Re-focus your eyes on a distant object

Last month I had to do an online health and safety assessment exercise that determined my understanding of health and safety matters to do with sitting at a desk all day staring at a PC monitor. I’m happy to report that I scored 100%.

As part of the instructional part of the exercise I was shown the following image:

Man sitting at desk, image of Arc de Triumph next to him.

It’s of a man, an office-worker we are to assume, sitting at a desk, in front of a PC and beneath him it reads:

Every 20 minutes or so, re-focus your eyes on a distant object to allow your eye muscles to relax.

and there’s a call-out with an image of the Arc de Triumph!

Re-focus your eyes on a distant object it says. My word! What kind of eyesight did they expect me to have that I should have to gaze at the Arc de Triumph from St Andrews?! Google Maps UK reckons that’s over 760 miles. Hardly relaxing!

This week we are been mostly re-focusing our eyes on the Grand Canyon.

New website for St Mary’s College

School of Divinity website

When I was a student at St Mary’s College (1989-1992), the Faculty of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, there was no such thing as the World Wide Web. So it feels a little surreal that I helped design, build and launch the website for my alma mater.

So it was that this evening, shortly after 5:00 pm, I published the new website for the University of St Andrews’ St Mary’s College, The School of Divinity.


I always feel a certain anticlimax when a site goes live. You work on the site for months (this project began in July 2007), looking at it, checking it and tweaking it day in, day out for weeks, or over a couple of months in some cases, and then all of a sudden it’s live: open for public viewing, and comment.

It’s not like a book launch. There’s no launch party. No celebratory crowd. Just me alone in my office once everyone else has gone home, deleting a symbolic link here, and pressing a button to start the publish there. Then checking it all, making a few changes and republishing … and that’s it.


There are still a few bits and pieces needing done (a few 360° photos, and some Camtasia video screencasts introducing prospective distance learning students to our VLE: Virtual Learning Environment, an OpenSearch description document, and some general tidying up and optimizations of the code).

Then it’s on to the next project, which for me is to create some Camtasia screencasts of my own to explain the website layout to new students.

Finding OpenSearch

Back in July at the IWMW 2008 conference — during those heady three days of summer we experienced in Aberdeen — I was introduced to a specification called OpenSearch, by someone I’d been following on Twitter who introduced himself as Mike Nolan of Edge Hill University, near Ormskirk.

What is OpenSearch?

If you use Mozilla Firefox or Internet Explorer 7 then you may already have encountered OpenSearch without knowing it. You may be familiar with the built-in search box within Firefox:

Screenshot of the Firefox search box

Well, OpenSearch is the technology that enables folks to provide plugins for that search box so that you can search their website from within the comfort of your browser’s own search box.

In other words, the reason that you can select from Google, Yahoo! Amazon, Creative Commons, and Wikipedia from your search box’s drop-down menu is because each of these companies created an OpenSearch description (plugin) file which has been installed within the search box on your browser.

Create your own

OpenSearch allows you to do the same for your own website, and the good news is that it’s fabulously simple. All that is required is:

  1. A short, well-formed XML file, written following the OpenSearch specifications
  2. A link to that file, within the <head> element of your webpage

This week I created three opensearch plugins for the University website. One for searching the whole site, one for searching the Current Students section, and another for the Current Staff section of the site.

If you’re using either Firefox or IE7 then head over to and you’ll notice that your search box glows a little, indicating the presence of a new OpenSearch plugin. (Check out Edge Hill while you’re at it, they’ve got one too.)

OpenSearch cheat sheet

While I was researching the OpenSearch specification I also took the trouble to create an OpenSearch cheat sheet — it’s spread over 2 x A4 pages, and the type is fabulously small, but it captures just about everything that I discovered was useful for me to successfully create and test the OpenSearch description documents that I created.

Feel free to download it:

  • OpenSearch cheat sheet 1.5 (PDF, 50 KB)

Scottish Web Folk

Tomorrow I’m giving a short presentation at the Scottish Web Folk meeting in Glasgow on OpenSearch, Microformats and adding search box hint text using the jQuery library.

My slides for the talk are embedded at the top of the page, and are released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 UK:Scotland Licence.

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.


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.


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!

More time please!


It’s just as well that my organization skills are honed because I’ve been seriously short of time these last couple of weeks. I’m considering putting in for a transfer to Mercury, whose length of day is 58.646 Earth days.

At the moment, as you probably know, I’m part of a two-person Web team. We’re currently putting the finishing touches to a new website design for the University. We’re now nearly four weeks overdue on our first deadline.

As Douglas Adams said “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

So last week, and particularly this week it’s been heads down and we’ve been working flat out to get the code finished and in a state that we can plug into TerminalFOUR SiteManager, our content management software tool. That process began today.

I’ve been bringing code home to work on as it’s the only way I was going to get it done; for example, I was up until 01:15 last night fixing bugs and generally tidying things up. A special mention to the unbelievably awkward Internet Explorer 6!

So, I can’t see myself getting much serious blogging done this week. I can’t seem to switch off very easily from this project … but once it’s done, once it’s into the system things will calm down somewhat and I can relax again.

Here’s to next week …