It must be web site redesign season. Everyone is calling us to ask for new web sites, additional sections and functionality, or spiffed-up graphics and layouts. Last week, I wrote about the great fun I had redesigning the web site for a local jewelry artist, Elizabeth Kline. This week, I'd like to share the process for an entirely different type of redesign project, this time for a fantastic group of people doing good for the world from their Unitarian Universalist congregation outside Philadelphia.
The Main Line Unitarian Church (MLUC) has been a Jebraweb client since 2010, when we took their existing web site and moved it from a proprietary system into Joomla, an open-source content management system, automating pieces of content layout and structure that had been part of manual processes for many years. In the time since 2010, MLUC has gone through a major Joomla core software upgrade -- one the Joomla developer community agreed would forever be remembered as universally painful -- and now a smaller, more manageable upgrade which they coupled with some smaller functionality and design upgrades. In other words, we are in it for the long haul with this client, and working with them through three solid projects has been a pleasure, each and every time.
How did it go this time? Same as always -- smooth and steady.
The major impetus for this upgrade was the Joomla development cycle, which gave us plenty of notice that Joomla would stop supporting the version MLUC was using as of January 2015. We informed all of our clients about this end-of-life moment in the spring of 2014 so that they could plan their upgrades accordingly. Beginning on that end-of-life date, the Joomla software developers would stop patching newly-discovered holes in the existing software -- no more security releases, no more upgrades. A new version of Joomla was available, and the developers at the Joomla project (who work for free -- it's open-source software) wanted people to use it.
MLUC chose to use this as an opportunity to gently tweak design elements and some additional services their site provides. We put together a detailed proposal and planned the work carefully.
MLUC's old site had not included accomodations for mobile devices; in other words, it was not a responsive site. The site was visible on phones, but it wasn't pretty. We all agreed that the new site had to be mobile-friendly, both for the ease of the site's users and for the preference given to mobile-friendly sites in search engines like Google. It took some time to choose a new Joomla theme that allowed for that kind of responsive display while also keeping the look-and-feel similar enough to their old site, but we finally settled on Churchy, a theme designed by Webthemer to be great for houses of worship. It came with lots of extras we needed, and allowed us to closely mimic the look of the old site, but in a more modern way.
For years, MLUC had been using a calendaring function that was almost perfect, but not quite. Though the developer of that calendaring extension was willing to work with them on improving it, in the end, the best solution for MLUC was to bring in an RSS feed from their internal church management software. It saved on data entry for administrative staff, for one, and it required much less oversight. Not having to get the developer of the previous software to write new code for the new version of Joomla saved money, too.
Another change in functionality came from the increasing attention to social media. Adding share buttons and follow buttons was easy and will make it much more straightfoward for users of the site to keep others apprised of what's happening at the church.
Finally, we were able to make great use of the embedded version of WidgetKit Lite, a multimedia tool that took MLUC's previous smaller image slideshow and brought it front and center on the homepage -- a great place to highlight the social action work constantly happening in and around the church.
Moving the contents of such a large site into, essentially, a new piece of software doesn't happen overnight. In fact, this process took several months, and so the best way to do it was to build the new version of the site from a copy of the old one, and to hide it online in a location the public couldn't see. We can't tell you where we put it (sorry!), but we needed several things to make it work:
- Extra server space. MLUC's host is a great organization called UUism, which provides very personalized support. They extended the space MLUC could take up on the server so that, while we made this transition, we could maintain the site in two different versions at once.
- SPTransfer. It's the little software that made all of this possible. SPTransfer allowed us to make a copy of all of the site content and then let the hidden site, running the new version of Joomla, to suck it all into its database. In the not-so-distant past, this would have been a manual process that took days and days. SPTransfer made it happen in under an hour.
- Fine-toothed combs (metaphorically): Anything automated feels scary to a perfectionist like me. Did everything really look great? Did the style we chose for italic font work everywhere, or just in basic body text? All of these little details were checked and double checked by me and by the patient staff at MLUC. We all found little things that needed tweaking -- things we would only notice if we'd gone through the site page by page.
In the end, MLUC is on the third version of its Joomla-backed site, and we can all honestly say that it runs better than it ever has before. Working with Dave Arnold, the Director of Administrator, has been a pleasure every time largely because he is able to prioritize, delegate, and put in perspective all the tasks needed, from planning the major project objectives to generating internal bandwidth when the moment requires it. I'm so pleased with the way this site turned out.