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Design Overhaul

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Subject:Design Overhaul
Summary:Thoughts on the new designs
Messages:25
Author:Jonathan Hilgeman
Date:2009-12-17 05:29:48
Update:2010-01-03 02:24:52
 
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  1. Design Overhaul   Reply  
Picture of Jonathan Hilgeman
Jonathan Hilgeman
2009-12-17 05:33:34
(NOTE: This is intended COMPLETELY as constructive criticism - there is no offense intended at all.)

I think someone had talked about this before, but I want to second the thought that a bigger overhaul might be a good idea. The design proposals from the contest still retain a lot of the site structure, so there's only so much that even the best of designs can do. I know that some of the site structure is retained because of pre-built HTML components, but maybe there's a need to rethink how the site is built.

I'm talking about user experience. It feels like the current designs proposals don't really add anything to make the site actually BETTER. It might LOOK slightly better than before, but adding new CSS and images doesn't really make it easier to navigate the site, faster to find useful classes, or make anything more intuitive. Really, adding CSS and images just SLOWS down the user by making them have to download more content without giving any major benefits.

All that said, I just want to point out that you have lots of loyal PHPClasses users, and many of them want to see a redesign, but they want to see a more drastic change. Sure, there may be SOME restrictions on site structure due to advertisements and so on, but maybe there should be a bigger, site-rebuilding project that involves the community.

My thoughts on the project:

Stage 1: Establish the Features
Start with a forum post that talks about what is most important to the site and its users. What is the site doing right? What is it doing wrong? What features are being used the most / the least? What SHOULD the site be doing that it is not doing? What SHOULDN'T the site be doing? Rely on the community to help with feedback on these features.

Stage 2: Get Crazy with Designs
It's helpful to see designs even if they don't work perfectly right away. A wider variety of designs would probably get more designers and voters involved.

Stage 3: Work with the Designs
Once you get all the designs in and get the ones that people like the most, have the top-voted designers insert placements for advertising and whatever else NEEDS to go in, and then have them convert their designs to actual HTML templates. This way, you FIRST see what your users like, and THEN you can see if their opinions still hold strong even after the modifications to the designs (sometimes the best-looking designs don't turn out well as web pages). Have another round of voting on the final designs, and then pick the one that has the most votes and start reworking the site into that design.


  2. Re: Design Overhaul   Reply  
Picture of Manuel Lemos
Manuel Lemos
2009-12-17 06:33:43 - In reply to message 1 from Jonathan Hilgeman
Thank you for your feedback.

I suppose you are not a regular user or at least you have not be following the site blog.

It was mentioned several times, like for instance in this other blog post, that the scope of this edition of the contest was just to propose alternative designs for the main header and footer template of all pages, as well the common site icons. Other pages templates will be subject to other editions of the contest.

http://www.phpclasses.org/blog/post/104-Submit-your-site-red ...

What happens is that this site is very large. It has more than 50 types of pages. The features available just in this edition took more than one year to develop.

If I waited to make the system allow editing other types of pages, it would take a lot more time. Rome was not built in one day (nor even in just one year). So it is better to break it in as many editions as necessary.


Another aspect that you comment, is that the site always benefited and often followed the user feedback since the beginning.

Just to mention a recent improvement, since some users kept complaining that they were not finding things easily, the internal search engine, which until now was only available to premium users, was made available to all users.

http://www.phpclasses.org/blog/post/105-Improved-site-search ...


The greatest difficulty to take advantage of user feedback, is that often it is vague. Often users just complain about something without suggesting actual improvements that would address the problems they are complaining about.

The design contest was meant to address that problem. If you are not able to describe a solution using words, use HTML templates, CSS and graphics to describe how you would improve it.

Anyway, the design system already works as you describe. People suggest new designs and other users review them and vote. Furthermore, users can actually preview the proposed designs with several types of site pages, with different screen resolutions, seen as different types of users.

So, it is even more useful than review static images that propose designs which may not even be feasible to adapt to site constraints, like advertising placements.

As far as I know, a contest that works like this was never done before in any other site. Therefore there are certainly unexpected issues that are not yet handled in an ideal way. There is plenty of room for improvement. But at least now things are progressing and past complaints are being addressed.

  3. Re: Design Overhaul   Reply  
Picture of Michael Jenkinson
Michael Jenkinson
2009-12-17 17:33:32 - In reply to message 1 from Jonathan Hilgeman
I like the idea of this contest, it allows peoples views on style and functionality to get an airing.
I'm pretty new to php but have been programming since 1980 in other more localised sea scapes. I have noticed how much more collaboration there is now in all languages and with this contest we are beginning to see that carried through into design of the subject web site. What a good idea that is.
I wish all the entrants well, they have given their time and thoughts for free and we should applaud them for that.
Redesigning the site is like a new car design, they do reuse components like engines. wheels etc.
Have fun, enjoy the moment and live a life that generates memories.


Michael


  4. Re: Design Overhaul   Reply  
Picture of markku
markku
2009-12-17 17:34:04 - In reply to message 1 from Jonathan Hilgeman
I think that my feelings are very similar those of Jonathan Hilgeman's: I have been following PHP Classes so long that I cannot even remember when I started.

And I really feel that this kind of a site is important and useful for the whole PHP community.

However, the current structure of the site does not appear very appealing to me. Sometimes I really would like to surf the whole site to see what's going on. But every time I try to find my way around in phpclasses.org, I get the feeling that I am lost and I have to turn back.

The search engine is propably good, but it cannot be an excuse not to rethink the structure of the site.

My personal feeling is that the site would benefit from a complete redesign.

As said, Rome was not built in a day. But it can be also said that most of the really old stuff in Rome is not very useful any more.

I think the same goes with phpclasses.org. Eventually we will need to go for something new. But how and when, that's of course up to those who do the real work.

This is only my two cents worth.




  5. Re: Design Overhaul   Reply  
Picture of Mark Voorberg
Mark Voorberg
2009-12-17 17:34:30 - In reply to message 1 from Jonathan Hilgeman
Here here!

Sorry Manuel, I'm with Jonathan on this point.

  6. Re: Design Overhaul   Reply  
Picture of Jonathan Hilgeman
Jonathan Hilgeman
2009-12-17 20:29:22 - In reply to message 2 from Manuel Lemos
Hi Manuel,

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you're ignoring user feedback completely or anything. There's been definitely good progress made towards user suggestions, which is why my post was completely meant as constructive criticism.

I've been through quite a few redesigns myself (many of which were large projects like this one), and sometimes a simple redesign can feel like "enough". Other times, a redesign might just end up unused once a major overhaul is performed, which means that a lot of valuable design time has gone to waste. It's like painting a car that you're about to replace. I simply feel like there could be better use of the contributing designers' times - they could be contributing ideas of how to paint the next car.

"Anyway, the design system already works as you describe."

Not quite. It works somewhat similar to the final stage of what I described, but there are two very important stages before that happens. You had mentioned that there are more than 50 types of pages in the site - maybe while the current design contest is in progress, we should start by listing out those page types?

  7. Re: Design Overhaul   Reply  
Picture of Manuel Lemos
Manuel Lemos
2009-12-17 21:10:12 - In reply to message 3 from Michael Jenkinson
Thanks for the support, Michael. Feel free to participate yourself, if not with a design proposal, at least with your vote and comments on the existing proposals.

  8. Re: Design Overhaul   Reply  
Picture of Manuel Lemos
Manuel Lemos
2009-12-17 21:25:08 - In reply to message 4 from markku
Your comment is a perfect example of what I said above. Some people just complain and make vague comments of what they do not like without specific suggestions for improvements that would address the complaints. This is not helpful.

If the current site structure is not appealing for you, what would make it appealing?

Are you able to provide a solution or do you think that is a task for somebody else? If it is something for which you do not have a solution, you need to be patient and wait until it is time to let others propose solutions.

Think about this, no other site lets uses propose designs with the level of configuration that the PHPClasses site allows. Things will be better, but you need to wait until the necessary developments are not made to allow changing things the way you would like.

  9. Re: Design Overhaul   Reply  
Picture of Manuel Lemos
Manuel Lemos
2009-12-17 21:51:20 - In reply to message 6 from Jonathan Hilgeman
As I mentioned, just putting up a contest that allows designers propose new HTML, CSS and icons to change all page headers and footers, took more than one year.

I don't know yet how long it will take to have time to move on to the next level.

If I told you it would take 5 years to have a system that allows designers to do full redesigns, would you wait until then? I suspect you wouldn't. Many people switch cars after 3 years. Not a big deal.

As for the site pages, if you are a Web designer, I think you are familiar with the fact that most sites have a sitemap page where you can find the most important pages of the site. You can start looking there.

http://www.phpclasses.org/sitemap/

  10. Re: Design Overhaul   Reply  
Picture of Jonathan Hilgeman
Jonathan Hilgeman
2009-12-17 23:54:51 - In reply to message 9 from Manuel Lemos
Hi Manuel,

Regarding how long it took to put up the contest - I may be wrong on this (and if so, I apologize), but it seems like a LOT of effort went into a system that essentially turned out to be 50% a file-management system for uploading design files and 50% a previewing/voting system. There's a cost-benefit question here - did the final result have a positive impact, and if so, was it great enough to warrant the time it took to put together the system?

Coming up with a great system to manage design entries and preview them is cool in theory (any good programmer loves to design cool things), but let's say you had just told people to submit a ZIP file to you with the files, and then you posted a one-page preview of the design. Do you think you would have gotten less entries or lower-quality entries? Have you checked your logs to see if voters are making much use of all of the different configuration options?

I didn't even notice the design preview options at first and was just hitting "Next" to see the next major style. Once I noticed the options, I tried them out, but there wasn't really anything that I could not have imagined by seeing the first page of the design. In reality, if you simply showed the average user's page, then that would've been enough for me.

Now, I can keep going with my critique, but that would be missing the point. Nothing is perfect and I'm not trying to bash on the system itself (again, it is cool and innovative in theory), but rather try to point out that maybe making this full "redesign" system is doing more harm (by causing time delays) than good. You have to figure that it probably won't be used again for the next major redesign (just guessing based on the assumption that by that time comes, there will be newer/better ways of doing things).

> If I told you it would take 5 years to have a system that allows designers to do full redesigns, would you wait until then?

Well, that doesn't really make sense. While the site could improve from an overhaul, it's still usable right now, and I assume it would continue to be usable while any redesigning was happening. As much as I like the site, if you took it completely down for 5 years (which I doubt you would do), then I would probably be forced to look elsewhere for the things I get from this site.

But let's say that you did want to build a system that would take 5 years before you got a redesign out. By the time that system was built, would it be able to handle new technology, new browsers, etc, that have come out during those 5 years? You said that Rome wasn't built in a day, but if you think about it, you are taking 5 years (hypothetically) to create a system that WILL build Rome in a day.

Maybe the benefit of the system isn't quite worth the time cost (unless you're planning on mass-producing replicas of Rome).

> Many people switch cars after 3 years. Not a big deal.

It's a big deal for web sites that live and die every day due to how much they change. This site seems to have succeeded because the CONTENT is staying fresh, even if the user experience doesn't. This discussion and the contests exist because you and your users feel that the user experience should be renewed, too, so it should be a big deal, as well.

> most sites have a sitemap page
Good to see, although I usually don't use sitemaps. If I'm using a sitemap on a page, it's because the main navigation isn't enough to provide me with the link or the information I need. For example, if I didn't get the newsletter, I probably wouldn't be aware of the job postings. If I didn't see the sitemap, I wouldn't have known about the hosting section.

Personally, I think that the biggest improvement could come from reorganizing the navigation. I'm guessing that you've added more and more content over the years. I know you've made tweaks to the navigation in the past (I seem to recall there was once a "games" section that got changed to book reviews or something like that), but you have links with overlapping function, and a lack of links to major parts of the site.

Then again, you are privvy to the behavior of your visitors via your web logs, so it's a question of what brings people to the site and whether or not you're serving up the most requested content in an effective way.

For example, your top navigation looks like this:

Search
All class groups
Latest entries
Top 10 charts
Newsletter
Blog
Forums
Help FAQ

My page
User options
Contribute
My classes
Rate classes
Logout

Recommend this page to a friend!
ReTweet
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Personally, I feel that the last section seems to be the type of links that could easily go at the bottom of the page.

The second section could probably be consolidated into a "My Account" link and a "Logout" link. I would expect "Rate classes" to be something that you see on the class-level page, not a top-navigation item. MAYBE the "Contribute" link could be separate, too (if you wanted to push people to submit more), but "User options" and "My classes" seem like they could just as easily be found under a "My Account" or "My [something]" page.

Given that you have so many major areas on the site, maybe the first section of the navigation should be to show off all the major sections that are available. "Newsletters" and "Blogs" aren't usually things that I subscribe to or read unless I'm actively searching for them because I love the site so much that I want more from it. Both could be pushed to the bottom of the site, along with "Help". Basically, anything that isn't FREQUENTLY and REPEATEDLY accessed should not be in the top-level of navigation, in my opinion.

The "latest entries" and the "top 10" feel like they should just be features on the home page - something to keep the home page content fresh and give people a "hub" to quickly see small bits of interesting information.

I'm starting to get too far into the nitty-gritty details, though.

I think that you and we (the community) could start the full redesign process and have it done MUCH faster than 5 years. How long do you think it would take you to copy the sitemap and put a number next to each item indicating the activity levels of each one (how many people hit those pages per day)?

 
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