Using (technical) magic to make life simpler

Every week, the Staff Digest is sent to all our staff and associate staff, sharing University announcements, details of training opportunities, chances to become involved in research, events, achievements and more.

This has been happening since April 2015, and those of you who contribute content will know that until recently you did so by sending us an email. This was pretty straightforward, but meant we had to spend time checking each email on receipt to see when the story needed to feature. We labelled each email with the intended date of publication, but this wasn’t always failsafe and we sometimes missed one.

We spent a lot of time rewriting too – without guidance immediately to hand on length and content, people often sent text that needed significant editing (we do have submission guidelines, but who among us could honestly say they would check them before sending an email?)

The prosaic

We decided that it was time to make a change, and created a Google form for submissions. This was quick and easy to create, and is similarly quick and easy to complete – there are just five fields and only three of them (Title, Content and URL) require you to type anything.

There’s guidance for each field to help you write text that will work in the Digest. For example, the advice for the Content field suggests content that is “Up to three sentences long, with a call to action – eg ‘find out more’, ‘book your place’, ‘get in touch’”.

This was a good start, but if you use Google Forms you’ll know that what we were going to end up with was a spreadsheet of things submitted. We would still need to sort by the date for inclusion, and there would still be the risk of missing things, or making copy and paste errors.

The actual (possibly not actual) magic

We contacted IT Services and met with Tom Smith and Phil Bainbridge to discuss what we were trying to achieve: a document for each issue of the Staff Digest, automatically populated with whatever was submitted via the form for inclusion in that issue.

They worked magic for us, putting together a script to create and populate documents for each Staff Digest. We can see who submitted each item and when, so we know who to get in touch with if there are any queries. Everyone submitting a piece for the Digest is sent a copy of what they submit, so they have the chance to check for errors straightaway.

I’m not very technical, so I choose to believe that all this is achieved by the liberal use of pixie dust. If you have a similar problem, I very much recommend getting in touch with IT Services to see if they can share some magic with you too.

Fairy Pixie Dust image by textures4photoshop.com

Back to the prosaic

With an eye to the practical, we made this change in the summer vacation when there are fewer things sent in to the Digest; it meant that any hiccups would affect fewer people, but as it turned out there were none to contend with. The change has been very smooth, and our neat folders for each month’s Digests with everything gathered together in a Google Doc for each week are (comparatively) a joy to work with. It’s not a big or ground breaking change, but it’s saved us time and (we think) made the submission process clearer.

What next?

Since we made this change, we’ve been joined in the Content and Communication team by Cathy Neligan, who has the Staff Digest – and how we might improve it – firmly in her sights. We already have some ideas for future developments, but we’re also interested in your suggestions. Please email staff-news@york.ac.uk with your thoughts.

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