Happy Birthday Web Services blog!

Today, exactly a year has passed since Alison’s first post on the Edge Hill University Web Services blog:

As we’ve spent the last couple of years talking about blogs, showing people how to use them and advocating their usefulness we thought it was about time we started our own!

It’s been a busy year with developments on GO last summer, and most recently a brand new design for the corporate website.

There have been changes in the team with Alison moving to the University of Bath in January (and they’ve recently started blogging too), Andy Davies starting in November last year and yesterday Steve Daniels joined us to work with the Faculty of Health on an extranet project.

We said from the start that we’d try to cover a wide variety of subjects and just looking at the tag cloud shows some of the key issues we’ve considered over the last year. From social networking to symfony, we’ve tried to balance some fairly techie topics with things that might be more broadly interesting – let us know how you think we’re doing and what you’d like to see in future.

Everyone likes statistics, so I’ve been digging and come up with a few numbers:

  • 141 posts
  • Over 10,000 comments
  • 276 non-spam comments – thanks Akismet!
  • Over 33,000 page views
  • 60+ subscribers to our feed

Thank you to everyone who’s taken the time to read and comment here – I hope you’ve found our blog useful and interesting and it’s great to get feedback.

Creative Commons Licence by robokowOne final thing… this entry is my one hundredth post – you’d think I’d planned it – so Happy Birthday blog, and here’s to the next twelve months and 100 posts!

I spy with my little eye…

The view out of the Web Services officeIT Services have acquired a new piece of kit – an Axis 206 Network Camera. We’ve been setting up a webcam to allow us to stream live images and video from campus. It’s currently pointing out of our window but very soon we’ll be moving it to look at the new building.

If you’re a member of staff, it will be appearing on the intranet homepage soon, otherwise some changes we’re doing over the coming weeks on the corporate site might allow us to find a home for it there too. In the meantime, enjoy the view out of out window as of 12:16pm today!

Choice Part 6: Lucene in the sky with diamonds

Search is one of the key ways that visitors find what they’re looking for on our websites. A good search engine can quickly and acurately direct the user to the right place and make for a more efficient and productive experience.

In the past we’ve used Novell’s QuickFinder search service to spider the site, supplemented by a couple of custom search systems for things like courses. I’ve never been entirely happy with the results that QuickFinder provides.

Recently in Higher Education and beyond, there has been a trend towards Google’s search appliance and their hosted solutions. Both of these are excellent in terms of raw power – they will happily index every page on a site and searches are quick and mostly relevant. But there’s more to a good search engine than the size of the index – they must provide the results you’re looking for and present them in an easy to understand way. Here’s a fairly typical example of the top search result for a search for “Computing” (I’ve removed identifying names!):

The University of Somewhere

For Edge Hill it’s important that prospective students are able to find what they’re looking for. So in the above example it’s good that it has picked a page about the academic department rather than what at Edge Hill would be IT Services, but it’s actually the Faculty page giving the briefest of details. The summary doesn’t help at all – the spider has picked up details from the page header including the alternative text from the logo and the breadcrumb trail.

What we want are relevant results which allow the visitor to quickly identify what pages have been found with information that’s relevant to the results, not just scraped text. Some search engines are starting to do this – when Google finds videos it will show a thumbnail and allow you to play the video inline – so we can use some of these ideas when creating our own search system. Now let’s get a bit more technical!

Our website can be split into two types of information – structured and unstructured. When I say unstructured, I don’t mean that it’s hundreds of pages put online without any consideration – I’m talking about web pages of content that aren’t stored in a database. Structured information is pulled out from one of our databases – things like news, events or courses. Structured content is what most search engines find difficult because they don’t “know” what a page is all about, but we do, so we can tell our search engine what information is important and how we should represent it.

For our new website, we’ve introduced a new search system based on Zend Lucene. Lucene isn’t a full blown search engine, but it’s a library you can build on to provide full text indexing of almost anything you want. We’re using a symfony plugin which packages a lot of search functionality to allow us to index news, events, courses and other information directly from the database. We have control over what information is indexed for each type and the weightings applied to them. For example we give courses a slightly higher weighting than news.

For static content we have a custom spider which trawls all the other pages on the site and adds them to the index. This work like any other search engine, following links and determining which text is relevant. We try to exclude the header, footer and navigation from the index as this contains text which is common to many pages and adds little to the value of the page.

Edge Hill’s computing search resultWe can also do a lot with the search interface itself. Firstly, different types of result show different information. For example a course result shows the UCAS code, qualification, which campuses it runs at and allows the course to be added to the My Courses basket for comparison. News and events shows similar custom results while static pages show the usual snippet of text from the page, but without irrelevant text from outside the content area creeping in.

Overall the new search seems to be working quite well – we’re able to embed it into the rest of the site more than we’ve done in the past and provide custom search boxes for courses and news. There’s still work to do on it though to improve the accuracy of results, so if you’ve tried the search and not found what you were looking for easily, please let us know.

Choice Part 5: Pushing the boundaries?

