Monthly Archives: March 2008

Choice Part 3: Design Objectives

Overview

The main objective of the redesign was to include the :choice branding, and to create a consistent visual association with the printed prospectus. We hope to establish a look and feel that will continue in forthcoming marketing campaigns.

For this project we have collaborated with Splinter, a Liverpool based design agency. We now hopefully have a style guide that works online and in print, playing to the strengths of both mediums.

Structural Changes

We have redeveloped the Study area of the site, News and Events, and the online prospectus:

www.edgehill.ac.uk/study
www.edgehill.ac.uk/news
www.edgehill.ac.uk/study/courses

Each area has a homepage with a relevant interface. Study for example is aimed at prospective students; it is for marketing the university and is very visual, highlighting the campus, facilities and student life. The Courses area only includes course specific search options, and information.

We would like every area of the site to have a strong and relevant homepage, this will be part of the next phase of the project.

Interactive Pages

Splinter have provided an interactive means of promoting Edge Hill’s facilities and quality of provision:

www.edgehill.ac.uk/study/life
www.edgehill.ac.uk/study/campus

We are hoping to increase the amount of video, audio, and interactive media on the site. Again, this will be part of the ongoing project.

Choice Part 2: A new platform

For years, most of the corporate website has been produced as static web pages using Dreamweaver. This has worked well – we’re able to ensure the design is tight, content correct and the site doesn’t grow to an unmanageable size.

To help manage content on the site, Web Services have produced a few key applications – news, eProspectus, job vacancies for example – and while they’ve worked great for each area, integration with the corporate site hasn’t gone much further than matching the template and manually linking between the static content and the dynamic applications.

With the Big Brief we’ve had the chance to build dynamic web applications into the core of the website. Instead of being an add on, our main website is dynamic and existing content is linked in. This allows pages on the site to fully embed content – for example we can have news and events on the homepage, or Faculty sites can list the courses they offer.

Symfony news roundupFor the corporate website we’ve extended our use of the symfony web framework. We’ve been using symfony for about 18 months, first for Education Partnership, then the Hi applicant website and the GO portal. I’ve posted before about some of the advantages it gives us, but it’s developed significantly over the last year and we’re starting to really see some of the benefits in terms of consistent coding standards, making use of plugins so that we’re not reinventing the wheel and allowing us to rapidly build new systems that integrate with the rest of the website.

Introducing symfony to the core of the corporate website is just the first step in making it more dynamic. We’re working on allowing visitors to the site to login to gain access to more personalised information, not just for staff and students, but for applicants, partners and other users of the site. The applications we’ve developed will allow dynamic content to be spread around the site – for example courses for a department, news feeds or relevant events.

In the next couple of posts we’ll be talking about some of the applications you’ll see on the site and then maybe, just maybe, I’ll talk some more about future plans!

Choice Part 1: The Big Brief

Corporate WebsiteToday we’re launching a brand new design for the Edge Hill University website, this marks the most significant revision of the corporate site since we gained University status.

Major developments of the website include a new ‘study’ area, some additional applications and functionality – search, news, events, and the eProspectus system has had a complete overhaul. In addition, the site has a new, fresh look and feel with redesigned navigation.

The redesign takes advantage of new features available to the current releases of web browsers (IE7, etc), but the site will still function on older machines (although some visual features may not perform as well). For example, if you have the older Internet Explorer v6, or JavaScript disabled in the browser, you may find that some of the graphics won’t have rounded corners – but all the content is still accessible.

The “Big Brief” commissioned Splinter to produce the paper Prospectus and a new design for the corporate website. This produced the “Choice” branding which I’m sure Roy will be talking about over the next few weeks.

As with any new deployment of this scale, there may be the odd teething problem and we’d ask colleagues to assist by reporting any content queries or updates to the Web Services Division, and any browser-related issues to the IT Services Helpdesk.

