Introducing the Digital Projects Dashboard

This is not the Digital Projects Dashboard. This is just a dashboard (Image: Pixnio)

After a relaxing end-of-year break, the digital team is back in Heidelberg and raring to get started on our many projects. This week we built a dashboard to help us to keep track of the scope, status and dependencies of our nearly two-dozen projects.

All of the things

Mark kicked off the year with an “All of the things” meeting in which we tried to call to mind, write down and categorize all of the various projects – no matter how small – that we have been working on.

Our list, on post-its on the office wall, ranged from straightforward items such as “newsletter redesign” or “write documentation” to massive, multi-year projects such as the “Enterprise Data Repository” or “fix the intranet”. We categorized the projects by status, too: Alpha, Beta, or Live (more about these categories here) – and added each project’s dependencies. And then, because we’re the digital team, we built a digital version of it.

The dashboard

Check it out here. Our projects are listed by the stages they are at (Not started, Consultation, In progress, On hold, Delivered, To be Retired), and tagged by status (Alpha, Beta, Live). We also listed Dependencies – projects that fall under the remit of other teams such as Heidelberg IT, or that need EMBL-wide buy-in, such as retiring the Fiona CMS which runs our public sites and intranet.

(Screenshot of the new Digital Projects Dashboard – a work in progress)

You’ll notice the dashboard is clad in a handsome design provided through the EMBL Visual framework. It even boasts a (non-working, prototype) EMBL toolbar!

We’d like to encourage anyone interested in our work to peruse the dashboard, and keep checking in for changes and progress. There will be plenty of changes to track: to make new digital tools and sites we have to work fast, build and break prototypes, and iterate quickly. Hopefully this dashboard will help make some sense of this process, which can admittedly feel a little messy sometimes. We’re happy to show off our new dashboard and how to make one; Tabea from Stratcomm’s Digital team has already expressed interest in something similar for her workflows. Watch this space!


Finally, a note on dependencies. Digital projects are complex, and have many moving parts. Apart from the design and content, there is a codebase as well as underlying back-end technologies to think about, including diverse Content Management Systems and databases interacting through APIs.

There have been many points in our projects where we realise that to fix one thing, we first have to fix another underlying issue, which itself may have dependencies and underlying fixes needed. But instead of embarking on an Inception-like quest for the underlying fix, we have to start somewhere.

So we’ve started building tools and services on existing technologies, and for some, we may need to swap the less efficient parts later. It’s the price of working quickly – but worth the benefits of rapid iteration and prototyping, as we dash towards better websites.

To affinity, and beyond!

Here’s a pretentious piece of jargon for you: “Affinity sorting.” It means “Writing stuff on post-it notes, sticking them on the wall and then grouping similar ones together.” And it’s a hugely useful exercise for prioritising content on websites.

Last week, Mark and I ran affinity sorting exercises with teams from Human Resources and Courses and Conferences to try to understand their needs for the new needs to serve all departments and groups at EMBL. The aim is to empower teams to look after their own sections of the website and to keep their content fresh and updated. And it’s a chance not only to improve content, but also the systems and processes behind the website. So we’re meeting people early in the project, and trying hard to understand their priorities.

But first, a tangent about shipping containers.

Stacking containers

The digital team is working on a Visual Framework for EMBL. This is a codebase that allows websites to present different types of content using a set of re-usable patterns, for a consistent look and feel across EMBL properties.

Imagine you are scrolling down on a website on the small screen of a mobile phone. There is no sidebar – the most important information must be presented at the top, the least important at the bottom of the list. It’s like a set of shipping containers stacked on top of each other: Each container could have a host of different things within it, but the modular design allows them to be easily ordered and re-arranged depending on priority. A simple, focussed way of understanding what the most important parts are. Read more about the container model of information architecture on this 2014 blog post from digital agency iA.

Affinity sorting with HR

We met with members of EMBL’s Human Resources department (Elke Jagomast, Jean-Paul Chidiac, Veronika Peclova, and intern Vera) to think about how to build a new “jobs” landing page for EMBL. We ran the following affinity sorting exercise:

Hello HR people!

Please write down the top three things that you think the user will need to do on the EMBL jobs page. One thing per post-it.

Suggestions included “Current vacancies”, “EMBL FAQs”, and “Save a job”. The 12 or so post-its go up on the wall, and are grouped by similarity.

We then repeated the task, with a new question:

What do you as the HR department for EMBL want the user to see on the page?

Suggestions now included “Terms and conditions”, “Life at EMBL”, “Exciting jobs that will make them want to apply”.

The final step is to take all those post-its and sort them into a single vertical line, with the most important at the top, least important at the bottom. This forces the HR team to seek a balance between what the user might want (a list of jobs) and what they might want to talk about (How great it is to work at EMBL). Here’s what they came up with, in descending order of importance:

Post it notes on glass
Results of the affinity-sorting exercise with the Human Resources team (Image: Cian O’Luanaigh)
  • Current vacancies
  • Search filter
  • Attractiveness of working at EMBL
  • Salary and benefits
  • Information about the recruitment procedure – how long does it take, how to apply etc
  • Apply button
  • Save the job for later

Alongside this, it was important for HR to distinguish between passive users – those who looked at a job listing but did not apply, for whatever reason, but may be interested in EMBL jobs in future – and active users, who applied for a job. They also stressed the importance of transparency – that the information should be honest and not over-state anything.

