WordPress in Higher Ed

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 12.00.11 PMAs most of our followers know we’ve been around awhile and have built and edited sites in a wide variety of ways – not all of them awesome. However starting about 5 years or so ago I began closing in on WordPress as a default for new sites and – eventually – the rest of the OIT Design group moved in that direction. At this point we are essentially a WordPress shop, though we still do support some sites in other environments.

wordpress in higher edOur movement to WordPress has been gradual, but happily most of the rest of our campus has been moving in the direction as well. This means we have more people to work with on development, more folks building and sharing their WordPress themes and plugins, and a supportive campus of web staff with their own WordPress experiences. While certainly not essential to success, I do think NC State’s web development community has benefited from moving in the same direction.

Since WordPress is so wildly popular it’s probably no surprise that it’s beloved on other college campuses as well. Conferences are always an opportunity to see how other university’s are doing their web stuff and many are using WordPress. So it makes sense that the success we’ve had sharing within NC State could equal more success sharing with other institutions.

wpcampus.orgEarlier this year Rachel Carden, a designer/developer at the University of Alabama had the idea to try to start a WordPress Community for Higher Ed. She started chatting with people on social media and put out a call for interested users and pretty quickly she started a group which is now WPCampus. There are many things this group wants to be – a vehicle for support and sharing, a host for webinars, podcasts, and other digital resources, and a coordinator of at least one annual conference; potentially regional ones too. Currently we’re calling for applications to host our first conference event, tentatively planned for summer of 2016.

If you’re interested in WordPress and Higher Ed – and really, if you’re not, how did you even get to this blog?! – then you should be checking out this site: https://wpcampus.org/. You can complete a form to join the group, learn more about those already involved, and apply to host the 2016 conference! If that’s a bit too much involvement just sign up and start following along – I really think this is going to be a strong community and really great resource for lots of WordPress fans.

Making it look good – Part 3

2. What’s the best way to present your information?

Single-page websites have evolved as not just a trend, but a culture, and have proven that there are right and wrong ways to make use of one single page as a repository for everything you are currently working on. But this is just one way: there’s a myriad of different techniques you can use to showcase your group. The important thing is to actually put some thought into this aspect. It should not be an afterthought.

Most users would agree that walls of text are neither exciting nor useful, and it often falls into the realm of common sense, but it doesn’t stop people from believing that there are no better ways to represent their content simply because of the field of work they are involved in. Research websites are especially guilty of this. But fortunately, there are good ways to deal with content-heavy websites, without being lost on the user. Jason Amunwa highlights several websites that do this quite well. In addition, for research sites that publish their findings, but struggle with how best to present their information, UXBooth has some sound advice.

Establishing consistency with content creation

A common problem plaguing most departments in a university environment like NC State’s is that, website maintenance and content creation generally takes a back seat to the daily operations within that department. And if content creation doesn’t become the sole responsibility of one person, it tends to then fall on everyone’s shoulders, and this is where things start to get dicy. One person likes to provide photos and other imagery to accompany their content, another uses lots of lists and bold text, and someone else has a tendency to be very brief, writing at most 2-3 sentences.

While each of those scenarios may be appropriate given a specific circumstance, what they lack is a specific guideline with which to govern what content is needed — and expected — for any particular section of a website. Ideally, each area of your site started with a singular goal in mind. For example, your recent news section may include only excerpts of posts, and the rest of the content is viewed on the individual post. Another area, like the recent events, expects a brief description of the event, an image, and a date. But where problems start to occur is when someone deviates from these originally intended constraints, and you end up with a site that looks very different from what it began like.

To remedy this, a plan should be created, one that can be disseminated to everyone who has content editing privileges on your website. The goal is to isolate key areas where controlled content is a necessity. It could be something as simple as a table on Google Docs, outlining the subject area, constraints to be agreed upon, and then most importantly, someone who is in charge of ensuring that content continues to meet these constraints.

Content guide

It may seem simple, but coming up with a centralized strategy for handling your content can go a long way, especially when compared with another who has no such plan in place.

One additional point: it might seem appealing to simply assign the same manager to each area of your site, but this can very quickly detract from the purpose of separating the concerns of content creation. By spreading the workload, more people get involved in the maintenance of your site, and as a result, there are more opportunities to generate fresh and exciting content for your viewers. Although it may not be your sole mission to provide information to potential visitors, the benefits gained from offering a transparent and frequent look into the daily life of your department or facility are innumerable.

By providing a solid base of consistency for all the areas of your site, you can ensure that content continues to be developed in such a way that you never have to worry about cleaning up a mess that another fellow staff-member inadvertently created, and your time can be better spent doing more productive and meaningful things.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of Making it look good.

