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Ifsociety.com - weeding the virtual garden

Written by Tommi on 18.07.2008 13:36:20

Blog image for entry Ifsociety.com - weeding the virtual garden As some of you may know, outside of this glamorous high-rollin' showbiz life I lead with If Society + my bands, I have a dayjob in digital communications / IT. Not only am I making my living out of it, I'm also very much fascinated by all the phenomena of the field and thus actually quite invested and interested in everything I do in that context.

These dual lives have seldom really come together in the past, save for this website. It's been the one thing where I've really been able to combine my two main professional interests in life: digital communications and independent music. However, since everything we do with If Society is done by two guys on their free time, more often than not I haven't been able to invest as much time and energy into weeding out this virtual garden of ours.

I'll cut through the chase here. I have a (not-too-well) hidden agenda in this blog post: market research! Through the years everything in Ifsociety.com has pretty much been about what I feel people would be looking for in a indie label / online shop website. Granted, I am an avid user of such services, but then again, that's my biggest downfall. I can't see the forest from the trees. I have no clue what our average visitor here is looking for and how we could best serve her. Here's where you come in.

Do you think there's something on this website that is in terrible need of refinement?
What's really great about it?
What do you think is missing?
What is over-emphasized?
Is relevant information / content apparent or do you feel you have to solve a puzzle to find the stuff you want?

If you have ANYTHING to comment to any of the above + any other question regarding this website, please do not hesitate to contact us in any way you feel like. A comment on this blog post is an obvious method, but sending email or even calling in the middle of the night is better than having something to say and not letting us know. We appreciate both professional and amateur points-of-view. Actually, we appreciate professional points-of-view, but what we're really craving for is amateur comments. Just general feedback on how using this site feels.




WARNING! From this point on this post is pretty much just incohesive nerd-jargon, so unless you've got coke bottle glasses, a bad posture, an extensive collection of Star Trek memorabilia and don't get what's so funny about the Anal Cunt's song Technology's Gay, you might want to re-evaluate if you wish to read further.

Ok, now that the cards are out, I'll get back to my initial point of the post: my own relationship with this site. First of all, some history. This may feel like explaining, but I feel I need to justify some design issues that may feel weird to the more advanced eye.

This version (or at least something that looked vaguely like the current version) of the If Society -website was initially launched in May 2003. I actually had no clue when this happened, but thanks to the awesome (and sometimes embarassing) powers of The Wayback Machine's elephantine memory I was able to take a quick stroll down awkward memory lane. I was also able to take a peek at the yellow-on-green mostrosity that once was know as Ifsociety.com.

Anyway, when this site was launched in 2003, is was pretty much a bunch of static HTML 4.0 wrapped in .php-files (for some basic functionality like including headers and such) with all the crimes of the time included: markup that'll have validators coughing blood, spacer images, table layout, presentational markup in general etc. etc. etc. Oh well, such were the times.

I've always really liked the basic look-and-feel of the UI (the initial version was done by Nea of Echo Is Your Love), so even though I've felt compelled to do a complete makeover at several points in time, I've refrained from doing so because with all it's flaws and problems, the basis of the site has been at the very least good enough. Also, because I know dick about graphic design, so I've tried to uphold the "if it ain't broke, don't let Tommi touch it" -principle.

That said, as the site is over 5 years old now - an admirable age for a website these days - and hosts quite a few sub-applications on it (both internal and public) there's been quite a bit of building new stuff on top of older stuff and then some building newer stuff on top of the old new stuff. I've done my best to refactor parts of the site's core layers, like actually rewriting html to at least some degree of validity and rewriting a lot of the PHP3-junk from the "framework" that has built itself around the needs of the site.

