- Martin Delisle
Director, Web Development
Internet and Digital Services
Radio-Canada made its Web debut nearly 20 years ago with the launch of Radio-Canada.ca – an online offering that has evolved considerably over the years, driven by ever-changing technologies and work processes. Originally designed as a collection of more-or-less independent sites that were separately managed and updated, Radio-Canada.ca has emerged over the past three or four years as a consolidated offering built around broad-themed categories known in-house as “topics”.
Give all of these transformations, it was essential that we create a single, modern Web publishing tool so that all content creators could contribute to Radio-Canada.ca without having to be Web experts.
Figure 1 – The Former Web Publishing Interface
Steps in the Web Publishing Process
Although it is not a very technical job, Web publishing is a multi-step process – and one that should be as seamless as possible so that our content contributors can focus on what they do best.
The publishing process can be broken down as follows:
- Creating: Writing the actual copy.
- Enriching: Adding pictures, audio and video, or related hyperlinks.
- Categorising: Associating the content with topics and themes so that it automatically appears in the site’s various sections.
- Copy-editing: Having a copy-editor check grammar and spelling.
- Approving: Having an editorial representative confirm that the article is good to go.
- Ordering: The editorial representative choosing where to place the article in the manual line-ups, based on its importance.
Configure or Develop?
One of the first decisions the team faced was determining whether it would be more effective to use an off-the-shelf product or work with lighter technologies. By definition, off-the-shelf products are robust and proven, but still require a lot of effort to configure and impose a specific operating environment. Light technologies are more adaptable, but come with a certain amount of risk.
Given the links between the various technology layers used in Web development, from the underlying platform to the final product that appears in users’ browsers, we opted to develop the application with the same technologies we were already using.
The project’s initial phase involved creating a modern, user-friendly interface that would lead content creators through the publication steps intuitively, while giving them a fairly clear idea of how the choices they make at the writing stage will appear visually.
Making Users Central to the Process
To better understand user needs, a pilot group was formed at the outset of development; its members were consulted and provided feedback throughout the process. Before version 1.0 went into production, a four-day laboratory was held to let users thoroughly test the application. The session resulted in a list of fixes and enhancements, the most critical of which were implemented before the first users were trained.
In December and January, several dozen journalists and Web content editors took the course and switched from GHTML to the Scoop environment.
Next Step: Under the Hood
The Scoop interface, of course, is the most immediately visible benefit for users. But a lot of work still needs to be done under the hood before we can shift into high gear.
Radio-Canada.ca started out more as a loose collection of sites than a truly integrated offering. It is only over the past three or four years that the offering has been united under a single banner. As a result, the format of the documents stored in databases and the steps for saving them vary from one section of the site to the next.
The next phase in Scoop’s development is therefore to unify the document structure and migrate all functions to the new interface. It is on this less glamorous, but oh-so-essential task that the development team is currently focused.
In the coming months, we will be unplugging the GHTML engine and replacing it with a new one based on the same Microsoft .Net technology used in all of our projects. This new “engine” will eliminate certain manual steps in the online publishing process and improve overall reliability.
Once this phase is complete, all that will be left is to migrate the content from our various “heritage” tools. In addition to the obvious benefit of providing a simpler, more up-to-date platform, the migration will help our content contributors be more versatile. In the past, they had to become proficient in the specific tool for their section. They will now be able to post in any site section using a single tool and process.
The Technologies Used
Radio-Canada’s Web platform is based on Microsoft ASP.net technology. During its various incarnations in recent years, the development team created a Service-oriented Architecture (SOA), which provides considerable flexibility and content permeability among the various sections, and even among products.
For Scoop, this approach resolved the issue of the user interface being dependent on the underlying system. It meant that we could create the new publication tool first, and then change the engine afterwards. Thanks to a Web-based service that conveys the data to the underlying system, Scoop is what you might call “agnostic” – i.e., it does not need to know what system it is talking to, because the service acts as interpreter.
This type of library can be used to create a modern, user-friendly interface with minimal effort. During the project, when our ergonomics expert made recommendations for enhancing the interface’s flow and readability, the team could apply the changes in a matter of hours.
The suite includes a number of timesaving features for content creators, from drag-and-drop capabilities and rich-text editing, to filtering and sorting search results by date, author, and more. Better still, the interface can be tailored to a range of screen sizes, allowing users to publish content from mobile devices.
Figure 2 – The Result: The Scoop Publishing Interface
Scoop’s success is the result of direct cooperation between users and the development team. The frequent, on-going feedback enabled by our flexible production methods helped us fine-tune the product and launch a version 1.0 capable of meeting day-to-day production requirements. However, that is only the beginning. This collaborative, continual-improvement approach will also be applied in the project’s next phases.
In closing, do you wonder where the name Scoop came from? Our developers sometimes like to play creative director in their spare time and got the idea of naming new tools after productions that have marked Radio-Canada’s history – in this case, the 1990s TV series of the same title. Who knows? Maybe we could ask Macha Grenon and Roy Dupuis to become Scoop’s honorary patrons?