IWMW 2013 (3)

July 3, 2013

This post summarises the last three plenary sessions from day 2 of IWMW 2013. It follows on from the summary of day 2’s first three plenaries.

Day 2 Plenary Sessions (part 2)


P8: Paul Walk: Working with developers

Paul Walk talked about how learning to work well with developers can help institutional web managers get the most out of their software/systems. He said that managers need to get good at estimating the time projects will take, and learn some of the developers’ jargon (though they shouldn’t pretend to know more than they do), specifically understanding what key concepts like ‘the cloud’ and ‘software as a service’ really mean.

Over the years we’ve had lots of different words for developers: developer, programmer, engineer, analyst, data-wrangler… even “software authors”. Different words have different connotations; the words we choose can tell us a lot about how we think about the work of development. We also have different words for the process: we talk about “writing” software, software “engineering”, software as a “craft”, as an “art”, and so on. “The last time people constructed a vocabulary for software development was in the 1960s, when they coined the phrase software engineering, both as a wish and a direction for the future.” The different words reflect different development paradigms.

Walk gave an overview of the ‘waterfall’ methodology and then moved on to ‘agile’ development and how it differs. The ‘agile’ attitude can be summed up as “rough consensus, running code” and its articles of faith are that innovation happens in a local context and local developers empower the organisation to innovate. ‘Local’ in this sense means ‘close to the users’ — we have to recognise that the users are part of the process, and that building software is about building on existing relationships. There are lots of advantages to having local developers, e.g. better understanding of local context, and better availability/responsiveness during projects.

It’s not just about developers doing development work, though; Walk argued that Universities need more technical people in their higher echelons: “bring engineers into your company at all levels, including the top” (as Eric Schmidt puts it). He also identified a gap in the career path for developers, the difficulty of letting developers keep developing but also contribute to management, strategy, and governance, and claimed that universities can learn from industry in this area.

Further reading:


P9: Ranjit Sidhu: 9am, 16th August, 2012: What the fcuk just happened then?

‘What happened then’ was that the A-level results came out, and universities got a shock as they realised that the game had changed. 17 of the Russell Group universities went into clearing in 2012: applications were down by 7% across the board. But we don’t need to wait for A-level results to find out how bad things are: we can get the data and work out who we need to target and how.

Sidhu talked about how ‘data science’ was becoming more prevalent (in fact, apparently, “the sexiest job in the 21st century“) and how we need to work out what we should be analysing: the web is uniquely placed to analyse statistics and help universities to target the area it needs to. And this targeting is big business: Sidhu estimated an £8,500,000 spend by universities in the week after clearing; a keyword ad in the top spot on Google during clearing costs £22.12 for just one click. Online marketing is perfect for targeting our spending more effectively, and we need to get more students in — Sidhu claims that tuition fees are the only way that HEIs can make money now.

However Sidhu warned of the dangers of thinking ‘big data’ will solve everything (“If you didn’t do anything meaningful with the small data you had, why will you do anything with the big data?“) and reminded us that databases are easy, but you can’t outsource thinking. He was particularly sceptical about the value of UniStats (apparently fewer than 1 visitor per day actually clicks the UniStats widget).

After lots of hard figures Sidhu finished with some more philosophical questions: whether free content is destroying diversity; whether the free pricing model unfairly benefits the rich (should people pay more if they can afford it?); and whether early adopters of tracking/analytics technology (what we used to call ‘spyware’) have a responsibility to make sure it’s used ethically.

Further reading:


P10: Paul Boag: Institutional culture is crippling your web strategy!

Paul Boag didn’t pull any punches in his talk; highlights included telling us that we were a bunch of whingers and that when it came to our organisational structures we were all, not to put too fine a point on it, completely screwed. It’s just his way of showing how much he cares…

He identified the problem as our “pre-web organisations” being mired in bureaucracy, with slow, committee-based decision-making, lots of internal politics, a “project mentality” and lots of departmental silos, and a misunderstanding of what the web is (a marketing tool, an IT service). The “project mentality” is unhelpful because the web requires cross-departmental working: organisational structures are a barrier to this. Departmental silos occur for the same reason: websites and services are organised around organisational structure, departments, faculties etc. This slow-moving bureaucracy results in “big bang redesigns” (rather than incremental change) leading to yo-yoing expenditure and long periods of ineffectiveness.

Boag argued that fundamental changes are needed – we need to:

  • Become user-focused
  • Have a strong centralised web team
  • Create policies and procedures
  • Create a consistent user experience (including establishing a tone of voice)
  • Work incrementally (be agile)
  • Create a way to talk to each other

Policies can help us say “no”, e.g. if we can’t remove redundant content simply because it’s irrelevant, we can establish policies to help facilitate this, such as saying that if a page isn’t updated within a certain amount of time, or falls below a threshold of visits based on analytics, then it gets marked as archived, removed from search, and so on.

