For the last 5 years in Web Services, we’ve been consumed by the mammoth task of migrating content from the old website (which uses t4 content management system) to the new (which uses Drupal). Literally tens of thousands of pages have been migrated in that period. At times, it has felt without end but at last there is light at the end of the tunnel with the last handful of websites now due to be migrated by the end of March.

It’s the kind of work that often goes unnoticed or even taken for granted and it would be easy to assume it could be automated in some way. However, it’s very much a manual task. To say it’s just copy and paste though really does the task a disservice. The reality is that content specialists in the team engage with different parts of the business to understand their goals and users’ needs, audit their existing content, examine the data, and identify how it could map into our new content model.

Questions, questions…

As content is earmarked for migration, we tend to ask ourselves the same questions.

What is this?

‘What’ something is, is very important and useful in the world of content. ‘What’ alludes to purpose and function. If someone can identify, at a glance, the purpose of an item of content, then it helps them decide whether to invest time in reading it. As we define the purpose and structure of content, we begin to see commonalities and patterns and these help us organise content effectively and efficiently.

‘What’ something is also helps us decide where it should be surfaced in the user’s journey and tagged in different ways to maximise its visibility and find-ability.

Who is it for?

It’s on the website so it must be for someone, right? Sadly, not always. An item of content might have had a clear user need in the past but that need might no longer exist or perhaps is served in other ways now. When dealing with content on a legacy system that’s built up over years, content that once had a defined audience is left to languish, forgotten, and neglected as shiny new content takes its place. In a content migration project, it’s our responsibility to clarify that user needs still exists.

Is it accurate?

The risk is that old content gets in the way of new, bloats the website search and, even worse, provides inaccurate and out of date information. Frustrating for users and potentially a big risk for the business (particularly in relation to policy and compliance type content).

Inevitably, a lot of old, redundant, inaccurate content is unearthed in the content migration process – yes, we’ve come across lots!

Is it readable and understandable?

During a typical content migration project, we will always look for ways to make content more readable. Take, for example, headings. Headings are good on the web. Headings help our brain quickly process and scan a page. More people should use headings. Consider the following headings:

  • Learn how to deal with difficult relationships
  • Difficult relationships and how to deal with them

On the face of it, not much difference? Perhaps not, but when the user is presented with a text heavy page broken up with multiple headings, we should take opportunities to reduce the cognitive load of processing so much information. As people scan information left to right, it’s best to front-load the terms that are more likely to be useful to them. If they are searching for information on ‘difficult relationships’, then make sure those words are at the start of relevant headings rather than at the end. You will literally save them time if you front-load key words.

How will someone find it?

The more traditional way of finding something on a university website required the user to have some knowledge of the organisational structure (to navigate a hierarchy of pages). That’s quite a big assumption, particularly for external users who may know nothing about us.

As we have migrated content, it’s true that we’ve built pages that reflect our organisational structure, but our aim isn’t to silo content within these groups. Instead, we’ll take measures to optimise the content to ensure it can be surfaced in different ways that maximise its visibility. Examples of this might be ensuring that keywords are in the title of a page (so Google can recognise it easily) or tagging it with appropriate categories so someone can narrow down a list of results on our website search.

One example of the different ways users navigate to information is visits to the pay scales for academic and support staff page.

  • There have been almost 34,000 visits to this page in the last year.
  • 2,800 visits came via the HR or Payroll pages.
  • 1,200 visits were direct to the page via our website search.
  • 22,000 visits came direct from a search engine.

Clearly, Google is the go-to method for finding this information for many users in this instance.

In the case of the pay scales for academic and support staff page, it also helps that we spent a significant amount of time ensuring that it’s readable and is usable on mobile as well as desktop. (See Claire’s blog post from last year).

Observations on 4 years of content migration

Never again!

Obviously, we would prefer to wait a considerable amount of time before we migrate an entire university again – or ideally never! Who knows what the future holds but one way of ensuring this isn’t such an onerous task again is by becoming better at content maintenance. Yes, that means deleting things regularly (gasp!) but also making time to audit our content and ensure that information is up to date, accurate, and fit for purpose. A smaller website with quality content is always going to provide a better experience than a sprawling website where users have to navigate poor content to find the useful stuff.

An intranet would help

The lack of a corporate intranet has meant that the website has had to perform a dual purpose in providing content for internal and external users. This was true on the old website and it’s still the case, to an extent, on the new. The potential downside of this is that internally facing content disrupts the user journey of key external audiences such as prospective students. To mitigate against this and where appropriate, we’ve encouraged departments and services to make use of SharePoint for documents intended for staff and current students.

We have a PDF addiction

A big part of the migration project has involved moving content from hundreds of PDFs to publish it as HTML pages. PDFs are harder to use for someone with accessibility needs, for example you cannot change the background colour. The scale of this task has meant we’ve had to take a pragmatic approach at times, e.g. long, multi-page documents designed to be printed are often still published as PDFs. However, where possible short documents have been published as HTML content.

There are steps we can take to make PDFs more accessible, but it often comes down to what extent best practice has been followed in the original source document (generally Word documents). There’s a huge opportunity to train staff in creating accessible documents but that’s beyond our remit for now. In the meantime, we’ve created some guides around this subject that might be of use:

Creating accessible documents

Publishing PDFs on the University website

Speak to us!

So, as we hurtle towards the end of March and bid a not so tearful goodbye to the old website, we hope that you notice the benefits of the new. The team here in Web Services have done an incredible job. Nothing is perfect of course and there’s always improvements to be made. That’s why we welcome your feedback on any aspect of the website. It’s only through engaging with users, external or internal, that it will continue to be sector leading.

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