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by m.guy

Plenary 6: Time to hire a web design agency?

9:05 am in plenaries by m.guy

Paul Boag will be giving a plenary talk for us on No money? No matter – Improve your website with next to no cash. Here are his controversial thoughts on hiring a Web design agency…

No plans to redesign your site?
Now is the time to hire a web design agency

Many website owners hire their web design agency at the wrong time. Instead of hiring a web designer when you need work done, hire them when you don’t!

Traditionally website owners hire a web design agency when they are unhappy with their website and have the budget to do something about it. However, I have come to believe that the best time to hire a web design agency is when budgets are tight and you are reasonably happy with your website.

Am I mad? Well, possibly. However, let me explain my logic.

Flaws with the traditional model

Image of a web designer reluctant to stop working on a website

prodakszyn, Shutterstock

My madness began with a belief that the current way most website owners engage with web design agencies is wrong. Normally things work something like this…

  1. The website owner becomes unhappy with his site and decides things need to change.
  2. He concludes the site needs redesigning and so writes a brief before asks web agencies to pitch for the work.
  3. The agencies respond and one is selected for a expensive redesign of the site.
  4. The agency throws out the old site and builds a new one.
  5. The website owner pays the web agency and they go their separate ways.
  6. Slowly the site decays as the business changes and new features/content is added.
  7. Sometime later the website owner becomes dissatisfied again and the process repeats.

This approach of sporadic redesign is flawed for a number of reasons…

  • It is wasteful because it throws out the old site and begins again every few years.
  • It is financial painful as a considerable budget has to be found for each redesign.
  • The website owner defines the project alone without the advice and support of a web expert.
  • The user is confused by a dramatic change in the website. This often causes hostility (take for example the campaign against Facebook’s redesign).
  • Choosing the right agency is a huge risk thanks to the large financial commitment involved.
  • The chosen agency lacks the in-depth knowledge of the business required to create a successful website.
  • The site quickly degrades as the business begins to add new content and features. This means that for much of its life the site reflects badly on the business.

Surely there is a better way.

Working in long term partnership

The answer is for the website owner and web agency to work in a much more fluid, dynamic and ongoing relationship. This solves a lot of the problems with the existing system.

Instead of sporadic redesign with its intrinsic waste and enormous one off expenditure, you have an ongoing development process that is constantly tweaking and evolving the website.

Because both parties are working together regularly it gives the agency a chance to really understand the business drivers for the website and how the web can help meet organisational needs.

In turn it gives the website owner the opportunity to build confidence in the agency, so the next time a big project come along there is no risky decision about selecting a supplier.

Most importantly this partnership ensures the website is constantly being given attention, and that the website owner has an outside perspective when making crucial decisions. It also allows him to benefit from the agencies expertise and experiences cultivated from working on other sites.

Of course some of you may have an in-house team that fulfils this role. However do they really?

But we have an in-house team

In theory if you have an in-house web team there should be no need for a web agency who provides an ongoing collaborative role. However in my experience there is a big difference between theory and practice.

Most of the web teams I encounter are unable to fulfil this role for two reasons that are entirely beyond their control…

They are overworked

I am yet to encounter a web team who are not overworked. They are developing new features, dealing with support queries, adding new content and doing endless day-to-day tasks that prevent them from looking at their website from a strategic viewpoint.

Having an outside expert with whom they can discuss the future direction of their site is invaluable. Not only does it help maintain a broad vision, it also ensures that things stay on track and strategy doesn’t get crowded out by day-to-day details.

Let me give you an example. At Headscape we have an outside advisor called Brian who joins us at our board meetings. He serves three roles…

  • He provides an outside perspective that comes from working with many different companies like our own.
  • He forces us to look strategically at our business rather than discussing the delivery of our latest piece of client work.
  • He holds us accountable and will challenge us if we fail to do what has been agreed at previous meetings.

I would argue that every web team needs somebody like Brian.

