Monday, January 4, 2010

The Rest of the Story: Dunwoody Chamber of Commerce website

What I look forward to most on this blog is being able to go into greater depth on the thought process behind each site that SDOC creates.  This is my first discourse on what goes into a major project.

The City of Dunwoody voted to incorporate itself in 2008 and began operating in December of that year.  During the summer, right after the vote to incorporate passed, a group of local business owners organized the Chamber of Commerce.  This was a unique step:  to have a Chamber representing the business community at the same time the residential community founds the city.  That was an additional point of view in play when it came time to elect a mayor and council and decide on ordinances and fees.

The Chamber is now and has been from the beginning a volunteer organization.  SDOC Publishing signed on as a founding sponsor - one of 36 local businesses to chip in the startup resources to get it going. 

Audience:  We knew from the start that we had to have a two-pronged approach.  First, we had to be a credible voice on behalf of the business community, which consists of about 2500 registered business organizations within the city limits, most of them very small, often family-owned enterprises.  These interests had to be addressed evenly with the larger organizations occupying the Perimeter.  That was the easy part.  On the other side was the residential community.  This one was going to be harder because there was a long and storied history of local residents feeling their rights were trampled by an indifferent (at best) county government in bed with certain business interests.  Hence the incorporation effort.  Any business entity was regarded with the deepest possible suspicion.  So we have two audiences,  in a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship, but not necessarily trusting each other.

Original Goals:  at the beginning, the goals were constantly evolving.  It was very hard to pin down an approach when new information was coming in weekly, sometimes daily.  This project was one of a kind in that it was a daily experiment.  The original goal was to be a resource for that developing information.  Information initially transmitted was:
  • Progress on City Ordinances
  • Minutes of City Council Meetings
  • Progress on Licensing Standards
  • Networking and Organizational Events
  • Opinion polls for the general public
The official City website was not functioning at the time; the Chamber site was a key source for ordinance documentation in a searchable format.

Current Goals:  Because of the aforementioned friction between business entities and the residential community, the Chamber decided to promote very user-friendly functions that brought member businesses and their customers together.  This includes:
  • Member Business Directory
  • Job Posting Board
  • Special Offers/promotions page
 For our members, the Chamber wants each member company empowered to promote themselves to the public.  So all of the above information can be updated by member businesses themselves, pending review by the Chamber office staff. 

Finally, the site had to communicate the Chamber's participation in Dunwoody life.  An event calendar promotes events sponsored by the Chamber or its members.  Committee chairs update their respective blogs with event recaps, or city council meetings and agendas that will impact the business community.  Members have a private forum to discuss Chamber matters among themselves outside of formal meetings.

Technology:  From the beginning the Chamber decided to use an open-source Content Management System (CMS) both for cost and ease of use for the numerous volunteers that would be coming and going over time.  The original site was created in Joomla.  The idea floated at the time by TPTB (The Powers That Be) was that modules and plug-ins would be used to create business directories and any other function we needed.  The design was a template that was modified to customize the appearance and coordinate with the new logo.

For 18 months,the IT team tried to use these tools to create the site TPTB wanted but there was always a conflict between modules, or something slowed the system down, or the office staff couldn't generate the reports they wanted.  It was always something.  So the decision was made in the summer of 2009 to drop Joomla and switch to Drupal.  For the IT team, it was not a big difference.  But the office volunteers were going to have an issue because the types of content were not as cut-and-dried into sections and categories.  Plus, permissions were more complicated even as they were more precise.  But the old questions of building databases inhouse and testing combinations of assorted modules followed the switch.

Finally, the Chamber leadership decided to outsource the member services.  Chamber leadership and the IT committee reviewed presentations by several companies and chose ChamberMaster.  (This was my recommendation as well.)  ChamberMaster functions are tunnelled through the main Drupal website, but remains separate.  This decision solved several problems.  First, it eliminated any chance that a regular member would accidentally get access to the main content of the website outside of member services and make unexpected changes.  Second, the member services interface is much simpler for the average internet user.  Third, ticketing and other online payment systems are secured in a separate area that does not require manual maintenance by the Chamber staff. 

Design:  Look & Feel
The original design was based on the concept that TPTB were looking to convey a sense of optimism and excitement of a new beginning.  Thus, the original colors were the colors of sunrise:  blue and orange on a white base.  These colors were also popular at the time in TV ads.
When the CMS was changed to Drupal, a new template was required.  The emotional point had not changed but fashions had:  shades of blue with bright spring yellow-green were becoming popular.  A basic template was chosen with that palette and then customized to make the appearance unique to the Chamber. 

