A very creative year so far …

Right Twin - week 19
Right twin at 19 weeks

In many ways 2008 has been a very odd year for me, for many reasons. Of course it opened with the IVF procedures that led to Jane discovering that she was pregnant, that led to us discovering that she was pregnant with twins.

During the last six months we’ve been filled with delight, trepidation, excitement, nervousness, wonder, a whole spectrum of emotions. And here we are now at week 27.

For those who don’t know, a full-term pregnancy is generally regarded to be 40 weeks. Twins, we’re told, generally make an appearance early, round about weeks 35-37. So we could have another 10 weeks; we could have more, we could have less. We’ll continue to trust God, and wait in quiet expectation.

I was born to reflect and not shine

It’s been a funny year where I’ve blogged a whole lot less, but gone out and done a whole lot more — but then didn’t come back here and share it with you all … sorry about that, but I guess I’ve needed that time to reflect. I’ve felt myself go deeper within myself — go into my ‘cave’, Jane might say — and reflect on where I am, who I am, and what it means to be expecting children: two, at once!

I’m not entirely sure where I am, or what to expect, it’s all a very new experience for me. But one thing I can say with certainty is that I’m really looking forward to meeting the boys now, and I’ll certainly give it my best shot.

I learned a lot of good things from my own dad, hopefully I can pass some of that love and laughter on to my own boys, and make up some weird nonsense of my own to hand on to them!

I just really wish that Dad was still here to meet them too when they arrive. (Again, for those who don’t know: my Dad had a triple brain haemorrhage in 1983, was really quite ill for about 15 years and died shortly after New Year in 1998. Ten years ago: another contribution to the oddness of 2008.)

New design

But 2008 also opened with another creative process: the redesign of the University of St Andrews website, which was launched to the public (having been in what I guess we could call ‘closed beta’ if we wanted to go all Web 2.0 with y’all) last night.

Here’s a screenshot of the external homepage:

Screenshot of University of St Andrews website
Screenshot of the new design for the University of St Andrews website.

“But… didn’t you just launch a new design last year?! Why do you need another new design?” Quite a few folk have asked us that over the course of the last few months, and it’s a good question to ask.

When we did the first relaunch of the University site it was more than just a new visual design, it was a completely new website: new design, new architecture, new way to update and manage the content, new … everything.

We designed and built the site according to the excellent wireframes that had been developed in collaboration with us by Dynamic Diagrams, an information architecture company from the States. They were great, we learned a lot from them, and for me that was one of the most exciting parts of the project.

Listening

But like any design, the then-new design was a “best bet”, it was the closest that we got to what we perceived we would need from the site. So we built it, launched it and let it settle in for six months while all the time listening for where the design wasn’t working properly, where we needed more flexibility, and crucially: what the users were asking for.

We got a little more explicit by inviting both staff and students to feedback sessions over lunch, where we bribed them with food to tell us what they really thought of the site, what they liked about the site, what they felt could be done better, and what was missing.

I went into those sessions expecting to feel very defensive, but came out of all three sessions feeling quite buoyed and encouraged. It felt good to listen to our ‘customers’, and from the feedback from those sessions mixed in with our own collation of ideas from helpdesk calls, as well as our own thoughts and observations we set about redesigning the site. And this time we didn’t touch the structure (much), we looked instead solely at the visual design and its functionality.

New design

We wanted something that was:

  • Clean, fresh and contemporary
  • Not too far from what we already had
  • Easy to maintain, and extend
  • Compatible with the most number of browsers (old and new)

The site itself is built on the Blueprint CSS framework, with a number of tweaks, which helped us address most of these requirements.

What was particularly impressive about Blueprint was how it allowed us to ‘sketch’ designs in code faster than we were able to do it with a graphic design package. And nothing looks more like a web page than a web page!

So for the last seven months or so I’ve been diligently working on the code, often times taking it home to work on in the evenings and at the weekend. I’ve working on it some nights past 01:00, and some mornings before 05:00.

It really has been a labour of love, but then … I believe in the University of St Andrews, and I love my job. St Andrews is where I did my undergraduate degree, I feel an incredible loyalty to the place and sincerely want to do the best for the University.

