Author Archives: rwfm201

Rethinking the Undergraduate Study website

On February 20th we launched a brand new Undergraduate (UG) Study website. This is the website that showcases our undergraduate programmes to prospective students around the world. It’s the most popular part of our site, attracting more than 6 million external pageviews each year from more than 200 countries and territories.

The new site has been designed to meet the changing demands of visitors to our website, including the use of mobile devices, which has seen a 15-fold increase over the last two years. We also met the technical challenge of incorporating rich course information from iPaMs, our emerging Integrated Programmes and Modules System.

UG Study - responsive course pages

UG Study – responsive course pages

Planning and preparation

We refresh the UG Study website every year, but for this year’s full redesign we went back to first principles and asked ourselves fundamental questions about who our prospective students are, what they want from a website and how we could best provide it.

  • We listened to prospective students who told us where the UG Study website fits into their information-seeking habits, what they want from the website and how this differs from, for example, the printed prospectus.
  • We reviewed websites across UK, US, Canadian and Australian higher education looking for inspiration and examples of best practice.
  • We looked at the sites of large charities and public bodies to help us understand how they encourage their visitors to engage with them.
  • We examined sites which supported ‘big decisions’, such as estate agents, healthcare providers and financial institutions to better understand how they helped visitors to find the right product for them.
  • We read research papers and industry reports to understand that visitors to university websites expected to find familiar user interfaces and tools from ecommerce and social websites, such as search filters, expandable panels and tabbed content.
  • We analysed our web traffic and discovered that course pages, visit day pages and application information account for almost all the traffic to the site, and that almost 20% of visits to the site were made by mobile users.

Designing and building

Based on our research we designed a new scheme for the UG Study site. We aimed to give the pages a more contemporary feel, to increase the amount of space we could use for content by introducing a horizontal navigation menu and to create a set of responsive page layouts which would dynamically adjust to the size of screen the site was being viewed on.

We developed wireframes to represent our main page types and began the ongoing process of testing with potential users of the site and improving our designs based on their feedback.

Creating a single page which will adjust to display well on different devices requires content elements such as text and images to show and hide, resize and reposition depending on the size and orientation of the screen. Responsive design adds a great deal of complexity to content planning and the team had to learn new ways not only to code the website but also to create and manage the content.

Integrating data

We knew from our research that prospective students wanted to find detailed breakdowns of the courses they were considering. To allow us to deliver this, we developed new methods to import data from the iPaMs database into our Web Content Management System. Not only did this present huge technical challenges as we pulled content for more than 300 programmes from one database into another, but with colleagues in the Colleges and the Marketing Team, it required an enormous amount of work to ensure that the data was current and accurate.

Adding search

We built a new ‘course search’ tool, developed using Funnelback, our website search engine. This allows us to index only the UG course pages and bring back results in a form which can be sorted and filtered by criteria such as course duration, location and study options.

Testing

Once the site began to take shape, we involved the whole team in testing it for content, appearance and functionality on a huge range of devices. With a site built for smartphones and tablets it’s no longer enough to look at it in the most popular browsers on a desktop PC. We conducted detailed testing on more than 20 different platforms, choosing those combinations of device and browser which were most popular amongst our users. We could have tested five times as many.

Sharing our work

We took the developing site around the University, demoing it to groups and meetings in every College and involving hundreds of staff members, incorporating their feedback and comments as we went.

Launch and beyond

The site was launched on 20 February after more than 12 months of thinking, planning, experimenting, constructing, populating, data-cleansing and testing, testing, testing, all of which was undertaken by the Web and Marketing Teams, with great support from colleagues across the Colleges and Services.

Traffic patterns in the month since the site went live are very encouraging, suggesting that users are engaging with the site more than with its predecessor.

  • We have seen a 43% increase in the number of pageviews per visit to the site
  • a 58% increase in the average visit duration and 
  • a 54% decrease in the bounce rate (i.e. the number of visitors who leave the site immediately after arriving).

Looking specifically at mobile visitors we have seen even more positive results including

  • a 77% increase in the number of pages per visit and 
  • a 142% increase in the average visit duration.

We think the new site is a big step forward. It achieves what we set out to do and, we hope, meets the needs of today’s prospective students. We will continue to learn from the users of our site and to improve it further in the weeks and months to come.