They miss design details

Most web teams don’t have a full time designer. They are normally made up of content people, project managers and techies. In some way this is understandable. Once a design is set it normally doesn’t need to change very much.

However with the web team focused on content and features there is nobody ensuring the design is maintained. Changes to a website can undermines the consistency in a design that makes a website trustworthy. Suddenly things stop lining up, buttons are styled in different ways and the slick professional feel falls away.

It is also important to remember that design dates very quickly online because of the speed of innovation. It’s therefore important that somebody is keeping an eye on these design details if a major periodic redesign is to be avoided.

So presuming I have sold you on this alternative approach, how does it work practically?

How it works in practice

The key to this approach is one lifted from agile development and is built around a monthly meeting.

Whether our meeting needs to be monthly, weekly or quarterly is entirely up to you. That decision should be based on how much your website changes. For a busy website that is continually being developed you will need frequent reviews. For a more informational site that rarely changes, once a quarter maybe enough. What matters is that the meetings are regular.

The meeting themselves will focus on two areas.

Strategic aims – These meetings are a chance to step back and look at the bigger picture of what you are trying to achieve through the site. This discussion may raise questions (such as what is the competition doing?) or it may identify weaknesses that need addressing. However, whatever the case it is an opportunity to get out of the trenches and see the bigger picture.

Immediate goals – Each meeting should end with a series of immediate goals that need to be achieved before the next meeting. These are practical ‘next step’ actions. They might include a review of the competition or an A/B test on some piece of content. The point is to have some concrete ways of achieving the more strategic goals.

Some of the work to be done will fall to the outside agency, others to the website owner. There may also be times when a third party is required for certain work. Whoever does the work it has to be completed by the next meeting.

This timescale constraint prevents large, time consuming projects that often stall or slip. Instead each development cycle will focus on a few quick fixes.

At the next meeting the actions are reviewed to see if they have been completed before the next steps are set. Once that is done the next meeting is scheduled… and so on.

No strings attached

What is great about this ‘one development cycle at a time’ approach is that it limits the commitment the website owner have towards their agency. If the website owner wished, they could have a single session with an agency and decide never to schedule another meeting if they particularly disliked them.

Equally they could schedule a few meetings and then swap to another agency to gain fresh perspective if the original agency is not coming up with the goods.

Finally, they could choose not to use the web agency for all the work within a development cycle, but to do most of it in-house or even use a student!

There is no contract and no massive expenditure. It is the cost of the next meeting and nothing more.

Of course this is also great in the current economy where management is carefully controlling expenditure. Getting a large redesign approved maybe impossible. However, paying for an hour long meeting once a month is more achievable. The website owner gets all of the expertise of an outside agency, without the long term commitment or big budgets.

Take the first step today

The great thing about this approach is that you can start it today, even if you have no redesign planned and no real budget for your site.

If you have an existing web design agency, give them a call and ask whether you can schedule the first of a monthly meeting to discuss your website. Explain that you are happy to pay for their time, but you want to keep things light weight and flexible. Chances are they will be willing to accommodate you. If they or not, then perhaps it is time to look elsewhere.

by b.kelly

Managing Institutional Web Services

10:00 am in plenaries, workshops by b.kelly

Doing The Day Job

In addition to a number of specific areas (such as the Mobile Technologies, the Social Web and Linked Data and RDFa, together with the  context of Economic Challenges) which have been summarised on this blog, the IWMW 2010 event will, of course, address the various  mainstream aspects of providing institutional Web services – the day-to-day responsibilities of the various members of Web management teams.

Plenary Talks

Susan Farrell‘s plenary talk has the provocative title of “Are web managers still needed when everyone is a web ‘expert’?“. Susan will point out that “While most senior managers would agree that the web is mission-critical, at a time when budgets are tight it becomes increasingly difficult to persuade them that employing skilled web professionals is vital. With devolved publishing models in many institutions and the increasing use of social networking, senior managers might be forgiven for assuming that managing a website is easy. Surely everyone is a ‘web expert’ now that 74% of the UK population spend an average of 13 hours a week on the web? So are web professionals really needed?“. This talk seems likely to generate much discussion at the event!

