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What is Sitecore and how can it help you?

Marketing departments everywhere are ablaze with talk of Sitecore, the amazing new ‘experience platform’ that will revolutionise their web presence. But what is it and how can you make it work for your organisation?

Sitecore refers to itself as an ‘experience platform’. In essence, this means it’s a very advanced content management system (CMS) capable of powering not only your web content but also your:

  • E-marketing
  • E-commerce
  • Blogs
  • Social integration
  • Testing platform
  • Web analytics, and more…

The platform is built in ASP .NET so any organisation already running Windows servers should have no difficulty making the switch. However, if you’re tied to an Apache configuration then you’ll require some additional investment in back-end tech.

It’s clearly designed to appeal to corporate users as the user interface is heavily based on Windows (they stole it from Sitecore, apparently) with which most large organisations are likely to have familiarity. While significantly more complex to use than something like Drupal, once fully understood the level of functionality offered by the platform is staggering.

Sitecore as a CMS

For us, Sitecore is like Lego. It’s modular so you can create anything you like then easily reuse it across pages and move it within a template. Want to move your newsletter module higher up the page? No problem – simply drag it into place within your template. There’s no need to create duplicates of content areas anywhere, even across different sites, making everything simple to maintain and fast to load.

Audience segmentation

This is where Sitecore really comes into its own. The platform is able to build audience segments and map users to these based around patterns of use. Some of these patterns include:

  • On-site behaviour
  • Geographical location
  • Sales history
  • Device they accessed your site on

This allows you to tailor page content and messaging to user profiles and boost site conversion by developing more sophisticated user flows.

The ability to tailor content in this way dovetails beautifully with well-considered UX design as this functionality can provide much richer experiences for your audiences. For this reason it’s paramount to appoint a UX agency that  has experience working with Sitecore and understands how to structure the design process to maximise impact.

Testing and web analytics

Another area in which Sitecore performs well is its ability to allow web editors to run and maintain A/B and split tests. No longer will you have to contact your web agency to ask them to run a test on the site – everything, including the reporting, can be managed from a simple interface within the platform. This ability to test rapidly and frequently will help to improve site conversion while simultaneously cutting agency development costs.

The platform also offers a wealth of insight via a selection of customisable reports and dashboards in the back end.

CRM integration

Not only can you personalise content on-site but Sitecore will integrate with most large CRM’s to capture all details against sales leads. Your customer experience is no longer limited to just a website but can be extended across a customer’s whole journey with your organisation.

Everything, including the kitchen sink

Sitecore development agencies will tell you that they can do anything that you want and – to an extent – this is true. Sitecore is fully customisable to meet any requirement, both on the front and back end. With over 1,300 classes and 5,000 methods plus a rich, extensive developer framework; pretty much anything you require can be achieved.

Remember, user experience design is not just confined to the customer facing areas of the site but can also be applied to admin areas making it easy for editors to add content quickly and easily.

Developing a Sitecore project

There is a learning process associated with the ‘experience platform’ so while previous experience working with the technology is crucial, client involvement is also heavily required. Webcredible have worked extensively with Sitecore over the years and for us, the real interest is how the platform changes what is possible in customer experience design. It allows us to provide a richer more personal experience not only on the website but throughout the whole customer lifecycle.

While we can provide substantial expertise on the capabilities of Sitecore we would advise you start slowly and get to know the platform, developing usage in-line with your requirements. If you want to learn more about user-centred design and Sitecore, get in touch.

In the past year, I’ve trained more than 100 people in Axure through our Webcredible Prototype in Axure training course. I’ve had the chance to watch them make their first steps in laying out a page and, while Axure doesn’t have a particularly steep learning curve, there are a few elementary mistakes that beginners seem to make. Here’s a list of these mistakes and, more importantly, how to avoid them

1. Adding unnecessary text panels

When you start wireframing a page, you’ll soon come up with the need to put some text inside a box. One way to do this in Axure is to drag 2 widgets into your page: a rectangle and a text panel.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong about this, now you have 2 objects to worry about. You need to ensure that they’re moved & re-sized together, and you’ll have to group them to make sure this happens automatically. In most of these cases, there’s a simpler solution.

Axure allows you to add text inside most widgets, including Rectangles, Placeholders, Button shapes and even images without the need to create a separate text panel. All you need to do is double-click on the widget you want to add text to, and you’ll see a cursor that allows you to enter text. On image widgets, double-clicking sets the image, so you need to right click and select ‘Edit Image > Edit Text’ instead. To get the text in the right place inside the rectangle, you’ll probably need to use the widget properties panel to adjust the horizontal/vertical alignment and the padding.

2. Using arbitrary sizes

Axure offers you a drawing canvas that’s reproduced at 1:1 pixel size when you export to an image or to an HTML prototype. This means you need to make sure that you set widget sizes in Axure to the accurate pixel sizes that you expect them to have on the finished website. If you use arbitrary sizes, your wireframes might look too large or too small when viewed through a browser, and won’t appear like a realistic prototype of a website.

How do you decide what sizes to use? Probably most important thing to define is the page width. A standard width that’s often used is 960 pixels, which makes your wireframes look fine on a minimum 1024×768 screen resolution. To make sure your page fills these 960 pixels and goes no further, you can use the ‘Guides’ feature in Axure to create a global guide.

