Goodbye to Neil…

By Nick Dawe, on 10 September 2010

As many UCL readers will know, our Web Services manager left us last month in order to emigrate with his family to Australia. Neil’s been working in Web Services for 8 years – a time that has seen huge changes in the Web and the way that we use it. At the beginning of this year, Neil’s role extended to becoming manager of Design and Web Services, in which he also had to grapple with the areas of print and graphic design. As well as being a encouraging manager and an expert on Web standards, we’ve also consistently enjoyed his humour, enthusiasm, and the opportunity to play with his iPad.

A rare image of the Web Services team smiling. L-R: David Gillies, Jon Bowlas, Neil Martin, Ralph Bartholomew and Nick Dawe

Silva updates

By Nick Dawe, on 6 September 2010

Here are a few Silva CMS updates we’ve made in the last month. We’ll endeavour to post similar updates as we continue to develop, fix bugs, etc. for the system over time.

New code sources


  • Horizontal menu: It is now possible to display a single level horizontal menu based on the root items of your site using the UCL branding layout. This will display throughout your publication.
  • Mobile view: The custom mobile view of the UCL branding layout now displays in Android devices.

Amended code sources

  • Accordion: it is now possible to add multiple accordions into a page.
  • Accordion: a bug that caused the code source to show incorrectly in IE6 has also been fixed.
  • Caption an image: browser compatibility bug fixed
  • Tabbed box and accordion: a bug that was generated when these two code sources appeared on the same page has been fixed

Silva at 400

By Nick Dawe, on 2 September 2010

Just a short post to say that there are now nearly 400 websites using Silva at UCL (we expect the 400th to come in the next few days!). These don’t include test sites, or sites within sites (such as the many subsites in e.g. www.ucl.ac.uk/isd).

As the service grows, we’ll continue to develop and improve its various facets as well.


By Nick Dawe, on 12 August 2010

I’ve been really inspired by the ongoing competition at JS1k challenging developers to build a JavaScript demo in under 1kb (and if possible, to fit inside a Tweet!). Many of the demos use the ‘canvas’ element, allowing for more intricate visualisations, while others are demoing fascinating techniques which I’ll be sure to investigate further.

Anyway, here are some of my favourites:

What's a good URL?

By Nick Dawe, on 4 August 2010

It may seem like an unimportant issue, but web editors might be interested in reading a recent post from CSS-Tricks detailing good practice for writing URLs:

I was particularly struck by the URI ‘speech-friendly’ test: Can you easily say a URL down the phone to someone else, or do you have to pause between characters to say whether they’re lower/upper case? Do you have to describe any funny punctuation marks that appear? Is the URI unhelpfully long, and indeed does it even make any sense?

Fight the system!

By Neil Martin, on 30 July 2010

Earlier this week a few of the Web Services team ‘attended’ a free webinar presented by Paul Boag of Headscape. For those who haven’t heard of Paul before (and who hasn’t?!), Paul is a bit of a guru for the web development community. For many years he’s been blogging and podcasting on all things web. What’s particularly great is that he completely understands that web-related work is often all about people and relationships.

The webinar was titled ‘Fight the system’ and was targeted at internal web teams in large organisations. Large organisations, by their very nature, can create an environment that occasionally leads to issues of conflict between interested parties, departments, etc. and the web team have to negotiate their way through these difficult waters. This can then potentially lead to tricky relationships, poor decision-making, scope creep and an outcome where nobody is really very happy with the website.