The theme of the role of Web team in an era of a new Government with different expectations of the role of public sector organisations will be addressed by in a talk entitled “‘So what do you do exactly?’ In challenging times justifying the roles of the web teams“. In this talk Ranjit Sidhu will ask “Are there lessons that web teams can take take from the for-profit sector to stop what they are doing becoming a vague proposition to those who set the budget? Also, do the web teams need to claw back roles given away freely in the past or would this require a complete change of mindset?”.

Paul Boag will address the economic challenges higher educational institutions are facing in his talk “No money? No matter – Improve your website with next to no cash” in which he will describe how Web managers should go about the processes of understanding the benefits of realigning rather than redesigning; apply practical techniques to simplify their websites; break down complex projects into simple phases; make use of the services provided by third parties and look beyond the website as a way of reaching potential students.

Finally a session entitled Doing the Day Job will provide a number of talks about key services followed by a panel session discussing what a Web manager’s day job is, what it should be and what it shouldn’t be.

Workshop Sessions

The workshop sessions will provide an opportunity to address issues in more depth.

  • The session on “A Little Project Management Can Save a Lot of Fan Cleaning … or (Agile) Project Management for the Web” will explain what project management is and how can it help Web managers, covering issues such as common misapprehensions about project management; nightmare situations when development work goes wrong and explore both agile and traditional approaches to project management.
  • The session on “Usability and User Experience on a Shoestring” will explore how Web teams can ensure that websites are as effective and engaging as they can possible be at a time in which investing resources into usability or user experience (UX) work may be seen as an expensive luxury. In this interactive workshop, participants will explore ways in which user experience methods can be made more cost-effective yet still provide tangible benefits; for example, by adopting low-cost ‘guerilla’ methods for user research and evaluation and adopting a more user-centred philosophy within an organisation.
  • The session on “Taxonomy: Creating structure across content using metadata” will describe how use of a taxonomy in creating structured content allows emergent patterns in content to drive navigation. By using a taxonomy to create novel tags for content it is possible to produce strong navigational effects and use this to encourage investment in metadata in your content.
  • The session on ”Inside the Pantheon: A Dreamweaver framework for managing dynamic content” will describe how using Dreamweaver as a publishing interface may not have been considered for institutions who want to manage their dynamic web content as its traditional focus has been on editing static web pages. At the University of Kent, however, time and resource issues required an intermediate solution to roll out a new branding across the institutional websites. In the process a framework (codenamed Pantheon) was developed for pulling in and managing dynamic content using static pages together will  a series of tools integrated with Dreamweaver to ensure that departments had great flexibility in creating good looking web pages.

by b.kelly

The Social Web

11:00 am in plenaries, workshops by b.kelly

The Importance of the Social Web

It is probably true to say that the increasing importance of the Social Web in supporting institutional activities was not expected within many educational institutions. But we now know that social networking environments, such as blogs, micro-blogging services such as Twitter and social networking services such as Facebook do have a role to play in supporting institutional activities such as student recruitment, marketing, supporting teaching and learning (including informal learning activities), supporting research and, of particular relevance to IWMW 2010 participants, supporting communities of practice.

Plenary Talk

Suraj Kika, CEO of Jadu (one of the IWMW 2010 sponsors) will give a talk on Social Networking – The Challenges and Opportunities of Social Media and the Implications for HEI Web Masters. The talk will be based on a report of a survey of the UK HE institutional Web Management community which was carried out by Jadu, with the support of UKOLN.

The report, which has been summarised on the UK Web Focus blog, is based on sixty responses which were received from 44 HEIs across the UK (36 in England, 3 in Wales and 6 in Scotland). The responses wcame from people working in Web management, marketing, media and communications, learning and development, business, libraries and IT management and services. From these responses we learnt that the two most frequently used external social networking tools are Twitter (68.3%), YouTube (60.7%) followed by social networking tools such as Facebook and MySpace (57.49%). 47.3% of respondents intend to adopt Twitter over the next two years; 41.8% intend to YouTube and 41.1% social networking tools such as Facebook and MySpace.

