Joe Marshall’s (UEA.ac.uk) effective project management tips for university website overhauls

Joe Marshall (Senior Project Manager) from UEA discusses his take on how to manage a flagship website project, without upsetting the apple cart! Learn techniques like the big red button, and juggling stakeholders in this interview.

Transcript of the Joe Marshall interview

Nathan Monk
I’m here with Joe Marshall, who we worked with on the heist award-winning UEA flagship website.

Hey, Joe.

Joe Marshall
Hey, how are you doing?

Nathan Monk
Yeah, I’m good. Thank you. How are you?

Joe Marshall
Not bad at all. Busy as always!

Nathan Monk
Good stuff!

So thanks for joining me today. Joe, I’ve got a few questions to ask you. But before we get into those questions, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s your background? What are you doing now? And how did you begin working with UEA?

Joe Marshall
So my background, the last 25 years has been with the big IS integrators, doing enterprise software delivery. I joined UEA, having moved to Norfolk, and wanted to work locally. And heard it was a great place to work with great people, which was the case. And the website project came up. And they asked me to help them out.

Nathan Monk
We worked together on that redesign of the UEA flagship website. I’m interested in your thoughts, Joe, on what was your experience in working with SMILE on the project?

And I just think the enthusiasm and the creativity that you brought to it, the presentations, the adaptability, flexibility, and the resilience, because it was quite a long haul. Just made just yourselves a great team to work with.

Joe Marshall
It was a difficult brief. The brief was, “We don’t know what we want. But we don’t want it to look like a university website. And we’ll no good when we see it”. So that’s not an easy brief.

And I just think the enthusiasm and the creativity that you brought to it, the presentations, the adaptability, flexibility, and the resilience, because it was quite a long haul. Just made just yourselves a great team to work with.

You knew the HE sector, and you had bright ideas that the stakeholders liked, and were willing to adapt and refine. So it was a pleasure to work with you.

Nathan Monk
Thanks, Joe.

Were there any unexpected benefits of working with SMILE?

Nathan Monk, interviewing Joe Marshall (UEA)

Joe Marshall
I think they found you more thinking out of the box than they would have expected from people from the HE sector… the HE sector has a certain style.

And I think the unexpected benefit was we made lots of people happy. And it was a difficult community to please really.

It is very difficult to get the design right that a lot of people can live with – there are 1000 opinions.

And 6000 people want to express them.

So you know, it’s a difficult one. I just think was the ability for you to be able to talk to a wide range of stakeholders, and just be confident to let you rip with them really. And engage across the campus rather than it being a back-office design agency that was sort of kept out of sight out of mind. You were part of the team rather than a supplier, which is great!

And this was a competitive tender process to get to the project starting block – at that tender process, did you have any reservations about SMILE? And did we manage to change your mind on any of those?

So I did – being a cynical IT procurer. Having gone to your website (at the time) and found it quite minimalist trying to work around case studies. I kind of got it. So there’s a lot of unknown quantities. But because I’m cautious I would quite like known quantities and take the risk. However, you know, the pictures and the presentations you made, it was a compelling case. Very confident selection.

Nathan Monk
Thanks. Also, we’ve made great strides with our website since those days as well, Joe, you’ll be pleased to know that we’ve now got more than one page on our website.

Joe Marshall
(Laughs) I wasn’t going to be that damning of you, but it was… Yeah… it was what’s behind the page.

And it was a great pitch that you did as well as you obviously intended it.

Nathan Monk
It’s always the aim!

Joe Marshall
The project itself was quite a big multivendor chain. And multi-vendor chains aren’t without their challenges. I’m really interested in your perspective, Joe, what were the challenges that you had to overcome in that scenario?

I think, fortunately, I was used to it from my previous companies, lots of different moving parts.

It was very much a tripartite delivery team UEA’s own people, the platform specialists, and the design company. And copywriting.

I think it was about keeping that moving together. But I think the sort of agile, cyclical approach worked well, we didn’t try and bite off more than we could chew. We tried to improve as we go, and mostly stick to it.

I think one of the biggest difficulties, was a design that worked well and easily with the technology.

So, you know, some great design ideas that just couldn’t be done, but would have liked to do them or take too long or cost too much or be too unmaintainable. So I think that was always a challenge was the compromises. We hated letting go of some really nice things. Because we just couldn’t have them.

And also with the UX being driven separately, as well, and the user journeys, it was quite a lot of handoffs between the teams.

But then I think the toolset that everybody put on the table worked, and kind of kept it under control.

Nathan Monk
Yeah, yeah. There was a lot you said there were a lot of handoffs, lots of collaboration and lots of meeting different teams. But like you say, I think the toolchain, if you like was really kept that project moving forward all the time.

Joe Marshall
Definitely, definitely.

Nathan Monk
So the scale of the project as well, I mean, like any flagship website, is pretty big. UEAs felt particularly big. And I know that the design system that SMILE ended up providing was extensive. And you’ve touched on there about having to deal with all of these different stakeholders from all over the University. One of the big things with any project like this, I guess, is managing expectations. How, how do you as a project manager, manage so many different expectations at the scale of that project?

Joe Marshall
I operate a pyramid system. So I have my key bullet points for the very senior stakeholders, you know, that project tracking.

We had open forums nearly every month where all the web editors and stakeholders were invited into the lecture theatre for a show and tell and talking about the roadmap.

I also had a regular email that went out with website updates since every department was involved in it to some extent.

And I regularly had to cull it keep it under the limit of 500 people. So is really very much about the multilateral channels, but also being focused on who the decision-makers are. And how to collate a lot of opinions.

Allow deciders to decide, and then play that back with an explanation as to why that decision be made.

So yeah, I think half my time was stakeholder management.