Take a look at the UG Study site and let us know what you think in comments.

Rob Mitchell
Web Editor

In cyberspace everyone can see you tweet

It’s been quite a couple of weeks for matters of online privacy. The revelation that the US National Security Agency really is monitoring electronic communications on a massive scale after all is simultaneously both unsurprising and and confusing. It’s the sort of thing many people assumed would be happening, but to be told that it really is still shocks.

It’s interesting how reactions and attitudes are shifting as this story moves from fiction to fact. It’s possible to be outraged at the widespread monitoring of private communications whilst also feeling grateful that someone out there really is keeping tabs on what some of the bad guys are planning. Some say one of the things that defines us as humans is our ability to hold contradictory beliefs.

We also heard a startling interview about the apparently widespread practice of hackers peering at computer users through their webcams. It seems we may have unwittingly invited Big Brother, or Little Teenager, into our own homes.

Whilst many people around the world will now be thinking more carefully about what they say and do online, it’s also clear that many really don’t. Earlier this week a contact sent me a link to a post on UnMarketing which captures this succinctly: ‘Why Tweets About Obese Doctors Are Never Your Own‘. Scott Stratten highlights the absurdity of the often-used disclaimer “All tweets are my own”, pointing out that linking a personal twitter feed to an employer is only ever a couple of clicks worth of work, and how this:

 leads inexorably to this:

It’s a great post, please read it.

The next day, we had an example from closer to home. You won’t be surprised to hear that we monitor social media for mentions of the University. It helps us to answer questions and queries that people may have about us and it also helps us to gauge how people feel about us. So, whenever someone tweets our name, we tend to see it. And on Thursday morning, this popped up:

I’ve redacted it for language.

We checked to see where this was coming from, and found that Roy was at the UCAS fair at Liverpool University. We discovered this by looking at the rest of his public twitter feed. It looked like this:

Fairly reasonably, we found ourselves wondering who this chap was. So we googled his name, plus UCAS and came up with some of his work references. He’s the Education Liaison Officer at a college in West Yorkshire.

I’m sure the students he met at the UCAS fair didn’t realise that he was on the look-out for faces that fit a Liverpudlian stereotype. I doubt the student ambassadors from Exeter realised he wanted them to leave. I’m guessing the guy with the horn-rimmed spectacles never knew that Roy was thinking about punching him in the face.

However, if any of these people, after meeting Roy, had gone away and googled his name plus ‘twitter’, perhaps because they wanted to ask him a question, they would have found out fairly quickly.

In our social media guidelines, we say:

  • Social media are public spaces. You should not say anything that you would not be happy to say in a public gathering and you should not publish information which you would not be happy for anyone in the world to see.

This is as true for your ‘personal’, ‘private’, ‘views all my own’ social media. Think about what ‘social media’ means in strict literal terms. And then think about what you’re saying.

Post script: Roy’s original tweet was useful for us. We contacted our Recruitment Team, showed them the tweet, and they had a conversation with the Student Ambassadors who represented the University at this particular UCAS event to check that they had behaved appropriately and think about whether there was anything they needed to change.

So, thanks Roy, for showing us one of the many benefits, and some of the pitfalls, of social media.

Introducing the iExeter Governance Group

iExeter is the University’s smartphone app. Launched in 2012, it has been delivering services to more than 10,000 registered users throughout this academic year.

Here’s what it looks like:

The project to develop iExeter finished in January and now ownership has passed jointly to Communications and Marketing and our colleagues in Exeter IT. Oversight will be from a new Governance Group which meets for the first time next week.

The group is made up of representatives from:

  • Communications and Marketing
  • Exeter IT
  • The Students’ Guild
  • Learning Spaces
  • Student Services
  • Campus Services
  • Academic Colleges

The principle aim of the group is to ensure that iExeter continues to meet and, hopefully, exceed the needs and expectations of our students.

Uptake of iExeter has certainly exceeded our initial expectations. More than half our students have registered for the app and our technology partners oMbiel tell us that this puts us in the top 2 or 3 universities in the UK for take-up. The feedback we’ve received has been positive and the usage stats show that where the service is directly relevant to mobile users then the app is becoming the preferred channel. We’re already seeing access to personalised timetabling information via the app beginning to overtake access from desktop machines. Which makes sense!

We’re using this data to plan the next round of developments, focusing on what our students tell us they want to see.

