My notes and overview on HighEdWeb Pittsburgh

April 12, 2014

Pittsburgh at sunset

hewebpittI wasn't quite sure what to expect from my first conference. HighEd Web Pittsburgh by far exceeded my expectations and I'm glad it was my introduction to these types of events. What I found was a bunch of people who are in the same line of work as me, facing the same challenges, and offering advice in a warm atmosphere that fosters learning and growing. If you're ever considering going to a HighEd Web conference, I'd highly recommend it.

Below I'm going to give a brief rundown of the talks that I attended.

I'm mostly going from memory here, so if I have something about a certain talk wrong, please don't hesitate to clarify in the comments. It'd be greatly appreciated!

Without People, You’re Nothing - Georgy Cohen

This talk kicked off the conference making the point that no matter what we're doing in higher ed, dealing with people is one of the biggest aspects of your job. Learning how to properly navigate those waters can lead to increased output from everyone involved and an overall better workplace. She touched on themes of empathy, listening, cooperation, and understanding.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle

Everyone has ideas for how their organizations should be run, but something that Georgy emphasized was that for a lot of people, change is scary. Your ideas of how to do things affect people's lives. Changing your group's workflow can literally change someone's life and take them out of their comfort zone, so it should be approached with empathy.

The path to change is paved with mutual respect.

Without everyone working together, your team is a broken machine. A broken machine can only produce sub-par work. The solution to a broken machine is to try to get everyone on the same page with a strategy. In the context of this conference, this meant coming up with a communications strategy: the "holy grail" of communication's offices. However, this notion of strategy is far too abstract and should be solidified into a framework for everyone's everyday work. This type of framework can empower teams and individuals to be working towards the same goal(s).

We all know how it is though in practice, once in a while we get together and come up with a kumbaya strategy that has lofty goals, then the next day everyone goes back to their broken ways. How do we combat this?

Be the change, it starts with us.

The only way out is to stop waiting for permission and to start leading.

Be your own advocate and just keep selling your ideas. Another powerful tip is to start building relationships with like-minded people. There's strength in numbers and if you talk to some other people in your office, you may find they feel the same way as you do.

A part of the talk that stood out to me is when she showed a slide of a hedgehog as a symbol for that person that is difficult to work with (luckily I don't think I've met that person where I work yet ;-) ). Even though we associate this person with being a large pain in our sides, they can often present an awesome opportunity. This person can have ideas you've never considered and are often coming from a place of more experience. If you go so far as to actually include them in future projects, they may end up being your biggest advocate.

The hardest people to work with may have the most useful things to bring to the table.

Getting back to "strategy", Georgy went into some examples and gave us some tips for how we might come up with such strategies. She gave some links for some Universities that are "doing it right" so we could take a look. The only one I remembered to write down is Ball State University's.

Reaching out to everyone who plays a part in your communication strategy is very important. Often times it's administrative assistants who are in charge of updating the web content. They do the best they can, but often times have no communications training.

Training is not just about how to use the CMS. It's about knowing how to use the right tools for the right purpose.

In other words, the CMS is a small part of what the training should be. Know how to compose quality content then use the CMS to convey that. Having online resources that people can reference is a great start. Creating "content affinity" groups can also be a huge help.

Other tips include having an example driven style guide. Don't just tell people to write engaging content. Take it a step further and show them an example of what engaging content is. A good example of this is the University of Denver's "Voice and Tone" guide. Have public written criteria for what is considered good content.

Creating Mobile-friendly Web Forms - Joe McGill

This was one of my favorite talks of the day, mainly because it dealt with an area that is very relevant to me: user experience. The overall theme of this talk, in my opinion, was "less is more". A lot of marketing people look at a form as their one shot to get data from users, so they load it up with questions. This may actually be hurting the usability of the form and turning people off completely. Joe gave an analogy that really drives the point home.