Launch

So at five pm last night we scheduled the new site to launch … and ran away!

At home we waited with baited breath while the new design for the University of St Andrews website was published to the public web server, and then breathed a sigh of relief that we’d got most of the planning right.

There were a couple of sections (sport, music, UTREC) that we’d overlooked and had published out with the wrong design, but on the whole it went without a hitch.

… until there was a serious power outage in St Andrews during the afternoon today and all our systems (including the web server) went down! You can’t have everything … like a new design and the ability to look at it!

And relax!

Nearly there … developing a WordPress theme


Nearly there with WordPress on 12seconds.tv

Today … yesterday … and the day before … in fact, why didn’t I just say “This week…”?!

This week I’ve been playing around with WordPress, trying to work out how best to get the navigation for a site that I’ve been tinkering with — for about two years now” — to work with the least amount of effort.

The site is for the Christian Fellowship of Healing (Scotland), and after much faffing about trying to decide which content management system to use (Joomla!, WordPress, Drupal, ExpressionEngine …?) I’ve finally come to my senses and settled on the mighty WordPress.

So now I’m working on converting my design into a static HTML page, and from there into a fully-fledged, working WordPress theme.

And I’m nearly there. Not least because WordPress has come on in leaps and bounds since I last developed a full site with it. When I last built something big it was with version 2.0.0.8 — we’re now at 2.6, which represents an enormous jump in functionality and usability.

I’ve been playing around with a number of themes making sure that the navigation works as I intend it to. Let’s hear it for:

  • The WordPress wp_list_pages() function.
  • The default wp_list_pages() classes
    • .current_page_item
    • .current_page_parent
    • .current_page_ancestor
  • er…
  • that’s it!

The trial continues tomorrow …

Projects

Pebble beach

The antibiotics appear to be beginning to work, although I’m predictably now feeling a little rougher around the edges and more tired. But nothing that a handful of pills and a month in bed won’t fix!

Sadly, that’s not going to happen though.

Job satisfaction

Work is incredibly busy just now. (When is it not?) But I’m still loving it.

I was chatting to another Web developer today as we walked back from a meeting through St Salvator’s Quad. He works in Development — that’s the Alumni Office to you and me … that’s folks who’ve graduated from the University … oh, never mind! — anyway, he was saying just how much he loves his job too.

What’s not to love. We’re situated in St Andrews for one, which is one of the most beautiful towns in Scotland (after Selkirk, of course!), even on the dreariest of days. Every day is different, working with great people on exciting projects.

Folks often ask if I mind working in a job where I sit at a computer all day. But it’s not like that. The Web is about communication, which is about people. Most days I spend about as much time meeting with folks face-to-face, or speaking on the phone as I do sitting in front of a monitor. I actually get out-and-about more now than when I was in the parish!

Projects

I’m often asked what I do at work, so without trying to give away any industrial secrets here’s a list of the 17 projects I’m currently working on (in order of deadline):

  1. Finish RSS feeds
  2. Collaborate on Web strategy and policy documents
  3. Create pages for Deans and Pro Deans information
  4. Rework Staff Development ordering of courses, and develop podcast feed
  5. Organise Scottish Agricultural College and University of Aberdeen visit to St Andrews
  6. Career Bridges (Managing Operations) homework
  7. Lunch time Web feedback sessions
  8. Migrate Business Improvements website into content management system
  9. eVision (portal) categorization and redesign
  10. Library website design tweak
  11. University Website CSS – rewrite as modular framework
  12. Assist in restructuring of Erasmus site
  13. Plan migration of Freedom of Information (FOI) Publication Scheme
  14. Re-design School of Divinity website
  15. Create documentation / video guides for content management system training
  16. Write presentation for IWMW 2008 conference in Aberdeen
  17. Organize content management system developer training

Whew! Just as well I have Outlook and my PDA to manage and keep track of all these projects.

In other work-related news: my new work PC was ordered today. It’s a Dell Precision 690 — Dual core Intel Xeon processor, 4 GB RAM, twin graphics cards, 250 GB SATA2 hard drive: fast, solid and won’t crash on me every couple of hours. It should arrive tomorrow or Friday, seemingly. Yay!

