Monday, 17 March 2014

Improving reliability of CMS publish

We've recently made a few changes to the way the Web CMS publishes updates to the website.

Publish speed

A few months ago we upgraded to a new release of Site Manager and were able to change how we output files as part of the publish. This change meant we shaved about 30 minutes off the publish duration and a full publish cycle now takes around 90 minutes. We hope to make further improvements later this year.

Publish reliability

Regular website contributors will know that occasionally the publish will fail and updates won't go live as part of the normal schedule. Last week we made a change which should significantly reduce the frequency of this happening. Changes should go live on schedule more consistently as a result.

Deletions and failed publishes

The most likely cause of a publish failure now is a deliberate failsafe built into our process which is worth a reminder.

If we detect a large number of deletions from the website as part of a publish, we don't publish any changes from that publish cycle until we've had chance to check whether something has gone wrong. One of the most common accidental causes of large numbers of deletions is renaming an output URI or Media Library category; this changes the URI of all pages or files in that branch of the site and thus deletes all the old ones.

If you're deliberately deleting a large number of pages or files (ie. 100+), it's always worth letting us know in advance and we can work around the automated failsafe.

Checking when publish last happened

If you're wondering why a change you made hasn't gone live, you can check when the most recent successful publish completed on the main Site Manager dashboard.

If you're sure your change should be live and yet you are still seeing an old version, make sure your browser is loading the latest copy by bypassing the cache. If it still doesn't show up, give us a shout and we'll help figure out what's happened.

Monday, 9 December 2013

New homepage and design: reflecting on the work so far

Having launched the new homepage and design for core pages of the website a few weeks ago, we held a team retrospective to reflect on the process and outcomes of the work so far. This helps us build on the things that went well and refine our process for the future. Below are the four categories of our retrospective and selected highlights from our thinking.

High points

  1. It actually happened!
    It's been a long time coming, so we're really happy to finally launch something new.
  2. Having a comprehensive preview available on a test server
    From early on in the process we were publishing the work-in-progress homepage and new design for core page on a test server. This made it so much easier to discuss the changes with the wide range of stakeholders who were involved.
  3. Trying some new tools
    We used Usabilla and CrazyEgg in anger for the first time with this project. Both proved really useful, the former for gathering up useful feedback before launch and the latter for visualising usage of the new homepage in a really compelling way.

Things that went well

  1. CMS implementation
    Despite its faults, and we know that lately a lot of you have been feeling the pain of slow previews and unreliable publishes (previews should be better now; publishes should get better later this week), the way we'd implemented the original design in Site Manager made it relatively easy to switch to a new look.
  2. Developing a process to manage the homepage
    In conjunction with redesigning the homepage, we've redesigned the process by which features and promotions are added to that page. York staff can find information about how we manage promotions on the homepage on the wiki.

Room for improvement

  1. Too many things, too little time
    The biggest challenge, by far, was finding time to do the work. We're a very small team of just four people: one manager, one full-time on training and support, two of us trying to do project work but constantly pulled in different directions (eg. CMS preview and publish issues, unplanned project requests). We reckon we get to spend, at best, the equivalent of 1 FTE on planned project work. Given that the recent redesign is just one of several projects ongoing, it's easy to see why we struggle to make quick progress.
  2. Finishing what we start
    We sometimes found that we'd start some aspect of the work with gusto, but then other things would come up (see point above) and we might not quite finish what we'd started.

New ideas

  1. Reporting on where our time goes
    There are no easy fixes to the problem of just having way too many things to do, but we think a good start might be to reflect on exactly where time is being spent. We track a lot of our time already (using the excellent Tick time tracker) and we track our support calls too, so we have data. We're going to trial having monthly reviews of exactly what we spent time on and hopefully identifying actions we can take to make more time for the most important projects.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Creating a new favicon for

Alongside the launch of our new website design earlier this month, you may have noticed that our favicon has changed too.

It's a small thing (literally), but it's there at the top of the browser window for everyone looking at our website, and appears every time someone bookmarks one of our pages, so it feels like an important thing to get right.

Our existing icon used the 'Y' taken from 'York' in our full logo, which was starting to look dated and was also a violation of our very own visual identity rules (tut tut).

The old 'Y' favicon

As we're now using the University shield as our identifier across our social media channels, it seemed like a good opportunity to bring everything together by using the same icon here too.

Creating the icon

I created the icon at two sizes, 16 x 16 for normal resolution screens and 32 x 32 for retina screens. There are many other possible resolutions for everything from iOS home screen links to Facebook share thumbnails, but I'll come back to those another day.

It turns out that a 16 x 16 canvas doesn't give you much room for subtle details, and at that size the stripes in the shield are very close together and make it look like solid black. To get around this I simplified the shield slightly by removing half of the horizontal stripes in Illustrator, giving the shield the same overall feel as its full-size counterpart.