Axure can do this automatically for you, as well as creating extra column guides to help you come up with good proportions on your wireframes. This is done through the ‘Wireframe > Grid & Guides > Create Guides’ dialog:

3. Using dynamic panels for simple interactions

Dynamic panels are a powerful tool, and they allow you to make any part of the page have multiple states; however there are a few simple things that you can accomplish without having to deal with the complexities of dynamic panels:

  • If you want an object to have a hover state or selected state with different formatting (e.g. bold and highlighted), you don’t need to use a dynamic panel. Instead, you can right-click on the object and select the ‘Edit button shape > Edit Rollover/Mouse Down/Selected/Disabled Style’ options. Axure will then show you a dialog where you can specify the formatting changes that you want for each state.

  • If you just want the text on a widget to change as part of an interaction, you also don’t need to set up a dynamic panel with the widget in different states. You just need to select the ‘Set Variable/Widget value(s)’ from the actions list when you define an interaction.

4. Leaving widgets and dynamic panels unlabelled

When you add to the page a widget or dynamic panel whose state you’re planning to modify later on through some interaction, you should immediately try to give it a descriptive name. Otherwise, when the time comes to define your interaction, you’ll be faced with a long list of ‘Unlabeled’ items, and you won’t have any way to find the one you want to interact with:

Axure also gives you a summary of interactions in “human readable” language. Using descriptive widget names means that this summary will be easy to read and understand, as in the following example:

5. Forgetting to keep previous versions

Although Axure has got an ‘Undo’ feature like most other design tools, it’s sometimes easy to make subtle mistakes (such as deleting a part of your page) that you won’t notice until much later. Also, people who review your wireframes might ask you to make some changes but later change their mind and ask you to revert to an earlier version.

If you’re making drastic changes to a page, it’s usually worth using the ‘Duplicate page’ feature to create a copy of that page that you can keep as a backup. You can also keep regular copies of the entire Axure (.rp) file, for example a copy every day or before each significant design iteration.

However, the best way is to use the Axure ‘Shared Projects’ feature – even if you’re not working in a team and need to share your project with others. When you’re managing your project as a shared project, Axure automatically keeps a copy of the previous version every time you press ‘Check In’. To access these earlier versions, go to the ‘Share’ menu and select ‘Browse Shared Project History’. You’ll be given the option to pick a previous version an export it into an independent Axure file, so you can see what your project looked like earlier in time, and copy things that you might have since changed or deleted.

Have you got any great Axure tips? Let us know in the comments below!

Want to learn to create wireframe prototypes quickly and easily with Axure RP Pro?  We have two training courses that might interest you. For beginners we have a standard Axure training course and for more experienced users an advanced course.

The door is now ajar for another new step forward for the world of the internet, and it comes from ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) in the form of personalised gLTDs (generic top-level domains).

Last week ICANN started taking applications from businesses to gain their own gLTD and ushered in the expansion of the restricted 22 gTLDs we have had to date (such as .com, .co.uk, .gov) to allow essentially any name to be used.

ICANN see this to be a great step in the expansion of the internet, but with an application fee of £120,000 the opportunity to take advantage of this is only really open for larger businesses at this point. The race is undoubtedly now on to secure them and to start to take advantage of the brand awareness and potential that comes with it.

Who will be the first to adopt their own gTLDs? What will they choose to use? And, what will the impact be on businesses and customers?

Let us know in the comments below!

From January 1st 2012, Microsoft started to phase out Internet Explorer 6 with forced automatic upgrades.

This marks a turning point in the world of web development as designers and developers no longer need to dread seeing “Support for IE6″ in their design briefs.

Microsoft has stated that IE6 users from Australia and Brazil will be the first to receive upgrades to the latest version of IE that their OS supports – for Windows XP that will be Internet Explorer 8 and for Windows Vista and Windows7  it’s Internet Explorer 9.

Stats recording current usage of IE6 worldwide are up on the IE6 countdown site. Don’t worry if you still need to test websites in IE6 for now, you can use a program called IE Tester instead!

What will this mean for you and your company? Will you be trying to convince them to ditch Windows XP altogether in favour of Windows 7?

After teaching our Axure training course for the last couple of months and talking to participants about the things they want to do with Axure, I’ve discovered a few interesting tips & tricks that I’d like to share with you today:

1. Creating large tables

If you want to create large tables using the Axure table widget it’s often easier to type the data in Excel and paste it into Axure. When you try to paste, Axure will ask you if you want to “Paste as table data”, to which you should reply ‘Yes’. Unfortunately, any formatting applied in Excel will be lost but it’s still easier than re-typing everything in Axure.

2. Defining Styles

Axure has a styling system similar to Microsoft Word. You can define the default style for text, buttons and any other widgets, or you can define your own styles for things like headings or boxes. This means you don’t need to waste time applying the same colour and text settings to each object on your design. You can manage styles in the Style Editor that is accessible via the toolbar and the ‘Wireframe’ menu.

3. Exporting as an image

If your wireframe contains annotations and you try to export it as an image, the image will show the yellow rectangles with the footnote numbers. If you want to hide these rectangles and export a ‘clean-looking’ image of your wireframe, you need to untick ‘Show footnotes’ from the ‘Wireframe’ menu. This will hide the yellow rectangles both on your screen and on the images you export.
Have you discovered any other Axure tips & tricks that you’re proud of? Let us know in the comments below!

If you’re new to Axure and want to learn the ins and outs, sign up for our Axure training course.

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