We’ll keep you updated as we progress, but in the meantime if you have any comments on the app, or ideas for new features, let us have them!

‘Killer UX Design’ by Jodie Moule

The cover of Killer UX Design by Jodie MouleIt’s been a while, but this week I got around to reading a book for the first time in ages: ‘Killer UX Design’ by Jodie Moule.

Jodie is a psychologist by background and co-founder and director of the Australian consultancy Symplicit. Judging by their current homepage, Symplicit really love UX.

We’re all users, so learning about approaches to user experience design can sometimes feel like you’re learning stuff you already knew but perhaps hadn’t articulated. Jodie’s book hits the right balance between deeper analyses of stuff which many of us may already have tried or considered – discussions of user testing, card sorting, prototyping – and insights into techniques, tools and theory that we’re coming to fresh, even though they may still carry the eerie sense that you’ve known them all along.

I folded down a few pages, and made the following notes as I read:

  • Henry Ford – a faster horse.
  • Users can’t envisage the end point, that’s the Designer’s job. Consider the end state we wish to achieve before speaking to users.
  • Need a mission statement for the ‘xyz’ site.
  • Focus on affecting ability rather than motivation.
  • Prototyping: build quickly then discard. Do not worry about code standards.
  • ‘Screen Flow’ and ‘Silverback’ for capturing users’ faces on mac, in conjunction with QuickTime for recording screen activity.
  • www.balsamiq.com
  • www.endloop.ca/imockups

These last two are recommended wireframing tools, one for desktop, one for iPad. I’ve tried both since and can attest that they are extremely easy to get to grips with.

The point about focusing on ability rather than motivation comes from Jodie’s description of the research of B.J. Fogg, which I confess I hadn’t come across before. Reading it felt like a lightbulb moment for me. Fogg postulates that for a user to exhibit a specific behaviour three elements must converge: Motivation, Ability and a Trigger. There’s a graph in the book, and on Fogg’s website which captures this succintly.

What this means for us as designers of websites, apps, services and experiences is that if we can affect the user’s ABILITY to do something to the extent that it’s very, very easy for them to complete the action we are seeking to encourage, and accompany this with the right TRIGGER, such as a call to action or alert, then they only need a relatively low level of MOTIVATION to go ahead and act.

Improving the user’s ability to complete key tasks is what user experience design is all about, and through careful design we ought to be able to do that relatively consistently. Increasing the user’s motivation to complete a particular task can have a similar effect on completion rates, but it’s much harder, costs much more money and that’s why we leave it to the crazy folks in the Marketing Department.

I’d recommend the book. It’s very readable if you can handle a steady dose of UX terminology. I got through it quite happily in a couple of evenings and came away feeling informed, motivated and, importantly, like we could take much of Jodie’s advice and put it into practice without too much heartache.

SPOILER ALERT!

One minor gripe, however, and a small SPOILER ALERT for those who may go on to read the book in the near future. Jodie uses a clever device through the book of describing how her own techniques and approaches have been used in the real-life development of a recipe sharing app. By the time you get to the end of the book you’re so deep into the thinking, planning, research and build of the app that you can’t wait to try it yourself to see how it really turned out (plus it sounds pretty great in its own right).

Bad news: it’s not available yet! The closest you’ll currently get is the facebook page for the Cook App.

Using the develpomentof a real life app as a hook for the chapters of the book works really well. It also, surprise surprise, means anyone who finishes the book is highly MOTIVATED to buy the app, only to have their ABILITY reduced to zero. B.J. Fogg would be unimpressed.

Birch Engine Optimisation

Last week I read a magazine article, which coincidentally talked about the very activity that I, and my colleagues, had spent that day doing. The article said: ‘As the saying goes, ‘If you want to feel good, do good’. Research has proved that volunteering boosts happiness, partly by making you feel more connected with others.’

By the end of the day the team were too tired to attempt even a single 'bunny ears'.

By the end of the day the team were too tired to attempt even a single 'bunny ears'.

I felt strangely pleased to read that, and could vouch for its accuracy. We, the University of Exeter Web Team, had spent that day out of the office on a Community Challenge day, a scheme whereby the University allows each department one day per year to work in the community, doing something of benefit to others.