Boag suggested some other techniques to help us improve our sites in the face of organisational obstructions: “user cards” (and insisting on them before introducing new content/functionality) can help us build a user-focused experience; testing and monitoring everything can help us justify our decisions. We also need to communicate: we need to share best practice, blog our experiences, find ways to talk to each other. We also need to talk to senior management, tell them what we think, market ourselves within the organisation.

His diatribe against institutional culture ended with telling us that if we want to enjoy our jobs, we need to fix our organisations or look for another job. I’m not sure the audience were entirely convinced by his insistence that losing/leaving your job is nothing to be afraid of, but I think most of us recognised the relevance of at least some of the ranting!

Further reading:


IWMW 2013 (2)

July 3, 2013

This post summarises the first three plenary sessions from day 2 of IWMW 2013. It follows on from my summary of day 1’s plenaries.

Day 2 Plenary Sessions (part 1)


P5: Jonathan Hassell: Stop Trying to Avoid Losing and Start Winning: How BS 8878 Reframes the Accessibility Question

What I want is to strategically embed inclusion into [my organisation]’s culture and business-as-usual processes, rather than just doing another inclusion project.

This quote sums up where people want to be, Hassell said, but in general organisations are scared of accessibility — they don’t really understand it, or they only have one committed individual who does it, or it only happens in specific projects/products; they don’t know what’s in it for them apart from risk mitigation. Accessibility solutions often seem piecemeal — they’re tactical, not strategic.

They also feel like they’re competing for your time with (rather than linking in with) other useful web strategies:

  • mobile strategy (including apps, responsive design, etc)
  • open data strategy
  • content strategy
  • social and search strategy
  • UX strategy

As a result, people tend to do the bare minimum for accessibility, then spend their time firefighting as complaints come in. This is just treating the symptoms: “we need to fix the problem in the process, not the product.” But this is made harder by organisational structure and culture — it’s difficult for individuals to change processes.

We need to reframe the accessibility question, says Hassell, to see it as a business opportunity: by increasing inclusion we can maximise our reach. There are a lot of people out there for whom accessibility is an issue:

  • 11 million disabled people
  • 12 million older people (of pension age)
  • 7 million adults with low literacy levels (< age 11)

BS8878 is a new accessibility ‘code of practice’ which gives a framework for reducing costs and improving quality; it allows you to choose the right guidelines for your product/audience, rather than making you mould your product to rigid guidelines.

Hassell compared BS8878 to other accessibility guidelines — many assume you actually code HTML by hand — most of us don’t any more; instead we need to think about how we can make the best of CMSs and other third-party software that we can’t ‘fix’ completely. Some of that is about the people using them — how can we motivate content creators to do their job better? WCAG 2.0 is good as a ‘roadmap’ but doesn’t tell you if you’ve got there — that’s when you need to do user testing to see if people can actually use your product. Remember the goal is to “build a better website, not just a compliant one.

Further reading:


P6: David Cornforth: Adapting to Responsive Web Design

Get your content ready to go anywhere, because it’s going to go everywhere.

David Cornforth reminded us that we need to stop thinking in terms of “web pages” and how they look, and start thinking about content and how we can achieve content parity between desktop and mobile.

He gave a quick history of how the web used to be (including some nostalgia-inducing screenshots for those of us who remember the days of Times New Roman and blue underlined links!) and how we used to design for different screen sizes, different browsers… and how this became unsustainable as the number of different devices and browsers increased exponentially.

Instead of designing device-specific experiences, we need to embrace the flexibility of the web, and stop making assumptions about the content users want based on the device they’re using (90% of users switch devices to complete a task; 98% move between devices on the same day). We also need to be more iterative and more agile to cope with responsive design.

Further reading:


P7: Martin Hamilton: The inside-out University

Once again we were reminded that the Higher Education landscape is changing significantly and rapidly, with MOOCs and ‘open by default’ being among the key culprits.

Hamilton took us through an array of cutting-edge technologies before asking us whether our institution was ready to embrace this sort of change, or whether it was stuck in the past. He then talked about ‘extinction level events’, comparing the drop in student numbers in the age of the MOOC with the recent failure of businesses such as Jessops to adapt to competition from Amazon.

He then moved on to the main focus of his talk, the move towards ‘open by default’ as a result of a combination of drivers towards openness: funders requiring Open Access publication, funders requiring research data to be made available, demands for University statistics, developments in Open Educational Resources (OER). However, he reminded us that the flip side of ‘open by default’ is the increase in useless information: “you can splurge all this information out, but if it’s not useful, what’s the point?

Hamilton then took us through several interesting Jisc case studies using course data, VLEs, and ‘big data’, before leading into the ‘crowdsourcing a Jisc innovation strategy’ promised in the title. This was an interesting exercise in collaborative brainstorming, though it inevitably leaned more towards voting on existing suggestions (by adding a ‘+’ after them) rather than coming up with new input.

Further reading: