Project management for beginners

A long time ago I did a four-day project management course at the Graduate School of Business in Cape Town. At the time I was on the staff at a large news website, and working with technical teams in various aspects of changing or launching websites. Project management was happening all around me.

These days, I am project managing the production of a book for a local publisher, and glad of the skills I have gained over the years.

Some projects are obviously much more complicated than others: the construction of an office block is a lot more work than the construction of a small garden shed. But the same principles underpin all of them.

Project management is a big field, and I absolutely do not pretend to be an expert. However, there are some fundamentals that might be a useful starting point for anyone who is about to take on project management for
the first time

THE FUNDAMENTALS

1. There are three key strands in any project: time, money and scope (the size of the project, and how many features it has). They all add up to quality (or lack of it). A project manager needs to keep an eye on all
three elements, and understand which of them takes priority in any given project. If it doesn’t matter when the garden shed is finished and ready for occupation by the wheelbarrows, then you can take a relaxed view when the client decides they want the garden shed to be a double-storey. If budget is the most important factor, then you must keep the scope rigidly in check so as not to increase the cost. Project management is essentially a balancing act aimed at an end result that is a quality-driven as possible.

2. Relationships are key. Conflict or poor communication can derail a project faster than any other factor, so the project manager needs to make sure that all parties are equally respected, valued and kept informed of all
the things that affect them. The person who is expected to lay the foundation for the garden shed needs to know what day it must happen – and should feel that they are an integral part of creating the whole.

3. Keeping track of all the elements is next on the list. Whether it’s a complex spreadsheet or a battered notebook, there must be one central place where all the strands are held together, and a calendar (physical or digital) with
all the milestones noted. All this documentation needs to be maintained and changed as things go along.

4. Understand that something will go wrong. Add in time to allow for things going wrong. If you think it will take two weeks, assume that it will actually take three weeks. Seriously – there is no getting around this. Unexpected things will happen, and your plan will change.

What is a CMS? What does it do?

CMS graphic
Picture: india_7/Flickr © SEO Link Building)

People who work on newspapers or on news websites speak often of “the system”. Sometimes they mean it in a general sense (the way in which the world is run, or how their company works) – but mostly they mean the computer program that they use to write or edit their articles. These staffers sometimes don’t know that the system (which is often hated) has another, longer name: it is actually a content management system, or CMS.

The CMSes used to make newspapers or big news websites are complex affairs because they allow many people to work on various pieces of content at the same time. That multi-user setup requires various levels of access to the system, and the ability to move pieces of content to different departments, where people will do different things to each piece of content. An article may be written, then edited, then illustrated by different sets of people.

How to find a free picture that really is free

Google Images search result screenshot

What you get if you search on “eating salad” in Google Images.

If you work on an online news website, or run a blog, or do social media posting for yourself or for your company, you are often going to need a picture to illustrate your work.
If you are lucky, you may have access to images from your organisation’s photographers, or to an agency service. But if you are not in a big organisation, you will need to go elsewhere. And even if you do have access to photo services, you may find a need to illustrate a story with a stock image – a story for a travel site about how to pack when going away on holiday will need a picture of a suitcase.
When looking for such a picture, you have two main considerations:

* You want a good picture – clear, relevant to your content and not too cheesy (we all know the kind of stock photo I am talking about. A friend and colleague describes it as “women smiling while eating salad”).

* You don’t want to use a picture that is copyrighted. It is just not okay to use the work of professionals without paying them. So you either pay or find an image that you can use for free.

Tips for writing an Internet news poll

Today – August 8, 2018 – there’s a poll on the News24 website on the topic of breastfeeding. It asks:

Is breastfeeding in public scandalous?

  Yes, it’s something that should be done in private

  No, but cover yourself

  No, it’s natural and breasts aren’t just for men’s sexual pleasure

The results of a News24 poll on breastfeeding

The results of the News24 poll.

The poll is just one way of asking a question about a burning issue – using what I think of as the “putting words in people’s mouths” option.

On the same day, MSN South Africa is using the same option for the poll choices:

Could SA become the next Zimbabwe?

Yes, we are well on our way

No, people are afraid of change

It’s already too late for us

Things will never ‘get that bad’

I’m ready to emigrate

The results of an MSN South Africa poll on South African politics

The results of the MSN South Africa poll

W24 has the other kind of poll, the one where the vote options are narrowed down simple yes/no choices – it is asking:

Are you attending the #TotalShutdown march?

Yes

No

The results of a Woman24 poll on the Total Shutdown march.

The results of the Woman24 poll.

All three are framed in a multiple choice format, and you don’t see the results of the poll until you have voted.

None of these polls will yield a scientific result, of course – they are really just little bits of Internet fluff, designed to draw readers’ attention to an issue, or drive them to read a story, or perhaps just to generate a few more clicks.

Yet they are all over the Internet, and if they are part of the furniture, then why not do them well?

I have a seat-of-the-pants set of guidelines to making polls. Here they are*:

  1. The poll should be topical, based on the site’s understanding of the news of the day – and it should be changed as soon as it becomes outdated (the W24 poll above refers to an event that has already happened… not such a good idea).
  2. The options should be clear and easy for readers to understand. And broadly applicable. I’d argue that the third option in the News24 poll doesn’t reflect a broad consensus. Lots of people probably think breast-feeding is natural – but it’s unclear how many of those would venture the opinion “breasts aren’t just for men’s sexual pleasure”. The option is harder to choose when so narrowly framed – so No, it’s natural would probably have done the job.
  3. The options should not overlap – they should be different enough that a genuine choice has to be made. In the MSN poll the options are not clearly different from each other. Yes, we are well on our way, and It’s already too late for us are options on the same continuum. People are afraid of change is hard to understand and people might be ready to emigrate for reasons other than a fear that South Africa is likely to become like Zimbabwe. My options as potential answers might have been a simple Yes/No/Maybe. And if I had to put words in people’s mouths I might have done it like this:

Could SA become the next Zimbabwe?

It’s a distinct possibility

No, we are a great country

We are already the next Zimbabwe!

 

  1. To get nuance right, run your poll past someone else – if they look blank, or bored, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
  2. Above all, put yourself in the reader’s shoes: run the question and options through in your mind as if you were seeing them for the first time. Do they make sense? Do they represent the sort of choices that most people might pick?

 

* I am doing some critique of the three polls I used as examples – not to show the particular sites up, but rather in a spirit of constructive criticism. I have made many flawed polls in my time!

Tips for making content look good on the web

Fountain pen nib and writing on a page

Writing in Russian cyrillic script with a fountain pen. Picture: Petar Milošević, Wikimedia Commons

Is writing for the web different from any other kind of writing?

The short answer is not really.

Writing on any platform should follow the same basic rules: good sense, good grammar and spelling, good reasoning. Clarity and conciseness. Lack of jargon. No padding… and so on.

That said, there are some things that need special attention on the web – and those are largely to do with the fact that the reader is not looking a text on a page. Let’s break this down.

When you are reading text on a page:

* You can see the text in a large context – if it’s in a newspaper or magazine, you can see the article in one glance along with its pictures and headlines and pull quotes and so on.

* You are likely to be spending a little time with text – with a book or a newspaper, there’s a built-in expectation that the reader has sat down metaphorically with a cup of tea or coffee and is going to read and inwardly digest as the saying goes.

When you are reading text on a screen:

* You don’t necessarily see all the related content at once – you have to scroll in one way or another to get to the pictures and other illustrations.

* You might be looking at a phone or a tablet in very small bits of time – quickly in a queue, or while sitting at a traffic light.

Studies suggest that people scan screens in particular ways – there is a whole field of research called eyetracking with keeps tabs on this, and the latest research suggests that people scan a page in a F-Shaped pattern. There’s a lot of detail on that but the takeaway for the purposes of this articles is making an assumption that people start at the top of an article and read to the bottom is not useful. Research also shows that when people encounter text which is not formatted for the web, they are likely to lose interest and click away:

“the vast majority of the web users would rather finish their tasks as fast as possible with the minimum amount of effort; they visit a page because they want to find a quick answer rather than read a dissertation on the topic and educate themselves.”

So the way in which text is formatted can be very important in keeping people reading. Vital elements of formatting for the web (or the smartphone) include:

  • Bolding important words
  • Bulleted lists (like this one!)
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Making sure the important information is easy to find
  • Visually grouping related content
  • Including pictures, maps and graphics

In other words, break the text up. Long screens on text simply don’t cut it!

Curation 101: The story of the day

I have a very modest little Twitter account – but I am fond of it, no matter how small it is.
Lately, I’ve been using it to focus on something I call the Story Of The Day.
It’s a concept that dates back to my days in full-time employment, when I was part of the team running Independent Online – or sometimes the only person running one of its subsidiary channels.

Thoughts on web design: it begins with an article

Web design

Picture: bykst/Pixabay

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an editor in possession of a new website (or a newspaper) must be in want of a redesign.
The Jane Austen phrasing was irresistible, but this is one of the true certainties of journalism: when a publication gets a new editor, he or she will want it to look different.
When I was a print journalist I live through three different redesigns. And in my time in online journalism, I think there were four. Of course, I may have repressed the memory of some, so there may have been more. And we’re not talking changing a masthead here, we’re talking making everything new from the ground up.
These occasional fits of rebranding entail a lot of work for production staff. And they usually make readers very cross, until everyone gets used to it all and life continues as normal.