After much discussion and Googling, we selected Moor Trees as our chosen organisation, mainly because we felt that their work – growing and planting native trees in nurseries and recreating woodlands mainly in the Dartmoor and South Hams areas, was the polar opposite of our everyday work – based at our computers, working with one of the most modern and least tangible of technologies – the internet. We felt how better to benefit the community than to contribute to our beautiful local landscape – and frankly, to benefit ourselves by getting out of the office, away from people and computers and getting our hands dirty – literally.

It was an incredible stroke of luck that our visit coincided with some of the warmest March weather on record, and the day’s early chill gave way to clear blue skies and sunshine. Having gathered at an innocuous-looking gate in a hedge in Dartington, we sat around the ash remains of previous campfires as Michelle from Moor Trees gave us a brief introduction to their work and the nursery that would be our base for the day.

A few nervous titters about the composting toilet thankfully proved unfounded (visions of ‘that’ toilet scene from Slumdog Millionaire flashed through my brain), as it was less ‘Glastonbury’ and more ‘rustic campsite’.

Moor Trees’ shed was a new, proud addition to the nursery which provided welcome shady refuge at lunchtime (yes, it was THAT hot!) and also home to the old Web Team favourites – tea and cake.

So after these introductions, ‘Team Roots’ set to work – some pollarding trees (a method of pruning), some planting out one year-old oak trees into beds (these will be planted out into woodland when they are three years old). Others began repairing the wooden beds in which the acorns and young trees are planted. The beds are frequently damaged by tree roots growing under the planks, which then break when the trees are lifted, so they need frequent repair. Other members of the team were hard at work weeding pathways between the beds and the beds themselves. We were all able to have a go at most of the jobs throughout the day, although some stayed with the manly hammering and sawing work repairing the beds, and some stayed with the humble task of weeding all day.

There was a palpable sense of achievement by the time we were slowing down at the end of the afternoon. The heat had dissipated a little as a fresh breeze picked up, and we tidied around the nursery and emptied wheelbarrowful after wheelbarrowful of weeds on to the compost heap. We could look over the site and see the difference we had made – Michelle from Moor Trees seemed genuinely pleased and impressed that we had managed to complete all the tasks around the nursery in the day, including weeding the entire site, which leaves them with a well-prepared site for the new season ahead. As their busiest season is winter when the young trees are lifted and planted out, the nursery sites suffer a little neglect and need a good dose of attention from volunteers come February/March-time.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the day was the sense of teamwork. There was a pleasure in everybody working together, enjoying relaxed pockets of conversation, only bettered by the beautiful views provided by the South Hams countryside. The constant company of birds twittering and singing in the trees combined with the distant choo-choo of the Buckfastleigh to Littlehempston steam train was an enjoyable soundtrack to the day.

I think we all agreed that we couldn’t have had a more satisfying rest for our brains while enjoying physical work and fresh air, achieving something beneficial for ourselves, for Moor Trees, and for generations to come.

www.moortrees.org

Sense of humour failure

We manage a university website. You may have figured this out already. You are, after all, reading a blog by the University of Exeter Web Team.

We spend quite a lot of time talking, researching, examining and generally worrying about what the users of our site want from it. We think we know quite a lot about them and what they are looking for, but we’re acutely aware that this changes and that we could always know much, much more.

We do this in several ways. Most importantly, we listen to the users of our site as often as we can. We get feedback from focus groups, we get feedback via email and social media, we go out with clipboards and ask those users who are careless enough to stray within our physical range and we sit down with them one-to-one and test how they use our site. Then we improve it.

This ongoing dialogue gives us a good sense of how well the site is working for users and how they interact with it, including where it fails them. We think it’s an invaluable part of managing and developing a large website for a diverse set of users. You might, of course, argue that this approach just gives us a collection of personal opinions from randomly selected web users. Perhaps you’re right – although we’d still insist that it’s the single most important thing you can do to ensure your site is delivering for its visitors.

But to make sure that we are taking the needs of the masses into consideration we also spend a great deal of time looking at site analytics. We know which areas of the site people are looking at and we know which keywords they are searching for, which gives us the opportunity to identify things they want which either we aren’t providing or which they can’t find.

