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Final Reflections On A Website Design Project

In my first post three months ago, I outlined my personal learning objectives for this module.  I discussed how I wanted to:

  • develop an understanding of the theory behind web design and
  • to acquire technical skills  to support the delivery of a user-centred information service.

 In this post, I will consider the extent to which I have fulfilled these objectives.

1. DEVELOPING AN UNDERSTANDING OF INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE AND UX DESIGN THEORY

UX design cartoon

I was initially sceptical about website design, as I had associated the word “design” with advertising. I wasn’t convinced that there would be much substance or theory to what I thought was a product-centred industry.  I was proved wrong; Although Bowles and Box (2011) highlight the potential difficulties that UX designers can encounter in the workplace (both in an organisation or an agency), they emphasise that the evidence-based arguments which a UX designer relies upon have the credibility required to deliver a sound, user-centred product.  As a result of this project, I have revised my opinion; information architecture/UX design is a reflective, evidence-based practice which really does put the user at the centre of its activities.

2. ACQUIRING TECHNICAL SKILLS

By Exploring and Assessing Software…

Netbeans logoI have experimented with a range of software; it’s been challenging to explore tools and use them to produce the different elements of our design process in a short space of time.  However, on reflection, I think that the usability criteria that we have applied to developing our website also apply to the usability of software; I can now see that software should be intuitive with good support documentation.  Consequently, some of my preferred tools have included Netbeans and WordPress.  Interestingly, this has led me to consider the role of librarians in “training” people to use referencing software or to search databases with overly complicated interfaces.  This perpetuates a product-centred approach which users should not accept!

And Through Learning To Code…

Learning to code using Jon Duckett's book

With no previous experience of coding I was unsure about how to tackle this aspect of the module.  However, I have learnt basic coding in HTML and CSS.  By using a logical and step-by-step approach, I have been surprised at what I have been able to produce.  I am pragmatic about what I need to learn; why re-invent the wheel when there is a wealth of resources available with the snippets of code available for creating rounded corners, horizontal secondary navigation bars and scrolling imagery?  I am confident that I can now read and write basic code and I am able to use resource materials from authors such as Duckett (2011), McFarland (2009) and W3schools.

And By Exploring Content Management Systems (CMS)…

Wordpress logoWorking on this project has made me increasingly aware of the extensive use of CMSs in the workplace.  As we designed a flat site, I think that my task in the forthcoming weeks will be to review the website I recently created to experiment with CMSs; I will focus in particular on switching the CMS from Drupal to WordPress and experiment with customising a template, as I think that this would be of relevance for a future role in an information environment.

BUT THERE WAS UNEXPECTED LEARNING, TOO…

You Don’t Have to be Able to Draw to be a Designer

One up sketching exercise for creating a wireframe

I had mistakenly believed that drawing skills were essential to design.  However, reading about the application of design in a wider context  (Papanek, 1985) and activities such as the “Six Up” and “One-Up” sketching exercises as suggested by Bowles and Box (2011) have made me realise that the generation of design ideas is not exclusive to the artistically-gifted.  I can see the value of using sketching exercises for generating ideas in a wide range of contexts.

Collaborative Working Works!

Teamwork wordleDysfunctionality in a team causes anxiety and stress for all concerned.  On this occasion, I  collaborated with colleagues who were from diverse backgrounds but who crucially, shared a commitment to the project; this resulted in us working effectively as a team.  We all had the opportunity to contribute to every stage of the process.  Basic IT skills were essential for this module, as was an appreciation of the implicit boundaries for support when working as a team on an academic task.  This was understood by the majority of the group at the outset of the project and I hope that it was accepted by all by the end.  Overall, I think that the website is evidence of our synergistic relationship; I found the democratic aspect of the work rewarding and in the future I would like to continue working in a similar way.

Iteration (kaizen) is good

Homer Simpson saying d'oh“Iteration” has been a key word throughout the project.  As discussed in previous posts, we iterated  ideas, wireframes, prototypes and the pre-launch website on the basis of user research and team decisions.  I think that in general, learning from big mistakes can be difficult, whereas learning from smaller errors is more manageable, less costly and more likely to produce successful results.   Team members agreed that all individual pieces of work would be subject to group iteration.  Working iteratively enabled us to develop collective responsibility for fulfilling the project aims.   I was able to trust and rely on team members and enjoyed the positive energy in our meetings.

WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?

As outlined above, I have exceeded my personal learning objectives for this module; I now need to reflect on my skills and future career path in an information environment.  But as I wrote in my first post, I intend to approach this new scenario in the same way as I build Lego.  One brick at a time.

Blue lego brick

REFERENCES

Bowles, C. and Box, J. 2011. Undercover user experience : learn how to do great UX work with tiny budgets, no time, and limited support. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Duckett, J. 2011. HTML and CSS: design and build websites. Indianapolis, IN: John Wiley and Sons

McFarland, D. 2009. CSS: the missing manual. 2nd ed. Sebastapol, CA: O’Reilly Media

Papanek, V. 1985. Design for the real world: human ecology and social change. London: Thames and Hudson.