Finally, a graphic accent to support the text-based logo.
The symbol needed had to be a simple representation of the local business community, where neighbors own the local storefront, where there is a great comfort with business.  The sense of mutual community that was the goal.    The design is an American colonial-style cupola; this structure is found scattered all throughout Dunwoody in small business areas that subscribe to the Colonial architectural style.  Even gas stations have them!  A photograph one bright and sunny afternoon, then a few Photoshop steps to render it into a soft pencil/charcoal drawing and voila!  If you've been to Dunwoody, you know what it is, and what it means:  good neighbors and good business. 

And that's the story!  Feel free to post comments if you have any questions.  This is the thought process that goes into a website - the abbreviated version anyway!

Monday, December 7, 2009

SDOC Publishing's Latest Success

SDOC Publishing has re-launched the public site for the Atlanta Alumnae Panhellenic Association.
Stay tuned for a full recap of the development and design philosophy.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Five Signs Your Website Needs an Upgrade

I'm planning on relaunching one of my clients' sites in the next day or so.  (Hopefully this afternoon!)

The site needed an overhaul.  It was created in about 2003 and SDOC was asked to take over maintenance in early 2006. 

My client decided to do a top-to-bottom review of their site this year and not a moment too soon.  It had been three years since anyone sat down and really sifted through what was availalbe and what needed to be included or dumped.

I've done a lot of jobs like this - polishing up websites that are diamonds in the rough.  It's easy to let your website slide and let information get dated or obsolete sections stay around.  So below are the clues that I have learned over the years that it's time to upgrade your site.

1)  Your look and feel are three years old or more

The Internet is about life changing at a fast pace.  Fashions in color and design change rapidly.  Most sites need a fresh new look at least every three years.  If your design was done a couple of years ago, talk to your web professional about a new look.

2)  Animations using GIFs or JavaScripts, or MIDI sound effects

If you created your own website back in the '90s you were probably tempted to use these then-new multimedia features.  Today, they're usually just old and dated.  Too many JavaScripts can slow down even the latest computer on a fast connection.  Plus, many firewalls are programmed to detect these scripts as potential viruses.

I'll never say that older design technologies are never useful. Every time I decide some technique is hopelessly obsolete I run across that one project where it's perfect.

When it comes to animation, video, sound or any multimedia, less is more.  If you're going to use this technique, stick to ONE per site.  Try to use Adobe (R) Flash if possible rather than the old-fashioned animated GIFs.  Lose the MIDIs:  if your web professional is absolutely sure that your site calls for sound, use MP3s embedded in a Flash element and make sure the visitor has an easy way to turn it off. 

3)  Site Counters

Site counters sprouted up as soon as JavaScript hit the web in the late 1990s.  They were cutesy gadgets that took some skill to include at the time, and it was just about the only way most small companies and not-for-profits could track their page visits.

Dump 'em.  No one needs a site counter on their business website any more.  All reputable web hosting companies have comprehensive site statistics available or included in their hosting package.  What used to be a snazzy technique is yesterday's news.  Ask your hosting provider about comprehensive site statistics, they provide much more valuable information.

4)  Popup or Sidebar Ads Placed By Your Hosting Provider

"Free" web hosts are going the way of the dodo.  They were great for families or groups with no budget.  In this day of Facebook and MySpace, even those folks don't need a host that puts popup ads all over their page.

If you are serious about your business, be serious about how your website looks and its first impression.  Third-party ads that have nothing to do with you and your company tell your visitors that you're not really in control of your business.  Professional hosting is inexpensive enough that any business of any size can take advantage of it. 

5) Outdated HTML

 You don't have to be a website expert to notice when the source code needs updating.  Are the fonts slightly different on each page?  Or even within a page?  If your pages are updated by a staff member, do they have trouble making sure the text color is constant?  And that the size is correct?  Is it hard to add new pictures or any graphic elements without throwing off whatever was already on the page?   Does your site look different on a newer computer screen than on an older one?  If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, then your HTML itself needs to be reviewed and updated.  Current website coding techniques make it easier to keep your site's appearance consistent and precisely place all of your content.  Ask your web professional to review the source code to see if it can be modernized. 

Maintaining the architecture of a website can be time-consuming with all of the details that need attention.  Make sure your web professional is on top of it so you can stay on top of your business!