Over the next few posts we’ll be talking about some of the new developments we’ve made and what they’ll bring for users, for faculties and departments and for the institution, so keep checking back and find out what we’ve been doing for the last few months!

Please feel free to email your views, comments and feedback to webteam@edgehill.ac.uk or leave a comment right here!

An Apple a Day

Apple recently released the latest version of Safari and it’s really impressive. It’s blisteringly fast compared to Firefox 2 and IE (Firefox 3 – currently in testing – is set to be pretty fast as well). In the last couple of days Apple has started pushing this out along side updates to Quicktime and iTunes.

This comes as absolutely no surprise to me, in fact I predicted it when Apple first announced Safari was coming to Windows:

It will be interesting to see how much market share they can get from IE, Firefox and Opera, and I suspect that as soon as it comes out of beta they’ll be pushing it out along side QuickTime and iTunes.

Quite a few people are upset about this. Seriously, get over it. If it reduces the number of people using criminally bad web browsers like IE 6 then that’s a good thing.

10 PRINT “Hello World”; 20 GOTO 10

BBC MicroThe BBC Technology blog dot.life has a post about the BBC Micro in reference to the Science Museum reuniting some of the people involved in the project over 25 years ago.

Reading it brought back quite a few memories – a BBC Model B was the computer I first learnt to program on – and I’m glad that people still think of it so fondly.

Anyway, enough reminiscing – we’ve got websites to finish!

(Feel free to post a comment about your first experiences with computers – Mister Roy had an unfortunate encounter with AMS early on!)

PHP London 2008

A belated writeup on last week’s PHP London Conference. Andy’s already written a post so I don’t feel too bad!

As it turned out we split the sessions so I’ll just cover those Andy’s not mentioned. First up was Stefan Esser‘s PHP Binary Analysis. It was looking at using complied PHP bytecode to debug and audit your code. Probably of more use to people doing detailed security audits but some interesting ideas that I’d like to look into when I get a bit more time.

After lunch Marcus Bointon presented Mail(); & Life after Mail(). He started early on by quoting a blog post from Hacked:

I Knew How To Validate An Email Address Until I Read The RFC

Anyone’s who’s ever tried to send email using PHP’s mail() function will know the lengths you go to to get things working. Even then you’re probably doing it wrong. The solution is to use a library to handle all the standards compliance for you, something that symfony provides through the PHPMailer library.

Marcus went through a bunch more libraries and compared some of the features they provide so it will be interesting to look into what’s best for our needs.

More interesting for me was finding out about return paths. This is what happens when an email bounces and with a bit of server side magic it is possible to handle errors better. It’s quite a complex task to do properly so I’m interested in a good hosted service which can be used for both one shot emails like user registrations for batch mailshots. Apparently there’s a few services out there but I’ve not seen any with a really good API.

Final session I went to alone was My Framework Is Better Than Yours? presented by Rob Allen, Toby Beresford and Ian P. Christian. Each gave a short presentation on their framework of choice – Zend, Code Igniter and symfony – followed by a panel discussion. It was clear that each has its advantages and disadvantages:

  • Zend is good for components to pick and choose which aspects of a framework you need. It can often be used with other frameworks too. This can also be a downside is they’re maybe not quite as integrated as other systems.
  • Code Igniter is lightweight and some might like that it runs under PHP4. Personally I think this is a disadvantage. Someone in the audience suggested there was a way of turning on HP5 mode but I can’t believe this does more than activates a few extra features. Coding for PHP5 is an attitude shift and I don’t see how they’ve done this while retaining compatibility.
  • symfony, well I knew a bit about that already 😉 Pookey did a pretty good job of presenting it.

During the panel discussion there was a comment about the criminal use of the term MVC to describe the frameworks. It got the attention of the room and there’s quite a lot of talk about this on the interweb. My view is that it doesn’t really matter whether a framework sticks rigidly to some design pattern if it provides the features that you need. I’m interested in getting things done, not in the theory of system design.

That’s all from me – check out Andy’s summary of the other sessions.