The "framework" in question is pretty much just a huge bulk of (semi-)reusable PHP-functions and classes that I've written over the years for all the needs I've had for the site. I've had a lot people understandably question the fact that I write pretty much everything myself instead of installing an app framework like Drupal or some open source CMS. I wholeheartedly agree that getting rid of all superfluous work and abolishing the whole "not invented here" -mindset is a key thing in succesful software production, but like stated, this site - even if it has some commercial goals what with the store and all - is more like a hobby to me. A virtual garden to tend to. I just love fiddling around with everything on the site and that it feels the same way I hope our records feel: done by small people with love. I have a totally different feel for this blog for instance now that I spent an evening putting the engine together instead of just whipping out some fancy Drupal module or installing Wordpress. Some people feel the need to take up carpentry as a hobby and spend evenings on end to make a chair they could've grabbed at Ikea for some 20 euros (+ an assortment of crap they needed to have for some 300 euros). The chair you've made yourself is probably inferior to a factory-made quality-controlled chair, but sitting on it - man, you feel like a king!

Then there's also the learning aspect. Granted, PHP is by no means a platform I want to invest too much of my time in learning, but I have to say I've learned a whole lot about web programming in general and UI-building by being personally responsible for every byte of code on this site. It's not really a key-point in my resumé, but I know that a lot of the experience I have come from actively maintaining a rather extensive website - from top to bottom.

But like I said, there's always more to do than what I have time for. There's a proverb in Finland that bluntly translated states "the shoemaker's kids have nothing on their feet" (there's probably a corresponding version in English that I'm blissfully unaware of) and over the years I've felt great pain with this fact. For instance, the wrapping html-layout for the site is still table-based even if I've taken a more semantically meaningful approach to markup-design years ago. I've been meaning to rewrite the entire basic template for a while now, but since I haven't really noticed any practical problems with it, I've let it slide. Especially since most of the site validates nicely as XHTML 1.0 transitional. Besides, HTML5 is on it's way and we'll be rewriting our sites soon anyway, so why bother?

Other stuff I'd really like to do, but haven't gotten around to:
  • Total cleanup of the site's CSS. There's some seriously funky stuff going on there. Most of which is obsolete.

  • Doing some UI refactoring with somebody who actually has an eye for something. Like stated, I know dick about what is pleasing to the human eye and how to achieve it. I know about usability, accessibility and other such issues that deal more with the stucture of how things are presented, but not their outlook. I could just as well be blind for my skills in putting graphics together.

  • Make some severe improvements to actually validate the claim in the previous list item about usability...

  • Friedly URL's. I started this task by making the item pages in the shop a bit frendlier (http://www.ifsociety.com/artist.php?id=666 versus http://www.ifsociety.com/item/evens_the-get_evens-lp), but there's still a lot of url's sanitize.


...and that's just the tip of the iceberg. I'm not even going to go into details on stuff I want to work on under the hood. But even if it's the death of me, I'm not going to migrate to a readymade framework and I'll continue to adhere to the DIY-ethos - if for nothing else, to remind me why I will have none of it at my dayjob, where productivity is key.

Not quite sure if anybody read this far. It's my blog, though, and I'll ramble if I want to. I'm not even listening to anything at the moment to justify a "now playing" -ending. I did however feel last night that for a fleeting instant The Replacements were the best band in the world. So there you have it. Listen to the Replacements and you'll know a bit more about... stuff.
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Comments (10) 1/10

18.07.2008 14:20:51 Eetu wrote : "Survey"

I don't think you'll get much useful comments/"research data" by simply asking people to comment on a blog post. So, if you really want to do market research, you should make an online survey.

(I personally think that if you really want to use a custom made CMS (which is hard to understand even for me, another geek), you should still use a framework of some sort to deal with the boring stuff.)
2/10

18.07.2008 14:37:41 Tommi wrote

I'm not really looking for a thorough research here, more of a validation or invalidation to my gut feelings about some stuff and also any snippets of info I can get from people visiting this site.

Also, I'm not 100% certain a survey is the way to go here. This post has some rather valid points about the issue:
http://pollitasta.fi/2008/06/01/markkinatutkimusta-vai-sijaispuuhastelua/

It's all in Finnish, but the key of the post is the end:

"Rather believe your own eyes than your customers' stories about their good intentions. If you're unable to perceive their behaviour, just call up a few and ask what you wish to know."

This post was kind of my way of calling up a few "customers" of this site.

