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My personal road map for the Rationalist Association website

By John ~ Monday, 15 July 2013

I have been very lucky to work with the Rationalist Association (RA). I’ve had incredible amounts of freedom to do what I feel is right and what we’ve come out with, I am pretty proud of. When I look at the site, though, I see lots to do.

I should explain my relationship with the RA. I do a mix of budgeted work and work in my spare time. I am moving into a more ‘do stuff in my spare time’ phase at the time of writing. So I wanted to write this down to refer back to later. Importantly these are my own thoughts, from the perspective of working on the website. They do not necessarily reflect what the RA think is important right now.

Create a website working group

It’s very nice for me and my portfolio to claim ownership of the Rationalist Association’s website’s look and feel, taxonomy and general direction. But is it rational? Absolutely not.

I have had some contact with the people who use the RA site and amongst them are Computer scientists, Librarians, Developers, Designers and even just simply interested people with good ideas. Not having the ability to have a two way conversation with those who care and want to affect the outcome seems like a missed opportunity.

You might ask, well why don’t you just get on with it then? It may seem like a great way to save money, get things done cheaply, get things done quickly but I don’t believe that’s true. Having me as ‘Design Dictator’ is the cheapest, most efficient way to get things done. I don’t really have to discuss much with anyone. I just make a decision, defend it amongst a small group of people, push it live and wait for the feedback.

I would, though, love to talk to more people about things like the current state of the typography on the site, or how we better optimise for those in developing countries who rely on a flaky connection and an older mobile device, or how we can improve the information architecture and what to do about reducing the amount of CSS powering the site right now.

Design by committee can be a disaster, though, so this is an expensive option, if nothing else just in sheer time. A working group would need governance and infrastructure if people’s contributions are to amount to anything and if we are to meet the charity’s goals, as well as ensuring the quality goes up, not down.

Simplify membership

I don’t have great insight into why the membership is structured the way it is. There is Associate membership and Full membership and inside those further options to be a Digital member or a Print member. I find it a difficult story to design for and think it could be much simpler based around three yes or no questions:

  1. Do you want to be a member of the RA?
  2. Would you like us to send you a printed magazine?
  3. Would you like to be able to vote at the AGM?

In fact, personally, I’d scrap the third, include it by default and explore how the community of members can affect the direction of the charity using tools we provide on the web… but that’s a different story.

This all sounds very simple but there is a whole infrastructure in place to support the current model. Customer service, distribution of the magazine, renewals, payments etc. and so it’s not that simple to change.

Still, I do firmly believe Full, Associate, Digital, Print is a difficult story to tell, doesn’t mean much to your average potential member and should be simplified.

Optimise for mobile

I’ve had no problems at all selling the idea that the site should perform well on any internet enabled device and if you have a reasonably good smart phone, tablet or PC on a reasonably good connection you should have a reasonably good result. The site is designed to respond to the screen it finds itself on and present itself as well as it can.

What about people who rely solely on a mobile device for access to the web, though? Who don’t have a broadband connection and have a data tariff to worry about? If the RA’s reason to exist is to spread the word of reason this has to be at the absolute center of how it thinks about itself on the web. We’ve started down this path but it’s by no means complete. There’s been a balance between the need to make the site look as good as possible and make it work on mobile and as a result the latter needs more work.

If the Apostasy project reaches its targets and gets going, I’d say it’s absolutely vital and should come first, above and beyond everything else when it comes to design. It will need to start as basic as possible (which doesn’t have to mean ugly by any means) and very carefully enhance the experience for those with more capable devices and better connections.

Simple is never simple!

For data try: http://business.opera.com/smw/archive/ with thanks to @brucel

One big site, or a group of smaller sites?

Go to the site today and you will see on the navigation an item labelled “Explore” and even though it was me who proposed it be there, I loathe it. It has the potential to become a dumping ground for all the things we haven’t quite thought through properly. It’s an excuse not to think about how the site is structured.

As more things get added, the more complex the site will become and the potential for mess increases. The more likely it is that Explore button is abused. In principle at least, I think we should remove it right now but it’s handy, if dangerous.

The organisation of the site needs reviewing now, and in my spare time I will (if you are reading this and do IA, you’re welcome to contact me!). As things are added in the future, the organisation of the site needs to be considered every time or it will start to feel disjointed and messy.

There is also consideration for projects like the Apostasy project. I proposed that the fundraising page sit outside the main RA site but would it be right for the actual running project to sit outside of the main RA site? There’s a lot to consider.

I highlight this on my roadmap because it’s so often overlooked. It’s an invisible bit of work in many ways. Well it’s invisible if we do it well, the minute we stop caring for it, is the minute people will start noticing how bad it is.

Happy to talk

I have more, lots more, but these are some of the bigs ones for me and what I’d choose to focus on over the coming months.

We don’t have comments on this blog at the time of writing but if you’ve read this and care about the RA site and want to discuss it, please do email me at john@mrandmrsok.com.