Information, Technology & Consulting

The Future of Dartmouth Websites

A Conversation with Susan Lee, Director of Dartmouth's Web Services

Web Services was recently involved in the release of new academic websites. Will you describe this project and how it came about? How many websites were involved? How were they selected?

With the launch of our four "early-adopter" academic sites—Biological Sciences, Economics, English, and Institute for Writing and Rhetoric—phase 2 of the Web Redesign project is complete. In May 2012, the overhaul of the dartmouth.edu website began in collaboration with our design partners, Digital Pulp. The flagship site (Dartmouth.edu) and all 200 sites supported by Web Services are slated to receive new design through this project, and selecting four academic sites to showcase new design concepts was an important part of communicating the project. The first four sites were selected with assistance of the Dean of Faculty and Wentworth Area Deans and are a representation of each division of the Arts and Sciences.

When did the project start — how and why did it begin?

The design of the academic department templates was considered part of the overall project from its inception back in May 2012. Like the Dartmouth.edu home site (maintained by Office of Public Affairs), the department templates were outdated from both the perspective of design and the underlying code that supported them. Portions of the code dated back to 2003, whereas the design had its last update in 2007 and was based on the home site design of 2006. At that time, the design was progressive and fresh, but it doesn't take long for visual design to feel stale — seven years is too long. Ideally, design should be refreshed every 2-3 years or progressively altered to feel different to our audiences.

What were the steps involved?

The process of re-imagining the web design for Dartmouth.edu involved many people across the institution last summer. Digital Pulp arrived on campus in May and undertook an in-depth research and discovery process where they (and we) learned as much as possible about how our website is utilized, how large it is, who the primary audience is, and the types of improvements that were desired by both the institutional stakeholders and the end-users. You can read more about the process on the home team blog.

The department templates went through an iterative process after the first design was revealed in September 2012. Dartmouth's Office of Public Affairs and Web Services teamed up to present the design across campus and elicit feedback. From large public forums, to departmental and office meetings, to the employee jobs fair, the proposed website was presented and discussed. The comments and suggestions were taken back to the work group meetings with Digital Pulp and improvements were made iteratively.

Most importantly, we selected four early adopter departments to roll-out in the new design and we worked closely with these departments to understand their specific needs. It's important to understand the process of "progressive improvements", an approach we have taken with this project that has allowed us to establish a framework for two to three years of work in just over one year. The era of full website redesigns is coming to an end as institutional websites are too large and complex to tackle in one fell swoop. Instead, the concept of re-tuning and progressive improvements is gaining traction. Progressively improving means that we reflect on each phase, pause, regroup, and adjust design, functionality, and code based on what we learn from each launch.

We are doing that now with the first four academic sites which launched over the last month. Our academic partners have helped us understand how the design and function of the sites can be improved, and we will be working over the next month to take those suggestions back into the design and code. Because the templates are standardized, suggested changes must meet the needs of the majority in order to be considered since they will affect everyone using the design.

Dartmouth is moving from OU to Drupal — would you describe that process a little and what the difference will be?

The adoption of a new content management system was the most complex part of the project for Web Services. In addition to the delivery of more sophisticated design and code, Web Services implemented an open source digital publishing framework to render these new websites. This means that we have ownership of a layer of code which we have been previously renting in our relationship with OmniUpdate. With this new ownership comes the responsibility for building and maintaining the codebase that manages our content and deploys our websites. It's a substantial change for roles and work processes within our team, and with it comes the ability to be more flexible as demands on the web are constantly changing. It is a welcome change within our group and although the learning curve has been steep, we are very excited to take on the added responsibility and opportunities for creative development.

One of the primary reasons for choosing Drupal is that it is a database driven content management system and will allow for better solutions for shared content once we've moved more sites into the system. Additionally Drupal is a framework that we can more easily adjust to meet the demands of the evolving web.

OmniUpdate will be maintained and there are instances where it will make more sense for certain types of content to remain in that system.

The actual Drupal build took place between November 2012 and February 2013. We took part in an architecture workshop provided by Acquia, our Drupal hosting vendor, in November. We  strategized our needs and moved into a development period in January 2013. Digital Pulp began delivering coded templates in March 2013, which were integrated by mid-April. Once the design theme was integrated (drupalized) the Office of Public Affairs was able to begin moving new content into the home site and our migration team migrated content from the 4 academic departments.

We anticipate the delivery of an additional 30 design templates to offer our constituents including templates for administrative sites, Centers, special projects, special events, a multimedia exhibition, and a set that will refresh DartmouthNow. The work with Digital Pulp will be complete once these designs have been delivered.

Who else at was involved in the project and what were their roles? How did all the teams and individuals work together for a finished product?

Because this phase of the project was largely an integration of design and multiple technology systems, there were many players from within Computing Services as well as our ongoing association with Office of Public Affairs and our academic site partners involved. Bringing together a new event calendar, a new faculty directory, a refreshed people directory, and working towards an improved campus map, meant that collaborations with many groups in IISS took place between January and May. Some of these projects are ongoing and additional technology integrations are needed as we move through the remainder of our site migrations.

To name a few: Applications and Infrastructure Group, Web and Academic Development, Network Services, Identity Management [software development], Security.

Enthusiasm and assistance with this project was phenomenal. We felt fortunate to have so many skilled and helpful associates across Computing Services available to collaborate with on this large and complex project that affects all of Dartmouth's audiences.

How have the websites been received?

The academic department site designs have just been completed last month and we believe that the site owners are happy with the outcome. Also, the next groups in the queue exhibit enthusiasm towards their site migration. We feel optimistic that the new design and technology systems are appreciated. Opinions will be gathered casually over the summer as we continue to work with our clients to move their sites into the system. The project is an evolving organism with more to come!

What have you and your team learned from this project?

The Web Services team has been on an intense learning curve, not only taking ownership of a new system but changing roles and processes within our team and finding new ways of working collaboratively on projects. We are on a new path now and working together to bring about these changes have been good for the team. Going forward, being able to offer better design and a more flexible publishing system to our constituents feels great!

Who is next on the list of “new websites”? What does the future hold for Dartmouth websites?

This summer we will be working through the migration of the remaining academic departments into new design and also begin work with the major centers (the Dickey Center, the Hood Museum, Rockefeller Center, Neukom Institute, and more). The administrative office sites will be moved into new design by the end of the year by integrating new design within the existing OmniUpdate content management system. This will allow the completion of design integration across all our sites to occur more swiftly and continued migration into Drupal will be less pressured.

Information on the migration project will be communicated as it progresses on the ITS website.

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Information, Technology & Consulting