This has been a long process for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's just complicated work that takes a while. Secondly, we're a very small team who have to keep the website up to date and manage a significant support load. Business-as-usual takes around two-thirds of our time which doesn't leave much resource available for new developments.
Many of you have been asking when you can have access to new templates in the CMS to allow you to rebuild your pages. This post is to let you know what's happening, why (regrettably) it's not quite as simple as just enabling some new templates and to explain what we’re doing about it.
Thoughts on how we manage the website
Two quick asides about terminology:
1. I use department throughout these notes as shorthand for all types of organisational unit.
2. I don't refer to department websites. Instead I refer to sections or pages of the site. When we hear from website users, they almost always refer to just the University website. We have a big website, but it's just one site and not many small ones. That's an important distinction. It signals a shift in mindset that we think is important as we continue to improve the website.
In the seven years we've been using the Web CMS, we've given basic training to over 1,000 users. Those users have added over 50,000 pages to the site, often with little governance and as a result we now have a site with more content than we have resource to maintain. Most web professionals would say that sounds like a recipe for disaster. That we still have a usable site in that context is testament to the great efforts made by all those involved.
But, despite those great efforts, the site has considerable problems. It is littered with repetition, out of date information, broken links, broken layouts, huge image downloads, flabby writing, confusing navigation, missing calls to action and critical information lost amongst minutiae.
Modernising and optimising a site for mobile takes more than just applying a new design. It means fixing those underlying problems and streamlining the information we provide. It means we need a change of approach.
Described below are three areas of work, all interrelated, that take us in the right direction.
1. Centralised course listings
Course pages, for obvious reasons, are amongst the most important pages we publish. For some time we've been the only Russell Group university whose course information is only located in department pages. In many cases course discovery is difficult and in some cases impossible. We also recognise that there is a big burden on departments to maintain the quality of the course pages in their areas. Recent consumer protection guidance has made it more important than ever that we get this right. To address this shortcoming, we've moved 50+ course listings from departmental to central mobile-optimised pages over the past year. These include courses from Departments of Mathematics, Philosophy, Environment and more. They've been rewritten from scratch to ensure the content is consistent, high quality and most importantly meets user needs. For ongoing maintenance, the central team apply any changes so that we maintain that quality and consistency whilst ensuring that departments continue to approve and sign-off on the published content.
We've relied on agencies to help with writing capacity throughout 2015. In the new year we intend to add a dedicated post to the team to speed up the process. Departments who have the resources to write their own course page drafts will also be able to do so and we will work with you to edit and put them in place.
The current crop of centralised course pages show a range of positive metrics in Google Analytics. We're confident that this is a really positive step forward for how we showcase our courses to prospective students.
2. Mobile-optimised designs for new pages
The new mobile-optimised designs are built on a completely new framework of code and CMS templates. We've followed the principles of atomic design to build a scalable system which should serve us well for a good number of years to come.
By mid-February we hope to make these new templates available for the creation of new sections of the site (eg. new research centres, standalone projects).
For existing sections of the site, there is a lot of work to do to move to the new designs, including (but not limited to):
Training in use of the new templates
Auditing existing pages, whether they are required and whether the CMS is the best place for them (the wiki is now a better choice for a lot of internal-facing information)
Rewriting and optimisation of all content so that it works effectively on devices of all sizes
Sourcing and preparation of new images so that they display correctly on devices of all sizes
Logistical planning for a seamless transfer from old pages to new
This is work that departments would struggle to do in isolation, but that our small team doesn't have the resources to support. Rather than focusing on big changes for a few departments, we suggest below a different approach for existing pages as our first priority.
3. An incremental improvement to all existing CMS pages
Given the amount of work involved in rebuilding 50,000+ pages from scratch, there's a compelling need to do something to modernise the site design and improve the mobile user experience in the short term.
To that end, we're working on a retro-fit solution to apply to existing pages in the CMS. It won't be zero-effort for departments, but it will be days, rather than weeks or months.
We hope to be ready to start deploying to early adopter departments in late March.
So what can you do right now?
I hope the above sets the scene and gives you a sense of what we're trying to achieve. But you may be wondering where it leaves you. What can you do right now?
Let us know if you're interested in centralising your course pages, using the new designs for new pages or piloting our retro-fit design. Please ensure you have the support of your department though. Successful outcomes depend on departments committing enough resources to see work through.
Fix the basics. Mobile-optimisation and modern design are important but it is just as important to ensure what we have already is the best it can be. Fix the dead links, optimise your landing pages, edit your text, highlight your calls to action, clarify your navigation. All those, and more, are just as fundamental to the page as the aesthetics of the design. We’ll be running content clinics each month from February onwards, during which you’ll be able to sit down with us and get some advice in this area. Sign up now if you’d like to be involved. Let us know what your web governance structure is within your department; how you update, approve and manage your content. Check your entry on our site map wiki and update it if necessary. If you don't have a governance structure, consider defining one. It will help you manage your pages and help us to help you going forward. Again, if you’d like to know more about this come along to one of our content clinics and we’ll talk you through it.
Improving our communications
We recognise that whilst we’ve been doing all of this our communications regarding plans, priorities and direction of travel have fallen short. We’re sorry about that, and one of our priorities for 2016 is to put it right.
In the meantime, feel free to ask questions in the comments or to me directly (email@example.com) and I'll be happy to answer.