National Trails web site launched

Today sees the launch of the Countryside Agency’s flagship website about the network of National Trails. This site is the culmination of month’s worth of work by the team at Headscape and I thought I would share with you a few of the highlights and lowlights of the project.

The brief

It was a challenging brief. Take twelve separate trail web sites and unify them under a common brand while still maintaining some sense of individuality. In addition to this, we had to conform to basic levels of accessibility, integrate a content management system that allowed individual trail officers to manage their own sites and come up with a user-friendly way of accessing a large database of accommodation and services.

Problems of interface

For me personally the number one problem to solve was the inconsistent user experience across these multiple trail sites. Users were faced with inconsistent positioning of navigation, different information architectures and conflicting terminology. The only sensible solution was to standardise the interface across all sites. Not only would this solve the user experience problems it would avoid the overwhelming challenge of having to come up with designs for twelve different sites!

Of course, there were two downsides to this approach:

  • This did not solve the briefs demand for a sense of individually on each site
  • It made it harder for the user to instantly tell which trail they were on

The solution was to give each site its own unique colour scheme. By doing this, you could associate very different feels with each site while also giving the user clear visual clues when they moved between different trails.

Web standards, the cornerstone of this project

Once I had decided upon on the approach it became obvious that a web standards approach would rapidly accelerate the development cycle. By separating content from design, I could create one basic layout and use cascading style sheets to change the colour palette of each site.

Web standards brought other benefits too. By separating design from content, we could easily address the need to conform to single ‘A’ compliancy in regards to accessibility. What is more we could easily supply an alternative printable style that ensured the site only printed certain page elements. I felt this was particularly important, as much of the information on the site would actually be useful to visitors while physically visiting the trail.

Finally, web standards allow us the ability to continually tweak and refine the design through the life cycle of the project and indeed after launch. This enables us to be much more responsive to feedback and work out any user interface bugs that might be spotted along the way.

The lowlights

I have to confess that normally I get to the end of the project like this hating the site because I have just worked with it too long. However, in the case of this site I do not feel that way. Of course that is not to say there aren’t a few things that still annoy me about it.

One of the biggest problems we have yet to overcome (although we are looking into some options) is the WYSIWYG editor we are using in the content management system. We seem unable to find an appropriate editor that produces clean code, which does not invalidate the occasional page. What is more there does not seem to be an editor on the market that forces the user into ensuring any content they add is accessible.

Another annoyance for me is that I have been forced to use some table layout on the homepage. This does not in anyway cause problems it is just a matter of principle on my part.

A crowning glory

Despite the odd annoyance listed above and a few hundred little bits and pieces, I am actually incredibly pleased with how this site has turned out. It truly is a crowning glory for Headscape and easily the best piece of work we have done to date (in my opinion). The size and complexity of the site as much as anything else makes it an incredible achievement. I have particular respect for Charlie Allen the project manager on the site who has dealt with 12 individual clients, and been responsible for the population of over 75000 web pages worth of content.

Another feature I particularly like are the flash maps created by Chris Sanderson one of our team of designers. He has come up with a brilliant way of giving people access to a large database of accommodation and services while also giving them a sense of the route the trail takes. This is an excellent example of how flash should be used rather than for nasty animated introduction with no skip button! Of course, in order to maintain accessibility we also had to provide a way of accessing the same information without flash.

Not that this is the end of our work with the National Trails site. There is always more to be done. The site will need tweaking and maintaining. There is site promotion to consider as well as new functionality to consider. Just because a site goes live does not mean it is ever truly finished.

The clients verdict

I couldn’t finish this entry without including a quote from an email I have just received from the client at National Trails:

I just wanted to give you my personal thanks for all your hard work on this site. I think its fabulous. I’m so proud of it and of the fact that we made the right choice of contractors to do the work!

Boagworks

Boagworld