To our delight the HR team had a similar idea of the important parts of the process to us. And though these containers and their order may change as we iterate on the design of the page, we agreed that HR will now embark on a content audit of their pages, to decide on what needs to be kept, what needs to be deleted and what can be updated for the new “jobs” landing pages.

Affinity sorting with CCO

Geoff Barnett and Julie Heineke of the Courses and Conferences office joined us for a chat about the new CCO pages.

Their department has different challenges to the HR department, and we spent some time trying to work out how best to allow their conference registration system to directly display information on a website, without a duplication of effort on the part of the conference organisers.

Wouldn’t it be nice to just post a conference programme once, and have it display in all the relevant places around It’s an ongoing discussion at this stage, and we are looking for technical solutions.

The conversation also flagged the danger of multiplying systems during a content migration. We don’t want conference organisers to have to update their current system, build a website in Fiona, and also have to do the same in Drupal, while under time pressure to register people and organise an event.

As for the content of a new site, we ran an affinity sorting exercise as described above, and Geoff and Julie came up with the following tasks, in decreasing order of importance, that users should be able to on their new site:

Post-it notes on glass
Results of the affinity-sorting exercise with members of the EMBL Courses and Conferences team (Image: Cian O’Luanaigh)
  • Find an event relevant to them
  • Register for the event
  • Find FAQs about their event
  • Sign up to newsletter
  • Read blog posts or articles with information about courses and conferences
  • See similar events to the one they have registered for (cross-promotion of other conferences)

Each item represents a container in our visual framework, and though most are list or text-based, we could imagine more work on making a beautiful “Sign up to the newsletter” container, for example, which could be re-used across EMBL websites.

We’ll be working on designs and technical infrastructure for a new early next year. In the meantime, now you know why a website is like a stack of shipping containers.

Landing pages: Sprinting towards

Recently we did a two-week sprint with Jon, Peter, Maged and Liang of the EBI web team. They helped us set up the technical infrastructure to prepare the first landing pages for the new

What are the landing pages again?

Landing pages are the beginnings of the new EMBL website, They will serve as a single place for users to find a mix of aggregated and editorially curated content on a particular topic.

For example, the top search terms on Google analytics for EMBL over the past year include the words “jobs”, “press”, “pepcore” and “cancer”. Some of these have pages on the current website, others do not. The aim of the landing pages is to provide: a place for these searches to land, a better experience for the user searching for a particular topic, and a starting point for a deeper journey through

Aggregated content will be pulled into the page with the help of the Enterprise Data system that the Heidelberg IT team is working on. Enterprise Data means data relating to people (name, job title, photo, email address, phone number, etc), Jobs (title, location, application deadline etc) and Publications (list of scientific publications from the Converis system, related to a named person). Such information is stored in various systems around EMBL, but currently the ability to share and re-use this data in different places is limited technically. (Don’t worry – we have a comprehensive privacy policy to ensure that no private data is shared without consent.)

The Content team in Stratcomm in Heidelberg will be responsible for curated content – news and other articles, written on various sites and pulled automatically into a central “Content Hub”, where tags and other metadata can be added to ensure the content is then displayed in relevant locations across sites and feeds.

So what did we achieve on this sprint?


It’s a demo version – a beta release – of what the landing page might look like for the future You’ll notice it looks and feels like an unfinished product: the final design is not implemented, the font is large, etc. This is deliberate – we would like people to recognise this as a “work in progress”. Mark will be blogging his ideas about what constitutes an “alpha”, “beta” or “live” release over the coming weeks. Here’s a quick primer.

On this sprint the joint teams in Heidelberg and at the EBI ensured that real data and real content was made available for the Content Hub to suck in and display on this page. The text and articles at the top are real content from the Content Hub. Articles in the EMBL and Cancer section are written and published on (well, a test version for now) and automatically appear on the landing page when they are properly tagged “cancer.” The jobs feed is live data from the jobs API, for jobs relevant to the “cancer” topic.

Take a look at our demo of the sprint
And the slides from the presentation

We’re preparing another sprint on landing pages for next week, to dig deeper into various technical issues, and to create more content for the beginnings of the new

On taxonomy

Indulge me, if you will, with a lengthy zoological introduction. 

In the 1700s, the Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus devised a system for classifying all the organisms of the Earth. Each species received a unique name comprising two parts, following Latin grammatical construction.

The mice in the EMBL labs? Mus musculus (Latin for “muscular mouse”). The frogs? Xenopus laevis (meaning “strange foot not-heavy”). My personal favourite at EMBL: Ambystoma mexicanum (“Mexican blunt mouth”), the axolotl. Continue reading “On taxonomy”

Joining the design sprint

I’ve spent my first month at EMBL settling in, meeting talented people, and working out how the various digital projects that StratComm has planned will fit together.

We have a whole host of digital objectives – revamping, improving the intranet, fixing Search, creating a unified theme for EMBL websites, making EMBL services easier to navigate, to name a few – and they overlap and interact in various ways.

A key part of building a clear digital identity for EMBL will be robust, consolidated branding.

This month I was lucky enough to spend time on a Design Sprint led by EMBL Art Director Tabea Rauscher. Tabea leads the design team here in Heidelberg, and works closely with EBI Senior Graphic Designer Spencer Phillips and Web Design Architect Ken Hawkins. Continue reading “Joining the design sprint”