IWMW 2015: Agile content
Considering that the digital communications team is committed to working in an agile manner, and I’m the lead digital content person for the University, a workshop titled “Working in an agile way: content creation, delivery and standards” was always going to appeal to me. It was actually the main reason that I jumped at the chance of going to this year’s IWMW, even though I knew I’d have to attend on my own. I definitely wanted to see and hear how the University of Bath’s digital team – whose blog has long been an oft checked resource for me – were using agile in their content processes.
The workshop from the team at Bath was really impressive – and an eye opener for me in a way I did not expect. You can find a video of a related presentation that Rich Prowse and the team gave below.
The workshop covered three main areas: developing a vision for content, discovery and user stories, and collaborative working.
Developing a vision
Perhaps the part of the session that I enjoyed most, the team from Bath outlined how necessary it is to have a vision which is shared by content editors and stakeholders alike. This is one of the hardest things for a large decentralised organisation, so the focus on this from the presenters was very much appreciated by everyone there. As a digital professional who works on a website which has over 300,000 web assets just on the main content management system, it’s hard to keep one eye on the bigger picture – it’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by the task facing us and just find myself firefighting on a daily basis.
So how do we develop a vision which we keep focused on regardless of what we’re faced with? Bath showed us their roadmap, which starts with the digital principles that they keep coming back to in all of their projects.
These principles aren’t just for content creation – they also hold for design, for information architecture, for how we make decisions. Here at St Andrews we have a similar list from before we started working in an agile manner, but these probably need to be updated in light of the agile system we now work in.
The point of principles like these is that they sit a level higher than the day-to-day decisions we make; they inform us, and in term, they give the people we work with a understanding not just how we work but why we do so. We want to reach a point where the work that we do is ingrained in other people’s jobs and mindsets – and that comes from educating them over time; repeatedly pointing to our principles, using the same process every time we work on a project.
So the first piece of homework for this session was to come back to St Andrews and establish what our visions is, and how that relates to our principles.
The team at Bath then gave some examples of how we could all build agile principles into our content creation processes. Rather than just explaining to us how to do this, in pairs, we were each asked to think of a problem in our institution, what a potential solution to it would be, and then express the benefits. This came especially naturally to me – this exercise is very similar to the one we do with colleagues who have an idea for a digital project. Rather than allowing people to come to us with an idea for a solution, we instead request that they come to us with a business problem. Once the problem has been communicated, we can then work with them to outline a range of different solutions to the problem, jotting down the costs and benefits of each option as we do so. Not only does this mean that the digital communications team understand the business problem, it gives us an opportunity to explain the constraints of the technology and systems we are using, and to truly judge whether the solution we had in mind at the beginning of the session is the most effective one.
A good example of how we’ve put this into practise at St Andrews is on the webpages we created for the new sexual misconduct policy. While the original plan was simply to put PDF files of the policies online, a meeting with the relevant stakeholders allowed us to understand that students may need to access these pages at any time, using a range of devices. Understanding how important it is that this content is accessible allowed us to take the content from the PDFs and re-purpose it into webpages which are responsive. This also allowed us to educate the department we were working with about what web accessibility is, and why it’s important. The new pages now meet a wider range of users’ needs.
This example feeds into the next section of the seminar from the team from Bath. They pointed out how important the discovery phase was; not only to create a good product, but also to educate, to change the conversation. Getting stakeholders involved makes them feel responsible for the things which are created, and they’re more likely to defend the final product too. So how should we do this? Rather than preaching to them, we should get colleagues involved right from the beginning.
How? By asking them to write users stories, by getting them involved in verifying user personas or journeys, by asking them what tasks people are trying to do offline and seeing how that relates to our online efforts. During the seminar at IWMW, we each were asked to write down on post-its some user stories which might relate to the students using a university website. By then collating our post-its, we could see which ideas came up again and again, as well as sorting our user stories into things which were related to one another – a card sorting exercise. All of these things are techniques which we use on a regular basis, but it was a buoying experience to see another team (who I have a lot of respect for!) practising the same things which have become so vital for us here at St Andrews.
Finally, the team walked us through the benefits of collaborative working and some tools which can help with this. From the time when the digital communications team were split across two offices, I think that I was especially vocal about how important it is to be able to collaborate with not only the direct team, but also with the colleagues from other departments and units. Like Bath, we are big advocates of Trello – a tool which allows us to list tasks, allocate them to people and move them across task boards – as well as daily stand-up meetings, where we go through our Trello board and talk about the things we were working on yesterday, our plans for the day and any blockers we foresee.
Also like Bath, we use this blog as one aspect of the community building that we think is so important. As well as posting here, we invite members of staff to our monthly Digital Advisory Board (DAB) where we discuss the work we are doing and present on pressing issues such as social media or new web requirements. We also send out a monthly email newsletter to DAB members – pointing out useful articles, updating people on our projects and offering training opportunities. All of these things are vital for us to build strong relationships across the institution – and this, in turn, makes our projects run more efficiently and more enjoyably.
This seminar with the team from the University of Bath was so inspiring to me; partly because it gave examples of ways to work and tools to use – but also because it showed me that the things which we are doing at St Andrews are similar to the processes at other institutions that we think are doing great work. As the guys from Bath have said – being an agile team is hard. It requires us to be really purposeful in our projects – asking hard questions, sometimes saying ‘wait’ or (God forbid!) ‘no’. Just knowing that more and more people are starting to see the benefits of using agile to manage our content needs makes it a lot easier to keep at it – so thanks guys!