Over the last month, the most popular areas of our site, across all user groups, have been:

  1. Student portal
  2. Staff homepage
  3. Student homepage
  4. Undergraduate courses
  5. Electronic library
  6. Postgraduate courses
  7. Module choices
  8. Our Cornwall campus
  9. Phone number search
  10. Jobs at the University

And our most popular searches, on site, have been:

  1. Accommodation (for which the correct spelling comes in 3rd overall and ‘accomodation’ comes in 5th!)
  2. Library
  3. Virtual learning environment
  4. Email access
  5. Employability
  6. Annual leave booking
  7. Room booking
  8. Timetables
  9. Graduation
  10. Psychology
  11. Prospectus
  12. Drama
  13. Business School
  14. Law
  15. Jobs

We watch these lists months by month. We try hard to make sure that our site allows visitors to find the things we know they want. We really do. I know, i’m banging on now, so i’ll stop. But trust me, we worry about this stuff.

Which is why I (notice I’ve dropped the ‘we’ – I can’t speak for the rest of the team here) get so annoyed every time someone sends me a link to this cartoon.

From http://xkcd.com/773/

From http://xkcd.com/773/

Now, I like a laugh as much as the next cold, embittered, prematurely balding corporate Web Editor…

I like xckd.com. It’s one of the web’s genuine success stories. Randall Munroe started scanning his old comic sketches years ago and things took off from there. He now draws them full time and they’re funny and he makes a living from the site now, which is pretty cool if you ask me.

This specific cartoon is also pretty funny. Randall was a student at Christopher Newport University before going on to work for NASA and then becoming a full-time comic artist, so he’s clearly had some exposure to university websites. The gag in this cartoon is that universities think people want one thing from their site when in fact they want different things. That’s true, to some extent. You could also apply the same joke to the websites of most large organisations.

It’s good to know that people realise that university websites are important and when they get to the stage where they are being openly lampooned well, perhaps that means they’ve arrived (after 17 years).

However… what drives me up the wall is the regularity with which I am referred to this cartoon as if it were a sacred text or Great Truth.

It’s a joke, literally. A nonsense which makes an interesting general point.

I’m sent it every couple of weeks as evidence that the work we do on our website is out of touch with what our users want and need. I’m happy to concede that we could be more in touch with our users. You may have spotted me doing that earlier in this post.

I’m sometimes sent it as a direct instruction as to how we should be structuring our homepage. I really don’t think that’s what Randall intended. I might be wrong.

If we’re sophisticated enough not to take this cartoon as a set of instructions – and i’m not sure everyone is – then there’s another more subtle point to be made. The thrust of this cartoon, and the apparent conviction of those who have carried it down from the top of the mountain to bring light into the lives of university web teams all across the world, is that websites must provide only what their users know they need.

Now, I don’t want to get all Rumsfeldian on you, but universities and other organisations need to tell their visitors stuff that they aren’t necessarily looking for, at least not in huge numbers. This stuff can reasonably include news stories about research breakthroughs, details of events they can participate in and benefit from, virtual tours of the campuses (which get around 12,000 visitors per month on our site) and photos of the university (pretty much the most popular items on our Facebook page).

Just because it may not be one of the top ten items in your site search, just because it’s designed to have an indirect impact on the perception of your organisation, just because it’s not targeted at your current staff and students and just because it doesn’t appear on the right hand of the two circles in The Cartoon does not mean that we shouldn’t give space to it on our site, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of the stuff we spend ages ascertaining that users already know that they want to find.

So, have a chuckle by all means. Then wipe that smile off your face and start taking directions from your users. Designing a university website is a serious business.

Media studies

Last week saw the conclusion of this year’s Student’s Guild Sabbatical Officers election campaign at the University. Once again the Guild here broke records for the levels of participation and the campus was filled with enthusiastic students having fun boosting their favourite candidates.

The web has long had a role in student elections here – we’ve had online voting for 6 or 7 years – but this year things seem to have moved to a new level. We had a call the Friday before last to say that some of the students had staged a flash mob on the Piazza in the middle of campus, and that we had some film footage. We thought for a while about whether this was the sort of thing we should be running with, wondered whether it gave unfair promotion to one of the candidates, then stuck it on our YouTube channel and tweeted and facebooked it. By the following Monday the clip had been watched 4,000 times. A week later and it’s pushing 9,000 views.

I thought this was an example of one of the candidates stealing a march on the others, but no. It turns out that you couldn’t be a serious candidate in this year’s elections without your own campaign videos.

