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Blessed Are They Who Notify Web Managers Of Errors

Don’t you just hate when you make a mistake? Well, take that mistake and put it on the Internet. How does that feel?

I’ve always felt the biggest drawback to writing and editing content for the web is that THE ENTIRE WORLD CAN SEE IT. Now, this can be a really great thing because that means that your content has the potential to reach millions of people. On the other hand, your content errors can reach millions of people.

I have a little editing trick that I would like to share. If I have written content for a web page, I like to build the page and put it on a preview site, then go on to something else. Several hours-or even a day-later, I’ll come back to it with fresh eyes and reread it. In this way, I can usually catch typos or places where I’ve edited something out, but didn’t delete the whole sentence, etc.

This works like a charm most of the time. The other times? There are lots of people out there who are kind enough to let you know when you’ve published an error 🙂 Blessed are they who notify web managers of errors for they save us from further shame.

Instilling Client Confidence

Yesterday, someone asked me, “When you are working on a web project for someone, how do you handle people who want to do things that you know are not a good idea?”

My brief answer is listen to them and educate them.

It’s possible that they may have good reason for what they want to do and you just need to help them execute it in a successful way. There are several ways to get people on-board for a project and one of the most powerful is to involve them in the project.

Listening

When you begin a project, identify the stakeholders (or owners) and question them about the high-level purpose of the site. By getting them to think critically about the importance and potential of their site as a marketing and communications tool, they are more likely put into words what their expectations are. By conducting these interviews, you are also communicating that you are building this web site for them and their audiences. And that you truly want to meet their needs.

For us, in higher education, the stakeholders will usually be vice presidents, deans, and chairs. Try to also include student, faculty and staff, especially people who might be involved the ongoing maintenance of the site or who might use the site often. Ask them specific questions about what does and doesn’t work with their current site (if there is one), who their target audiences are and what they want their audiences to be able to accomplish.

This lays the foundation for a successful project because what the stakeholders tell you will inform the team with guiding thoughts about what they need to accomplish.

After all the stakeholder interviews are conducted, report back to the stakeholder group with a stakeholder report and a proposal for the project based on the agreed upon goals and objectives of the project. If they agree to the proposal, this is the official starting point for the project.

As the project progresses and you have questions about something or you’re stuck, pull out the stakeholder report and the proposal agreement for reference and keep asking yourself, “Am I meeting stakeholder needs and expectations?” “Am I meeting the needs of their audiences?” “Is this within the scope of the project?”

If your answer to any of these is no. Then you need to rethink the direction in which you are going.

Educating

Do research. All kinds.

Research their target audience behaviors, what kinds of technology are they using, what information are they looking for, what do they need from this site.

Research the best examples of websites of similar units or departments.  Get a feel of the specific language, tone, images.

Research what’s being done in the corporate world where they are devoting lots of resources to their websites.

Once you have assembled this information, hang on to all of it. Write a brief summary of your findings.

When you present the information architecture and the design concepts to the client talk about what got you here. Refer to the stakeholder report and the proposal agreement, refer to the research.

Doing this will not only instill confidence in your work and the project, but its invaluable information for the team who is building this site. Having all this information in your collective back pockets provides guidance throughout the project and can avoid messy complications, client dissatisfaction and scope creep.

I promise.

Do you have more ideas about getting buy-in for project? I’d love to hear them. Please share.

Must-Have References for Web Content Creation

Bill Schmitt gave me a great gift today. He asked me to share some of my favorite books about information architecture (IA) and web content creation and best practices. I get pretty excited about sharing information. As an information architect for most of my career, I tend to be rather isolated (even on a team) and find few people interested in the topic, much less excited about it. The truth is, IA itself may not be exciting but what IS exciting is when our audiences hardly notice the IA! That’s right. If the IA is spot on, it will be so intuitive, audiences won’t have to think about it (more about this later). And of course, content creation and organization is what IA is all about.

Over the years, I’ve accumulated a small library of web reference materials. Most of them have to do with IA and content, although there are a few marketing, workflow, and SEO books thrown in for when I’m feeling crazy.

