Community Almanac Redesign

Community Almanac

As a point of reference for those unfamiliar with Community Almanac, here are screenshots of the previous version’s home page and almanac view.

We’re very excited about the new version of the Orton Family Foundation’s Community Almanac that we’ve been working on at TOPP Labs. In this post I’ll share some of the design decisions that went into that project and some of the reasons why things have changed.

The Opening Line

In order to make it easier for users to contribute to the site, we decided to ditch the previous workflow—an impeding multi-step wizard that walked you through registering and adding your story—and we replaced it with a more unobtrusive workflow. Now users can jump right in and start adding whatever content they want in any order they like, even before they’ve registered or signed in.

Below are some of the wireframe mockups outlining this new just-in-time workflow:

Anonymous Page Creation Workflow

Page View

Editing a Page

Almanac View - Table of Contents

Home Page

User Profile Page

Note: There are a few great ideas in these mockups that didn’t make it into this iteration: namely user profiles and an achievement rewards system. Maybe they’ll make it into a future release?

The Well-Worn Page

In addition to improving the workflow, we wanted to push a new book/page metaphor throughout the site. What was previously referred to as a story is now a page. Users add pages to their community’s almanac, or book, with the site as a whole is presented more as a collection of almanacs or library of books.

Not only was the term “story” inaccurate, as users can publish whatever type of content they like—text, images, maps, audio, video, or PDFs, none of which are necessarily narrative—but the term “page” is also more straightforward and familiar. Users are accustomed to viewing and adding “pages” on a website. Additionally, extending the “page” metaphor to include books and a library provided a more cohesive aesthetic direction and was also just more fun.

The Carefully Considered Cover

Once our ideas for the new user workflow and bibliophilic metaphors were established, I kicked off the visual design with a mood board in order to set the general tone for the look & feel:

Community Almanac Mood Board

The mood board sought to create a warm, inviting, and familiar vibe based that reflects the “heart & soul” sentiments of the Orton Foundation by referencing traditional, tactile imagery.

Community Almanac Sketch

With this mood board and the book page metaphor in mind, I began sketching ideas for the basic structure and layout. The final sketch depicts an off-centered book where the recto page contains the primary content and the verso page acts as a sidebar for secondary content.  The charm of this layout resides in its flexible width. Although it behaves as a fixed-width layout, it’s not. In larger windows the sidebar items float beside each other, forming columns across the left-hand page. If your monitor is ridiculously large you can even see the whole book!

This fluid layout inspired quite a few bells and whistles, not to mention a couple of fun Easter eggs. The informational tour has been moved to home page as a little slideshow-style presentation that directs users to the map or signup. There’s also a cool slide-down login area and shuffling stack of almanacs on the home page. Check out the parallax scrolling that happens in the header illustration while you resize the width of the browser window. And we didn’t stop there! Who knows what else you’ll find… But hopefully you’ll never see these witty error pages in action: 400 (Client Error), 500 (Server Error).

Finding Your Community: The Map Workflow

While we were really excited to launch all these new features,we knew that the current map workflow wasn’t quite right and needed to be changed. In order to solicit user feedback on the other new features, we decided to launch in iterative stages.

In order to find a community in the current map workflow we perform two geocode requests. First, we geocode based on what the user types. Then, if there’s a valid result, we find the latitude and longitude given back by the first result and reverse geocode it. With this method, we only get cities or towns as the result of searching for neighborhoods or smaller communities and can thus limit the fragmenting of communities by creating a canonical, publicly-owned almanac for each location.

Now almanacs are now publicly owned, rather than moderated by a particular user. On the old Community Almanac site the user that starts an almanac would personally own that almanac. If, for example, the user “Hatfield” started a Tug Fork River almanac he could moderate out the user “McCoy”. Then “McCoy” could in turn start another warring Tug Fork River almanac. While this new map workflow is great for creating canonical almanacs, it does expose another problem…

Finding Your Community: Neighborhoods

Sometimes prominent communities are geographically contained within the cities/towns that a map search would return. For instance, a community such as Third Ward, Texas—a neighborhood within Houston, Texas—will geocode simply as “Houston.”

So, in our first iteration, we’ve included a help link under the map for users having trouble finding their community. As a temporary solution, if a user cannot find their community on the map, they can contact us and have their almanac created for them manually. This method isn’t really optimal. What’s needed is a search method that will return canonical results within varied levels of specificity. In our next iteration, we plan to make the map workflow more robust and limit manual intervention.

Finding Your Community: Polishing the User Experience

We had to step back and take a look at our options, and among the miscellaneous fields returned by Google are four gems:

  1. Locality (city/town)
  2. State
  3. AddressLine
  4. Accuracy

We’re currently only using the first two, Locality and State but what is potentially useful is AddressLine combined with Accuracy. An AddressLine is what google recognizes as a feature of a specific point. This can be very specific (like “Columbus Circle”), a little more general (like “Central Park”), on up to the city, state, or country that the point is contained in. Accuracy is an approximation of the size of a feature, and helps us clue in to what neighborhoods the point is referring to. It’s not perfect, but it gives us some choices we can present to the user to let them decide.

To use a search for “third ward houston texas” as an example, if we discard any AddressLine results with an Accuracy greater than 5 or less than 3 (to pick limits based on this one search), we can offer up the following choices to the user:

  • Greater Third Ward (with an accuracy of 4)
  • South Central (with an accuracy of 4)
  • Houston (with an accuracy of 4)
  • Greater Houston (with an accuracy of 3)

Almanac moderation may still be needed since AddressLine is far less predictable than current city/town results. But if we check them against existing almanac titles, we can hopefully remove any manual intervention for all users, offering neighborhood-level specificity to almanac search and creation.

So, Where’s Your Community?

Dig in. Find your community on the map and start adding to its almanac. Share your heart & soul! We think this redesign turned out great and we’d love to get your feedback. Let us know what you think.