Paul focused on four key areas that web teams should consider. These were:

  • Raising the reputation of the web team
  • How to deal with conflicts, politics and problem people
  • How to get signoff
  • How to avoid scope creep


In terms of reputation, some internal web teams (not necessarily this one!) feel undervalued and lacking the ability to steer a web project in the right direction. Paul suggested that we could all do a lot more to improve our standing and reputation. He suggested to consider some of the following:

  • Charge – even if it’s only for a small amount to add value to the work. We have a basic and extended service which does have a charging component. We’ve introduced this because we think it will better define the service that we offer. It should also add value to the extra work we do, such as additional edits that aren’t part of existing templates.
  • In your demeanour, be upbeat and positive – try not to say ‘no’ just for the sake of it. If a piece of work is going to be difficult to implement, explain the consequences and consider a phased approach.
  • Establish yourself as an expert – be willing to cite other experts as well, and make much better use of facts and figures. For instance a green banner with red text isn’t going to be great, because of accessibility issues, so rather than just saying it’s a stupid idea, show the ‘client’ links to an ‘expert’ article which explains why this won’t be ideal.
  • Celebrate good pieces of work – debrief after projects, and don’t be afraid to tell others about how well projects have gone.

Conflicts, politics and problem people

One thing that’s wonderful about web, but can also be frustrating, is that it produces an emotional response from users. Most of the time people do have strong opinions as to how their website looks. This doesn’t, however, mean that they understand best practice and user-centric design. In larger organisations there is obviously going to be politics between various silos, e.g. between technology and marketing teams. Also during meetings there may well be an individual that through sheer presence of personality can force through their ideas even if it’s not beneficial to the website. Paul recommended the following:

  • Accept it – learn to live with it, and find better strategies to deal with it.
  • Keep talking – problem people sometimes just want to have their voice heard, and will be most frustrated if no-one listens.
  • Avoid confrontations - there’s no positive outcome from such situations
  • Empathise with stakeholders – share their pains and concerns.
  • Show, rather than tell – web teams can sometimes use a lot of jargon which is unhelpful to the client. If you want to demonstrate, for example, a cool jQuery carousel, go off to a website that has one that you like, rather than talk about it using terms like ‘jQuery’ and ‘carousel’.


Getting decisions made about web projects can be quite challenging as it’s sometimes not easy to identify who the decision maker is. This is, dare we say, a particular problem within HE, with its traditional committee structures. Paul gave us some food for thought and we may well adopt some of the following approaches:

  • Establish the decision maker – quite often this can be quite a senior member of staff, which does present its problems, as they are often very busy people. However trying to make decisions with an intermediary or a group of people tends to end with fuzzy results. Paul suggested meeting with key individuals, rather than groups, as you’re possibly going to get a much clearer picture of goals and objectives.
  • Try and adopt some of the processes that are used in agencies, in other words, set clear milestones and timeframes for each key decision. Explain this process to the client from the offset and make them aware of their responsibilities in meeting deliverables within the timeframes set (for example, delivering content on time).
  • Capture requirements – and be comprehensive!
  • Include them in the development process. Ask them to consider stuff on the fly during meetings. Collaborate, and also refer to earlier decisions where perhaps new ideas conflict with those agreed earlier.
  • Get them to focus on business objectives and less on opinions, such as what the website colours should be. Remind them of the user exprience when conversations steer more into subjective territory.
  • Manage feedback – ask the client to identify problems rather than solutions. Instead of asking for the homepage to be bright green, ask the question: what is the problem that this decision solves? Is the user base going to specifically benefit from having such a colour scheme?

Scope creep

The bane of all web developers is when a project changes considerably from its original objectives. This can be unnoticeable at first, but obvious half way through. For example a client changes their mind about design elements like fonts, colours, number of pages, site structure, ad nauseum. To avoid this happening Paul offered some advice:

  • As mentioned above use an agency approach. Detail the scope of work from the offset and set key milestones and deliverables.
  • Explain the process so that it’s well understood with no surprises later on. Establish roles and responsibilities of all parties. Make sure they concentrate on their role and not someone else’s!
  • Have a phased approach. If a client comes up with a great idea that is out of scope, mention to them that this is possible, but will have to be shifted to a new phase of the project. Collect the ideas there and then and spec them for later.
  • If everything fails fall back on charging!

