UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Is Southampton Setting A New Standard For Institutional Web Sites?

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 22 February 2008

Is the University of Southampton setting a new challenge for other institutions with their new iSoton service, I wonder? Or is this merely an attempt to be stylish by bolting on a variety of Web 2.0 features? What will the users make of it, I wonder?  And what about accessibility, interoperability, compliance with standards and the other issues which the providers of Web services tend to emphasise?  

iSton page at University of Southampton

I came across iSoton via an RSS alert from Lorcan Dempsey blog.  In his post Lorcan expressed a particular interest in the four (out of six) panels which provided content from Web 2.0 services:

The other four are more interesting. One displays the University’s wikipedia entry. One displays photos from Flickr (I am not sure how they are being selected: is it more than the ‘university of southampton’ tag?). One displays videos from Youtube (again, I am not sure if these are any videos which show up on a ‘university of southampton’ search or if some other selection criteria apply).

I would agree with Lorcan’s comment that “this seems like a sketch for what one might do, rather than the fully worked through presence. For example, why not display the full del.icio.us tag cloud which gives richer access to the Southampton pages?“. 

However I suspect that “The site is designed by Precedent, ‘specialists in strategic thinking, digital communications and brand communications’” will be regarded with concern be some of the more traditional Web developers who have been sceptical of Web 2.0 style interfaces. And it’s true that the page does contain HTML errors – but these seem to be minor problems, such as unescaped  ampersands, which could easily be fixed. And, shock, horror, passing the page through the WAVE automated accessibility testing tool reveals that “WAVE has detected no accessibility errors“.

I’ve criticised reliance on automated accessibility tools previously – and here’s a good example which demonstrates the need for user testing on the accessibility and usability of the page.   

Is this, then, setting new directions for University Web sites? I don’t know, and I’m sure that further examination of the site is likely to reveal some problems - but it is good to see something new happening in the design and functionality of University Web sites.  And it would be good to get some feedback from those involved in commissioning and developing this Web site, and, even more importantly, feedback from users of the Web site. A potentially interesting talk at this year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop, perhaps?

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29 Responses to “Is Southampton Setting A New Standard For Institutional Web Sites?”

  1. Dan said

    I’m the back-end developer for the University of Southampton site, and while I couldn’t possibly comment on iSoton personally, you can find a lot of user feedback at http://southampton.wordpress.com/do-you-like-it/isoton/

  2. Why not go the whole hog and use a 3rd party technology for this. Although the layout of iSoton looks OK, why not use Netvibes, or Pageflakes? Netvibes, for example, allows drag and drop for channels (something sadly lacking in most University ‘portal’ software). Half an hour playing around on Netvibes with some content gave me something equivalent for Imperial (although not as polished it has to be admitted).

    That said, it’s an interesting experiment. The comments linked to by Dan are interesting – more negative than positive at the moment. Several about the accuracy of Wikipedia – although I would have thought the point is that by exposing this content, correction becomes more, not less, likely.

    The purpose of the iSoton isn’t completely clear. The blog post says “This content is on the internet, freely available and it is better to welcome and encourage engagement with our brand rather than pretend it doesn’t exist” – which is fair enough, but if this is the purpose, why are the ‘podcasts’ and ‘virtual tours’ on the iSoton page?

    As Lorcan notes in his post, it isn’t actually very transparent what is happening with the Flickr etc. parts – are these managed or not? The delicious channel looks like it is for the delicious user called ‘southampton’ (which indicates an interesting corporate use of delicious), but are the others susceptible to ‘tag spam’ or not?

    Overall an interesting experiment, but I think it needs a bit more thought and focus about what the point is.

  3. Mike said

    Owen has a good point – I’ve been working with Netvibes since their early days and managed to get a very early “Netvibes Universe” for the Science Museum / NRM / Media Museum – see my blog post for commentary and a link.

    Now that Netvibes Ginger is (nearly) in the public eye, this becomes a very easy and viable alternative for institutions wanting to do this stuff with no cost whatsoever.

    Great to see a University website looking nice and being vaguely engaging (first one, I think!) and even better that it’s MY university :-)

  4. Mike said

    I should have added that you can see my Ginger page at http://www.netvibes.com/dmje – just to give you an idea of the kind of thing if you haven’t played yet…

  5. I guess Southampton might argue that they have control over the ownership of the interface, which they don’t with, say, Netvibes. ARe I suspect Netvibes is for RSS geeks and most ordinary users won’t be aware of such interfaces, so bringing this into the institution can help to raise awarness that the Web can be more than single chunky pages.

  6. My immediate response, like Owen, is that it is not clear what iSoton is trying to achieve here. Without understanding the need that is being met, it’s difficult to judge whether it is good or bad, beyond simply being wowed by the fact that it is technically possible.

    So, for example, other than the fact that it is interesting that it can be done, what value does pulling in the Wikipedia page for Southampton provide over and above locally hosted text?

