Supercomputer Communication: The four key steps of a website redesign

The country’s leading scientific computing organisation needs a good website, and we didn’t have one. Just think what message it sends, for a supposedly technically skilled and forward thinking organisation to have a bland and semi-functional website. Websites show us off to the world, home bases from which we can share our messages, branding and news. This was the starting point for the National Computational Infrastructure’s website redesign project. Did it work? I guess you’ll have to visit nci.org.au and see for yourself. When you get back, here’s what I did and why I think it worked out well. Hopefully this also gives you something to learn from.

Clear scope

The scope is the easiest and hardest thing to pin down. You know what it feels like, what you think it is, everyone gets it, but do they really? A clear scope comes from understanding the purpose of your website in detail. Who is it for? What do you want people to get from it? What do people come to it for? What is a redesign supposed to fix, improve or address? If you don’t answer these questions, and make sure everyone understands those answers, at some point there’ll be a problem. It’ll become hard to either make decisions, or to make good decisions. A clear scope gives you guidance and clarity around what you’re actually doing. You will come back to it every day of the project, so take the time to figure it out!

Clear wishes

This is your website, and it’s going to be the face of your organisation for the coming years. So what do you want? Anything is possible – you have to decide what makes sense. Interactive infographics? Advanced maps? Animated icons? A specific standard of security or accessibility? You can have all these things and more, and some of them will be more important than others. Try and understand exactly what you need and want to see in your new website, and bring that with you as you go through the process.

Executive buy-in

Anyone who’s ever worked in any organisation knows that it’s important to have the boss on your side. Your Executive is almost certainly going to have strong opinions about certain aspects of the website, so it’s important to make sure that they know why you are doing this in the first place, and how you’re going to make sure it will come out well. A first step might be showing them this piece to prove that you’ve gotten the advice of an expert! There will be moments when a Director or Manager will jump in with a strongly worded bit of advice or opinion. If they understand how the website is coming together and what its ultimate purpose is, that advice will probably be more helpful and relevant than the stray thoughts otherwise thrown your way.

Pick contractors carefully

When you’ve done all your planning, there’s still the website to build. That’s where contractors come in. Unless you’ve got a web design team in-house, this will mean getting quotes, looking at portfolios and deciding who is a good fit in terms of cost, timelines, previous work and whether they understand the kind of result you are after. There’s a lot of solutions out there: from the slick build-your-own templates of Squarespace and WordPress to the bespoke, custom-designed sites of your local artisanal design firms. Depending on what you need, these options could all work for you. They will be a big part of whether your website turns out the way you want, so pick carefully.

Whichever way you go about it, no matter how large or small the scope, keep in mind the purpose of your website. What is it supposed to achieve? Use that as your guide and you’re off to a good start already.

This piece has been adapted from a presentation I gave at the Australian Science Communicators Conference in Melbourne on the 12th of February 2020. For the slides from that presentation, and other thoughts about science writing, websites, languages, and more, visit my personal website at ahuttnerkoros.wordpress.com or follow me on Twitter at @ATHuttnerKoros.

How to talk about the science coming out of your organisation when your organisation is not producing any science

Behind all of the biggest scientific discoveries, there’s the infrastructure that lets it happen. We’ve all heard of the Large Hadron Collider, maybe the most famous bit of research infrastructure in the world. Unfortunately, most other research infrastructure is much more anonymous.

In Australia, one of those is the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI), home to our fastest supercomputer. Computational research of any kind – climate modelling, molecular design, fundamental physics, genomics, satellite imagery – requires a facility like NCI to function. Working in Communications at NCI, I try to tell stories about the kinds of groundbreaking and life changing research that gets done using this machine.

A bank of dark computers fills a room, glowing with many green LED lights.

NCI’s Raijin supercomputer, the fastest in the Southern Hemisphere. Click to enlarge.

But here’s the issue: what do you do when the research stories you’re trying to tell don’t belong to you? We aren’t the ones doing the research, we’re providing the platform for it to happen. The research belongs to the researchers and all of their different universities and research organisations around the country.

We cover the research outcomes that come about from the use of our supercomputer because the findings are often hugely significant. But detailing the scientific findings is not always our primary focus. It serves us well, but sometimes it’s better to leave that to those researchers’ media teams. For NCI, we need to go beyond only reporting on the successes of other researchers, no matter how noteworthy. We need to tell our own stories, not rely on those of others as a proxy for our own.

Australia’s national science infrastructure is hugely important to the progress of Australian science, and provides a backbone for millions of dollars of research and economic benefits each year. It is valuable in and of itself, and the challenge as communicators is to find ways to make that clear.

For one thing, there’s real scientific and technical achievements being made to keep our supercomputer operating at maximum capacity, and those are already stories worth telling. We also play a central role in a whole range of national advances, from improved weather forecasts to the development of national genetic databases, so let’s focus on those too!

Now, we angle our research stories, Annual Report and web content to focus more on our strength and value as a key cog in the scientific machine, which hopefully will give us a clearer voice and a more consistent platform. The lesson for us is to keep in mind the aims of our communication activities. We want to reach out to people and show them all the ways that national supercomputing infrastructure improves their lives: if the stories and videos we produce point us in that direction, we’re probably doing ok.