Hi, I’m Mike Nolan and thank you for inviting me down to speak to you today. Firstly a little background.
I've been at Edge Hill for four years, seven months and five days – scary!
I started as web applications developer, then I played at being a project manager and now I'm the rather grandly titled "Head of Web Services"
student communities. And of course attending lots of meetings.
The first part of this presentation is based on one I gave at PHP North West Conference in Autumn 2009 titled “Building an Anti-CMS and how it changed our webteam”.
So what is an anti-CMS?
Firstly we need to identify what a CMS is and what’s wrong with them.
Allow non-technical users to update content
Provide a uniform template across the site
Keep sites up to date
Whole bunch of other stuff.
Because everyone else has one! In the higher education sector, most institutions went through this process in the last five or six years. Many are now on their second or third CMS.
The reality of many CMS deployments is:
The wrong people are given access to create content
Given training on how to use the system,
not how to write for the web
CMS inhibit creativity
Slow to adapt to new technologies
Little access to internals meaning often you need to go back to the vendor for extensions
But for me, CMS are failing to solve the wrong problem. We end up in a situation where lots of people are trained to use a system but because it's only a small part of their job they don't use it regularly so when they come to make some changes to their site they've forgotten what to do and add things into the wrong place or phone up tech support for help who end up basically doing it for them!
And why is it this way? Because CMS have the wrong model of website management. They think people care about their pages, but in most cases they don't. People want the bit of information they have to go online and they don't care where it goes.So someone working in the HR departmentment needs their job vacancy to go online and as ling as that happens, great!
So by now you're probably bored with me telling you why CMS are bad and want to know how we've done things differently.First, we've identified what the main regularly changing content is that's on the website. For us that's things like:
I'll be honest that I didn't at the time know what we did next. But recently I saw a presentation by Matthew Wood and Michael Smethurst from the BBC.
They built the /programmes website and more recently /music and it turns out we did a similar kind of thing but without knowing it and obviously not as well!
They explained how they get a domain expert to sketch their world. Ignore what the resulting website is going to look like and concentrate on real things. In their case TV or radio programmes, channels, series and so on.
Course information was a trickier proposition but fortunately around the time we were redeveloping this area of the website another project did all the hard work for us.
An XML format called XCRI-CAP defines course information for marketing purposes quite neatly and we were able to convert that into a database.
I can recommend looking at XCRI-CAP as a way of storing course information. Things are moving forward with the standard and I’d hope soon the likes of UCAS are able to make use of feeds provided in that format.
I’ll not go into too much technical detail but we then made use of a web applications framework called symfony to create admin interfaces for each of these types of content and granted access to the required users.
With some test data in the database we can start to work on how the front end should work. This is often done from two directions simultaneously by developer and designer. The designer is creating Photoshop mock-ups of how these would ideally look
while the developer outputs nice, hopefully semantic HTML representing the data we want to display. Through several iterations these come together to the final working design.
This can be a delicate balancing act. Pay too much attention to designs and you end up making horrible hacks to the code while we all know what happens when you leave a developer to design websites!
Hopefully we end up with some nice looking, usable and accessible designs for each area of the site but we can do more than this. Now that we’re managing our data in a structured way we can start to reuse it across our sites.
So as well as a central news site
we can show stories from the stakeholder magazine
or those related to a particular department on their website just a little extra coding and tagging stories correctly.
Structured data allows us to do all sorts of neat things much more easily than would otherwise be possible. Search results highlight the important information
Feeds of data for other people to reuse
Recently we were able to add search as you type to course searches in just a few minutes using a jQueryplugin hooked up to a JSON feed.
This “anti-CMS” has been in place for a few years and for the large part has been very successful in giving people with structured information the ability to update it directly on the site.
But our solution isn't perfect though. These systems to manage data might be great for structured data but we haven't addressed the other 15,000 pages? Over the last 18 months we've clawed back control over many sites which has put more load on our team.Couple this with demand from academic departments to put more things online and we potentially have a big problem.
Our first response was to question whether people are asking for the right thing. Do they really need things to go on the corporate website or would a blog or space on our extranet wiki be more appropriate?
These alternative solutions have undoubtedly taken up some of the demand but centralisation has possibly gone too far... time for some backpeddling perhaps?
Enter OMAC - Online Marketing and Communications.This project launched just before Christmas looking at a number of areas of online activity including engagement with enquirers and applicants, our website design and structure and giving more control to academic departments.
So given the choice, do we go out to tender for a brand new Enterprise Content Management System? Every week I get calls from vendors telling me how great theirs is so it would be the “easy solution”.
That’s not really the Edge Hill way either - as in it would cost money!So once again we find ourselves asking what it is that departments are asking to be able to change:
Profiles turns out to be quite easy. We now have a research repository and are in the process of rolling out a teaching and learning repository. All staff have access to these and both have a way of presenting profiles. With a bit of hacking we can integrate these into our website. Sorted.
What about everything else? For about four years we’ve run a blogging service using WordPress and I’ve been impressed with how far it’s come recently as a tool for hosting full websites. A quick chat with a friendly local web agency confirmed that what I had planned could work so we set about integrating the multi site version of WordPress into our new website designs. Each department will get their own site at their own top level URL.
For about four years we’ve run a blogging service using WordPress and I’ve been impressed with how far it’s come recently as a tool for hosting full websites. A quick chat with a friendly local web agency confirmed that what I had planned could work so we set about integrating the multi site version of WordPress into our new website designs.
Each department will get their own site at their own top level URL.
WordPress’ blogging roots make it ideal for departmental news and providing a selection of templates allows other types of content. The way we manage structured content within our site makes it very easy to develop plugins for WordPress to pull it into these new sites.Once we decided WordPress was capable of doing what we wanted we have the task of rolling it out.
As I said before Content Management Systems fail because the wrong people are given access and trained in the system, not in how to write for the web. I’m keen we avoid that problem. We’re trying to do this in several ways:
Content inventory - unless you know what is on your website and understand why it’s there and the value it gives the business your website is bound to fail.
We’ve put in place a simple content inventory process following the model suggested by Relly Annett-Baker. This is a spreadsheet completed by content owners logging things like calls to action and content “ROT”. These become living documents that can be regularly checked and used by anyone involved in a site to make sure they know the current status of a site.
Website ownership - before migrating content to WordPress we’re making sure that departments are taking responsibility for their content by identifying who is in charge - who is it that decides promoting the English degree is more important than the Creative Writing conference?
Clearly identified and agreed roles - each department and faculty will have slightly different requirements in terms of who is involved in their website. The work we’ve done on the content inventory and website ownership should help ensure that parts of their site don’t go off the rails through lack of updates or expanding into the trivial.
And so that’s pretty much where we’re up to – a month or so away from the launch of a new website design with new faculty and department sites following along as soon as they’re ready.This will be a big culture change for everyone involved in the web at Edge Hill but I hope by combining centralised, structured systems with lightweight content management in the form of WordPress we can have our cake and eat it.
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