One Big Summer (of Code)

Google have announced another Summer of Code. This is a program [sic] to let students work on open source projects over their summer holiday (vacation) while getting paid for the work they do.

Over the last three years, 1500 students have worked for scores of mentoring organisations to add features, fix bugs and improve products for the benefit of the community. Looking the 2007 website you can the sorts of work being done. Everything from Haskell to PHP, applications like Gallery, Drupal and WordPress.

This year symfony – the web framework we use extensively within Web Services – has applied to join Summer of Code and it will be great to see what comes out of it.

Applications for students open later this month and it looks like UK university students would qualify so if there’s any one out there in Edge Hill reading then keep an eye on the website and see what projects turn up. It’s not restricted to Computing students although you will need some coding skills (obviously!).

Who you calling a Twitt?!

TwitterIt’s a year since the last SXSW and the explosion of the Twitter craze. So fast was the rise of the microblogging platform that it struggled to cope with both the hype and the server load.

But as the dust settled, people have started to realise it can be used for more than talking about your cat and for many it’s become a key way of communicating with colleagues and friends.

If you haven’t come across Twitter – or maybe just don’t “get it” – check out this video from Common Craft:

Don’t forget you can integrate Twitter with your IM system of choice including our very own go.talk.

UCISA Innovation and Communication Best Practice Guide

A couple of weeks ago UCISA published a guide featuring best practices in IT and Combined Services across the UK.

This new Guide has been created to provide examples of good communications practice in action. Although some communications good practice guidelines are already available, this Guide is the first to focus specifically on real examples of communication between IT/combined services and their users.

One of the examples is our very own Hi Applicant Community which is, of course, fantastic but there are loads of great ideas in there and I can see a few that could work really well at Edge Hill.

PHPLondon Conference

The conference, as you might have guessed, was in London. It lasted one day and was scheduled to run from 9:30 until 17:00. As Mike and I were driving this meant that our conference day started at about 4:30 with Mike picking me up at 5:00. Three hours later we parked at Amersham and took the tube arriving at the venue at 9:20.

The conference took the format of dual tracks and between the two of us we covered every single one. the first talk was by Ivo Jansch of iBuildings, which focused on the adoption of PHP into Enterprise solutions and his slides can be viewed on slideshare. It was nice to see that Edge Hill Web Services team are clearly on the right track but perhaps adoption of some of the slicker testing strategies proposed would be beneficial. I’m particularly interested in taking a good look at PHPUnit, Xinc and Xdebug.

The talk by Scott MacVicar and Mike Sullivan built on Ivo’s ideas and offered some real world examples of development for Enterprise solutions but, for me, it didn’t quite deliver. Maybe it was aimed at delegates that had yet to embark on large scale enterprise applications.

In contrast the next session on SQLite3 was something I’d never come across before. The talk began with SQLite’s widespread use including Apple’s iPhone, and it certainly seemed that it was a more favourable option than using config files for small applications. In addition PHP5 ships with SQLite3 and only needs a few configuration line changes to enable it, but some forums suggest that it is not as easy as it seems.

The mid-afternoon session had two bite sized talks on testing PHP and Project Zero. The testing PHP talk was not as I had thought about testing your own PHP code but about getting involved with testing PHP source code, something I’d never thought myself clever enough to even look at, never mind actually have a go at. It seems that if you can write PHP you can write PHP tests too. If you fancy having a go have a look at the PHP-QAT site.

Project Zero is IBM’s incubator project for RESTful Web services. The demo simply looked a lot like Yahoo Pipes but I suspect that if you dig deeper there’s a whole lot more.

The whole shebang was brought to a conclusion by Derick Rethans, who spoke about his personal PHP journey. This light-hearted look at PHP again hammered home the need to focus on security and testing (it also plugged Xdebug which he wrote). You can see the slides here, but unlike other speakers his slides act mostly as a visual aid to his presentation style and don’t really reflect the quality of the content.