Summary: How The BBC Makes Websites

7 08 2009

The final plenary session for this year was delivered by Michael Smethurst and Matthew Wood, web developers for BBC Audio and Music.  They took us through their development process for which is designed to provide a permanent home on the web for all BBC programmes.

Their aim was to make URIs human readable, hackable and, most importantly, persistent.  To this end, they begin their design process with the domain objects (programmes, songs, recordings etc) and build models based on how these domain objects relate to each other.  They do not use wireframes or mockups, but do take the domain model to users to check that they are speaking the same, ubiquitous language.  They then translate the domain model into a physical database schema that enables them to richly express the domain model in the language of the user.

Once the model is established as a database schema, it is a case of collecting together all the data needed to create the resource in all of its forms, before moving on to document design.  One of the most poignant points made for some of the delegates I spoke to afterwards was the assertion that document design should be independent of the page layout – as that’s the job of the CSS.  In fact, wireframing doesn’t happen until they add the layout CSS to the HTML pages and any Javascript or AJAX gets added last of all.  Michael and Matthew were very firm that they don’t test photoshop mock ups or wireframes, they test working applications, which enables them to focus more on creating rich content discovery journeys through the resources that are domain driven.

We were given a tour of to see all this in practice and the opportunity to ask Matthew and Michael about their processes in more detail.


Summary: Lightweight Web Management

6 08 2009

Chris GutteridgeChristopher Gutteridges’ talk was full of practical tips to manage the workload of web services management, making you more like Batman with his Batcomputer than Superman rushing to the rescue when things suddenly go wrong.

Chris argued that it is a waste of time and resources to have humans doing jobs that computers can do really well.  To this end, his department has written lots of scripts to perform basic tasks – particularly monitoring tasks – to help make them more visibly more efficient.

Whilst monitoring their department’s systems in this way has made it easier to manage their workload – preventing them from dropping the ball on normal requests in favour of crashing in to the rescue when something unexpectedly breaks – Chris had also noted that this practice was going to be especially important in the current economic climate, when we are all facing uncertainty about our jobs.

Monitoring is enabling them to build a stock of statistics and graphs that show how much work they do for the department they support, and how efficiently they work.  He was concerned by the amount of data people in similar roles in other institutions could be throwing away and argued strongly that they should start preserving that data – even if they don’t do anything analytical with it initially.  He also recommended monitoring the things beyond your control that cause your systems to become unavailable.

Throughout, Chris kept returning to the point that we are here to facilitate research and teaching.  Building a Batcomputer can help you focus on this task and allow you to better enable your researchers and students, rather than rushing round trying to be Superman.

Summary: Agile Prototyping in Academia

31 07 2009

Dave Flanders was unable to deliver his plenary talk in person, so he recorded a screen cast for us with the accompanying slides, including breaks for discussion both within the live audience and with the remote audience using the #iwmwp6 tag.  Dave himself participated using Twitter and this tag, so he was able to contribute in real time.  The live commentary continued using the #iwmw2009 #p6 convention.

Dave took us through the Agile methodology manifesto and discussed how it could be used in an academic development setting.  He promoted various user-focussed approaches to help achieve development goals, useable software and user-feedback.  This included advocating paper-prototyping as a quick way to generate user feedback and refine ideas, and considering how to include your user all the way through developments by having the paper-prototypes and wireframes up on the walls around so the user is in the room with you.  Agile also includes using scrums and sprints as ways of achieving manageable targets and working software quickly and effectively.  

This was very much a practical talk, looking at the manifesto principles and translating them into practical processes that would work in the academic setting, not just the business setting for which Agile was designed.  Dave did note that Agile sits in a continuum between Cowboy (developer-orientated) development and Waterfall (manager-orientated) development, so the principles can overlap.

Usefully, Dave included a break in his screencast to encourage the audience to discuss the issues and any experiences they may have had using Agile.  He emphasised the importance of learning from each other and was on hand on Twitter throughout to answer questions.

You can find Dave’s slides here.

Summary: Hub Websites for Youth Participation

30 07 2009

David NewmanIn his plenary session, David Newman introduced us to the HuWY project, which aims to try and experimental method of engaging young people in policy making for web-related issues considered at EU level. 

This project is based on the idea that young people, having grown up with the internet, have a unique and important view on issues such as cyber-bullying, privacy and freedom on the internet, but little interest or active involvement in the regulatory processes and policy making that is going on at the EU to govern these issues.  The aim is to find ways to make the connection between young people and policy makers by understanding each and providing hubs to connect their ideas so they can lead to actual change.

HuWY will first work with young people in 8 countries across the EU, providing them with a hub site of materials to get their discussions going.  The intention is then to allow the young people to go away into their own corners of the internet, use whatever tools or services they prefer (whether its Bebo, Facebook a wiki or whatever) to discuss the issues and generate ideas to solve some of the problems they encounter on the web.  These results will then be fed into another hub, where the task is to organise, tag and phrase these ideas in a format that politicians and policy-makers will be able to understand and use usefully to inform policy.

David gave us an overview of e-participation research and invited us to contribute ideas about how we could encourage our students to take part and the policy makers to listen.  Engaging the latter seemed much harder!  He made the point that young people are politically engaged, just not in the traditional ways, so we need to look at new ways to get young, digitally native people involved in political processes.