This was saved as a PNG from Illustrator and uploaded to a tool called X-Icon Editor, which lets you make edits to your icon and preview how it is going to look in the context of a browser toolbar. Once I was happy with the result, I exported my new icon (containing both image resolutions in a single file) and replaced the old one with it.

The new favicon (with lots of other icon friends)
One small step....

Thursday, 21 November 2013

(Almost) 20 years of the University of York homepage

Last week we launched a new homepage and refreshed the design of core pages of the site. In the next week or so we’re planning blog posts that will give a behind-the-scenes insight into the recent changes and reflect on feedback and site usage since launch. But we thought we’d start with a longer-term look back at the homepage to see how far we've come.

1994: launch

The very earliest version of the homepage went live in 1994, just three years after Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and at a time when the total number of websites in the world could be counted in the thousands.

One of the earliest versions of the University homepage,  this capture from 1997

It seems unlikely that anyone at the time really expected the web to become as ubiquitous as it now is, but it was a big enough deal for a reporter from Radio York and a photographer to cover the event.

Members of Computing Service (now IT Services) launching the new website (quite why the photo is black and white, we're not sure - it wasn't that long ago!)

1997: design

The original 1994 homepage was pretty straightforward; text and links, top to bottom. By 1997 things had moved on a bit and the homepage had its first proper ‘design’. The colours and buttons look a bit primitive by today’s standards, but back then this would have been pretty advaned.

Homepage circa 1997. New in this version: news on the homepage and search to help track down information amongst the growing number of pages

2002: modernising

In November 2002, it was out with the blue and in with a cleaner and more recognisably modern style, plus photos on the homepage for the first time.

Homepage circa 2002. Information for prospective students is now the first link on the page; by now it was clear that the web was a key part of the decision-making process of university applicants.

2006: going green

In early 2006 the homepage was updated to a style that many of us have been used to ever since. More imagery, more colour and a stronger expression of an identity were key here.

Homepage launched April 2006

2008: focus on key audiences

This update was designed to help key audiences get to what they needed faster, in particular prospective students who now get 9 links to choose from (up from 1, in third place in a list, on the previous version).

Homepage launched April 2008

2010: menu bar

We introduced a horizontal menu in 2010 to provide a more standard way of getting to core audience- or topic-focussed sections of the site. We also introduced our first carousel at this point (see our recent post for some reflections on carousels) and added a subtle link to a listing of our social media accounts.

Homepage launched late 2010

2013: course search

Early in 2013 we added course search to the homepage to save prospective students having to click through to the study area to find it (better late than never, some may say!) The site handles up to 20,000 course searches per week, so putting it front and centre makes sense.

Homepage launched early 2013

2013: redesign

While we’ve evolved the homepage a few times since going green in 2006, it had been over seven years since the site had a major redesign. The green had served us well, but it was time for a change.

We’ll cover some of the details of the new design in another post, but hopefully we’re hitting the right buttons: attractive and modern; clear navigation (this is the first time we've had global navigation across the core site; an important step towards us running one website rather than a loosely connected collection of sites); prominent course search; and plenty of space to tell the story of what makes York unique.

The (near) future: responsive

As big a step forward as we feel this week’s changes are, there is much more to come next year. High on the list is making the site responsive so that the user’s view of the page is tailored to the device they’re using, whether that’s a desktop PC, tablet or mobile.

Watch this space...

Friday, 8 November 2013

We think it's time for a bit of a makeover...

As of next week visitors to our website will get to see our new homepage and revised design for the main site. This is part of a major redevelopment project which will ultimately lead to the site being responsive.

The old homepage
The new homepage - to be launched w/c 11 November 2013

These changes are just the first phase of the project so visitors won't notice anything too radical initially. We haven't changed the content, other than on the homepage, we are really just laying the foundations for future phases.

Why are we changing? 

In 2011 a report was commissioned from Precedent Communications to look at the effectiveness of our communications across the board and to identify areas for improvement. The website was highlighted as the area most in need of investment as the perception of external stakeholders (such as prospective students, employers and investors) was that the university looked tired and that the user experience was poor. 

Alongside this we've seen a huge increase in visitors from mobile devices so we want to make sure we offer them the best possible experience.

Since the 2011 report the team have been working with Precedent to develop a new design and in the last few months we have done a lot of work to;

What's next? 

Once we have launched Phase 1 we'll set to work on Phase 2 which will start to address some issues around usability on the key landing pages. We'll also be paying close attention to the feedback we get on the new homepage as we have lots more in store for this so please do tell us what you think.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

It’s all about Digital!

As it’s three months since I started in my role as Head of Digital Marketing and Communications I thought a contribution to the team blog was long overdue. So, a very belated… hello!

The introduction of my role, at the University of York, signals a change of direction for the former Web Office, who are being re-named Digital Marketing and Communications (or the Digital Team if you prefer). In a nutshell the focus is shifting from supporting departments to deliver digital communications to leading on the strategies to deliver them.

