IWMW 2011

This year’s IWMW was hosted at the University of Reading. For me that’s home turf. It’s a strange sensation – the familiarity of the campus is comforting, but it lacks the buzz and excitement of visiting somewhere new. And then there’s the nagging temptation to nip back to the office during the odd lull in proceedings…

The theme to this year’s workshop is Responding to Change.

The increase in undergraduate fees and resultant changes in funding mean that in terms of real income, HE has to continue to tighten the purse strings. This is against the backdrop of a more competitive market, where students will demand more for their money – they will after all be footing more of the bill for their education – and so Universities will have to find innovative ways to demonstrate their value.

Web is also going through a period of change. New technological developments are being defined and adopted at an ever-increasing pace. Our approach to designing for the web is being re-thought: adaptive, responsive, context and mobile-first are just some of the themes being hotly debated.

Preparing to respond

The challenge is to respond to change in a measured, rather than knee-jerk, manner. To do that we need to understand the landscape in which we operate: to be informed in the decisions that we make. Unsurprisingly then, the underlying theme to many of the presentations has been about making use of data. Data provides us with the evidence to back or break our arguments. It can help drive policy and make your business case. Discussions covered:

  • Using data to prove the value of the web (and the web team) to the institution
  • The need to analyse the data and communicate it effectively
  • Combining online analytics data with offline information to better understand user behaviour, and make informed choices
  • Benchmarking against sector-wide statistics
  • Data protection and privacy

Data, data, everywhere…

Speaking of data, some interesting stats emerged:

  • Half the audience at IWMW 2011 use a mobile device to consume content.
  • More people visit Coke’s Facebook page than their website – could there be a future without institution websites?
  • Baidu (the Chinese search engine) brings more traffic to HE websites than Bing.
  • 1 in 7 Google searches are made from a mobile.

And at Southampton, Chris Gutteridge and Dave Challis are doing some interesting things with open data. The cornerstone for much of their work is building locations. Want to find out where to get a coffee? They have menus for individual catering outlets, the buildings that the catering outlets are in, and the locations of the buildings. All of this can then be surfaced on a map in an easily digestible (and searchable) format, so you can find the nearest cafe to go grab that coffee.

You can see what Chris and Dave are up to by visiting their Open Data Service website – check out the apps they have developed and datasets that they have available. The how goes a little over my head, but possibilities are very exciting!

Accessibility, inclusiveness and the mobile web

Tucked away in a parallel session this was, for me, the highlight of this year’s IWMW. It was largely an overview of responsive web design – the argument put forward by Richard Prowse (Bournemouth) and Sharon Steeples (Essex) is that a responsive approach makes a website much more inclusive and therefore accessible. There is a bit more to accessibility and inclusiveness than that, but they only had an hour and a half of our time and it provided all the hook they needed…

To summarise, a responsively designed website is one that adapts to the users window onto the web. The layout shrinks and grows, and the content re-flows at set break-points. It means the user gets a tailored view of the site whether they use a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop PC with oversized dual monitors. This approach can negate the need to create multiple versions of the site (for mobile, for tablet, for desktop), and is platform independent (app stores, I’m looking at you!) Are you using a desktop/laptop to read this? Resize the browser window to see how this site responds to the available space!

Sharon has provided a handy list on her blog of other sites that have adopted the responsive approach.

Responsiveness is no silver bullet to website design though. It cannot be used to determine context (are you on the go, or on the sofa?) And the tasks that your users are looking to achieve may still be best served by a dedicated site or app. My own view is that at its core a site should have a responsive baseline. This can then be complemented by additional sites/apps where there is a genuine need.

From a practical point of view, Ethan Marcotte describes the responsive web design as making use of:

  • A flexible grid-based layout
  • Flexible images
  • Media queries

I would recommend reading his A List Apart article for a more detailed introduction. And if that piques your interest, I encourage you to read his book, which is stuffed with practical tips.

Richard and Sharon’s presentations were a great primer for anyone who’s not familiar with responsive web design. As someone who has dabbled in, and scribbled a few of my own thoughts on, the responsive approach, it was great to hear their take on it. What I found most exciting however, is that there are others within the HE sector who have taken the leap and are actively running with this idea on some very high-profile projects.

And they aren’t the only ones: the team at Bedfordshire are taking a responsive approach to their site redesign. Kris Collins was kind enough to give me a demo of what they’d been working on and talk about their experience with it. You can find out more by visiting their blog.

I eagerly await the results, and I’m sure there is much we can learn from this triumvirate of early adopters (innovators).

Wrapping up

I’ll take this opportunity to conclude what has become quite a lengthy post. Collectively the speakers at this year’s IWMW provided much food for thought and there’s a lot more to chew over. Another post, another day… perhaps.

Within a large organisation is easy to suffer a degree of introspection. Events like this are great at banishing that, keeping us up to date with what’s happening in the wider HE web community. Part sounding board, part support group, part motivational lecture. A strange kind of therapy.

Until next year.