Think of a movie theater transaction. When you go to the ticket booth, they attendant asks what movie you'd like to see, then asks for your payment, then gives you a ticket. It's quick and to the point. Now imagine going to the window and after asking what movie you'd like, they'd hand you a clipboard with 20 questions like a first time visit to a doctor's office. It'd be super annoying. And that's the point. Don't be annoying. Only ask for the information that you absolutely need. The importance of mobile-friendly forms becomes apparent when you look at the increase in mobile traffic. People want to do everything they can do on a desktop on their mobile phones.

Phones may not be the best kind of computer, but it's the one I always have on me.

A good place to start is to audit your current forms on your site. Look at what you have and look for opportunities to improve.

Redesigning 101

  • Try limit inputs to 7 or less. There is actual data showing conversion/engagement dropping if there's too many fields to fill out.
  • Ask: Can I postpone this question until later? Figure out the minimum amount of information you need to get.
  • Get important information first, then maybe have a screen saying "Succes! Thanks for registering, would you mind filling out more information?" This has actually worked on me before.
  • Again, reduce inputs.
  • Instead of asking for city, state, and zip, just ask for the zip code and use some back-end magic to figure out the city and state.
  • HTML5 placeholder attribute doesn't substitute for label elements. Screen readers still look for labels.
  • Use checkboxes for yes/no or true/false answers instead of two radio buttons.
  • Use touch friendly targets (at least 44px x 44px as recommended by Apple)
  • Use feature detection to determine what to load/what is supported

Example of clever input field usage. This is a video showing an awesome expression of the notion of "reduce inputs"


Death to Governance... Embrace the Chaos - Tonya Oaks Smith & Ron Bronson (aka Ronya)

This was a high energy, fun talk that had a lot of informative information in it. There was a sense of duality in this talk because one speaker talked of governance and the other talked of chaos. Ronya started out with a resource to help one (wo)man departments at Universities who feel disconnected called HigherEd Solo.

When it comes to governance, there isn't a silver bullet that will fix all the things. "If we only got this new CMS, it'd all be better." We have governance ruling our departments that are separate from the content that is being produced. Producing quality content should fall under these governance models.

I'll be honest, at this point I was hungry and found my mind wandering as the Pittsburgh Technical Institute staff was setting up our lunch. :) Side note: During lunch I got a chance to briefly talk to Ron who told me he usually picks out a friendly face in the crowd at every talk he gives that he can look at from time to time and for this talk I was that friendly face. Thanks Ron! 8-)

Tonya touched on chaos theory and pointed out that within the chaos of our team's process, you can typically start to find patterns if you watch it long enough. This is very important because if you can find the patterns, you can find opportunities. Look for the repeat point in your team's process. Once you find that you can use the butterfly effect to your advantage.

The Butterfly Effect: This effect grants the power to cause a hurricane in China to a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico. It may take a very long time, but the connection is real. If the butterfly had not flapped its wings at just the right point in space/time, the hurricane would not have happened. A more rigorous way to express this is that small changes in the initial conditions lead to drastic changes in the results.

At the start of your next project, try tweaking the initial conditions, it could lead to a drastically different outcome.

The Trouble With Tribbles: How LOL Cats ate Our Engagement - Jeff Stevens

Being a developer, I didn't really know what to expect from this talk. What I did find was a whirlwind of information presented in a fun and engaging way.

The Trouble With Tribbles: How LOLcats Ate Our Engagement from Jeff Stevens

  • Our University's content is competing with all the other content on the web (Netflix, memes, YouTube)
  • We need to build better headlines and content, not better websites
  • Balance headlines between logic and emotion
  • Release good content that the community wants to see
  • Make sure users can socially share your content
  • Try using memes instead of news releases that no one will read (if upper administration would be okay with that)
  • Put the content where people are and in the way they expect to see it

If we build it better, they will come.

Although I'm not primarily a writer or communicator, I found this talk very engaging and informative. At the very least it gave me something to connect with my colleagues about.