<< Making it look good Part 2


An Event Apart, San Francisco 2015

I’m still feeling a little jetlagged, so apologies in advance if there are any obvious grammatical mistakes in this blog post.

This week, I had the pleasure of attending An Event Apart, the web design conference, and A Day Apart, the day-long workshop, organized by web legends Jeffrey Zeldman and Eric Meyer. It was a spectacular conference agenda with some really great speakers. I’d like to spend a little time today on three presentations that were interesting and relevant to the work we do in OIT Design.

Continue reading

Making it look good – Part 2

In my previous post, I started a discussion about ways to “make your site look good”. Granted “good” is a relative term, there are many ways that you can ensure that you are doing the most to make your group or department’s website stand out, as well as a number of things to avoid when developing new content.

1. What content is most important?

A tendency for most new to the world of web design is the desire to have everything up front. Experience has taught us that tangible, concrete evidence is more substantial than hearsay, and so we want all our work seen at once, leaving no room for doubt.

The problem with this tendency is that it doesn’t take into consideration some basic usability aspects, like designing with the fold. 10 years ago, it was believed that most users did not scroll, and instead would leave a site if they didn’t see what they were looking for in only the immediately viewable area. But even though that particular myth has been debunked, it still bears worth mentioning that you should take care when considering what content you want displayed first.

  • The logo tends to be one of the first things a user sees, and thus is the first thing most clients want included. There’s a lot to be said about wanting to “make my logo bigger“, but thankfully, NCSU Branding Guidelines have made this conversation a very brief one. Still though, the argument occurs (hence the video). But some key things to consider here are:
    • Simple is often better than complex
    • More color is not necessarily better
    • Being memorable doesn’t necessarily mean being abstract
    • Some other tips can be found here
  • Your organization’s prized projects can be the next most important thing you want your visitors to get a glimpse of. But having a massive list of links to various articles where you or your research facility received accolades or were featured on or published in isn’t always the best route. Instead:
    • Take pictures of what you do. In some case, a department’s capacity may not be able to be captured. But in those cases, it doesn’t hurt to then try to highlight the people doing the work. However, make no mistake, professionally-shot photos will always be a good investment; avoid relying on personal photos to adorn your organization’s website.
    • Pick 2 or 3 of your most prominent achievements and use those as a means of drawing traffic to additional pages where more elaboration can be done. Moderation is important.
    • Avoid stock photography when possible. Clearly, there are instances where this might be okay, for groups so specific to the University that pictures of the University will do nicely. But in many cases, having arbitrary or irrelevant pictures simply to fill negative space can distract your users from taking advantage of what your group really has to offer.
  • Content deserves precision, so be concise with the way you write. Long-winded articles tend to lose audiences, especially when it’s about a topic that only a very specific audience will likely be able to relate with. The NCSU Editorial Guidelines offers some tips to help keep your writing professional, and also helps to steer your content in a direction that is consistent with other departments and entities.
  • Don’t have a lot of content? Think of ways to stretch out the information you publish, so that you always have something to post on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Sites that get regular updates are more likely to get return traffic than those that stagnate and never get any attention from the content creator.


<< Making it look good: Part 1 | Making it look good: Part 3 >>

Fall Conference Recap

Fall is my favorite time of year and one of the reasons for that is because of all the great conferences out there. I’ve helped plan and run many a conference in my day and I think they’re such a great way to learn, network, event just touch base with people you haven’t seen in awhile. So for me conferences are another great part of fall.

That said, this year I went a bit overboard. This wasn’t my fault but I wound up with three conferences scheduled within two weeks of each other – and I was scheduled to present at all three…

Sorry to say that I didn’t quite make it – just too much going on. I came down with a cold the day after WordCamp and wound up not making it to the third and final conference, UNC CAUSE. Big kudos to Leslie Dare and her colleague Justin who presented without me. Thanks, guys!

As for the other two conferences, both were very interesting an offered a lot of useful information. I’d like to recap them in more detail – it’s far too much to try to squeeze several days of sessions into one post – so they’ll probably be the subject of future posts. I do want to take a moment to share my presentations from HighEdWeb and WordCamp for anyone interested.

HighEd Web: Redefining Content with Infographics

WordCamp: Making WordPress Work for Education

So tune in next time for a recap of these conferences. Plus these are just MY fall conferences. Brian will be headed to Event Apart in November so look for a recap of that to come. And check back for next fall since I will be co-chair of the UNC CAUSE conference and will probably wind up over-scheduled once again!