The following are what I consider the absolute must-haves for web content creation in no particular order.

Don’t Make Me Think
Steve Krug

Krug wrote this for “the people in the trenches” – the folks doing the work. He discusses how important great websites are to pretty much every business and institution in the world but, ironically, often are given inadequate budgets and resources. Krug then educates the trench people about building an IA, organizing content and how to conduct usability testing “on 10 cents a day.” He even devotes a chapter to interpreting your test results.

Content Strategy for the Web
Kristina Halvorson

Halvorson is founder and president of Brain Traffic, an agency that specializes in content strategy for the web. Brain Traffic holds an annual content strategy conference called CONFAB. It’s by far the best conference I’ve ever attended. And you get cake. Lots of it. They are very big on cake at Brain Traffic.

Her book breaks down the steps for doing a content analysis and developing a strategy. She offers examples and tips that I’ve found invaluable, especially when it comes to large web sites that have gotten dusty and spiderwebby and confusing over the years. In the final chapter,  Halvorson recommends a web maintenance plan and even describes a dream team of professionals role for that team explaining, “Your web content will never take care of itself.” So true, Kristina. So true.

The Web Content Style Guide
Gerry McGovern, Rob Norton and Catherine O’Dowd

The title pretty much explains it. There is a ready-made content style-guide in this book. There’s also some good information about user-centered design. This is an excerpt from one of my favorite sections that talks about giving users what they expect, as in an organization based on the alphabet.

“Structure is Boring, But it Works”

People don’t say: “I wish they’d do something other than an A to Z for a change. Maybe Z to A, or A to L, followed by Z to M.” Whew! Funny stuff. Well, to geeky information architects it’s funny stuff.

So there you go, Bill. Be careful what you ask for.

If anyone out there has others to recommend, please share!

Information Architecture and Killer Content: A basic tutorial

I am a proponent of applying user-centered design to all things, especially websites. User-centered web design is not just graphic design; it is also information architecture design and content design. Great websites begin with great content and logical pathways to retrieve that content. A great website happens when a visual design is applied to that content and IA that ENHANCES the user experience by delivering that content in ways that make it more readable, give it more depth and meaning, and make it pop off the page.

The mistake that is often made is the visual design is designed for it’s own sake and ignores the IA and content or tries to make the content fit the design. I call this “bassackwards” web design. You may get a website in the end but it won’t be a great one.

Step One: Research

In order to develop a great IA and great content, you need to begin with research.

Passive research includes:

  • Anecdotes
  • User Feedback
  • Website Analytics

You will get some good information here and these areas can help inform the project but but they will not give you the whole picture. In order to really get a clear picture of what your website needs to do and who it needs to reach, you will have to do some active research.

Active research includes:

  • Stakeholder Interviews
  • Current published research
  • Card Sorting
  • Usability Testing
  • Focus Groups
  • Surveys

This research will define for you what the purpose of the website is and who the target audiences are.

Step Two: Information Architecture

The Information Architecture Institute defines IA:

The art and science of organizing and labeling web sites, intranets, online communities, and software to support findability and usability.

(My emphasis on findability and usability.

So if the point of an IA is findability and usability, then it MUST be user-centered. However, as a university, there is also information that we have to put out there regardless of what our target audiences are looking for. A great IA combines those two needs in the best way.

Once the IA is developed and tested, you are ready to begin writing and collecting content.

Step Three: Content

By content, I mean:

  • Text
  • Graphics
  • Photos
  • Videos
  • Related Links

All of these are content because they communicate to our audiences. As a university, we are held to high standards so there is no room here for amateur content. All of this should be developed by professionals in those areas. Poor quality writing, photos, videos, and broken links reflect poorly on your unit and the university as a whole.

The same goes for website maintenance. If your unit will not be able to support regular maintenance for a website, then be very careful about what you publish.

Begin content creation with:

  • Content Audit
  • Content Analysis
  • Identify Additional Content Sources

Once you have content on your pages, apply information design best practices in order to improve readability and accessibility.

