Reflections on IWMW16

Last month I attended the Institutional Web Management Workshop, the valuable annual conference for (mostly) higher education web managers. In fact, I was delighted to be speaking at this event, which I already written about.

These are my reflections on the event as a whole.

Understanding users

The first day of the event followed the theme of understanding users. No web or digital manager is doing their job properly if they are not seeking to understand their users, so I was looking forward to this session.

We kicked off with a talk from Neil Allison, UX manager at the University of Edinburgh, who talked about his experiences using lean UX to develop better products. I have described before how Neil’s talks have provided a few lightbulb moments for me when thinking about user-centred design.

I was fascinated by Neil’s devious way of working out what users truly want. We know that what users say they want is often not what they actually want.

When a Gerry McGovern-style top tasks exercise suggested users wanted an advanced search function, Neil’s team tested that out by adding an advanced search option to the search page. But that option just contained a survey asking what users would like from an advanced search function.

What they found was that only 0.003% of users actually clicked the advanced search function. So they were able to reduce the amount of time wasted on developing a feature that few people actually wanted. Crafty!

Next up was Gareth Edwards and his team from the University of Greenwich. One day their Vice Chancellor announced to the world, out of the blue, that there was going to be a new university website in five months. That was news to the web team.

This gave rise to my personal favourite slide of the conference, describing how a quick reskin never comes out how you imagine.

The standard university website lifecycle

Here, too, the University of Greenwich web team were crafty in how they tackled the problem. I was particularly impressed that they managed to agree with their VC that December is in autumn.

Their advice is to launch at 95%. “Perfect is the enemy of good.”

Managing change

The following day, the theme was managing change.

Rob van Tol from Precedent has certainly managed a fair amount of change. His talk ran through a number of higher education digital change projects he has worked through. The words “don’t waste a good crisis” certainly got me thinking.

Next up was Rich Prowse from the University of Bath, another speaker I always enjoy. It is always quite inspirational to learn about what the University of Bath are doing. They appear to be years ahead of any other higher education institution in terms of tackling digital.

My former colleague Gareth Saunders talked about the past few years spent establishing digital at the heart of the University of St Andrews. I was already familiar with a lot of the content of Gareth’s talk. That was partly because I had seen an earlier version at Scottish Web Folk, but also because I am proud to have played a part in the story.

It was great to catch up with Gareth and Steve Evans, and to meet their new colleague Maria Drummond. I am pleased to hear about the positive progress that has been made since I moved on last year.

Delivering services

I was pleased to open this session about delivering services. I talked about my experiences building digital teams (almost) from scratch at the University of St Andrews and SRUC (Scotland’s Rural College).

Later in the session, Richard West from Jisc talked about unifying around 100 separate Jisc websites into one consistent system.

It reminded me of working at St Andrews, where there was a historic issue with different schools and departments having their own bespoke designs. That is a nightmare from a user experience point of view, not to mention the huge burden it places on the web team who have to maintain such a sprawling web estate.

Richard’s talk made mention of Kotter’s 8 steps for leading change helping him meet this goal. Kotter’s 8 steps is something we spoke about a lot at the University of St Andrews. Being reminded of it got me thinking about how I could go about making the case for change at my current workplace.

Google Analytics of things

In the afternoon Martin Hawksey spoke about what’s going on at the frontier of Google Analytics. Analytics is one of the many hats I have to wear as the jack of all trades web manager leading a small team. But I know I am not using it to its maximum potential, so I am always keen to learn more about it.

I picked up a fair few things I will be reading up on. I am particularly keen on the idea of automating regular Google Analytics reports by feeding data directly to Google Sheets. I know that would save me a lot of time at work, so this is one very concrete action I will be taking as a direct result of attending IWMW16.

Beyond the institution

On the final day, Terminalfour’s Piero Tintori spoke about personalisation. For a while I saw personalisation as a fad that would fade away. But over time I have come to realise that I was confusing personalisation with customisation.

I am fairly sure that most users do not want to bother customising homepages and so on. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be using insights to tailor their experience on their behalf. I now think this is an area we will all have to get on top of very soon.

Piero’s talk was a very sensible run-down of which personalisation techniques works and which don’t, along with cautionary tales of why you mustn’t take it too far. Think of the mapping company that inadvertently sent people to one remote farm for years on end.

Next, Marieke Guy from QAA talked about the requirements regulators are placing on higher education institutions. Students’ expectations are increasing all the time, and I don’t blame them. Regulators are increasingly seeking to protect students as a result.

In 2015, a Which? report showed that two thirds of education providers did not provide the required up to date information on tuition fees, with some providers only supplying 30% of the information required. They found 257 pieces of unlawful, inaccurate information.

This is definitely an area all HE web managers — and indeed marketing managers — need to be on top of. So I greatly appreciated the pointers provided by Marieke’s talk.

When things go wrong

The final plenary speaker was Matt Jukes from the ONS. I had been looking forward to this talk because I vividly remember listening to an edition of BBC Radio 4’s More or Less where Tim Harford brutally ripped into the ONS website. Institutional web managers have all faced criticism of their websites, but not all of us have had negative media exposure as a result!

It was great to hear Matt talk about how he redesigned the ONS website. I was struck by his pragmatism. He said he hates personas, but used them for this project. He said you often don’t get value out of guerilla testing, but he used it in this case to get short, sharp answers.

Matt hit the familiar problem of internal backlash. He says the language used by the ONS is not used by anyone else — even statisticians. Yet his team was unable to sell the idea of changing their terminology internally.

Nothing annoys me more than people who treat the website as their own internal tool. We go around talking about “our website”. But we must remember that the website is not ours — it is for the users.

In the case of the ONS, when your website is so bad that the Financial Times is dedicating column inches to the issue, perhaps it is time to wake up to the fact that you need to change. I was very impressed with the work Matt has done as a result, and I appreciated the chance to hear him talk about the process.

His talk was filled with lots of little titbits. Among my favourites was the idea of the two pizzas team — that you shouldn’t have a team that is too big to feed with two pizzas. (Of course, greedier teams would have to be smaller — but hey ho.)

I also liked the way the project made use of “critical friends”, who Matt described as “really critical and really unfriendly”! I don’t think this can be underlined enough. Some web managers may seek comfort blankets whenever possible. But what you really need is criticism. Otherwise you don’t know what needs to be improved.

Learning and preparing

The event finished up with the usual panel session. This valuable session acts as a roundup of the event, and poses interesting questions questions about the future.

One of those questions was: Is there a future for the university website as we know it? I think that is a question more of us need to be taking seriously, as I pointed out on Twitter.

Some kind of glitch meant that the esteemed Brian Kelly made his closing remarks with that existential question looming over him.

Quite a thought to end on!

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