Having Coffee with the Web Team

Author: Sarah Cahalan '14

As you’ve probably noticed by now, our website has gotten a new look in the past few weeks. It took a village to transform magazine.nd.edu, and while the makeover is still fresh, we wanted to introduce you to a few of the talented people who made it happen.


As the magazine’s web editor, I take care of the content side of our site, loading stories and maintaining our day-to-day operations. The technical side — building the site and making sure it works like it should — falls to the web team of Notre Dame’s Marketing Communications office.


Shortly after the launch of our new site, I sat down with three of the web team members most closely involved with our redesign to talk about what it’s like to manage the entire online ecosystem of one of the country’s top universities.


I asked early on in our chat if anyone knew just how many sites fall under the nd.edu umbrella.


“There’s over 600,” said Jonathan Arp, the team’s back-end developer.


“We have over 600 live?” asked content strategist John Slott.


The group debated, and Slott continued with the final answer.


“The answer is no,” he said. “We don’t know for sure.”


But even the 600-site estimate paints a daunting picture. A staggering number of prefixes — from magazine to map to math — fall under the nd.edu domain, each one of them a unique, complex website. The web team’s job is keeping them all up and running.


At many organizations, this task would be external. Websites exist within what are known as “content management systems” (CMS) — the platforms, like Wordpress or Squarespace, that web editors like myself drop stories or photos into. If a headline with a typo appears on a site run through Wordpress, the web editor can log in and fix the misspelling. But if a page simply stops working, you’d generally have to call Wordpress and ask for assistance.


Notre Dame brings this process in-house by running its 600-odd sites on a custom-made CMS called Conductor.


“Conductor started because we had some really, really creative, opinionated developers in this [team] who wanted to create their own CMS because they didn’t like anything else that was out there,” says Arp. “For us to be still on Conductor and be the size that we are. . .I’m not sure that there’s anyone else.”


It’s unknown exactly how many other universities use an in-house, custom CMS, but the web team agrees that it’s very rare.


Having been web editor for another magazine in my last job, I can attest that in-house tech help makes a big difference in running a successful site. At my prior gig, any new additions to the website were limited by what our CMS had built in. At Notre Dame, a new addition to the site meant walking over to the web team’s offices and asking.


Walking down the hall and asking questions happened a lot during our eight-month redesign process — often enough that, frankly, I was a little surprised the web team agreed to sit down with me again for this story. But the team insists that the magazine’s re-launch was challenging in a good way.


“I like this kind of project for a few reasons,” says Slott. “It’s different, which is cool, but specifically it has a narrow focus.”


Most Notre Dame sites, he explains, have to be many things for many people: Appealing to prospective students, useful for current students and faculty, helpful to researchers, and on and on. The magazine’s site — even though the subjects of our stories are broad — has essentially one function: Present content to our readers.


“I think we all like problem solving,” Slott adds. “And this presents unique — not problems in a bad way, but unique ‘problems’ we can solve.”


Front-end developer Shawn Maust points to the home page as a prime problem-solving case. In contrast to our old site, which had four or five constant pieces of content on the home page along with a short ticker of recent posts, the new home page has ten different sections, each of which contains as many as six different stories.


“OK,” he says he asked himself, “there’s lots of different ways we could do this, but what makes sense in this situation?”


The visuals of our site also presented challenges. We at the magazine like the idea of our products having a slightly different feel from the University’s more PR-minded sites and projects, but we didn’t want to stray from a Notre Dame-classic blue and gold theme. The web team has been building a consistent web look to apply to all sites since the University homepage was redesigned last year, and the challenge for our site was applying those precepts in a way that still looked distinct.


“We just updated the University theme,” says Maust, “and here’s this high-profile site switching over.”


Though Aaron Greene, a web designer not present for our interview, was the main person responsible for the visuals of our new site, Maust says that the design was an “interesting, fun” challenge for the entire team — and for the magazine staff, who spent the final weeks of the process signing off on the web team’s work.


Given the close-up glimpse I got throughout this redesign into the technical side of website building, I came out of the process with a greater appreciation for the technical work of web design than I’d ever had before. Towards the end of my talk with the web team, I asked them if they thought more people should take the time to think about the hard work that developers do to maintain the websites we use every day.


“A lot of this stuff, you shouldn’t know,” says Slott. “If we’re doing our jobs, then you shouldn’t be thinking about it.”


“I think one of the other things, too,” says Arp, “is that there’s usually a trade-off between sites being beautiful and immersive and rich, and being massive download sizes and slow. These guys do a fantastic job of making the sites absolutely beautiful, but then really fast.”


They point out that users never notice the techy side of a website until something doesn’t function like it should — which can make web development an underappreciated field to work in. But for the most part, they say, they wouldn’t change it.


“Hopefully you’re not thinking about it,” says Slott. “Hopefully it just works.”


The web team and I hope that our new site "just work" for our readers, but if you do notice any issues, feel free to send me an email. 


Sarah Cahalan is an associate editor of this magazine, and its web editor.