Tuesday, December 20, 2005

News publishing update

The new news publishing process (a daily news item published on the Intranet home page) has been underway for approximately 2 months now.

It has been very successful but there are a lot of things we can improve.

We have set up a 'Contributors Group' involving members of staff throughout the Company who are in a good position to hear about events in different departments. They can then all contribute stories to the features list. This group has met twice over the past 2 months and all members are enthusiastic about the process.

The current process is:
  • Author is asked for a story
  • Editor reviews the story and sends a copy to the secondary review group
  • Secondary review group make changes/comments and return to the editor stating whether further investigation is required or not
  • Editor amends as appropriate and sends to secondary review group a second time
  • Cycle continues until all groups are satisfied with the resulting article
  • Author reviews the final article
  • If it is thought necessary a copy of the article is sent to the secondary review group (for instance if the author wanted changes making)
  • If there are no further changes the article is published
This is a long and time consuming process. Especially because we didn't have a bank of prepared articles when we started off so have found ourselves frantically trying to get ahead.

Once we are ahead things are very much easier and this process works OK - but it does still need to be streamlined. We are still doing far too much re-writing of stories instead of editing them. We have a number of options on how to change this. For example asking the author for a more focused article will help (our subjects have been too broad); asking for people to try and stick to a word limit (we've not set a word limit at all yet).

So, in the New Year we will be making some changes.

The new editorial process will be:
  • The 'Contributors Group' will decide the editorial schedule based on the features list. At these meetings we will plan the focus and length of the article wherever possible.
  • Author is asked for an article on a focussed topic of a specified length and sends it to the editor for review.
  • The editor emails the editorial group to say the piece is ready for wider review.
  • It's reviewed and agreed or marked for further investigation.
  • If the further changes are not extensive there will be no secondary review cycle.
  • If the changes are extensive the article will be reviewed a second time.
  • Before the article is published the author reviews it.
Things should be easier with advance preparation and planning, a shorter review cycle, more focussed articles and an editorial shedule which is based on the length of each article. We'll review it again after the changes have been implemented and used for some time.

We know there are a lot of changes to make and the process is one which will constantly evolve, however we have to remember the successful part.

Before we started this the Company Newsletter was a very short summary of events in a PDF, published monthly. People were required to send in content but there often wasn't space to include all that they sent. Large cuts had to be made and there was no means for the author to review before publication.

We transformed this in 2 stages:
  1. Delivery format - from PDF to HTML
  2. The process - from mandatory submissions to requests to write by an editorial team
The first stage took the PDF and changed its appearance to be more like a web publication than a print one. Then a website was made and all the stories had a short extract on the home page with the full article in a further page. The design was deliberately bold and bright to draw attention to the fact that it was very, very different.

We did research into the way people read the stories on this website and found that they didn't have time to read such a lot of information in one go - it was still being published monthly. Also there were some usability problems. Due to time and other work pressures the site had only been tested minimally and people were a bit confused. For example, we had tried to keep some similarity to the PDF in the way that the short extracts were laid out on the page. This meant that people didn't expect there to be any further content and so didn't click on the items to read further.

A major change was made to the presentation of the site. We did away with the front page linking to the articles from a short summary and published a full story on the front page and linked to the other stories in categories. These categories were almost impossible to find because they were totally artificial. We didn't get too concerned about about this as we were not planning to keep this format. The bold colour was also changed and the design was very simple and basic. We used this new website for a few publications and then did a usability survey on it.

The main concern that people had was about having the time to read news stories whilst they were at work, in fact most people were not reading any of it. We were fairly certain that this was due to the volume of stories published in one batch at the end of a month. This was also very difficult to manage editorially whilst also producing news that was both informative and interesting.

We asked people whether they would prefer to read a story a day throughout the month but they found it very difficult to tell. Some people couldn't say at all and some people liked the sound of the idea but were concerned that they would have to 'go looking' for news.

Publishing daily news stories on the home page had been our intention for the new Intranet. With so many people unable to imagine this and so many people being concerned about the way to deliver it we were slightly concerned that our plan would need to be changed.

We introduced the daily news stories, publishing them on the home page of the current Intranet to see how well people liked it.

This was a major success. People are reading the stories either daily or at the end of the week (when a weekly review email is sent out by the editor) and they are talking to each other about what has been published.

This position is a huge step from where we started so the overall feeling is very positive and although we have to make some changes to the editorial process we will probably always have to let this process evolve.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

About the design and build

The design looks like this (identites protected!)

The pages are built using HTML 4.01 with a CSS layout. Minor tweaking required for IE5.2 mac and the PDAs but otherwise all OK.

It was really nice seeing the site come up and work a PDA without any changes to the stylesheet!

Progress - almost, sort of!

The pages are built, templates are created. We've had people come to help us pasting in content and linking pages together, the 1st section of the site is really taking shape.


OK - I mean 'but' - we have problems.

The problems are with Macromedia Contribute.

When creating pages based on a certain template the paths in relative links to the stylesheets and the scripts are not updated. So the path remains the same as it is in the template and the links don't work because the new page is saved in a different location to the template. Interesting - Macromedia Support are looking into it at the moment!

It also seems to crash unexpectedly for no apparent reason. (Network problems also caused some of the crashes).

We also witnessed some very strange behaviour - caused by us doing something wrong which triggered the most bizarre situation.

Linking some text to a page on the website by highlighting the text, right clicking and selecting 'insert link'. OK fine, insert link dialogue box appears with the default selection of 'drafts and recent pages'. The page to link to isn't in the list so you go to 'browse to page on website'. You know that you haven't linked to the page yet so you can't browse to it. So then you go to 'link to a file on my computer' browse through the webserver (which you have mapped as a drive) find the file and publish.

Oops! You are not supposed to do this. You're supposed to select 'choose' an option which shows up underneath 'browse to a page on your website' and get a dialogue box with the website folder structure to browse through. OK, we know we did the wrong thing.

However, if you do make this mistake you can't get out of it!

You are prompted with the question (in similar words) 'this file already exists, do you want to either overwrite your copy or save a copy with a similar name'. And it does this with a number of files - like the site stylesheets and images etc. which is very confusing and each time you have to select an option. So to be cautious you select - 'save a copy'. Then it goes on to publish the files and takes ages. You're now thinking 'why would 3 pages take so long to publish?'

Well, it's because it's publishing a copy of all the pages on the website inside the folder you're working in. And it changes the links from documents higher up to point to the copies created!

OK, a stupid situation caused by a mistake, fine. But now there's a whole load of mess to clean up and all for the want of a cancel button!

(The situation has been reported to Macromedia and they are going to make a note of it for the next release).