Posts written in August 2010

UT Law Redesign 2010

Screenshot of the UT Law School homepage, redesigned

I’m pleased to announce that another of my long-term projects has launched: the latest redesign of the University of Texas School of Law website. This was the first major refactoring of the information architecture, HTML, and user interface of the site since 2003, and is a significant departure from the visual refresh of 2005. (My other major project was the new UT Law Events Calendar, which launched on the same day — it’s been a busy summer!)

The UT Law site holds anywhere between 3500-6000 pages (depending on how you want to define a “page”) spread amongst dozens of departments and organizations, with very little of the content in a CMS of any kind, and it’s accompanied by a dozen or more in-house custom applications written in three or four different programming languages, so this major change to the code was quite an undertaking. After consulting with our stakeholders, conducting some user testing, and evaluating other top-tier sites, I began the redesign with the intention that we’d need a great foundation to build off of, while retaining enough visual familiarity to the old site to not confuse our users needlessly.

Highlights for this project:

  • Brand new HTML5-based templates using clean, semantic markup with hooks for a flexible (but optional) grid-based CSS layout system
  • Completely redeveloped visual design, color scheme, and branding, with improved typography and layout
  • Newly designed universal UT Law header and footer, improving usability while taking up less vertical real estate
  • Standardized look-and-feel for internal law school departments and organizations, along with cleaner information architecture (many URLs have been shortened considerably)
  • Easier navigation through simplified, consolidated landing pages
  • Google Custom Search Engine integration available across the entire site, letting users search without leaving the UT Law site
  • Google Analytics’ new asynchronous code now site-wide, including subdomains, with dual tracking to forward stats on to the main campus Development office
  • Lighter HTML, smarter handling of cacheable resources, and browser throughput performance tricks give end users much snappier page load times (who loves image spriting? I do!)
  • Universal use of UTF-8 for better foreign language and other specialty character encoding support

Much work remains, however: the content across the site is currently being reevaluated as part of this project, and we will be working hand-in-hand with each department to ensure that the offerings are up-to-date, relevant, better organized, and more media-rich (where appropriate). Also, the homepage is a temporary placeholder while we work with our communications office to develop new material and focus this Fall semester.

Many thanks go out to my supervisor Mark Gunn, teammates Austin Kleon, John Croslin, Brian Borowicz, and awesome student worker Laura Davila for helping with the porting and making sure that everything looked as snazzy as possible for the launch date!

UT Law Events Calendar

Display of the UT Law Events Calendar as a grid view

For the past six months my co-worker John Croslin and I have been hammering away at this project, and it’s finally launched: the new University of Texas School of Law Events Calendar. After comparing many popular (and not-so-popular) open source and commercial calendaring projects, it was determined that none of them fully met UT Law’s specific needs and infrastructure, so we tried to figure out which features worked best in each, and started from scratch.

On the surface, the public view has all of the trappings of a fairly generic calendar (grid + list views, date-based navigation, multiple “calendars”, iCalendar downloads), but behind the scenes there’s a fairly impressive feature set. A quick list of what’s going on:

  • Entire system designed and built from the ground up, using cross-browser-friendly HTML, CSS, and a dash of jQuery
  • Object-oriented PHP with an Oracle backend (which is what we’re running now, but it could be modified easily to use MySQL or PostgreSQL instead)
  • Custom workflow routing that hooks into our faculty / staff / student directories and makes efficient use of our special events and media services departments’ resources (if an event requires catering the system notifies our Special Events department for approval, student-submitted events are first screened by the Student Affairs Office, etc.)
  • Recurring events are possible with more flexibility than what’s found in Outlook: you can edit most of an event’s details without requiring the removal of the whole series, and you can choose whether changes affect only the single occurrence, if changes ripple forward, or if the changes ripple to all sibling events in the series
  • Integration with our Exchange server via Exchange Web Services to provide room availability (free/tentative/busy) info to users when creating new events, to help with room selection
  • “Pretty” permalinks that are navigable for all calendar views (for example /calendar/today/ lists the current day’s events, /calendar/2010/08/ displays August, 2010, in a monthly grid view, /calendar/2010/08/faculty-events/ narrows that further to faculty-specific events, etc., and using the date navigation controls doesn’t kick users out of the specific view)
  • Coming real soon: iCal/RSS feeds, embeddable calendar widgets, better Exchange integration, mobile views, and more

One week in, it’s already shaping up to be a very useful resource for our users. We might have the code available as an open source download at some point, especially if there’s interest in adapting or extending it. If you’re looking for something right now, you might be interested in the great work being done with UNL Events Publisher and Bedework, two open source projects I took inspiration from. Otherwise, feel free to take a look at what’s happening at UT Law!