From Web Services to Digital Communications: Year 1

In April of 2013, I first contemplated picking up my entire life and moving across the country for an opportunity to genuinely make a difference in the direction and outcomes of web strategies at a small, public, liberal arts school on the East Coast.  Now, a year after first stepping into my office at UMW for the first time, I’m in a position to assess the past 12 months, during which I helped transition the UMW web site from a service model to a strategic resource. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but here are some of my first-year observations:

We have resources

Incredibly engaged faculty & staff - It’s an absolute pleasure to work with site managers and content contributors who genuinely care about the success of not only their programs or departments, but also the institution as a whole. You guys want to do it better and smarter, and for that I’m truly thankful. I can’t wait to see what we can accomplish together.

Better data collection - UMW has consistently collected data on how users interact with the website, but now we’re collecting very specific, actionable data about exactly what they’re doing on various parts of the website. A very simple example of this is being able to tell which link on the homepage they clicked to visit a specific page. There are always at least 3 links to Admissions on the homepage. We’ve always been able to show how many users went to Admissions from the homepage. Now we can tell you which one of those links actually sends traffic to the Admissions site, and what percentage from each link continues into the Common App. It’s very helpful to us as we revisit our information architecture going forward.

WordPress - Since migration in 2011, the WordPress platform has continued to be a resounding success. There are now nearly 250 people managing some portion of the UMW website. I’m regularly told it’s “so much better” than our previous content management tool, Contribute.

Improved mobile interface - In April 2014 we launched a huge, but quiet, mobile initiative. The site used to default to an icon-based pseudo-app interface that most people spent energy trying to get out of. Now the entire site is available in a responsive format, which means it adapts to the device on which it is being viewed. The important part here is that it’s the whole website, not just some portion of the site we thought might be useful to people using mobile devices.

We have…opportunities

Accessibility -Accessibility is a big deal. A really big deal. It’s the law that our website can be accessed by disabled users. Compliance is a challenge that’s difficult to achieve given our distributed publishing model. We’ve implemented Siteimprove to help identify and classify accessibility issues. Efforts are being made to simplify and streamline where we can, and to produce training and offer support for creating accessible content.

Broken links & spelling errors - This is another area where Siteimprove is proving invaluable. It’s able to give us detailed reports and issue-tracking for broken links and spelling errors on over 13,000 pages throughout the .edu website. We’ve identified 72 site managers University-wide to receive reports customized to their portion of the website. As of this writing there are 1273 broken links and 971 misspellings, down from 2804 broken links and over 6,000 potential misspellings.  We are moving the quality needle in the right direction by drawing on the talents and efforts of the entire University community.

Content - The good news is that we have 250 content managers. The bad news is that we have 250 different writing styles, tones of voice, levels of experience, and ways of organizing information. Establishing a level of consistency is crucial to transitioning the site into a truly successful strategic resource. We have engaged a consultant to help us kick off this process.

We have a plan!

The first year has been spent identifying the big picture issues and starting improvements with low-hanging fruit. We have been talking to stakeholders, implementing tools like Siteimprove, and undertaking a critical review of our processes and policies. We’ve made moves to improve the mobile experience, improve our data, and understand our issues. We’re working diligently to help content managers and stakeholders utilize the website and user data to the maximum benefit of their departments, programs, initiatives, and the University as a whole.

Our next year will be spent working and/or continuing to

  1. build a strong Web Advisory Council to represent the University community in discussions relating to the website (implemented, in process)
  2. establish quality baselines using Siteimprove (implemented, in process)
  3. improve the mobile user experience (phase 1 implemented, monitoring user data)
  4. provide guidelines and support to help content managers build positive, goal driven user experiences (consultant engaged, in process)
  5. rebrand the website to match approved University styles (phase 1 discovery in process)
  6. create an efficient and effective training process for WordPress, accessibility basics, and web content development best practices (phase 1 – Fall 2014)