Cal Poly and NASA/JPL's Partner in Building a Model for Effective Website Communication

The NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech came to the Graphic Communication Institute at Cal Poly for a Web Optimization Workshop on Monday, February 23, 2015.

The nation's leading robotic space exploration institution came to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, for assistance in optimizing the effectiveness of its website development practices for communicating scientific, technical, and educational outreach information internally, nationally, and around the world.

Headed by Mr. Sunjay Moorthy, Manager, Graphics Services, and Installation Printing Management Officer at the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California, JPL put together an initiative to make sure that its website communication services are second to none worldwide in conveying scientific, technical and educational outreach information. Moorthy, a long-time JPL communication leader, was the brainchild behind this initiative.

To achieve the stated goal, Moorthy initiated a dialogue with Dr. Harvey R. Levenson, Professor Emeritus and Director of the Graphic Communication Institute at Cal Poly (GrCI)—an exchange that has since resulted in an ongoing collaboration between the two institutions. The initial set of conversations led to an arrangement whereby the GrCI conducted a technical audit of JPL's website procedures related to design, applications, methods, processes, technologies, and personnel. The GrCI is an internationally recognized industry service arm of Cal Poly's Graphic Communication Department. The GrCI focuses on research, testing, product evaluations, consulting, training, seminars, workshops, conferences, and publishing. The technical audit was conducted by Levenson and by Steven Noone, GrCI Associate and website design and development expert.

PROJECT OVERVIEW

On August 14 and 15, 2014, Levenson and Noone spent two days at JPL, conducting one-on-one interviews, touring facilities, and documenting work activities in all Graphics functional areas. While all functional areas of the Graphics Services Group were reviewed, the audit focused on website development, including workflow, methods, techniques, processes, software, equipment, and personnel of Electronic Publishing Services (EPS), which is the website development team in Graphics. The purpose of the audit was to identify areas for improvement in EPS processes, tools and methods and to recommend training actions. Levenson and Noone conducted detailed interviews with all EPS team members as well as other stakeholders in the Technical Information Section; they also toured the onsite photo and repro facilities. On September 12, 2014, Levenson delivered a full report of observations and recommendations to Moorthy. Monique Martinez, the 2014 summer intern in Graphics and a Cal Poly Graphic Communication student, provided administrative support throughout the audit. The audit report focused on two items:

  1. Making recommendations for improvements. This includes standards, the latest industry practices, tools, metrics, standardization of team member practices, staff experience, continuity of processes, understanding of customer needs, graphic presentation, and related areas.
  2. Identifying training needs and recommending an EPS training program to be delivered at Cal Poly.

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

The Graphics Services Group oversees several communication production activities at JPL:

  1. Printing Services: commercial printing through a contract with the Government Printing Office (GPO) that covers a complete range of printing services; also onsite repro services and networked multifunctional device copiers through subcontracts.
  2. Design Services: design, writing, editing, and creation of design publications and high-visibility communication products such as brochures, public outreach and educational materials, and JPL external publications.
  3. Electronic Publishing Services (EPS): standardized and sophisticated websites, using the latest development tools and advanced dynamic web interfaces to create solutions for web design, content, functionality, and usability, as well as online forms, forum and bulletin boards, and interfaces for Lab-approved credit card transactions.
  4. Photographic Services: creative and production services as well as photographic, video, and imaging solutions; photographers on call for assignments across the Laboratory and around the world; a full range of graphics products such as displays, exhibits, and signage; and an online image catalog containing over two terabytes of JPL mission imagery.

An important part of the Graphics mission is to advance the art of scientific and technical communication to other departments within the larger JPL organization. This is done through concise detail including data and facts as well as storytelling. The data, facts, and stories connect business, science, education, and research professionals within JPL offices and around the world to help create a common understanding of our planet, the universe at large, and the tools NASA/JPL is building to reveal the "mysteries" of our universe. The group uses art, photography, video, and text to illustrate and communicate. Their combination of design expertise and technical proficiency has established Graphics as the ideal partner for providing technical and scientific information and for telling customers' stories.