Now you can apply a visual design. At this point, you need to conduct usability testing and focus groups in order to ensure that you have succeeded in creating something that your audiences can and want to use.

After making any adjustments, you are ready to launch. And it will be great.

 

 

 

Trivia Night Fever Results

Jane and Beth ask, "How about some delicious desserts?"

The name of our trivia team, “Don’t Get MAD When We Win,” took second place to the OIT “Black Pearls” by two points in the trivia contest (so expertly mc’d by the dashing Tim Sexton). That jelly bean round killed us.

However, all is not lost because the Mad Men theme we applied to our table decorations, food, and costumes WON FIRST PLACE! Wooohooo! Take THAT pirates!

I want to give a special shout out to Beth Griswold, I mean Beth Grisoli who not only dressed the part, but brought these stunning pink cupcakes that I do believe tipped the scale in our favor.

Mmm. Baked olives.

Also getting an A for effort, Julie Flory (that’s cap’n Flory to you), wowed us all with olives in a cheese puff pastry, stuffed tomatoes, and ham roll ups on toothpicks, all served on a vintage lazy-Susan.

Speaking of a vintage lazy-Susan…

 

A great cause and a fun event

Golden Domes

Last night I attended a fundraiser for a fantastic organization, RiverBend Cancer Services, which, simply put, assists people dealing with cancer. Besides counseling and financial support, they also provide equipment, nutritional products, prosthesis, etc. The title of the annual fundraiser I attended is “Bras Around the Bend” which obviously brings attention to women (and even some men) in our community who are dealing with breast cancer.

The centerpiece of the event is a decorative bra silent auction. Lots of people  decorated  bras in the most creative ways you can imagine and they were all on display last night. I’m proud to say Notre Dame Public Relations (me and 3 female colleagues) decorated a bra we titled “Golden Domes.” Which took third place and raised $150 at auction.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Although there were so many and they were all so different, I think my second favorite was titled “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” It reminds me of reading Maurice Sendak’s books to my daughter when she was little.  Kinda looks like something from “Where The Wild Things Are.

Trivia Night Fever

Notre Dame PR has a table reserved for tomorrow night’s Trivia Night to benefit United Way. Few people love trivia as much as writers/ media relations/communicators. Since each table has a theme, we chose Mad Men meaning we will dress in early ’60s office attire and bring outrageously decorative food for our table as well as martini glasses and ashtrays.

I will be serving this yummy dish: http://bit.ly/n4fvKU along with my colleagues’ culinary concoctions which will include sandwich loaf and jello mold!

Our team cap’n insists that we memorize Wikipedia in preparation for the trivia questions (she’s a little competitive). If you, like she, refer to Wikipedia as a default encylopedia-type resource, then you might also know that Wikipedia is only one of several projects managed by the nonprofit WikiMedia Foundation.

WikiMedia manages the following in addition to Wikipedia:

All of these wonderful resources are completely free and are collaboratively developed by their users. I have submitted content to several pages myself and use these almost daily. If you use any of these WikiMedia sites, please consider making a donation. Just a $20 donation from everyone would guarantee they will keep WikiMedia resources free.

Update on nd.edu Redesign: Let’s try this again…

Did you really think Phase Two was going to happen in February? That was a pretty good joke, right?

As it turned out, the higher power in our office requested that we make all the updates and launch them at once and how can you argue with a higher power? We are still making the promised changes, but we are now going to launch all of them the week of July 1.

Reminder: Currently, some of our audiences are using an alternate home page (http://www.nd.edu/alt/) in order to bypass the video carousel on nd.edu. One of the changes will be to remove that video carousel and replace it with an image and link to a second-level page that will hold multimedia. This will improve download time for the home page and eliminate the need for the alternate home page. So the alternate page will be removed.

