Working on a major website project during a global pandemic

We take a coffee break to share with you what the last few months have been like for the teams behind the website refresh project

5 min read

July 2020

A sudden change of plan

At the start of the year, we planned the website refresh project according to a number of key deliverables we needed to achieve by the end of July 2020.

From project milestones and sprint planning, to recruiting development support and ensuring capacity to incorporate the project alongside business as usual, we had a cohesive plan. However, this plan could not possibly have factored in the global pandemic which has changed all our daily lives, as spring turned into summer.

We've taken a few minutes out for a virtual coffee break to reflect back over the last few months and share a few thoughts on how we have worked on a project of this scale during the pandemic.

Screenshot of a development sketch.
What's on today? An early development sketch

Rescoping the project

The arrival of COVID-19 to our shores did not derail the project, but it did enforce upon us, in what felt like just a handful of days, the need to re-evaluate the final project deliverables under the new spotlight of the pandemic. 

This relied on a lot of quick-thinking and honest conversations with each other within the project team and wider University management committees.

At the beginning of a project of this scope, eyes are often on the end-game – moving from idea to concept, to sprint planning and deployment, then repeat and repeat.

But behind all the dev talk and re-writing of business cases, there are many more hours of human interaction and collective thought needed to support one another, and that often goes unreported. 

Empathy is not an easy deliverable to measure in scope or size, yet has become a huge emphasis for us, as for many across the globe.

A new feature panel addition may look smart and function brilliantly, but a brief glance disguises the huge amount of hours behind its deployment. So many questions get asked and problems get solved before new features get made public.

Reshaping a project of this nature during the pandemic has meant the demand on these human qualities – communication, empathy, trust – as well as interpersonal skills such as time planning, resilience and peer-to-peer support, has become all the more important to emphasise. 

Without people, there would be no project.

Not only has there been extra demand on people's time, the ways in which these activities take place shifted from physically having a team huddle in the project room, to having stand-ups and sprint planning exclusively via Zoom and sharing notes via Microsoft Teams.


Shining a surprise spotlight

Thanks to extra long days (and plenty of nights) filled with digital discussions and readjusted plans, we soon had a revised website refresh project, which in part was now driven by the new, unexpected demands of COVID-19. 

One of these – no more open days for the foreseeable future – pushed the necessity of more virtual tour and subject-level content to the front of the queue. 

Because our students come first, within a week or so we had produced Plymouth On Demand – the virtual alternative to open days.

Another large piece of project work that previously never had to be factored into the project, was to find a clear way to provide updated advice, guidance and updates for applicants, students and staff, following the outbreak of COVID-19. 

This began very much as an organic process when news came in through to us from the government, but quickly required a high level of coordination across multiple teams as this piece of work to the top of the project priorities. 

We now have a very valuable, simple to use COVID-19 FAQs resource, which, with help from our colleagues, has been constantly updated over the months and supplied advice to thousands of staff and students.


'Business as usual'

Project management throughout a pandemic has demanded adaptability and resourcefulness. We have tried our best, shifting pretty seamlessly to a full-time digital way of working – our 'new normal' at home. 

Most of us have also had to contend with homeschooling our children and balancing this with work commitments, meetings and deadlines. Some of us have also had concerns over the health of friends and family members to deal with, just like everyone else.

Other factors have also come into play, like complete changes to what we class as 'the working day'. When childcare or home-school takes up a lot of the normal 9am-5pm, it's incredibly helpful to have some of our developer friends from Domain7 residing in Canada. This has meant some project steps, such as daily stand-ups, have been possible to push back later into the day, and late-night conversations often continue into the early hours, giving us a real sense of 24/7 cover. The commitment has felt massive, and proven clearly how a project of this scale can be achieved when we need to be at our most flexible, in working day terms. The team has moulded itself around unforeseen circumstances superbly. It's brought a new meaning to Agile!

As well as these new, strange personal demands, the pandemic and the project has meant the Digital and Content Team has needed to adapt in ways we never planned – sounding familiar to your lockdown experience? The project is on top of our business-as-usual commitments, and the team has done a miraculous job staying positive and providing support to our stakeholders under such heavy demands. Hiring temps and training them up online has been done with smiles and tons of positive energy.

“The 'new normal' has placed an even greater emphasis on digital solutions. The team has worked hard to respond in difficult circumstances, showing ingenuity across many priorities.”

– Bill Sobey, Digital and Content Manager

Bill Sobey, Digital Manager

Tracking every single detail

We had stable, transparent procedures and systems already set up as part of our daily workflow, thank goodness, as this has been invaluable. We have adapted a kanban methodology – commonly used for technical development – as a visual system for managing our workload, moving tasks through a process from logged to completed. The kanban method is one of the most productive, flexible and transparent ways for teams to work together.

We have used Trello's online kanban boards for a number of years, which function as an easy way to log each step of every one of our jobs. It is a source of truth thanks to the ability to add every email, file, comment and more. [Kanban 101: How Any Team Can Be More Agile]

Example of a Trello kanban board.
Moving from left to right: example of a Trello board

It all starts with a story

Similarly, we use the project management tool Pivotal Tracker, which provides a single view of all our development priorities and allows us to smartly manage the state of every element of the project. At the heart of every project are stories.

Screenshot of Pivotal Tracker.
Mapping the project with Pivotal Tracker

Every part of a project starts with a story, no matter what we are building. Pivotal helps us develop and keep track of our stories while they progress from the backlog to being delivered. 

Each new piece of work begins with a series of conversations in order to write a user story like this...

As a website user
I want to see clear CTAs on pages
so that I can quickly take action

...which is a small, actionable bit of work outlining what a user needs help with – this is the very beginning of the journey and acts as a constant goal, keeping the reason why we're doing the story at the forefront of our minds. Without the user story, we risk losing sight of the original goal and allowing subjective or unnecessary developments to creep in.

So far, we have worked really hard to develop a wide range of these stories, a number of which have already been deployed and more will be released over the coming weeks. 

Keep an eye on our Website Refresh Project 2020 blog for the latest news on new features when they drop, as we continue to work through the 'new normal'.


Website Refresh Project 2020

The University's external website is undergoing a refresh to update certain design elements, functionality and content, as part of a project ending on 31 July 2020. 

Keep up to date with everything that's happening – from the latest new content design features, to the next developments on the horizon

Post-it notes used for Agile planning.