been new pages to represent all 21 projects to emerge from the Summer of Student Innovation. We built a hub to showcase the resources and collections around World War One, made possible by Jisc, in the approach to the 2014 Centenary. We’re also working on pulling together all the information around our funding model. Plus we’re about to launch a bright new section (soon to be revealed) to support next year’s Digital Festival.

Why sprint?

While you can plan ahead and block out your diary, sometimes these complex and important tasks just don’t get the care and attention they deserve. It’s easy to overhear a conversation and get pulled into a new project or just find yourself attending to smaller, easier tasks.

So this month Rich and I have tried something new. I’m not much of a runner, but this month we’ve been sprinting*. For one day at a time, and one project at a time, we’ve locked ourselves away in a room with a whiteboard, plenty of pens and no distractions. We’ve then planned, built and completed a project in one fell swoop. We’ve been able to really focus on things like website aims and audience needs as well as exercise some sound quality control.

Although this method of working isn’t practical for everyone, we’ve found that with enough advance notice and the promise of a quality finished product as an incentive it’s been a winner.

This month – two sprints down, one to go. See you at the finish (Christmas?).


* Not to be confused with Agile™ (thanks Rich).

Image: Harlescott Junior School sports (courtesy of flickr.com/llgc).