Doing digital better: what I learned from IWMW and ContentEd in 2018

Angela Ashby, Digital Editor at Birkbeck, reflects on what she learned from two conferences she attended with other members of the College’s digital content team.

I attended two web conferences recently, ContentEd and IWMW, which gave me an opportunity to learn new ideas and approaches, and to meet web colleagues who are facing the same problems as we are.

Being in that environment also allowed me to step out of my daily tasks, to assess what is important in a wider sense, to see how good web practice is evolving, and to consider which new ideas we might be able to apply.

ContentEd

The ContentEd conference is the only one in Europe that specifically addresses content strategy for the education sector, which makes it very focused and relevant to the kind of work and decisions that we are making for Birkbeck right now.

ContentEd 2018 took place in London on 14 and 15 June, and was attended by 195 delegates from 67 institutions in countries around the world, including the US, Australia, Finland and the Netherlands. Our digital content team of three from External Relations attended both days.

My takeaways

A lot of inspirational people presented at the conference, including our own Jane Van de Ban. The customer journey mapping that Birkbeck undertook in 2016 (to inform our Digital Transformation Project) is considered groundbreaking by colleagues at other institutions.

Here are the things I’ll remember.

Create once: publish everywhere. Rich Prowse from the University of Bath has revolutionised the content on their website by dividing it into discrete ‘chunks’, labelling them for reuse and publishing them in multiple locations. This seems like common sense, but it is the ultimate in having a ‘single source of truth’ on the web.

Simple language is not talking down to people – it’s respecting them by not wasting their time. Gabriel Smy is a Content Strategist from Zengenti, and this idea of his really resonated with me. Plain English and natural language are vital to make it easy for our users to read our content, both for humans and, increasingly, for machines.

Content needs to be relevant to be useful. Sarah Richards is a superstar of web content – she was the brains behind the revolutionary changes to the gov.uk website. She believes that, in order to be useful, content needs to meet a need. Therefore, she advocates creating user stories for every piece of content to justify its existence: ‘As a … [user ‘type’ or job role], I need to … [task], so that … [goal]’. She has also done a lot of research on users’ reading patterns. Regressive reading (where a reader has to jump back within a sentence to understand it properly) leads to a drop in trust. Jargon leads to regressive reading. The lessons? Ensure your writing is clear – avoid jargon.

Another, unexpected, bonus of this conference was winning a prize of a year’s subscription to GatherContent – an online content workflow tool – which will prove useful for the collaborative nature of our ongoing Digital Transformation Project.

Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW)

This conference was held at the University of York, 11-13 July, attended by 125 delegates, and is more wide-reaching than ContentEd. Its scope includes developers, designers and managers, as well as content creators. My team, along with web colleagues from ITS, had attended the same conference in Canterbury in 2017. Perhaps my most interesting observation was how this year’s mix of presenters and content led to a totally different experience to the year before.

The human aspect was strong this year. Two brave and personal presentations from Alison Kerwin (York) and Andrew Millar (Dundee) dealt with mental health and emotional challenges in the workplace, which resonated with what many of us have been through but don’t talk about.

Birkbeck’s Jane Van de Ban delivered the customer journey mapping presentation here, and again it was extremely well received. As a result, at least one other institution has already implemented ‘Fix-It Friday’ – an idea that we had picked up at IWMW the year before.

My takeaways

Websites are spaceships. The bigger they are, the harder to turn. Gareth Edwards (University of Greenwich): ‘Invisible labour’ can be defined as those insignificant tasks that take you away from your longer-term goals and reduce your productivity. Gareth looked at studies that quantify this phenomenon, and discovered that:

  • The average number of ‘task switches’ per day is 50.
  • If your task is interrupted, it is likely to take 266% of the time it would normally have taken.
  • You are likely to spend 31% of your time on phone calls and email per day.
  • You are likely to initiate 40% of all task switches yourself.

Thinking outside the box. Dave Musson (The Native): Dave introduced us to a number of innovative approaches that other institutions are taking, including using the natural beauty of your institution’s physical location (‘campus porn’), and Clearing gimmicks like chatbots, Pacman-style games, student social media takeovers, and geo-fenced Snapchat filters. Institutions need to stand out in order to make them memorable.

Inertia feels safe, but it’s not. Ayala Gordon/Padma Gillen (University of Southampton): In the web world, staying still is the equivalent of going backwards. We need to adapt to keep up with technology and a changing world.

Avoid ‘informational bias’. Keith McDonald (University of London): ‘Informational bias’ is bluster or jargon that gets in the way of clear communication. Don’t hide the message in unnecessary words/phrases.

Networking

And the learning didn’t end there. Chats with colleagues in between sessions gave me a chance to find out more.

  • As we are launching a project to develop research content on Department web pages, St Andrews has just completed theirs. Looking at their research, their strategy and their end result is incredibly valuable for us as an example.
  • The University of Dundee has recently completed a redevelopment of their ITS pages, getting to know processes first hand, and reducing the number of pages dramatically. We can learn from what they achieved.
  • Website hacks are a real risk. In chatting over drinks, I picked up inside information about two universities that had their websites hacked. Birkbeck needs to protect fiercely against this eventuality.

A number of the same colleagues across institutions attended both of these conferences, and IWMW last year, so networking and knowledge sharing was able to continue at IWMW 2018. There’s a real sense of community in the UK web world that makes us feel connected to higher education outside our institutions.

More generally, both conferences have ongoing communication channels available, so that delegates can continue to build this community through the year. These colleagues of ours are endlessly creative, and their generosity knows no limits.

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