Update on nd.edu Redesign: Launch Planned for February

In my previous post, I listed the six-stage plan Public Relations developed for the nd.edu Web site. Phases Two-Six will go live the first part of February. I’ll just insert the plan here to remind you:

  1. Develop home page content areas that better communicate all the exciting things happening at Notre Dame and re-purpose great people profiles from all over the University. (Launched Nov. 22)
  2. Redesign the carousel and replace the technology that delivers it.
  3. Move second-tier pages to a template that carries the same graphic design and branding as the rest of the Gateway site, also eliminating all carousels at the second-tier; conduct usability testing.
  4. Modify primary navigation to include two new content areas (arts and international resources); conduct usability testing.
  5. Update and enhance content on top ten pages partnering with communicators in these areas.
  6. Update graphical design to align with visual identity and branding standards.

The video carousel that is currently on the home page at nd.edu was launched just over three years ago along with the new nd.edu gateway design. The carousel uses Flash animation to deliver the videos.

It has been determined that the video carousel presents the following usability issues:

  • Users must have Flash loaded on their personal computer in order to view the video.
  • Flash will not work on mobile devices.
  • Flash causes the home page to load very slowly.
  • The size of the carousel pushes the rest of the content on the page “below the fold” so that users are not aware there is any other information on the page.
  • The configuration of the video options in the carousel hide all but the front video so users are not aware other videos are there.
  • The carousel does not indicate how to “turn” the carousel.

As a result, we are making the following changes:

  • Reduce the size of the home page feature area. This will cause the rest of the page content to move up, making it visible to users.
  • Change the layout configuration of that area so that users can see how many features are available.
  • Reduce the number of features so that all features are visible to users.

Agency ND designed a replacement for that area and we are currently working with them to conduct usability testing to ensure that the replacement is user-friendly. We are also developing a strategic plan for the content that will appear in that new feature area.

/alt/ Page

Because the Flash carousel caused some users difficulty, an alternative home page was offered  (http://www.nd.edu/alt/) to allow frequent users to by-pass the carousel all together.

At the point that the Flash carousel is retired, the first of February, the /alt/ page will include a message to let visitors know that the home page has been modified and will encourage them to take a look. We will monitor traffic to the /alt/ page and if it declines significantly, we may remove that page.

As always, we are moving ahead and making improvements and would love to hear your comments!

Update on the Gateway Project

As you may have noticed, we implemented some small changes to the Web site nd.edu (Notre Dame Gateway Site) last night.

Since launching this site in 2007, our overall content strategy has evolved to become more focused and we have identified areas where we can implement newer technologies that will improve download time and usability. In addition, the Office of Public Affairs and Communications is developing a consistent visual identity for print and Web that will better brand the University.

At the same time, we are always looking for way to improve efficiency and we identified areas that we could improve significantly. Also, we understand that drastic changes can be disruptive and confusing to our visitors so we developed a year-long plan for implementing changes in six phases.

The following summarizes the most critical changes:

Six-Stage Plan

  1. Develop home page content areas that better communicate all the exciting things happening at Notre Dame and re-purpose great people profiles from all over the University.
  2. Redesign the carousel and replace the technology that delivers it.
  3. Move second-tier pages to a template that carries the same graphic design and branding as the rest of the Gateway site, also eliminating all carousels at the second-tier; conduct usability testing.
  4. Modify primary navigation to include two new content areas (arts and international resources); conduct usability testing.
  5. Update and enhance content on top ten pages partnering with communicators in these areas.
  6. Update graphical design to align with visual identity and branding standards.

We launched Phase One last night and I want to thank and shout out to everyone who responded to our request for recommendations about who to feature in our new People Spotlights. It was our hope to feature a new person every week but we weren’t sure what the response would be. I was overwhelmed with your responses and have enough profiles to last through April! You guys are awesome and this confirms we have some really great stories to tell or re-tell.

So Phase Two is in it’s infancy. We are completely rethinking the “carousel” space including what information goes there, how we present that information and what kind of technology we use to produce it. You might be surprised, but the current video carousels take 24+ combined hours of time involving nine professionals in OPAC! Needless to say, we could never respond to announcements, tragedies or celebrations very quickly.

As we move forward, I would love to have your input or feedback. If you have ideas, share them! Let’s go get coffee and sketch things on napkins. We are a big team full of very talented people and I’m excited about the possibilities.