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Microsoft Sway for Website Publishing

While updating the DES site, I tried my hand at presenting past project information using a few different publishing tools including Microsoft Sway. Sway is a cloud-based presentation tool within the Office 365 suite of business productivity apps. As advertised, it's an “easy-to-use” digital storytelling system for creating interactive reports, presentations, newsletters, etc. Its design engine and templates help to create professional designs where images, text, videos, and other multimedia flow together in a way that enhances the story.

With Sway, you start from a single blank card or enter any topic to build upon as you go, or you can begin by importing an existing document. My first attempt at creating a “sway story” used our first blog post as a starting point. With its stripped-down formatting, the post was easy to import and presented a nearly blank canvas upon which to test the built-in tools for visual design enhancement. Design tools within the app were simple to use. I highlighted sections of text, imported images, and applied style templates until I liked the overall, updated appearance. The results with only 15-20 minutes of fiddling were satisfying, and the ultra-sparse blog posting was transformed into something visually interesting with very little effort.

Next, I tested creating project descriptions from a set of SF330 forms that were on hand. The design engine converted each form (a formatted Microsoft Word table) into a single image. So, instead, I converted the tables to delimited text before dropping them all into Sway, which quickly applied a template, sub-divided projects, arranged images, and applied stylistic effects and emphasis in a fairly logical way. It took well over an hour to clean up the story, though, as the design engine was inconsistent in applying its subject selection and style application rules across the six different projects - even though the source documents were fairly standardized. From the experience I learned that it would have been simpler to first develop a single project description template in Sway and then drag and drop content directly from each of the project source tables into that template. Despite doing things the hard way and not seeking absolute layout perfection for this test, the resulting project descriptions display nicely in all modern browsers. Layouts adjust, dynamically, to effectively make best use of available window size.

Finally, I converted a voluminous and complex technical report to the Sway story format:

On background, in 2013, DES was selected to provide Engineering and GIS services under the SWFWMD Watershed Management Program. We were assigned to evaluate conditions in the Anclote River watershed and identify flood risk within Pasco County through storm event simulation and inundation area mapping. The project used LiDAR-based terrain models and was performed according to the Water Management District’s Guidelines and Specifications. The resulting Floodplain Justification Report, with its mixture of text, tables, graphs, and images, is a good test for Sway conversion into a unique, web-based project presentation.

Conversion from technical report to story format presented a few minor challenges, the first being that the complete word document was too large for the app - just exceeding the import limit. I had individual report sections available and was able to assemble the Sway story piece-meal. Prior to importing, I stripped out headers and footers and rotated a dozen or so images to the correct orientation for importing. That’s it. Once the report was in story format, it took me less than half an hour to select an appropriate template, make a few changes to the design engine’s selection of text to be highlighted, and the story was complete.

In summary, as a presentation tool, Sway offers a smart set of features that are easy to use. Built-in templates and customization options provide adequate, but not endless, flexibility in your presentation layout. The intelligent design engine occasionally serves up something unexpected but that’s not always a bad thing, and the app usually renders a presentation that is fresh in comparison to some other presentation formats. It’s also a plus that Sway’s sharing feature allows for collaborative design and team input, while the built-in, cloud-based file management system allows for contributions from all points in a distributed workforce.

Expect a fresh look at past projects on the website in the weeks ahead and, as always, please contact us to discuss opportunities for DeLoach Engineering Science to be of service to you.


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