We had other, slightly less appropriate Flashes (Warning: Slightly Not Safe For Work).

Some managed to combine campaign messages with serious larking about:

Others seemed to be working on a more subliminal level, although quite what they were conveying wasn’t always clear:

Some of them had fantastic production values:

Some of them were creative sweeties, and even included QR codes for mobile voting:

Some came across as bizarre performance art:

And some seemed to lay their candidates open to a charge of littering:

Very few of the clips went for straight manifesto delivery. All the candidates seemed to conclude that a video could do a thousand times more than a poorly photocopied poster in terms of establishing an impression with their electorate. Even those clips which did detail a specific platform played with the format and tried also to show some personality.

And if all else failed and you couldn’t ape the established news media, you could always just co-opt them!

With one exception, each of the clips above – and these are just a selection – was watched more than 1,000 times during the campaign, that’s against a total number of votes cast of 6,501 which perhaps says something about the reach of videos like these. Of the 5 elected candidates, 4 had online video as  part of their campaign.

We may look back with regret in years to come when our candidates are running slick attack ads against each other, but for now we applaud their ingenuity, their hard work and their sense of fun.

Your customers are talking. Shut up and listen!

I was asked to speak to our University’s Customer Service Network earlier this week. They are a group of colleagues who deal with staff and students all day every day and who get together every couple of months to share experiences and talk about how they might further develop.

Over the last couple of years they, like most of us, have found the phrase ‘social media’ intruding into their conversations more and more. They wanted to know more about it and how it might be used to improve customer service, so they asked me along.

They claimed that they had no idea about social media so I started from first principles, even though I recognised some pretty switched-on people in the audience. As a result I talked. A lot. I think I probably ate up most of the time they had for the rest of their agenda. I’d like to think that’s because there were so many interesting things to say, but you’d have to ask them whether ‘interesting’ was applicable, and please, don’t tell me what they really thought.

Mainly what I talked was figures and examples, pulled from all over the place. I’m sure their heads were spinning with take-up rates, demographic splits and user interaction volumes and that was before I told them that 150 years of YouTube are watched every day on Facebook.

Through all my waffle, one reasonably simple set of figures seemed to cut through and make the point about social media and its impact on customers. They came from this chart:

maritzresearch.com__media_Files_MaritzResearch_e24_ExecutiveSummaryTwitterPoll.ashx_

I found the chart on Jay Baer’s Convince and Convert blog.

Put simply this piece of research shows that only 29% of users who had complained about a company via twitter had subsequently been contacted by that company.

If you shift your gaze over the right hand side of the chart, you’ll see that of those who DID receive a reply 83.5% either liked or loved being contacted and 74.4% of them were either somewhat or very satisfied with the response.

In case this isn’t clear enough, let’s put it another way.

  • Your customers are out there talking about you. Some of them are complaining about your goods and services. To their friends and their friends friends and the whole world if they care to listen.
  • If you care to respond to them, there’s a roughly 80% chance that they will stop being annoyed with you and start being happy with you.
  • Yet still 71% of companies aren’t listening.

This is what highly paid, luxuriously upholstered social media consultants and commentators would call a NO BRAINER.

The effect of getting involved can be dramatic. What makes social media such a powerful tool is the amplification of what an individual says across their network and the networks of their connections. So, when you help someone via social media you’re doing more than just closing down a public display of dissatisfaction, you’re giving active and engaged customers something they really like and creating an impression they are very likely to pass on to their friends. And their friends’ friends.

twitter_conversation_blogWe’ve been monitioring social media for a couple of years now and we engage whenever we can. If I haven’t argued this point sufficiently, here’s a real example from our twitter feed in 2011. I’ve tried to anonymise it, but let me tell you that the original tweet was by a student from New York State and was sent out as a general observation to her 300+ twitter friends, rather than directly to us. We picked it up and the conversation shows what happened.

Hopefully she left as one of the 80% of the 29% and who knows? Maybe one day she, or one of her friends, or one of her friends’ friends, will become a student of ours.

Can I upgrade your upgrade?

Keep Out - Web Team at work

Keep Out – Web Team at work

This has been a week of change both on and behind our website. Hopefully you didn’t notice.

The team worked incredibly hard, along with our colleagues from IT Services, to make the changes as seamless and simple as possible for our users. What that meant, inevitably, was that the changes were as complex and disruptive as imaginable for the team themselves.