    Dynamically pulling in audio, images and videos is interesting I think – and so many people do it in their blogs that it must be meeting a need :-) (Sorry, it is always easier to retrofit functional requirements by watching what works!). I’m less sure about the del.icio.us links – my gut feeling is that these need to dynamically surface elsewhere on the site, according to context (based on the assigned tags).

    Don’t get me wrong… I think it’s an interesting experiment – but one that only becomes really interesting when it can be judged against a particular set of functional requirements.

  7. I agree with others the focus is not entirely clear; I would have perhaps left out the internal Uni stuff out and just given an overview of “what’s out there” via Wikipedia, Flickr etc. but the concept (pulling in information from third party sites)is definitely something I think we’re starting to embrace more.

  8. Code Gorilla said

    Like others, I have to say “Why?”

    All this site seems to do is provide a portal for existing data out on the ‘net

    As part of a larger site, it may be useful… but it tells you nothing about The Company – it doesn’t answer several questions:

    I’m an Undergraduate, where can I stay?
    I’m a Postgraduate, what can you offer me?
    I’m looking for a job, what’s the place like?

    As a demonstration of technology, it’s interesting; as a site in it’s own right…. nah.

  9. In response to Code Gorilla:

    I think it all comes down to being clear about its purpose. As users we’re unclear as to what the page should be telling us so maybe a bit more clarity would help (again I think taking out the internal bits would achieve this). I see it as a page which is “our presence on the wider web” in which case I wouldn’t want the questions you suggested answered; I’d use the page to discover more about the University.

    That’s just my take on it.

  10. Tony Hirst said

    Brian
    What’s *really* so interesting about this? An OU student passed me the link a few weeks ago, I think expecting me to post about it, but I didn’t because i felt ‘so what?’; where’s the value?
    Is it news because it’s been done officially with a link on the front page, rather than some crazy idlers’ idling (like some of the institutional news tabs on http://ouseful.open.ac.uk , which has been around forever…;-)

    iSoton – so what?

  11. Mike said

    Agreed that this particular example lacks focus (although we probably need to remember that this isn’t the homepage but just another page underneath it…)

    There’s a huge value in external views of an institution (pics on Flickr, comments on Facebook, etc) which give a much better perspective than the normal cheesy marketing-tastic stuff of white-teeth smiling students gambolling across the Photoshopped-green grass of the institution having a *jolly happy time*…

    I’m with Alison – this page attempts to place Southampton “on the web”, giving external perspectives (often uncomfortable to marketeers, academics and other stakeholders) which *real* users are going to want to know about and contribute to.

  12. @Tony Hirst – Yes, I think it’s interesting because it’s got corporate backing – unlike your skunkwork activities:-) And I suspect it will start to get the corporate Web site developers thinking about the implications for institutional Web site development across the wider community.

    The clever, lighweight development is only the start; getting this embedded within institutions is much more challenging.

  13. @Code Monkey – I think the site’s
    search page is making a good attempt in providing a variety of search options along the lines you suggest, together with “what are peope outside saying about us?”

  14. Nick Gibbins said

    “My immediate response, like Owen, is that it is not clear what iSoton is trying to achieve here.”

    That’s also more or less the view of many of us here at Southampton. The irony is that we already have an intranet-only portal (SUSSED) which is being maintained separately from this, and a third site providing administrative information (timetables, marks, past papers, student records, room bookings, car parking permits) that’s completely separate from the previous two.

    Nick

  15. AJ Cann said

    So maybe we should design a better iSoton for them (or is that what they’re hoping for)?
    Forget Netvibes – iGoogle. Just a Facebook pushed email off the screens in out open access labs this year, iGoogle is now starting to take over.
    We’re thinking of designing and giving away our own UoL gadgets for iGoogle users – that would be our preferred solution over the iSoton approach.

  16. What are they playing at??? Do a YouTube search for University of Leicester and one of the top videos is about Studying Abroad… just the sort of thing to attract new students and engage with parents.

    So an over streched Web team now has to check various Web 2.0 technologies just in case someone has taken a picture of their bum and tagged it “University of Southampton”. Or perhaps this is the “spy” page to do that sort of checking so students are seen to be getting up to no good!

    Nice idea but too much overhead.

  17. @Richard Mobbs You mean Leicester aren’t making corporate use of YouTube :-) OK I appreciate this is likely to a be new activity for many UK institutions, but I see that Swansea Metropolitan University, the UK’s newest university, have a YouTube presence, as do
    we at the University of Bath.

    You can use such Web 2.0 services in a managed fashion. How you prioritise this will be up to you – but at least you can see the viewing statistics (Bath’s most popular videos have been seen about 2,500 times). And if an institutional video became a cult success, I suspect institutions would devote more resources to it (just as over-worked Gopher support staff re-prioritised their work activities in light of changing user preferences)

  18. AJ Cann said

    @ Richard: Has Bob seen that? :-)

  19. This brings up something that I am quite interested in finding out about our community – what the perception is of the HEI/FEI web community towards our own corporate websites. What do we deem important to include?

    I have created a simple questionnaire which will take you about 5 minutes to complete and I am more than happy to feed back to the list once I have collated the information.