There’s no place like http://127.0.0.1

Back home I’ve got two major Web projects that I’m working on: one for a client in Edinburgh, the other for my mother-in-law’s enneagram business.

I’m still getting my head around Joomla! 1.5 for the former; this evening I was working on graphics for the latter. For one of the images I settled on the beach scene above — I just hope that it’s close to what she was hoping for.

Finding the right CMS for my project

Content Management
Photo by ravennce

Sorry about the lack of proper blogging over the last few days. I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing: I’m looking for the right content management software for a website project I’m working on.

So I’m spending the evenings either trawling through web pages of documentation, trawling through pages of books about specific content management systems, or trying them out for myself either at www.opensourcecms.com or on the vendor’s own website.

What I’m looking for

Ease of use
The clients that I’m working with are not technically-minded — they are ordinary human, sentient, non-geek beings like you and … well, like you (probably) — so the CMS that I pick has to be easy to use.

So that rules out about half the opensource CMS applications out there just now.

Customizable
I need to be able to completely customize the site, as though it was a traditional, static site. I don’t want it to look like a portal with limited blocks of content. Also, it would be great if it could be fairly easily customizable using a combination of mostly XHTML and CSS. I don’t want anything that I have to use an unnecessary amount of PHP just to generate an XHTML document, or translate swathes of code into XLST or YYZ or whatever before it works.

So that rules out about another 25% of systems!

Site structure
I need to easily build the information architecture in it, and (preferably) have the CMS manage and automatically build the sub-navigation lists. It would also be great to be able to see the site structure in some visual form.

There go the rest!

Ideally, I’d like to build it in TERMINALFOUR SiteManager — I could have it built and finished in a couple of days with SiteManager. But unfortunately my clients don’t have a spare £50k lying around to spend on web software!

My current short-list

At the moment my short-list comprises of (in alphabetical order):

Drupal

http://drupal.org/

To be honest, Drupal is currently on my list simply because I haven’t yet ruled it out! But I’m attracted to Drupal and have heard good things about it.

I also own a book about Drupal: Building Online Communities with Drupal, phpBB, and WordPress and Drupal is the only one of the three that I’ve not properly delved into yet.

ExpressionEngine

http://expressionengine.com/

This came as quite a surprise to me, because ExpressionEngine (or EE) is a commercial product, with a very reasonable pricing plan: free for the blog edition or US$99 for the full version if you’re building a non-commercial, or non-profit, site.

I also really like the documentation (there’s lots of it, and some of it is video). But most importantly the back-end looks simple enough to use, and it appears to have the customization features that I’m looking for.
I look forward to checking this out some more …

WordPress

http://wordpress.org/

And of course: my beloved WordPress. WordPress fits almost all of my criteria … and with the creation of some cunning templates I think I could get my customized navigation to work. It may need some cunning PHP tweakery but I know that it would almost immediately fit the bill.

Conclusion

But that’s the thing … I know that I could most easily build the site that I want, with the features that I want with WordPress — it just gets better and better — but I didn’t want to simply take the easy road: I wanted to take a step back and evaluate the opensource CMS scene once again to see what else is out there, and have their back-end interfaces got any better.

Sadly, I think on the whole the answer is a resounding no. WordPress absolutely rocks … I’ve yet to fully understand the CMS model that Drupal uses, and if I end up not going with WordPress then it looks (at the moment) that ExpressionEngine is the way to go … and that’s a commercial product.

Drupal, phpBB and WordPress

Here’s an interesting find. I did a search on Amazon for Drupal and found this yet-to-be-published book, from APress:

Building Online Communities with Drupal, phpBB, and WordPress, by Robert T. Douglass, Mike Little and Jared W. Smith (APress, November 2005, ISBN 1-59059-562-9).

Building Online Communities with Drupal, phpBB and WordPress

(The hyperlinks point to the Apress website, not Amazon UK.)

Two technologies that I already use (phpBB and WordPress) and one that I’d like to learn more about (Drupal).