There was  a lot in Paul’s webinar that has given us plenty of ideas as to how to both better manage ourselves, and our stakeholders, and we’d like to thank Paul for sharing his insights – it was a really worthwhile event to be part of!

If you’d like to find out more, it is available (although there is a small charge):

Silva updates

By Nick Dawe, on 24 May 2010

We always work to develop our Silva content management system over time, although many of these updates are ‘behind the bonnet’ and not noticeable to the average user. However, since February’s Silva upgrade, there have been a few more discernible improvements, which may be of interest to some users.

New external sources

General bug fixes/minor improvements


Coming soon

Because of various technical issues, we’re aiming to deprecate ‘external content includers’ (that is, external sources that pull content from e.g. the Apache webserver). However, we do intend to build external sources that provide the same kind of facilities as these ‘external content includers’. For instance, we’ll soon be ‘launching’ a new ‘webforms’ external source which will offer far more functionality for setting up generic forms. We’ll also be developing the events calendar code source further, giving users more options for how they’d like the calendar to be displayed. More on these things later…

[Test link]

Image tools

By Nick Dawe, on 15 March 2010

Just a few image tools that I’d discovered recently, and may be of use to others also.

Dynamic Dummy Image Generator

Image placeholders don’t take long to set up in an image editor, but if you’re creating a lot of them, it can still be time-consuming. dummyimage.com makes this a lot quicker. You can either enter the details of the image (e.g. dimensions, file type, etc.) on the home page, or just add the dimensions to the end of the site URL (e.g. http://dummyimage.com/500×200)

Smush.it (TM)

Part of Yahoo!’s Developer Network, this looks like an extremely useful, quick way to compress images (again, perhaps more efficient than using a typical image editor). Simply upload them, and they’ll be processed with various lossless compression algorithms (i.e. ‘smushed’), before being handed back to you as far ‘lighter’ image files.


If you use background-images in your stylesheets, SpriteMe provides a speedy way of combining all images into one item (i.e. a ‘sprite’). You can then display these images by using given CSS ‘background-position’, width and height properties to only show the part of the sprite that’s needed. Because each image you use as a ‘background-image’ is set as one http request, combining them into one single image therefore quickens page load times even further.

Two browser trends for 2009

By Nick Dawe, on 10 March 2010

Quick post. These trends are both predictable enough, but it’s sometimes nice when statistics confirm your own presuppositions.

IE6 usage of the UCL site in the last year*

Use of iPhones/iPods on the UCL site in the last year*

*based on UCL sites using the UCL Google Analytics tracking code

Silva upgraded!

By Nick Dawe, on 18 February 2010

Yesterday we completed a major upgrade of Silva to version 2.1.7. While this upgrade features bug-fixes, and lots of improvements to performance and stability, etc. on the back-end, there are a number of new features that may be of interest to users.

New Corporate Identity Layout

We’ll post more about this shortly, but a new layout is available to Silva users which is based on the UCL home page design. It’s also got viewing options for the iPhone/iPod, and a large range of new code sources (ie ‘widgets’) that can easily be set up. More on that later…

Other improvements

Here are a few other improvements that may be of particular interest to Silva editors…

(Slightly) Improved Editing interface

There are a few small changes to the main Silva editing interface, which should help to improve its overall usability. For details of these, see:

Google Analytics tracking codes

Currently we track all UCL Silva websites using our own Google Analytics account. However you can now add your own Google Analytics account tracking code to your publication, and track all statistics yourself as well.

To do this, go to the ‘UCL Attributes’ object of your publication. Scroll to the bottom and you’ll see the ‘Google Analytics Tracker Code’ field. Simply put your account’s code here, then ensure that your Google Analytics account profile is set to track this site.

Very important: Please check that your Google Analytics account is successfully tracking your website’s user statistics one day after setting this up. If your account hasn’t been set to track your website properly, there’s no way to get the stats back!


It’s now possible to inherit other ‘local-styles.css’ objects from higher positions in your publication.

For a list of all improvements, see: