by Kevin Gibbons, Hypatia 2010-2013
I want to give a description of how we came together to come up with the current MCC website. I will describe a brief timeline and list the goals that Board members and Web Committee volunteers went with when developing the site. The idea is to have a concise historical document of the site coming together, as well as to let members know why the site is the way it is and what potential it has.
For years MCC had a pretty basic website that had been around since at least 2003. I facilitated a discussion with the Board in February 2011 to discuss how to redesign the website and what people would want to accomplish. As it was, the website was outdated (developed in ColdFusion), and it was difficult for staff and members to make basic updates and post up-to-date information. The website had basic information about coops and an assortment of photos.
However, things did not progress very much after that initial conversation. No one was really in charge. The Member Services Coordinator was tasked with updating and developing the website, but the task of a redesign was too much for one staff member to coordinate. We began earnest conversations about the website as a Web Committee through Summer 2011. We attempted to migrate the site to a new web host in September 2011, but the host that we had chosen (FatCow) did not support ColdFusion, so I put up a very basic Wordpress website to serve as an interim solution while we pursued developing a more dynamic website.
Conversations and drafting continued through Fall 2011 through Summer 2012 as we troubleshot Drupal functionality, drafted logo designs, and proofed the work of the web designer who did the stylesheets. The Drupal site went live at the end of August 2012.
Goals of the Website
After many conversations with the Board, staff, interested members, and people who came in and out of the Web Committee, we came up with some of the following goals:
- Inviting homepage. We wanted the homepage to be visually appealing and make it easy for newcomers and members alike to get to the most relevant places on that site that they were looking for. We started with a slider, followed by links to the most visited sections of the site, then an MCC blogroll and calendar.
- Member interaction. What everyone wanted was the ability to facilitate online discussion forums through the website. We could interact more as members, have more committee discussions in between meetings, and use the tools of the internet to function better as an organization.
- House & room database. One of the things that I was most excited about was being able to list available rooms so that anyone who was looking for a coop could quickly get an idea of which houses were looking for new members. In addition, we wanted to make sure that people could see basic data like room sizes, food policies, pricing, etc. to streamline the process of finding the right coop.
- MCC News. We have a dynamic organization, and we wanted to be able to easily post news and updates to the website to keep members informed, let outsiders know what MCC is doing, and document MCC activities.
- Calendar of events. Making calendars is still a struggle on the interwebs! There are Google calendars, Drupal calendars, and such, and organizations often have trouble keeping them all in line. We wanted to make sure that the website has a calendar and that there was an updated calendar available to members and committee chairs.
- Ability to make some content only available to members. That is, we wanted to be able to set the permissions for different content. We wanted some documents to only be available to members, house residents, committee members, etc.
- Listservs. One thing that has confounded MCC members, staff, and officers is that we can't send emails to all the people who are currently members, to one particular house, or whatever. One advantage of Drupal and taking the time to build a dynamic website is that we can compile and organize contact information of members and thus be able to better communicate.
- Online forms. Surveys and other online forms should be very useful to MCC, so we wanted to make sure that we website allowed members and staff to create and distribute forms to get member feedback on different issues.
- Fetching design. It should look cool! We were going for a more streamlined design that was not as web 1.0 and boxy as our previous site.
- Bidding room for contractors. Michael Carlson, the Maintenance Coordinator, had the idea of having contractors conduct the bidding for projects on the website itself. As projects come up, the Maintenance Coordinator or another member could post the specifications and approved contractors would get notice and be given a window of time to offer a bid (price and comments). That would help to get more things done and make everyone's job easier.
In the end we were able to accomplish or at least put the wheels in motion to achieve these goals. As the focus of the organization changes, goals will be amended, and hopefully what we have in place can adjust to MCC's changing needs.
Building the Website
We contracted with Eric Howland of DANEnet to help us to do the Drupal programming. He met with us a few times to lay out our main goals for the site. We ended up moving the host to Bluehost because they offered shell access, which DANEnet preferred during site development. Also, FatCow's load times were pretty bad.
We implemented the calendar module, the forums, the house/room database, bidding room, etc. and had to draft and troubleshoot the functionality as well as the permissions. So much more time consuming than we imagined!
Logo & Design
We worked with Christina King from Polka! Press (formerly Madison Print Cooperative) to develop the logo. At first Michael Carlson, the Maintenance Coordinator, was coordinating an online graphic design bidding process, according to the redesign process that he had developed, but we had trouble finding satisfactory examples, and we wanted to use a local designer. Rek Kwawer, the Member Services Coordinator, worked directly with Christina, and we submitted drafts to the Board to make the final decision on the logo redesign. The first drafts that we brought were considered too different and too abstract by Board members. Board members advocated for keeping the two pine trees which are commonly used in cooperative logos, as well as a house similar to the one in the original MCC logo. Thus, we sent specifications to Christina, and she went through drafts with us. We decided to change the stars from the Big Dipper constellation to 11 stars in an arc to represent the 11 coops currently in MCC. We went through drafts with different fonts and decided on the final version.
We contracted with Janette Day to do the stylesheets for the website because she was a local designer, had experience with Drupal, and was recommended by Eric Howland. We decided to keep the base colors of the site muted to allow the images to pop more and to make sure that there was a lot of contrast between the typeface and the background, making pages more legible. It also matched the simplicity of the black logo.
We spent a lot of time developing the front page to make sure that it flowed well, had an informative slider, contained important site links with images, allowed for dynamic content, and showed the calendar.
So that's how it came to be! As most web documents, it's always a work in process. We set it up in Drupal and chose the adaptable style to allow future members and developers to easily adjust the site to suit current needs and incorporate appropriate innovations.
If you are hoping to learn how to develop a similar site or make changes to our current site, I'd recommend a few best practices:
- Form a solid group. Find people who care about making changes and meet regularly to make sure that people know what they should be doing, and you can support one another. I wish we had met more often, and I wish we had worked more during a shorter period of time so that it could have taken less time.
- Use surveys and bring major ideas up in meetings. Our process had to be somewhat democratic, so we used surveys to ask members what they wanted to see in the new site, as well as what they were looking for in a logo. This information helped us to adjust our priorities, and we were able to come up with something that people liked and that people accepted because of the process we undertook.
- Ask advice on discrete decisions. Get past big lofty goals and ask people to choose between different design choices, whether or not to include certain functions, etc. The meetings and surveys that we organized with discrete choices were much more productive and informative.
- Clear assignments and timelines. Make sure to be very clear about what you want to get done, who will follow up, and when it should be done by. We struggled with this, but we made the most momentum when we finished our meetings with this kind of clarity.
- Be patient. We work in a very democratic, horizontal organization, and things will always take more time.
- Be impatient and vigilant. If you want to get something done in a coop or any complicated organization, you have to keep showing up, keep pestering people, keep momentum in the project.
Here are some documents that show what we were thinking at different times along the way. They are cited throughout the text above:
MCC 2.0: A proposal for a process of website improvement, February 2, 2011
This was the proposal first presented to the Board to get the ball rolling.
MCC Graphic Refresh: To help MCC Get where it wants to go!, August 2011
This was the proposal, including survey questions, by Michael Carlson for a process to change the graphic identity of MCC.
MCC Website Design, September 6, 2011
This was a document that laid out steps forward after lots of initial conversations about what we were looking for in the new site.
MCC Logo Proof Round 1, January 25, 2012
This was the first set of proofs from Christina King.
MCC Logo Proof Round 2, February 8, 2012
After presenting these ideas at a meeting and discussing them, the Board voted that the logo should be more similar to the original logo, including a home and pine trees.