The Graphics group is staffed with bright, motivated, and highly competent individuals, many of whom have decades of institutional knowledge serving JPL in this information dissemination and storytelling role. The group is composed of an impressive and intelligent staff, though some are approaching the end of their careers with very few early career staff on board. (One of the goals of the Graphics–GrCI collaboration is to identify burgeoning communication talent and bring those young people to JPL.) Many members of the Graphics staff are liberal arts–trained, which brings many benefits and broad thinking. Many are educated in areas such as English, writing, philosophy, theology, and related areas. This is definitely a plus and points to the intellectual skills of the staff and meshes with the GrCI being part of Cal Poly's College of Liberal Arts.

The audit will be followed with a training session for EPS staff on-site at Cal Poly delivered by the GrCI. Even before the training, Graphics already started implementing several of the audit recommendations for the EPS team, especially those crystallized in the following excerpt from the GrCI report:

"The organizational structure of each (Graphics) section should emulate a traditional organizational structure with supervisory personnel having a span of control of 1 to 6 employees optimally or 1 to 7 or 8 employees maximum. This would provide the opportunity for all staff to be subject to the same operating procedures and expectation as opposed to the "freelance" structure that presently exists. Effective models for this structure might be the Photographic Services and Design Services teams where a more traditional organizational reporting structure seems to exist with a clear hub and 'connecting spokes'." In the cases of both of these other teams, there is a clear "point person" who is responsible for task assignments, resource allocation, and project oversight."

The goal of the follow-on training will be to establish a set of best practices in EPS for project management, customer service, and web development technologies. This group-training program will provide a common foundation of knowledge, establish a shared vocabulary to aid collaboration, and "kick-start" individual training in specific job-related areas. Levenson said, "We will cover in-depth topics related to web workflow optimization and conduct hands-on exercises using modern web development techniques to deliver fully responsive experiences across a variety of web-enabled devices." Cal Poly's GrCI is a highly recognized leader in graphic communication research, testing, product evaluations, and training in print as well as non-print digital imaging processes including web development and Internet publishing.

CONCLUSION AND NEXT STEPS

The Graphics Services Group occupies a key strategic role within JPL as a resource for high-production value, creative projects, and ongoing support for the proposal development process that is mission-critical to the organization. The Group helps its JPL "customers" tell their stories—what they do and why it is important. Group members create, capture, analyze, enhance, and deliver information that communicates the value and results of JPL's scientific, technical, and business endeavors. The group provides high-quality, innovative, end-to-end information delivery services and solutions. Expectations for JPL Graphics are high, due to the critical nature of the work and a long track record of delivering high-quality service.

The following areas will be addressed in the EPS training program:

  1. Overview of User Experience Process
  2. Hands-on Cascade Style Sheet (CSS3) for Website Development
  3. Responsive Design Principle and Applications
  4. Enhanced Interactions with jQuery and Javascript
  5. Layout and Design: User Interface Principles
  6. Layout and Design: Typography

Applying such training to developing effective websites using multimedia and new technology approaches will be the primary focus. To the extent possible, the training will include but not be limited to: sound, motion, interaction, digital asset management (DAM), augmented reality, variable data, web-to-print, search engine optimization, mobile apps, and so on. Future training would be provided in other areas as determined by JPL interests and needs in image and file creation and management, and trends and technologies.

The EPS training program is the next logical step in the evolution of Graphics Services at JPL; it is also the next important step in the continuing collaboration being fostered between an institution of higher education that prepares students for careers in communication (Cal Poly's Graphic Communication program) and an organization for research and development (JPL Graphics) that is looking for the next generation of talent in that field. The initiative has all the hallmarks of "a beautiful relationship."

To read more about the GrCI and JPL collaboration click here

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