The report identified the following major issues which the community is seeking to address:

  • The challenge of developing a business case for social media.
  • How should a strategy for social media be developed – top down, bottom up (user driven) or collaboration?
  • Control – can unrestricted use of social media continue given privacy, data protection, intellectual property and brand protection issues?

Workshop Sessions

A number of 90 minute long workshop sessions will be seeking to address some of the challenges identified in the Jadu report.  These include:

  • ‘Follow us on Twitter’…’Join our Facebook group’ which recognises that while use of social media tools is now recognised as an important medium to communicate with our audience, many institutions are still in the dark as to how best to use these tools to support recruitment, build brand and reputation, and facilitate better internal communications. The session will explore how institutions should approach the use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, and participants will have the opportunity to develop guidelines on using social media for their areas of work. There will also be opportunity to discuss how best to respond to negative comments and how to deal with awkward postings.
  • Sheffield Made Us – using social media to engage students in the university brand”  which is based on a case study which describes how between April and October 2009, the University of Sheffield ran a competition encouraging students to upload videos to Youtube with the incentive of a £3000 prize with the aim of getting the students to express in their own words what they thought of the University, and how Sheffield had made them. The films that will  be displayed sound intriguing as they “range from those that are moving to those that are funny, and some that are downright bizarre“!
  • A session on “WordPress beyond Blogging” provides a more technical focus, with an introduction to managing a large multi-site WordPress installation and providing real-world examples that demonstrate the versatility of WordPress as a Content Management System (CMS). In the session participants will be asked to think ‘beyond blogging’ and consider WordPress as a popular, low-cost, cutting-edge technology platform serving the needs of research, teaching and learning and institutional Web managers.
  • The session on “Engagement, Impact, Value: Measuring and Maximising Impact Using the Social Web” acknowledges that the Social Web is now widely accepted as having an important role to play in supporting institutional activities with many (if not all) universities now having a presence on Social Web services such as Facebook and Twitter and services such as iTunes and YouTube becoming used to provide delivery channels for institutional content. It is therefore timely to identify emerging best practices in use of such services. This session will review institutional approaches to use of the Social Web services. Participants will explore the reasons for using such services and also discuss possible concerns and dangers in such usage. The session will also explore ways in which usage of such services can be measured in order to provide evidence of their effectiveness.

The first two of these sessions will take place on Monday 12 July with the other two sessions taking place the following day, therefore allowing participants with a particular interest in the Social Web to be able to attend two workshop sessions in this area.

by b.kelly

Mobile Technologies

4:50 pm in plenaries, workshops by b.kelly

Campus M Mobile App

Importance of Mobile Technologies

The high level of interest in use of mobile technologies by higher educational institutions is apparent from the popularity of the recent Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University.

As described by Andy Powell in a post on The implications of mobile… or “carry on up the smart phone” which summarised the event, Chris Sexton (IT Services Director of the University of Sheffield and the opening speaker at IWMW 2010) felt that “the question is not, ‘can we afford to support mobile?’ but, ‘can we afford not to?’“.

But what are the issues which need to be addressed? And what can we learn from existing work in this area across the sector?

Plenary Talk

A plenary talk by Damian Steer, ILRT, University of Bristol on “Mobile Web and Campus Assistant” will use the Mobile Campus Assistant as a case study. This was created by staff at ILRT, University of Bristol in order to “make time and location sensitive information available to students via their mobiles and location-aware smart phones. For example, where is the nearest available PC? When is the next bus to the hall of residence? Which library is open now?“. The talk will also provide an introduction to the mobile web, examine the capabilities of current mobile phones, how they are being used and who uses them.