Proactive vs. Reactive: A Cautionary Tale, or Use the Tool, Don’t BE the Tool - Shelley Keith & Curtiss Grymala

This talk was kind of a supplement to Georgy's keynote, with a few useful additions.

Note: Hey that's me sitting at the table on the left. :)

Talk problems, but also talk solutions.

This was a particularly good piece of advice for me. People are more likely to hear your complaints if you present a viable alternative. As Shelley said, "If you're just complaining all the time people will think you're like the guy in Times Square always yelling about how the end is nigh." It's important to bring up problems, but try not to exclusively bring up problems you don't have any solutions for. Shelley and Curtiss talked a bit about the process they went through in redesigning their University's website (which looks great, btw).

I particularly liked the part of the talk where they said they use data to back up decisions about what happens with the website. When they ran analytics on their mega menu, they found that they could gut a large majority of it because no one ever used it. They even admitted to having an option in the old design that let people change the background color of the mega menu which prompted an audible laugh from Brad Frost in the back of the room.

With their new data wielding power, they've found themselves much more in control when people come to them with "problems" about the website. They can say "We can change that, but we're going to test it and see what the data says." If it doesn't perform any better, it gets moved back. Having data at your disposal can only help. Curtiss also said that sometimes that data can even prove you wrong, and that's not a bad thing.

All in all very informative talk about navigating the waters of getting things done in higher ed.

Beyond Media Queries: The Principles of Adaptive Design - Brad Frost

Content parity is something that kind of goes hand in hand with his first principle. Whether users go to your website on a mobile device or desktop computer, they should get a similar experience. Unfortunately some people view the mobile web as "web light" because they think people won't do X on a mobile device. When in reality, people will do everything on a mobile device that they can on a desktop device, if they're given the proper means to do such actions. As far as flexibility, our sites are not just meant for desktop computers anymore. The web is a huge range of devices now. It's kind of scary, but at the same time it's our reality and we've got to deal with it. This is the web People who build their sites for specific pixel widths are bound to get burned eventually because there's constantly new devices coming out. This will be the web? Performance was a large part of the talk. Brad showed some truly huge websites (65MB+ mobile sites) that would make anyone with a limited data plan cry. Unfortunately, performance is not a physical thing.

You can't mockup performance in Photoshop. You can't block out 3 days on your gantt chart for performance.

Performance is something that runs throughout the design/development process. It's kind of like an under-current throughout, it's always something you should be considering while weighing decisions about your site. Brad touched on the subject of progressive enhancement vs. graceful degradation. In his view, progressive enhancement is a much better avenue to take.

This ties into Luke Wroblewski's idea of Mobile First. The general idea is, if you start with a mobile first design process, you are absolutely forced to decide what is important because the screen space is so limited. If you can figure out what goes on a mobile screen, scaling up your design will be much easier than if you did it desktop first. I think if you go from desktop to mobile, you run the risk of having a "web light" version for your mobile users.

A concept that may have been semi-controversial, but I think was very needed at a higher ed conference was his idea that users are growing increasingly tired of bullshit. I think at the top of his list of bullshit in higher ed websites are carousels.

Focus on the content, because that's why people came to your site. Make it easy to find. Speaking of content, he went on to say we should be "orbiting around data". Having portable data is a huge problem with websites and it's something that vendors may not even be able to fix. Your site's data should be like water: able to flow anywhere. The direction that we need to be moving is having an API for each site so that data can be extracted and used anywhere.


All in all it was a great event. I got the chance to meet some really cool people. Tyler from Waynesburg University, Joe McGill from Washington University, Nathan from Cornell University, Josh from Pittsburg Technical Institute (formerly), Steve from Brockport, and probably others that I can't remember. I have lots of gratitude towards Dave Olsen and other helpers for all the work they did organizing this event. It was also great to have someone like Brad Frost speak at a higher ed conference, where his message is desperately needed. I got the chance to meet both Dave and Brad and they are great guys who have a passion for what they do, which is always inspiring.