Nathan Monk
Yeah!

Joe Marshall
Fortunately, they’re all great people. And when they started seeing some of the designs, particularly because obviously, technology doesn’t interest them… It was “what’s it going to look like” you could see people palpably relax. We got some great feedback about how clean it looks and how it leapt forward 20 years and its look and feel.

And it wasn’t just the flagship website, it was the internal portal and how that works. So 100 research microsites had to be dealt with. You know, I appreciate a lot of your focus around the flagship, but you did also help us out with those other bits. Yeah, lots of moving parts!

And people voted with their feet, you know, migrated their microsites. More than three-quarters of them opted to come into the main website into groups in the second section, rather than keep their own microsite.

And people voted with their feet, you know, migrated their microsites. More than three-quarters of them opted to come into the main website into groups in the second section, rather than keep their own microsite.

And we’re really pleased with how the new site looks. So people really did vote with their feet.

Nathan Monk
That’s nice. It always amazes me how, just the moment you put that visual in front of somebody that the conversation completely changes, they open up, they start offering opinions. It’s the power of design in that respect is massive.

Joe Marshall
Yeah, it’s tangible, you know – something to discuss, rather than a theoretical content, user journey, ownership, or people worried about what would be done to their content. And the cultural change from “No, you can’t have 1000 words on your school page, we want you to have 250”.

And all the contextual content, all of these difficult concepts that we have to get to grapple with, and think in a different way – it was a journey… let’s call it that!

UEA mobile design

Nathan Monk
I personally felt like I learned such a lot from working with you, in particular, Joe. And one of my favourite concepts that you introduced me to was the “big red button”.

I wondered if you wouldn’t mind just sharing a little bit about the big red button.

Joe Marshall
So what I’ve learned over a long time in projects is sometimes people have too much fear of the hierarchy and feel that if they have a very strong opinion, it won’t be listened to. So they don’t voice it. Or sometimes they don’t present it in the right way. Or they’re just really anxious about something. But they can’t articulate what they’re worried about. They just know that there’s an iceberg ahead. And they feel the tanker is just heading for it. So I’ve kind of offered this to say to anybody on the project, they can press the big red button, and that is a screaming, shouted, “Stop!” There’s something that got to be discussed.

What you promised as a project manager is, if you press the red button, we’ll work out who needs to get around to understand what the problem is and find a way through it. And it’s to get rid of that sort of six months later, “Well, I knew that would happen. And I kind of put it in an email, and nobody listened to me”. So if you really sure there’s a huge problem, you’ve got to shout, stop, and it might take five minutes to solve. Or it might be far more fundamental. And it’s a democracy, it’s egalitarian: Anybody can press and it was pressed on the project. At least three or four times!

Nathan Monk
But it works though. It’s one of the smoothest projects in terms of the running of it and stuff like that. And I attribute that down to exactly what you’ve just talked about there and how the big red button works and stuff. I’ve learned a lot from you in that project. So thank you for that.

Joe Marshall
No, it’s good! And it’s about respecting constraints. If people feel they can influence and have their say and intervene when it’s important. It actually allows them to move forward. Because you know, it’s about assumptive progress, “nobody has hit the red button so I can go ahead with it. Rather than coming out of another 15 committee meetings to discuss it.”

Nathan Monk
Yeah, yeah, totally. I hear that.

Joe Marshall
No, let’s just get this done. Let’s just do it and when people can see it, if somebody is upset, they’ll shout. And it is just about keeping things moving. So many of these things just get swapped out. Analysis, paralysis, catastrophizing, all of these things.

Nathan Monk
So with the project, Joe, what successes from that project are you most proud of? And is there anything that if you had a chance, to do it again, are there any changes that you would make?

Joe Marshall
I would probably have done some of the stakeholder’s engagements slightly different, only because I know them all now, I was new to UEA when I started, and I had to sort of find my way through it. And some of that has potentially been streamlined.

I think the success was actually getting to the end of it 26,000 pages on your website, and portal 56,000, downloadable PDFs and telling everybody we want about 10% of that is a difficult ask. And we got really, really close, you know!

I think rolling out a course catalogue that worked differently from the traditional one, with user testing was a great success. I think we tested the right things and had evidence. So a lot of what we did was evidence-based. And we’re now doing A/B testing and using Google Analytics to continue to refine it.

I think rolling out a course catalogue that worked differently from the traditional one, with user testing was a great success.

And I think that is a success is having something that can evolve rather than something that’s been built and then won’t be seen again for five years – “That looks old. And let’s do it all again.”

Watching the ongoing evolution of it and it being possible to evolve it, is a great success.

Nathan Monk
Yeah, that’s, that’s a great way of putting it and, as you know, just even from our pitch is definitely something that we really do believe in – Websites never being finished and always evolving. So it’s really nice to hear that that UEA now feels empowered to be able to do that. Really nice.

UEA Course Pages Example

Joe Marshall
The main challenges we’re moving on to are mostly on the technical side. No one is sat there going “we want it to look different or feel different”. It’s about fresh content. It’s about flexibility. It’s about overcoming some of the technical debt.

It’s been there and it’s supported us now through a whole year’s sales cycle. They’re learning from that sales cycle and looking at how to adapt it for next year.

Nathan Monk
Awesome, brilliant. Thank you very much, Joe. Thanks for joining me today. Really appreciate it.

Joe Marshall
Absolute pleasure. Keep in touch.

Nathan Monk
Well, thank you very much for watching. I hope you found that useful. If you did, please consider subscribing and see you soon!

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Nathan Monk
I'm proud to work for some of the world’s most influential brands that shape cities and define lives: Universities and colleges. I provide advice to forward-thinking senior leaders on how to exceed their organisational targets by creating user-focused, digital-first strategies.