Paul Boag on digital comms in Higher Education

Last week, Acquia and Numiko hosted a discussion between digital comms teams in higher education and user experience consultant Paul Boag. Here are some of the questions raised, and what the group had to say...

How do I design a content hierarchy that keeps stakeholders happy?

You HAVE to prioritise. If you try and please everyone, you’ll please no-one. Understand the primary, secondary and tertiary objectives of a project and use this as basis for making UI decisions. Apply the laws of simplicity. Ask yourself, ‘Can I remove this content’? If not, ‘Can I hide it?’ By which we mean giving it lower prominence in the IA or creating a url that stakeholders can share but isn’t indexed by main site. Thirdly, ask ‘Can I visually reduce the significance of this content?’

But above all, push a UX agenda! It’s the best way to reach consensus.

Who should be in my digital team?

Digital teams are usually a weird hybrid of comms and IT. This can lead to a power struggle. The answer is ‘blended professionals’. These people should act as consultants to those procuring digital solutions and help to broker relationships. A digital comms team should be made up of communicators and educators: digital evangelists.

Or, move towards having a user experience team instead of a digital one.

…but hang on a minute, what about the devs?

Ideally they’d form part of your team of blended professionals or user experience experts, but groups recognise the potential to alienate those individuals from colleagues in software solutions, intranet, networks, hosting etc. Isolation is bad for technical innovation and Heads of Marketing rarely have the experience to effectively manage developers. The answer might be matrix management, where who you sit with doesn’t necessarily need to be your line manager.

How do I avoid having too many people editing our website?

A ‘hub and spoke’ model has worked well elsewhere. Each department has a ‘digital person’ they can rely on to manage content effectively and public affairs teams can have confidence that the tone of voice is consistent. It’s about centralised control, distributed management. Essentially the ambition is to have a sort-of-journalist in each team.

This is not the reality in most places though. Most HE’s have hundreds of CMS editors and usually 2, 3 or even 4 content management systems on the go at any one time.

How do I negotiate the need to maintain an institutional tone of voice whilst giving departments scope to differentiate?

When people say ‘we need our own brand’ what they usually mean is ‘we need control over our own content’. Give them this.

Developing a pattern library enables you to maintain consistency in your UI patterns (thus enhancing the user journey) whilst also giving departments the flexibility to work within a broad but distinct set of visual guidelines.

Creating a service manual helps, too. This should set out your proposed approach; essentially a manifesto for content production and management.

Should I migrate all my content onto the new site following a redesign?

No! This is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to have a good clear out. Add it back in if someone complains, but don’t admit defeat first. Insist that each piece of content meets a clearly articulated organisational objective and/or user requirement.

To avoid stakeholders trying to squeeze too much onto a homepage, build policies and procedures rather than fight battles every time.

Check out Paul’s blog post on why higher education institutions should go open source: