Engineering a web-site, step 1: Study of the peers

By on April 21, 2010

Engineering a web-site in Drupal, step 1We’ve recently launched a site developed in Drupal CMS for the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptist churches in the Dnepropetrovsk region. Later I’ll also post a summary of the technologies used in the site’s creation, yet before that I would like to share, in a series of articles, how I approached the design and planning in this project. The first article, “step 1”, is dedicated to studying other similar sites, for information, ideas and warnings.

Engineering? Isn’t it a kind of art instead?

Yes and no. It is an art, and many art forms together — when talking of design, we usually think of visual art. Yet that should come as the last step in the process. Before that, it is an art of communicating with the customer, to find out what they want. Art of asking the right questions — and art of finding good answers. Art of organizing information, of removing the unneeded extras, of convincing the customer that “everything” is not a good idea. That is art, yet to keep it all properly structured, to ensure that no key factor is missed, I’d like to call it an engineering art.

Screenshot of the frontpage(you can see the final design of the front page of the site to the right.) In order to produce a logical and usable output, I looked for a step-by-step process usually called “Information Architecture”. The rough outline of the process was built on many articles and thoughts in general, in particular I enjoyed the Information Architecture tutorial posted by the kind people at It describes the following IA steps:

  1. Site’s goals.
  2. User experience.
  3. Site content.
  4. Site structure.
  5. Visual design (see, it is the last step in the process!)

I didn’t follow them strictly, though, but they gave me a good framework to think about and to make some of the key decisions.

Where I was closest to the “Art” idea was in the main project direction, since it was formulated as “we need a site”. I was left with the task of defining what purpose (other than simply “being”) the site will serve, for what audience, with what content and in what form and structure.

Overcoming the peer pressure, or “How does everyone else do it?”

To avoid starting with a blank canvas, I’ve performed analysis of other similar Ukrainian sites — searching for regional unions, communities, churches etc. When working on a business or commercial site, this step would be named “researching the competition”, yet in the case of this project these other sites can’t and shouldn’t be treated as competing, since their service directed to a single common goal.

Surprising result — out of 24 regions (“oblast”) of Ukraine, only one regional union site was announced — and even that site was down. Bad luck (actually, something to think about), but I found some regional youth sites, church sites, plus carefully studied the main site of the Evangelical Christian Baptists of Ukraine. All these gave me an idea of what content, features and structure are popular in the community, which I listed in a document and presented to the person who gave me the whole “make a site” task.

The content types I found in my investigation:

  • About us page (describing the church or organization, contact info, addresses etc).
  • Description of activities, ministries, reoccurring events in the church / community.
  • A news feed (including future event announcements).
  • Articles, sermons, books — in textual, audio and video formats, both created by the church / organization and, *ahem*, “borrowed”.
  • Rich musical sections — note sheets, chords, lyrics, recordings of church choirs and bands, as well as famous Christian singers (yes, Ukrainians love music, no doubt).
  • Photograph galleries.
  • Discussion boards (aka Forums).

This all looks fairly common, so I knew that I would need to allow for the same kinds of content one way or the other, yet how to structure them so that the visitors can find it if and when needed — that’s an important decision, but I could make it only after deciding on the site’s goals and audience. Until then, having an inventory of the possibilities was enough, and was a good start.

Learning on others’ experience

I also made one important observation. The fact that most of these sites seemed inactive and poorly maintained was both alarming and thought-provoking. At the end of this research phase I presented the following written conclusion:

The absence of working regional sites probably means that there is no defined need – either by the leadership or by the people tasked with distributing information in their region. The fact that many of the church sites are rarely updated most likely means that they were created by techy enthusiasts, as they’d do it for themselves, without thinking through how these sites could serve their visitors. This also impacted the visual styling and content editorial quality of these sites.

The only fully active site is the all-Ukrainian one, and it seems to be led by a single maintainer, who continuously “bugs” people to provide news updates and other types of content (N.B. I found this out from a couple of “journalists” who are providing information for the site; since then the site’s design and management were changed, and I don’t yet know how it is operated at the moment).

Therefore, a site can exist and be active on the following conditions:

  • Clarity on the site’s purpose and goals, whom does the site exist for (majority of the information on the studied sites is only interesting to the person who’s maintaining the site), and this purpose has to be carried in both the site’s structure and its content.
  • There should be a team of people who understand the site’s goals and its audience, and who play an active role in populating the site with content that corresponds to the goals and is interesting to the audience.

Even though this conclusion may be stating the obvious, having relevant research materials to base it on really helped me in further discussions with the key people in the organization, to explain to them why we need a goal, and to paint them a vivid picture of the risks a site encounters if not everyone is on board on what it is for and whom it is for.

Knowing the risks was also important in continuing with the site’s design and implementation.

Research is a good idea

I have to say that the results of this investigation were not all negative. I found good decisions and solutions on those sites, and I wrote down the structure, the content types of each site, how the contact information was presented, what kinds of discussions or interactions were happening on. That was a good foundation to develop on, so I am thankful to their creators and maintainers, especially knowing that their job may be a difficult one when they don’t have a team of people to share and support their ideas and the desire to improve their on-line ministry.

You can find the other articles of the series here:

Coming next: Determining the key decision-makers, conducting interviews, summary of the feedback.

Stay tuned (RSS is so handy for that), and I would love to hear what you think in the comments to this article.