A new design for WoodenBoat.com – a review

New WoodenBoat.com homepage

As I mentioned recently, WoodenBoat gave WoodenBoat.com a major update recently. It was pretty badly needed, I am sorry to say, and the effort goes a long way toward grasping some available opportunities. As I have also mentioned, I do internet consulting professionally, so I am going to do a little mixing of business with pleasure here (to be clear, I am getting nada for this) and offer my thoughts on the new design.

Some thoughts on WoodenBoat’s online strategy

I haven’t had the pleasure – and I really would have adored this job – of sitting down with the good people at WoodenBoat and thinking about how they should be using the internet. My very first post on this blog talked about my impressions of WoodenBoat Publications as an organization and the unique value proposition it offers. That’s consultant-speak for “what makes it good.” Let me recap.

The organization offers an entire suite of wooden boat-related products and services, creating a wrap-around customer experience that ties one more deeply to the wooden boat world with each additional experience. Not just preserving, but, in fact, enhancing this wrap-around experience should be the goal of the WoodenBoat web site. In other words, the site will be successful if it is a further channel by which someone interested in the wooden boat community can become more deeply involved with this subject. The site cannot just be a way to order magazine subscriptions or other products – that would be a lost opportunity. The needs to be a service unto itself and provide additional value found nowhere else in WoodenBoat’s portfolio of products.

Successful web sites also must focus on a small number of high value types of users – audiences – rather than trying to be all things to everyone. For the WoodenBoat site, high-value audiences are:

  • Prospective WoodenBoat Publications customers (to make them customers)
  • Current WoodenBoat Publications customers (to make them repeat and more-active customers)
  • Prospective WoodenBoat Publications advertisers (to drive more ad business)
  • Current WoodenBoat Publications advertisers (to continue and increase ad business)
  • Wooden boat enthusiasts (to expand the circle of people who regard WoodenBoat Publications as a leader in this field)

The site must successful serve these key groups – roughly this priority order – in order to achieve its goals as a web site.

It is on this strategic basis, along with accepted best practices, that I will critique the new site.

Web Site Version Screen Shots

Old Site

Old WoodenBoat.com homepage

New Site

New WoodenBoat.com homepage

Discussion of Site Design

As I said above, there are many successful aspects of the design update, thought there remain areas for improvement. I summarize each below:

Strong Points

Areas for Improvement

  • Much stronger overall layout – The old site featured the cover of the latest WoodenBoat in the center with some related “about” blurbage below. There were then little brown buttons representing the various other services (e.g., WoodenBoat School, WoodenBoat Forum, etc.) and publications. There was no hierarchy or grouping – everything had equal play and you had no sense of a coherent whole. Happily that is gone, replaced by a cleaner layout that organizes different aspects of the WoodenBoat portfolio into clear spots: WoodenBoat School and WoodenBoat Store get their own areas, as do the publications and online community elements (“Blogs and Forums”). There are also clear areas for subscriber and advertiser services. There is a sense of organization and one can see the different ways to experience wooden boats through the organization.
  • Other publications raised in prominence – Related to the point above, the new design raises the organization’s other two publications, Professional Boatbuilder and Maritime Life and Traditions, to the level of WoodenBoat. The old site made them seem secondary, but they clearly have a readership of their own and that readership should find itself at home on the main site as well.
  • Good audience focus – Implicit in the discussions above is that the site does a good job at focusing on priority audiences and offering something for each of them, making it clear where on the site they can go to find services.
  • Better graphic design – The prior site had an outdated-seeming graphic design. The newer one adds more engaging colors and trendy web 2.0 styling like gradient fills here and there. Furthermore, it uses color to distinguish areas of the site form one another, aiding navigation and sense of organization.
  • Focus on online community – WoodenBoat’s online forums are active and valuable resources. The new design calls out the forums, along with the RudderPosts blog and the Getter Started in Boats sub-site, in a community area that better alerts users to the resource. It also ties it to the WoodenBoat portfolio of services while still calling it out as a unique online offering. This early success – and, to be clear, it is very hard to build as vibrant an online community as WoodenBoat has – is a clear opportunity on which the organization can capitalize if it wishes.
  • Too much text – The old site seemed too text-heavy, and, while the new design is an improvement in some ways, in others it actually makes things worse. The main feature is a long “about” text block that dominates the page (in fact, there is a text-heavy feature above this, but more on that in a minute). The page seems too dense and is not as enticing as it could be – you can’t even see a magazine cover above the fold on a standard browser window. At risk of being too harsh, this is a blown opportunity. WoodenBoat has a treasure-trove of excellent photos and it is a shame that these don’t at least get more play or, better yet, dominate the page. A simple automated slide show would do much to catch the eye and interest.
  • Confusing or homeless content elements – With all the improvement in layout, it was bound to be the case that some things got lost in the shuffle. I mentioned the text-heavy Wooden Boats for Sale Online feature at the top-center of the homepage (this has since been rotated out, but still could be improved). This is a strange choice – is it the leading item? If so, then why – it is valuable, but certainly not deserving of placement above the publications. Is this an ad that will rotate? The it needs to stand apart graphically and be more catching. And should this prime real estate really get used for an ad? I don’t think this was the best choice. Then there is the navigation elements on the top of the page, by the logo. These are global navigation elements, but they are clumsy as they take up too much space, break onto three lines, and, at nine items, are probably two too many. Finally, the “Resources” ends up being the only home of four items: My Wooden Boat, WoodenBoat Online Index, Register of Wooden Boats, and Family Boatbuilding. Its name suggests it is a “most used links” area, but it is, partially, an extra global navigation list. This is confusing. These items need to fit within the larger site structure better rather than be orphaned in the “Resources” area. Happily, there are some good solutions (see below).
  • No featuring of WoodenBoat’s fleet – As I mentioned in my prior blog entry, one of the greatest arts about attending the WoodenBoat School was the near insistence on us experiencing the organization’s own fleet of boats. This was part of immersing us in the wooden boat culture. While the online medium can’t do them nearly as much justice, I think these boats should have a home in the site so that the user understands the organization “walks the walk.” This also might be a nice lead-in to WoodenBoat School promos…
  • Weak content – This is, I understand, a bigger issue, but I still would like to see truly online publications – articles stored individually, topic pages linking articles from across issues, forum threads linked to articles, online interaction with authors, etc. This is a bigger leap, but this would make the site a much more valuable tool for wooden boat enthusiasts and be an excellent compliment to the other offerings.

Recommendations

Based on the above analysis, there are some clear opportunity for WoodenBoat Publications to further improve its site within the general structure of the new design. To emphasize: the organization does not need to “blow up” the new design. Most recommendations involve enhancing what now exists – the existing investment was a good one.

1. Re-do global navigation (the links in the top blue bar)

There are a couple aspects here. First, the list of global nav items should be more concise. I suggest the following items, which map to major site sections:

  • Home
  • Publications – This item would link to a page that gives more detailed info about each of the publications from which the user then gets to the individual publication pages (no, adding another click is not a problem so long as it is clear to the user they are on the right path) as well as to WoodenBoat Books. Yes, I am demoting WoodenBoat Books, even though it appears to be a separate business unit. Organizational structure tends to be a lousy way to organize a web site because it it an internal view rather than the one the users take. Anyone wanting to buy a book will go to the store; anyone wanting to publish one can access the information here, or, more likely, through a well-done Contact Us page (see below)
  • WoodenBoat School
  • WoodenBoat Store – This section should also include a link to WoodenBoat Books.
  • WoodenBoat Community – This item would link to a landing page for all community items (see below for detailed treatment of this topic)
  • Events – This section would include WoodenBoat Show and other events.
  • About – This section would include an overview of WoodenBoat Publications as well as organizational news and contact information (there could be additional Contact Us links in the footer and in a utility area at the top right of the header).

I also recommend that the items be re-done as graphical buttons. This would not only look more polished, but it would also enable them to all fit on one line, freeing up valuable screen real estate. They would probably be nice starting just to the right of the logo.

2. Further enhance page organization

As I mentioned, the site has come a long way from a layout-standpoint. There are some fairly simple steps to take it the rest of the way.