Workshop Sessions

There will be a number of workshop session on use of mobile technologies at the event, each lasting for 90- minutes including:

  • A session on “Location Based Services Without the Cocoa” will explore the potential of  (smart phone) mobile devices which have location sensors such as GPS, compasses and accelerometers and how this has generated an explosion of new location- based services ranging from simple navigational maps to augmented reality.
  • Another session on “Stylesheets for mobile/smartphones” will explore the ways in which stylesheets can be used which will give a better experience for users of mobile devices.
  • A session on “Mobile Apps vs Mobile Web” will explore how the Mobile Web is shaping up to deliver critical institutional information and address questions such as “Where does teaching and learning come in?” and “Do we need an app for that?
  • Designing, developing and testing a location aware learning activity using QR Codes” which will highlight another aspect of mobile technologies – how QR Codes can provide a low threshold technology for the creation of  interactive, location aware learning activities, including applications such as campus or building induction tours, health and safety tutorials in lab, and off- campus learning activities.

We have scheduled these workshops so that two of the sessions take place on Monday 12 July with the other two on the following day  to ensure that those with a particular interest in mobile technologies will be able to choose from a number of options.

by m.guy

Economic Challenges

3:20 pm in plenaries, workshops by m.guy

Last week the new Coalition government unveiled their £6.25bn spending cuts. The Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) has the Higher Education budget down for £200 million in efficiencies.  It is likely to be a very difficult few years for all working in the HE sector and the Web management community is likely to be no exception. We have yet to truely see where the budget cuts will fall but there is little doubt that finances will be tight, resources will be limited and there may be many more restrictions on the way we work.

What affect will this have on our institutional Web sites? What effect will it have on our community? What effect will it have on our jobs?

This year’s IWMW theme is the Web in Turbulent Times. Our economic challenges have us set for bumpy ride so we have a number of plenary talks and parallel sessions that aim to equip Web managers with the know-how to justify their worth and make prudent savings which still allow them to still provide an efficient service.

Plenary Talks

On Monday 12 July we open with the ‘The Web in Turbulent Times’ session. Our opening plenary by Chris Sexton, Director of Corporate Information and Computing Services at the University of Sheffield, will set the scene and talk frankly about what lies ahead.

Susan Farrell‘s talk on Are web managers still needed when everyone is a web ‘expert’? follows. Susan points out that now that budgets are tight managers may start to look at devolved publishing models and fail to see that employing skilled web professionals is vital. Surely everyone is a ‘web expert’ now that 74% of the UK population spend an average of 13 hours a week on the web? Are web professionals really needed? Susan’s talk will consider how and why web professionals should actively fight for recognition.

On Tuesday in the ‘Web in Difficult Time’s session Ranjit Sidhu, founder of statistics into Decisions asks  So what do you do exactly?. Ranjit’s talk, like Susan’s,  aims to help us justify the role of Web teams, but he does this by seeing if there are lessons to be taken from the commercial sector. He also proposes that web teams need to claw back roles given away freely in the past, which may  require a serious change of mindset.

Paul Boag, Creative Director of Headscape, then offers a more practical approach to budget cuts by saying No money? No matter and helping Web managers to Improve your website with next to no cash. Paul will be offering up 5 powerful techniques which include enabling us to understand the benefits of realigning rather than redesigning and start breaking down complex projects into simple phases.

Parallel Sessions

A workshop session on Developing Your Personal Contingency Plan: Beat The Panic facilitated by Keith Doyle of Extreme Usability will take a positive look at how sometimes forced situations (like redundancy) can allow you to take a positive look at your future.  Keith has experienced being made redundant, finding work and providing work. He will share some of his experiences and then work with the participants to build their ideas. This will include: making the most of where we work now; portfolios and interviews; setting up a business.

Demonstrating effeciveness is now key in order to retain finances. The workshop on Engagement, Impact, Value: Measuring and Maximising Impact Using the Social Web facilitated by Brian Kelly will explore ways in which usage of such social networking services can be measured and ways in which such metrics can be used in order to enhance the impact of institutional activities.

The economic climate may be gloomy but IWMW is hoping to make it a little less so!