When the University of Illinois at Chicago needed a new website, they came to Pixo. There was only one catch — they needed it fast. After kicking off the project in January of 2015, the new UIC.edu launched in August. Of the same year.
UIC created all the content for their new site by pulling together a team and defining an effective workflow. Recently Kim Charles (UIC’s Director of Digital Communications) sat down for a conversation with Melinda Miller (Pixo’s Director of UX and Research) to recount the process and what, exactly, they did right to make the project such a success.
1. Start strong
The UIC.edu project jumped into collaboration right off the bat. For the kick-off meeting, Kim traveled from Chicago to Urbana so the team could start with candid, face-to-face conversation. Tyler Edwards, Pixo’s graphic designer, came prepared with design inspiration, and Kim advised the team on UIC’s recently adopted branding guidelines. By diving into the project together, the whole team was able to identify and address major challenges up front, so those problems wouldn’t creep up later.
2. Involve strong communicators
Pixo designers visited the UIC campus several weeks after kickoff to meet with more than 30 communications staff members who were invested in the project. The group participated in workshops where they shared their knowledge about four main topics: academics, campus, Chicago, and research. The sessions affirmed information Pixo was learning about UIC during one-on-one interviews, and the participants knew their opinions were heard and valued. They also got an inside glimpse into the challenges of the website project and an opportunity to wrestle with the same questions the project team faced.
3. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of progress
Melinda returned to Chicago with rough wireframes (digital sketches of the new site) — rougher than she would typically be comfortable sharing with clients. She printed the wireframed pages and taped them up on the walls, where groups of staff members from various areas of UIC added comments and ideas. Though it may have felt like a risk, sharing imperfect work paid off. UIC staff members took advantage of the opportunity to fill in the blank spaces, which took the pressure off Melinda to “know enough” to present a more complete wireframe.
4. Clarify expectations
At the start of these “topic workshops,” Melinda shared an overview of the goals of the workshop with attendees — UIC staff members who would be helping to plan and create new content for the site. That way, all the participants were aware of the scope of the workshop, what to expect, and how much content had to be written on each topic.
5. Don’t reinvent the wheel
Since most of the UIC writers already knew how to use WordPress, Kim chose to manage the content creation process through WordPress (using the Edit Flow plugin). Kim created a dummy site that was only used by writers and editors during the ramp-up for the new site. This gave content creators an efficient tool for writing and editing in a managed workflow environment while allowing them to work in parallel with developers creating the real CMS.
6. Choose a strong facilitator
In addition to being UIC’s Director of Digital Communications, Kim has 16 years of experience with the UIC website. She understood what decisions needed to be made to keep the project moving, and has the skills to help groups focus on making those decisions quickly. From Pixo’s perspective, an advocate on the client side is an invaluable resource, especially when the majority of meetings happen virtually.
7. Edit in rounds
A strong editorial process was key to making sure the new content was both accurate and effective. Using the Edit Flow plugin for WordPress, each section of text was edited first by a UIC marketing team to make sure it employed effective voice and tone. Then a group of copy editors checked the new content for grammar and consistency.
8. Be comprehensive
When UIC content writers received their assignments via email, they also received all the supporting information available to make the writing as easy as possible, including page tables (basically content recipes for each page), links to the wireframe, and photos from the topic workshops. They knew what types of content they were to write, what voice and tone the piece should have, and even what the word count should be.
9. Account for images
With all this focus on text, it was important that the team prioritize images for the new site, too. After the page tables were finished for the new site, Kim went through them and filled in a spreadsheet with the requirements for each graphic needed (e.g. what page it would appear on, what size was needed, the subject). She was then able to pass the spreadsheet on to her visual team who would find those images.
10. Keep evaluating
Though the UIC.edu project was a success for everyone involved, the teams on both sides did take away lessons of their own. With so much work toward content creation, for example, there was less focus on a plan for content maintenance. The UIC team is still getting a handle on how their process for keeping content fresh will work as they maintain the site.
At Pixo, every collaboration with a client is a chance to improve our process, and that means recognizing the successes along with the inevitable missteps. Creating content for a website can be daunting, but when large websites like UIC.edu have done it, there’s hope for all of us.