So what’s been happening in the last few months?

A significant part of our time has been spent preparing for a redesign of the York website. This is something that has been in the pipeline for some time but we have developed a plan to roll-out the new look and feel in a ten-phased project which starts this October. We didn’t want to wait to get everything ‘done’ before we started implementing changes so we’re taking an iterative approach; you’ll see the first changes next month after which we’ll blog about it here to explain what we have changed and why.

University of York staff can also follow the progress of the project on our wiki and find out what’s coming up next.

Speaking of the wiki we have spent some time developing a space to support Digital Marketing and Communications across campus. Within it staff can find information on Social Media, the Visual Identity inc. tone of voice, guides and resources to develop effective content, forms to request our support and details of the projects we’re working on.

Alongside the above we’ve also;

  • Developed and launched the Welcome pages for new Undergraduates, in collaboration with our colleagues in the Marketing and Communications office.
  • Developed a new process for managing the stories on our homepage (in preparation for the new one!)
  • Held some really engaging workshops with Content Strategist, Relly Annett-Baker, and as a result started work to define our tone of voice and developed guidance (available from the wiki) to develop and manage our content.
  • Revised the way we run projects (not substantially as Dan and Paul had some excellent processes in place) but we’ve recently gone back to Sprints and started to rotate support so that Amanda has more opportunities to get more involved in project-work.
  • Started the re-brand of our Social Media accounts to create a uniformed look and feel (see UniofYork and UoYStudy) and developed guidance around ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ accounts.

All of the above has been happening alongside providing support to colleagues across campus, training staff to use the Web CMS and being involved in the many strategic discussions about the future of digital at York. So, all in all, it’s been a very busy summer!

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

What we’ve been up to, Spring 2013

Oftentimes it’s hard to know what other teams are working on and easy to miss interesting developments that get released without a big launch. With that in mind, we thought an occasional series of updates about things we’ve been working on might be of interest.

Festival of Ideas

One of the biggest things we worked on throughout May was the 2013 Festival of Ideas website, including listings and ticket bookings (via EventBrite) for over 150 events.


History of the University - a timeline

Built as part of our 50th Anniversary site, our interactive timeline of the University’s history features well over 100 entries, with videos and imagery to help tell the story.

Food and drink on the web

We’ve started a project working with Commercial Services to move catering and bars information into the Web CMS. There’s not much to see just yet, but work is underway to create a dedicated section of the website for catering and drinking outlets on campus, which should be coming soon.

Updating the campus map

The campus map page now has more location pins available, including a dedicated section for venues being used for Festival of Ideas events, in order to help those who may not be familiar with the University to find their way around.

Also pretty cool, but not one we can take the credit for (that belongs with IT Services and Estates), is internal mapping of campus buildings starting to roll out on Google Maps. If you zoom in close, internal mapping information for most buildings on campus is starting to appear. It’s early days, for both us and Google (they’re using us as a pilot for universities in the UK), so we’re not shouting about it yet but this should be really handy once everything’s in place.

York Research Database and the University search engine

We launched the York Research Database back in February, but it took us another couple of months to test and integrate results into our main University search engine, but they’re there now. The big challenge was not indexing too many pages - the research database contains such a vast amount of data that indexing all of it would have overwhelmed the search engine.


We’ve done a small piece of work to establish ourselves on Foursquare. After taking ownership of all our locations a few months ago, we’ve been updating them with accurate information, up to date imagery and links to additional resources.

Updated Twitter widgets

Twitter are in the process of retiring their v1 API, which meant that that our custom Twitter widget available in the Web CMS was about to stop working. We've updated the template to now use the updated standard Twitter widget and it’s working well.

Improving our YouTube channel and notes on video

If you’ve been following our YouTube channel you may have noticed that some of our videos now have a unified thumbnail scheme. This helps in maintaining a brand identity across the institution - we’ve used departmental colours on the bands across the thumbnails in order to better fit them in. We’ve also been doing something of a spring clean on the channel, deleting some old playlists and updating others.

The featured playlist is now a focus on our History Project, including a new series of oral history videos. If you’re interested in a more multimedia-based history of the University there’s some really interesting content here.

We also added some new tips on producing video for the web which are well worth a read if you’re considering adding video content to your site.

Welcome pages

The undergraduate welcome pages will be seeing a big overhaul for the 2013 intake of students. As well as cutting down on the number of pages, we’ve redesigned them to mesh more closely with the welcome booklet sent out to all new students. The pages will be going live in July, in time to help a whole new generation of students settle in at York.

Website redesign

In more behind-the-scenes news, we’ve been doing a lot of work on preparing for a big website redesign. If you’ve had a look at our 50th site you’ll have already seen an idea of what it’s going to look like, but there’s still a lot more to come!