    I hope that you are able to complete the questionnaire and thanks in advance.

    Regards

    Ian St John

  20. “WAVE has detected no accessibility errors”

    of course, as you point out, that’s not really authoritive or telling. I can see one major accessibility violation though: the arrows (underneath the flickr and youtube things) aren’t keyboard-accessible, even when javascript is turned on. And obviously, there should be a non-javascript fallback, which could well be a simple link just to the uni’s flickr and youtube accounts (which then gets hijaxed and replaced with the relevant arrows, which should be actual links anyway so they end up in the keyboard tab cycle).

    Also, when the keyboard focus is on the flickr shots, it could be made more obvious (a hover/focus border around them, for instance).

    Apart from that, it looks fairly good (not looked “under the hood”, mind). I was surprised that the virtual tours, even though they have the QT image, are actually ipix tours in the first instance (and it’s even more surprising considering that ipix, as far as I understand, is a dead technology – the company that tightly licensed it went bust a few years ago).

    As for the idea itself, I agree that it certainly lacks focus. It’s a nice “aggregator” page. I could imagine the different modules being developed as independent elements that can then be repurposed, dropped into relevant pages individually.

    Personally, I’m not a fan of having del.icio.us, digg and SU links on pages, as I’d think that users that really take advantage of those systems already have toolbars or bookmarklets in their browser, so I see them as a gimmick…the new “functional web 2.0 street cred badge”.

  21. On a separate, but sort of related, topic: have others experimented with providing iCal feeds of their events, where applicable? RSS is now slowly becoming mainstream (heck, I finally managed to convince our Press Office about its benefits and actual usage) as tools are now more readily available…but iCal seems still a bit fringe. regardless, I’ve recently spent an hour or so handcoding a little iCal generator for our events database http://www.salford.ac.uk/events/ (plus individual “add to your calendar” links on events pages themselves).
    I’m considering making a small push for Schools and RIs to start doing something similar, and then have some general aggregation page for that…

  22. From an amateur perspective the page lokks “Oooh, clever”. But then… you begin to think it looks more like a Web2.0 name check.

    When you look at the source, the flickr photos look hard coded…

    Viewing with Firefox/NoScript you can’t navigate well…
    6/10, perhaps.

  23. Nick Gibbins said

    @Steve Ellwood

    I doubt that the flickr photos are hard-coded. The current selection includes this, which I don’t think is a view of the university that the university would like to be more broadly publicised.

  24. Paul Walk said

    my reaction to iSoton….?

    iShrug.

  25. Patrick: Bath provides RSS, Atom etc. for our events: http://wiki.bath.ac.uk/x/D4AZ and we have hCal on the individual pages for sufficiently nerdy people, but no iCal at all. It would be nice though.

  26. OK, I thought I’d put my head above the parapet. I’m the Head of Digital Marketing at Southampton and the person who led the collaborative project with Precedent to realise the vision we had.

    So let’s start with some rationale rather than justifications. iSoton is an opportunity to explore our world through the eyes of others – Wikipedia, YouTube, flickr, and the next set of planned podcasts are student freshers diaries, produced on hand-held cameras supplied by us and recorded in their first year.

    If you look around our site, you’ll also find that it demonstrates that we’re comfortable with web2.0 technologies and that we’re not just placing all of this technology in one place as a token gesture. The del.icio.us tags are used to allow people to explore content grouped by topic rather than through traditional architecture or search functions. We’re also happy for people to bookmark and share our content, which is why why we’ve included social bookmarking tools on most pages. There are other interactive features that aren’t in iSoton. Movie and audio clips, for example, are embedded through the site and deliberately located to deliver brand-based content to the user at points where we’ve got a ‘call-to-action’.

    On a more theoretical level, iSoton was carefully planned. Each of the individual elements was decided upon by using a communications framework (SAFE matrix), that maps brand intimacy and engagement against technologies. Each of the technologies was then measured against critical success factors. Before this work started we spent 6 months monitoring our web presence through a buzz monitoring tool.

    I’m not saying that we have found the perfect solution and this is still a work in progress. We’re working on how to stream our online game and soon to-be launched Second Life presence. I do think, however, that it has moved the sector beyond the simple inclusion of elements on web pages; and rather like the blog, it is a demonstration that we’re aware of the existence of this content and accept that our web presence isn’t limited to our website.

    @ Brian we’re happy to come and talk about this at the Institutional Web Management Workshop in more detail and pass on our thoughts and discuss some of the topics raised.

  27. [...] on March 13, 2008. Like Brian Kelly, I came across the University of Southampton’s “iSoton” website via Lorcan [...]

  28. [...] by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 6 June 2008 In February 2008 I asked the question “Is Southampton Setting A New Standard For Institutional Web Sites?“. There was subsequently a lively discussion about the iSoton service, with Helen Aspell, [...]

  29. [...] University of Southampton’s iSoton service (which I wrote about a while ago) came to  mind initially, but that wasn’t quite what was [...]

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