Summary: What Is The Web?

30 07 2009

James CurrallIn his unconventional plenary, James Currall abandoned what he refers to as “lecture 1.0” (where the lecturer stands at the front and talks for 45 minutes, then answers questions for 5) in favour of a more interactive, discussion based session in which he took us through and encouraged debate around the topic “What is the Web?”  The audience could take part verbally or by tweeting using the #iwmwp4 tag, which allowed the relevant tweets to be projected up onto the wall via Twitterfall. 

James would check the tweets throughout his talk and respond to them – sometimes conversationally (“yes, Mike, I agree,” then move on) or sometimes by using the points raised to redirect his talk or provoke further debate.  He challenged us to consider what we think the web is and how we can strip down what we do to the simple level of providing content to different types of users when they want it, in the form they want it.

As the live blogger, I have to say I found this format challenging to report upon, as there was obviously no clearly structured argument to follow or series of problems and solutions to report.  I ended up effectively providing sound bites from the discussions, and a little bit of commentary about what was going on e.g. “remote user @RappinRach has asked “is it about portals then?” James wants to avoid using labels for things in this way”.

I will be very interested to hear some more detailed feedback from any remote participants in this event, as there were so many access points through which to follow.  The participants we were aware of were watching the live video streaming and interacting via the #iwmwp4 tag.  I was reporting as @iwmwlive using the established format of #iwmw2009 #p4, so that my echoing tweets did not appear on the Twitterfall and distract from the active conversation.  There presumably were people following my updates as with other sessions.  This provides us not only with different ways of experiencing the event live, but also with different types of records of it which can be searched and referenced in different ways.

I did very much enjoy this session, which Miles Banbery described as more a “walk around” the topic than a traditional plenary talk.  The format was good for stimulating debate and exchange of ideas, but more interesting than those ideas in themselves – for me at least – will be how we handle the records and the experience of the talk for the remote user separated through both time and space.

Summary: Making Your Killer Applications… Killer

29 07 2009

Paul BoagPaul Boag of Headscape gave a rally-cry talk to inspire web managers to think again about their university websites and online applications for prospective students.  In particular, he highlighted the course-finder feature and noted the need for the designers developing these tools to stop thinking in a page-based way and start thinking of their tools more like desktop applications.

Paul gave some practical advice to help enthuse the audience to start experimenting and trying to develop more ambitious, user-friendly websites, despite the cost and political difficulties.  This included addressing concerns about accessibility standards by suggesting graded browser support and developing proof of concept designs so managers can see, and therefore start imagining the possibilities.  He also noted that using existing APIs, Javascript libraries and 3rd party websites can help keep costs down, costs being one of the major stumbling block to the development of better online services in the current climate.

Shifting mindsets from page-based thinking to application-based can also be a barrier.  Paul suggested story-boarding and taking sanity checks by asking others to test out your application -thus keeping you on track when trying to design an intuitive, interactive application.  He also suggested looking outside of HE at other types of websites to find solutions that will help make the university website not only more useful, but also more personable.

Personableness was a big feature of Paul’s talk – emphasising the role of the university website as a marketing tool.  He highlighted the potential for choice paralysis, the need for user engagement beyond Facebook and Twitter – including the use of ratings and reviews to add an authentic voice which potential students can trust, and the desperate need for a copywriter.  He did actually stamp his feet at this point!  There is a real need for a personal, personable voice for university websites.  Again, he gave corporate world examples, including Flickr, who were brave enough to put up a blog post saying “we suck”.

In conclusion, Paul emphasised the need to look beyond HE and to be imaginative in our approach to meeting the needs of the prospective students – thinking of them as consumers and gearing our institutional websites to them accordingly.

Summary: Servicing “Core” and “Chore”

29 07 2009

Joe NichollsDavid Harrison introduced Joe Nicholls, who presented this talk examining the ways in which they have been thinking about the way both students and researchers use technology as part of their working practices at Cardiff University.

Joe’s key point was the need for a holistic approach, in which there needs to be an iterative cycle of communication between the web managers/developers and the end users to ensure that there is appropriate education about tools to enable users to do their jobs, but also an understanding of the users requirements when developing new tools.

To understand this, Joe took us through a series of diagrams which demonstrated the different layers of IT interaction that researchers go through in order to do the different parts of their job.  This involved identifying “core” activities and “chore” activities – including many of the practical institution IT services, such as payroll and HR.  He showed how the modern working environment for these researchers involves working across these different layers to complete tasks, and highlighted the need to be aware of this in order to best meet the needs of these researchers when developing new tools.

Joe also made the important point that we have to take into account the external web resources when considering how researchers and students are working, not just our internal services.  Understanding how and why these tools are used can help web managers consider how best to improve their own tools and educate users about best practice (particularly when considering how to preserve content), so you are effectively enabling them to work in a modern IT environment.  This does not necessarily mean teaching them how to use particular tools, but rather teaching them transferable skills and literacies that enable them to move across tools and work effectively.

As technologists, we tend to focus on the tools rather than the task as a whole – making us service providers.  But this isn’t good enough in a modern IT working environment.  We need to be educating users and learning about their requirements, understanding the benefits of external tools as well as our own so that we enable students and researchers, creating a new, agile working environment that capitalises on all of the tools that will benefit people within the university.