  • Remove “Resources” – Random collections of links in a “quick links” or “shortcuts” area is considered bad practice. There is no clear organizing principle to the list and it quickly becomes a useless dumping ground for everyone’s pet pages, defeating the original purpose. If the list had a principle, like ‘most popular,’ then it might work, but this list is not that. It is better to place the items in sensible places within a clear information architecture. WoodenBoat Online Index belongs within the WoodenBoat Magazine section as well as the store. If it needs to be on the homepage it could be a link under that magazine blurb. The other items I will cover below. One other point – the section used to be called “Quick Links” and got changed to “Resources” as I was working on this. “resources” is, I am sorry to say, not very useful. Resources for what? Aren’t other things on the site also resources? Why aren’t they included? It is one of those terms that often gets used to group a bunch of stuff that has no real link, which should tell you that you are trying to group stuff that doesn’t belong together.
  • About box – Use the space thus vacated to place a short “About WoodenBoat Publications blurb. Make it a single sentence with a “More…” link to a subpage. Right now there are two paragraphs front-and-center devoted to this, but the content is only useful your first time visiting the site. After that, you know what the site is about.
  • Clearly demarcate feature area – The top-center of the page I now see is a rotating feature of site content. This is fine (but for a recommendation below), but there needs to be more clear demarcation of this area. It needs a nice graphic “Feature Story” header and probably a consitent background treatment or something to make it stand out. Ideally these would be short, graphically rich, and not too obviously an ad. Highlighting content valuable to users is a good idea, though, and a rotating feature is a nice way to do it.
  • Move e-mail sign-up higher – The e-mail subscription feature is useful and should be pushed as a way for WoodenBoat to actively “touch” users. It should be higher on the page, perhaps above the Subscription Services box.
  • Trim Editorial box – The links to digital copies of the magazines seem out of place in the Editorial box. These should go within the respective section on the center of the page for the three publications.

3. Add more images

The site needs to be much more image rich. Readers likely have decent internet connections at this point – make the site mirror the graphical beauty of the publications. I recommend devoting the top center of the page to a rotating image slide show, using the publications’ rich trove of pictures. There are different technical options for this (e.g., Flash), but the point is that the site should have more beauty. Why do I come to the site and not get hit with gleaming mahogony, carvel planking, and placid anchorages? This would also be a way to highlight the organization’s fleet (there could be a separate section of the site with a slideshow of these craft).

4. Turn “Blogs and Forums” into a more expansive “WoodenBoat Community”

“Blogs and Forums” is too narrow. This section of the homepage – and, indeed, of the site – should be a much richer WoodenBoat Community. As such it would naturally include My Wooden Boat, Getting Started in Boats, and Register of Wooden Boats. The section would tie together owners, builders, designers, and other interested parties (including blogging wanna-bes) in a community that reflects the rich experience of the WoodenBoat School dining hall. The community elements would be the unique online offerings and a way to bring people into the “wrap-around” experience who can’t make it to the School.

Over time WoodenBoat could expand the community features to include other kinds of interaction. I think it would be great to have online interviews with story authors (the Washington Post does this) or with WoodenBoat School teachers after the class (for the “I tried doing it myself and this is what happened” questions). Users could also submit events, comments on content, and even have their own mini-blogs to discuss their current projects.

5. Develop truly online versions of the major publications

My final thought is that the digital versions of the magazines are underwhelming. Why do I want a reproduction of what I get in paper? What I would like – and what is consistent with where the internet appears to be going – is to break up each issue into individually accessible articles. With this, things become interesting. People could buy a single article or make their own series by stringing together related pieces (say, everything about Concordia Yawls). This should work – think iTunes. WoodenBoat could also link articles to classes at the WoodenBoat School, books at the WoodenBoat Store, online interviews with authors, and even postings on the blog or in the forums. The experience of the article is thus much richer and becomes more useful, even for subscribers. WoodenBoat could also sell separate advertising for the online space that could be highly targeted. A piece on strip building could have a whole series of sponsored links to a lumber retailer, an epoxy manufacturer, a tool seller, etc. This is not possible on paper, but here is where the online medium can be powerful.

Conclusions

Hopefully these thoughts are useful for WoodenBoat and interesting to other readers. Please submit your own comments. I am planning to point WoodenBoat to this post so maybe we can jointly keep the momentum going.

1 Comment for “A new design for WoodenBoat.com – a review”

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