About frameworks: I totally understand your point and if I were to start building this site up from scratch now, I'd probably just install Drupal and be happy about it, but since I've got all the framework I need done by myself already over the years, there's no point in redoing or replacing something that works. Besides, who said the stuff handled by frameworks is boring?! (apart from Javascript, where not using a lib is just plain dumb!)
3/10

18.07.2008 17:52:49 Lassi wrote

Ulkoasu on helvetin hyvä eikä siihen ole ehtinyt kyllästyä viiden vuoden aikana: ÄLKÄÄ MUUTTAKO TURHAAN! Sivut ovat äärimmäisen toimivat ja kevyet, kun duunin paskavehkeilläkin latautuu nopsaan ilman hirveää raksutusta ja odottelua.

Shoppiin kannattaisi pölliä eräs ominaisuus Facebookista: sen sijaan että klikataan "show quick info", klikattaisiinkin vain sitä levykohtaista "värikenttää". Siis vähän samalla tapaa kuin Facebookissa saa kavereista enemmän infoa esim. All Friends -listalta klikkaamalla kuvan läheltä.
4/10

18.07.2008 18:31:32 Kennu wrote

I think this website is quite functional and "don't fix it unless it's broken" is a good rule. The only thing I see sort of missing is a Search field on the front page. (Considering the use case where someone comes here looking for something specific.)

The point about CSS chaos is quite interesting since I have the same problem with every website I've made. (X)HTML is nowadays easy to design in a simple way with divs, paddings and margins, but the bloating CSS is more difficult to keep well structured.

Drupal actually helps a bit there too, since it has a defined structure for CSS classes and IDs of the different objects appearing on pages. I wonder if there is a book about maintaining and refactoring CSS.
5/10

18.07.2008 19:28:18 Kennu wrote : "Comments"

Oh and is there any way to follow the comments of this blog with RSS..
6/10

18.07.2008 19:36:38 Tommi wrote : "Comment feed"

There is now:
http://ifsociety.com/blogcommentfeed.php
7/10

19.07.2008 00:00:41 Avi wrote

First off all, as someone who created their own ramshackle homemade CMS, I know exactly what you're talking about. Sure, I could do it all with some 3rd party app, but where's the fun in that? I'd rather learn more by doing it on my own.

as for comments on the site, my only recommendation is to scrap the splash page.
8/10

22.07.2008 16:17:09 Tommi wrote

Avi, you're absolutely right about the splash-page. I've wanted to scrap it for years but for some reason have never gotten around to it. I guess I'll still opt for making it more functional. I do want the visitor to kinda have a starting point and the "home"-page on our site is not really a good page for it. I'll try and refactor the index-page into something way more functional, ie. providing a quick path to all the most common features in one clear and concise screen.
9/10

22.07.2008 16:59:19 Eetu wrote

"About frameworks: I totally understand your point and if I were to start building this site up from scratch now, I'd probably just install Drupal and be happy about it, but since I've got all the framework I need done by myself already over the years, there's no point in redoing or replacing something that works. Besides, who said the stuff handled by frameworks is boring?! (apart from Javascript, where not using a lib is just plain dumb!)"

If someone forced me to build a CMS from ground up, I think I'd skip the Javascript libraries and HTML and use a toolkit which would take care of building the UI according to my instructions in a "server side" language.

If the same toolkit would take care of handling requests and responses on the server end, that would be even better. If it couldn't (there aren't too many toolkits available that can, and the ones that are aren't as feature complete as some of their just-client-side counterparts), I'd use another framework for that.

Either way, I could concentrate on building the UI logic and business logic. It would also be a nice way to learn something new about a modern RIA toolkit.

One random thing: the background picture isn't what I'd call calm. Especially when scrolling the page is seems to "vibrate" which catches the eye much more than a background picture should.

Oh, and an autocompleting search (like the one on apple.com) is a must these days.
10/10

25.07.2008 14:55:27 Tommi wrote

Changed artist-URL's to readable ones as well:
http://www.ifsociety.com/artist.php?id=4
->
http://www.ifsociety.com/artist/echo_is_your_love
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