We thought long and hard about this approach and we came to the view that there are two ways to approach significant changes in services or systems.

Either you make it easy on yourself by ploughing straight into an upgrade, accepting that there will be significant glitches/problems/catastrophes and that you will be cleaning them up in full view and to the ongoing irritation of your users. This option is not all bad. Ultimately it gets the upgrade done and the new improved service in place as quickly as possible. Weighed against this, you will have frustrated – and potentially lost – a bunch of your important visitors, users and customers.

Or, you take the pain yourself.

In both cases, the team have been meticulous in their preparation over the last few months (almost 12 months in one case) fixing bugs, checking (double-checking (triple-checking)), putting themselves in the user’s shoes, smoothing wrinkles, patching gaps, chasing down fixes.

The result? Each process took around twice as long as we’d hoped and, with the odd inevitable exception, both were completed to an almost deafening silence. Our users knew what was happening, had been introduced to new systems, could see the improvements and suffered minimal disruptions.

It’s an odd scenario to be completing significant projects and judging them a success because no-one wants to lynch you. We’ll chalk them up as wins.

In case you were wondering:

We implemented a new search engine on our main site, moving from Google Search Appliance to Funnelback. We spent a long time getting the interface right, improving best bets and tweaking collections. There are still some important fixes to make but we’re delighted with the new facility.

We also completed a major version upgrade of our content management system, which involved planning and communicating carefully with 500 users across the institution. We had all sorts of problems but, as far as we can tell, our users didn’t.

An Apple for teacher?

I work in an almost Apple-free institution. At least, we think we’re Apple-free.

Historically Macs have not been widely supported here, although some colleagues do use them. There are good reasons for this and I’m not an IT strategist so I shall gracefully turn away from discussing them, other than to confirm that my priority is to be able to share, collaborate and work with all my colleagues, rather than to have a shiny aluminium unibody space capsule of a machine glowing elegantly on my desk. I’m happy using my PC.

Despite the fact we don’t support them, don’t purchase them, don’t install and use their devices in our offices, they are in the hands of our customers and over the last few years no company has shaped, informed, affected and attacked the way we do digital things here more than Apple.

The way our sites and services look is now challenged to live up to the grey, sleek almost Scandinavian aesthetic that Jonathan Ive and his disciples have propelled into cultural dominance.

The shift to mobile sites and services, which is finally having a real impact on what we’re doing and planning would not have happened so explosively without the iPhone.

And now the iPad, a sleek lozenge of plastic and metal which has the potential to replace a briefcase full of notes and papers, your atlas, your portable DVD player, your camera, your filing system, your bookshelves, your audio library and much more is making inroads.

"Now, can you point to the ATP molecule? (image copyright Apple 2012)

"Now, can you point to the ATP molecule? (image copyright Apple 2012)

No ad for the iPad is complete without shots of schoolchildren conjuring magic from its screen and, the implication is, being changed forever. Following Apple’s announcement of textbooks for iPad yesterday it looks like we’ll soon be seeing the same shots featuring rather more grown up, perhaps slightly spottier students.

See the YouTube clip for more details (and more shots of transformed students and their grateful teachers).

Although the focus of yesterday’s announcement was on US Schools, I can see this having a direct and perhaps much more immediate impact, on the way university students are taught.

The commissioning, production, approval, adoption and distribution of school textbooks is carefully controlled and regulated. University lecturers, many of whom are at the cutting edge of the use of technology for teaching, are creating and distributing material to small groups all the time, to their own timetables and governed only by their own expectations.

If Apple have, as they claim, put the means of production of engaging, interactive, always-up-to-date learning material into the hands of teachers and academics, and if, as they claim, existing material can be iBooked and distributed in a matter of minutes, then we may well have another revolution on our hands.

There are serious challenges implicit. All universities have carefully planned and supported Virtual Learning Environments which provide a means to create educational material as well as a repository for them. They offer a rich experience, bringing together collaborative tools, mixed media teaching materials and interaction with classmates and teachers. iBooks may do none of those things as well or as coherently in the context of a large institution. But they look exciting and clearly have something to offer and, more to the point, they are about to be pushed at us from every angle by the most powerful marketing outfit of the 21 century.

Watch this shiny screen space.