Back in 2000, I had the privilege of being the lead developer on the 2nd generation of the National Trust web site. With the third generation of the site about to launch, I am excited to see them move on.
Working on the National Trust web site was one of the most enjoyable sites I have ever done. When the Trust came to us they had little more than a "home made" site put together by some enthusiastic amateurs and a few technical staff at the Trust. We had the privilege of redesigning it from the ground up; information architecture, design, content, the lot.
What was particularly enjoyable was there huge archive of photography. They had over 100,000 photos of some of the more amazing architecture and countryside in England and Wales. It did not take us long to realise that these images should rule the design and so everything else was built around that.
Of course, the project was not without its challenges. Firstly, the Trust wanted to ensure the site was accessible by their more elderly members who in many cases had failing vision. At the time, there was still much confusion about accessibility and how to ensure your site was accessible. Very different messages were coming from organisations such as the W3C, the RNIB and the British government. In the end we decided to adopt a similar approach to the "zoom the web" approach which seems to be the way things are moving at the moment. We simply switched to a different stylesheet to increase contrast and font size. Although the site was not WAI compliant, it did demonstrate some initial thinking in the area.
The second problem area was navigation and in this, the constraints were much more frustrating. I will not bore you with the details but it is worth explaining that because of internal politics at the time we were only able to add a very basic header to the site that provided primary site navigation by a dropdown! In hindsight, this was my primary failing on the site. I feel I should have really fought for a more user-friendly form of navigation as dropdowns prove especially difficult to older users. However, I was not as knowledgeable as perhaps I am now and the whole industry has become older and wiser.
No content management system
The final problem with the site was totally out of my control. This was that the Trust wanted the entire site built as flat HTML. This was driven by technical constraints at their end and both the Trust and I were very aware of the maintenance problems going forward.
National Trust moves on
About 18 months ago, they finally decided to face the situation and move the entire site across to a content management system. As part of this rebuild, they also wanted to address some of the design issues and so a new look and feel was produced. Unfortunately, due to an internal reorganisation within the Trust and our lack of experience in the particular content management system they had selected, they chose not to employ Headscape to do the new look and feel. I have to say in many ways I feel this was the right decision. The Trust was a very different organisation to the one we first got involved in and I understood their desire to introduce new blood. In many ways, I felt I had done my part moving the organisations website to the centre of their marketing strategy rather than an added extra that received little funding and no serious consideration.
Waiting with baited breath
I have been waiting with baited breath to see the new National Trust site. For some reason they seem to have faced delay after delay in its launch. I do not know the details for this slippage but I would like to think they come from a desire to get the new site perfect before going live.
My hopes for the new National Trust site
So, what are my hopes for the site. Well, firstly I hope they fix the navigational problems the site suffers from. Secondly, I imagine the new site will dramatically improve from an accessibility perspective using the latest techniques and conforming to W3C standards. Thirdly, I hope they will move across to a web standards based build and all the associated benefits that has. Finally, my desire is to see a user interface that really shows off the beauty of the properties they own. The National Trust own some of the most amazing places in the world and I pray that their site captures that awesome architecture and wonderful countryside.