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Designing Websites With Content Management Systems

Should we use a Content Management System (CMS) or a flat site for our group project?

This week we had to make a key decision regarding the construction of the website; the choice was between building a flat site from scratch or adapting a template from WordPress.org, the version of this blogging site which requires paid-for hosting.

Why adopt a CMS?

CMSs are an increasingly common method of managing information in a wide range of information environments.  As discussed by Namer, (2012) and Boag (2009), benefits can include consistency of layout, enhanced usability, increased security (anti-spam, anti-hack software), multiple author facility, capacity for increased usage and reduced administration costs.

There are certainly several advantages to an organisation using a CMS instead of a flat site. However, the adoption of a CMS can also have negative consequences.  My initial observation of its adoption by a small charity reflects a need to consider and plan for the implicit costs and long-term consequences.  Garrett (2003) supports this view by including discussion of CMSs in the “Scope Plane” of his 5-Plane model, thus ensuring consideration of issues such as staffing and workflows once the CMS is active.  Harrison (2009) discusses how CMS databases place additional demands on expensive, limited server space.  The abovementioned charity has seen its server space reduced dramatically since the introduction of a CMS-based website.  Given that the organisation cannot fund additional server space, it is urging all staff to review their files in order to make more space available.  Graham and Kramer (2012) discuss the high financial, time and staffing costs involved in website development and maintenance.  For example, staff need to be allocated time to update the website (who is going to reply to the daily emails and posts that arrive via the website?) and training must be undertaken on a regular basis to keep up with software changes.

Our group decision…

After undertaking a brief trial of WordPress.org, we have opted for constructing a flat site.  The decision was based primarily on the group’s desire to gain coding experience and to accurately reproduce the prototype /wireframes we had developed through testing.  Although this approach supports our personal and academic development, I  think that the time and expertise required to build a flat website would be beyond the reach of small, community groups such as the one we are working for.

In terms of the group project I am pleased with our decision to build a flat site; I think that the thought-process involved in constructing a site from scratch will definitely help us to develop a better understanding of usability and coding which can both be applied to a CMS.

In the meantime, I am conscious of the relevance of skills related to using a CMS in the information job market and I have therefore spent some time experimenting with two packages.  This is a summary of my findings from a short trial.  (More detailed and accurate comparisons of a wide range of CMS packages are available online to individuals and organisations.)

WordPress (Hosted Version)

  • Intuitive, clear user interface
  • Good range of customisable templates for non-expert users
  • Clear support documentation

Drupal

  • Wide range of customisable templates
  • Support documentation is very technical
  • User interface is not very intuitive: e.g. uploading images requires user to modify file settings
  • Potential to extend site-specific functionality

Given that the charity that I am volunteering for is using Drupal, I decided to experiment with this CMS by signing up with Native Space, a web hosting company and I am now the owner of a website.

I have constructed my (very) basic site using Drupal but I have encountered some difficulties.  This is largely due to my inexperience with online CMS systems and the use of web hosting.  On balance, it was easier and more intuitive to design in WordPress than Drupal.  I was disappointed by the amount of time I spent looking for and creating functionality in Drupal which was readily available in WordPress.  Mark (2011) suggests Drupal offers greater flexibility and functionality in the long term for an experienced designer.  Indeed, it is evident from the limited functionality  and content of my Drupal website that this CMS is not suitable for non-expert users.  If the aim is to support a wider range of people to build and maintain websites, WordPress would be my choice in the future.

REFERENCES

Boag, P. 2009. 10 things to consider when choosing the perfect CMS [online]. Freiburg: Smashing Magazine. Available at: http://coding.smashingmagazine.com/2009/03/05/10-things-to-consider-when-choosing-the-perfect-cms/ [Accessed: 03 January 2013].

Garrett, J. J. 2003. The elements of user experience : user-centered design for the web. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders

Graham, R. and Kramer, J. 2012. Introduction to web content management systems site development [online]. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Extension School. Available at: http://www.trainingcraft.com/Harvard/CMSWeek1/CMS-Week%201-slides.pdf [Accessed 03 January 2013].

Harrison, D. 2009. The advantages and disadvantages of content management systems [online]. Available at: http://daveharrison.net/articles/the-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-content-management-systems [Accessed: 11 December 2012].

Mark, J. 2011. How WordPress took the CMS crown from Drupal and Joomla [online]. Freiburg: Smashing Magazine. Available at: http://wp.smashingmagazine.com/2011/11/29/wordpress-cms-crown-drupal-joomla/  [Accessed: 11 December 2012].

Namer. 2012. The best content management systems to use [online]. Available at: http://www.name.com/blog/contentmarketing/2012/12/the-best-content-management-systems-to-use/ [Accessed: 03 January 2013].