Edge Hill weren’t the only people to launch a website redesign in the last week. On Monday, the BBC News website had it’s biggest redesign in years. Personally, I quite like the new design but they’ve come under a lot of flak for certain decisions.

Martin Belham blogged 60% of commenters hate the new BBC News design. I’ve read a number of the comments and it’s no exaggeration to say that some people are very unhappy!

There are certain similarities between our new design and BBC News so why did we make the decisions we did?

First up is the move to designing for larger screens. Our old homepage design was fixed width to fit on screens 800 pixels wide. Our new design fills the screen at 1024 pixels wide. Why the change? Over the last few years there has been a massive growth in adoption of LCD screens – these almost all have a native resolution of 1024 or above. Less than 4% of visitors have a screen resolution of 800×600 and that’s going down all the time. On the other hand, over half our users have resolutions above 1024 pixels wide leading to an inefficient use of space.

Homepage 800 pixels wideSo we decided that our design should be aimed at 1024, and after some vigorous internal debate, that we should use some JavaScript magic to create a version for 800×600 as well. So if you’re one of the 3.72% of users with a low resolution, you’ll find that the homepage design is slightly different to normal.

The wider design allows us to add more to the page, but why not design for fluid widths? Fluid layouts are where the web page expands to fill the size of your browser window. We’ve used this technique on content pages and you can still see it on, for example, Faculty pages which aren’t yet in the new template. The theory behind fluid layouts is sound – the user controls how the page looks – but in practice it’s difficult for developers and designers, especially where pages are dynamically generated.

Choosing which browsers to support was also a difficult decision for us. There is a careful balance between providing the best user experience for the majority of people or catering for the long tail. The majority of visitors use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Over two thirds of IE users are now using version 7 and usage of IE 6 is dropping every month.

So quite late on in the development process we decided to downgrade support for IE 6 to make browsing the site more reliable. The entire site is still accessible but some visual effects are missing. We may be able to reintroduce some of these in the coming weeks, but I would urge anyone still running IE6 to upgrade either to version 7, or another browser such as Firefox, Opera or Safari.

Speaking of Safari, the site also works best with version 3 which despite Apple’s slightly questionable deployment techniques is actually a very good web browser.

I’ll leave it there for now. If you have any comments on the new design, leave a comment, even if you think we’re “turning the Web into a Fisher-Price wonderland for simpletons” 🙂

Choice Part 4: eProspectus

Courses HomepageSo on to the first of our web applications! Unsurprisingly, quite a large (and important) part of our audience is people interested in studying at Edge Hill and the courses we offer so it’s important that the website makes it easy for visitors to find the information they need. To meet this requirement, a lot of work has been done on the “Study” area of the site. It’s fair to say that we’ve almost completely overhauled every aspect from content to design and navigation.

I’m not going to take the credit for this – there’s other people who’ve poured over every paragraph, photo and link to get it as good as possible – but I will talk about (and take the credit for ;-)) some of the systems we’ve developed. Just like the paper prospectus, sitting at the back of all the beautifully designed copy and images is the course listings. It might not be sexy, but it’s an important part of the process students go through before they apply to Edge Hill.

We’ve had an online course database for a number of years but the Big Brief has given us the opportunity to redevelop it from scatch and look at how people find the courses they’re interested in, the best ways to present information and some less interesting things on the backend that will make managing the information easier.

XCRIOver the last few years there has been much discussion and development in the HE community of ways of expressing and sharing course related information. Initial developments were maybe a little ambitious, encompassing DCDs and module information. More recently work has been done on a more focussed project – XCRI CAP – which is looking at the course marketing side of the equation and seems to be much more managable.

With a growing buzz surrounding XCRI CAP we decided late last summer that it was the way to go when implementing our new eProspectus and just before Christmas we applied for and won JISC funding for a mini project to integrate CAP 1.1 with our systems.

Course information is now completely served from a database. The database structure is based on the information we require to produce XCRI feeds (which will be coming very soon!) so we store details not just of what courses we offer, but different presentations (for example 2008 or 2009 entry, where entry requirements might be different). With course information available in the database, we’re able to embed lists of courses into the relevant areas across the site so updating the eProspectus updates all the pages that use it.

Courses tag cloudThe new back end has allowed us to add some new features to help visitors find what they’re looking for. As well as the A to Z list, you can now get lists of keywords or tags. Tagging is a useful way of navigating around information and we’re using it in a number of ways both internally and externally. We’ll talk about tags in the future because it’s an important part of working with the web.

My CoursesThe My Courses feature is still in development. Currently it allows you to add a number of courses to a “shopping basket and then compare some key details about them. In the future, we’ll be using this to provide a personalised downloadable prospectus and allow you to save the information for future reference. For applicants this is one of the first points where they start to engage with Edge Hill online.

The search engine deserves an entire post of its own but from the eProspectus side, search results are fully integrated with the entire site search yet contain information relevant to courses rather than simply a summary extract.

Once you’ve found the course you’re interested in the course details page is broken down into hopefully manageable chunks. Different years of entry have separate summaries; module information which not everyone will be interested is shifted to a separate tab.

So that’s it for our first newly redeveloped application. If you’ve got any comments or questions, please leave a comment.