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The Fake Project - Redesigning Code Project Part 1

, , 17 Sep 2012
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The Fake Project - The first two days of a Code Project redesign.

Introduction

This is probably the most unusual series of articles I'm ever going to be involved with. In this series, I'm teaming up with one of the founders of Code Project to go through the process of redesigning a well known site using the Metro Design Language (more on what this is very shorly). It has often seemed to me that articles miss out on some of the interesting bits in the development process are missing, and I want to address this by actually dealing with what goes on before we start coding. I decided that it would be interesting, also, to address the issue of what Metro Design actually means, so I came up with the idea of doing a redesign of a site using the principals in Metro. When I pitched this idea to Chris Maunder, I was over the moon that he agreed to help me with this series and that he would agree to temporarily loan me the Code Project brand.

So what, exactly, are we going to be covering here? Well, the first part of this series is going to deal with the typical to and fros that goes on between client and agency when a site is being redesigned. We're going to go through the review cycles, arguments and compromises that typically happen, aiming to end up with a redesign that we're helpfully calling The Fake Project. Please bear with me, because we aren't going to be putting a lot of code in here; but we hope that this will be of interest. This first article is going to compress what normally happens over a week or so into two days - and we'll produce the first in a series of mockups.

Okay, we aren't going to go right through the process of finding and hiring a design company. Let's pretend that Chris has already been through that process and he's been lumbered with me (the other bids were from a stuffed cat and a piece of string). And finally, we have reached the point where we are going to start coming up with designs. But before we actually start coming up with any designs any design agency worth their salt will try and actually get an understading of what the client wants. They should try to assess what the brand means, what the message is that the client is trying to get across, and in the process they should start to get a feel as to what the limits and boundaries actually are. So, let's kick off the design with this meeting.

A quick note in advance

Typically, when mocking up a site, it's a good idea to make sure that the client can tell that you are producing a mock up. Ways of doing this include using an exagerrated font, or using sketchy style images. This serves two purposes; the first part being that we want to pull the mock ups together quickly and we don't want to get hung up on polishing end details. A word of warning though - sometimes clients get hung up on the mock up and quibble about fonts, etc, so please bear this in mind as we go through the series. I've been lucky dealing with Chris because he sees the big picture straight away, and has a clear vision of how he wants to take the Fake Project forwards.

Background

Designer:

"Okay Chris. Could you give us a bit of background to the brand? How did it come about?"

Chris:

The Code Project was initially designed by a guy named Glen Price back in November of 1999. The initial design was a shocking orange, but it immediately gave us a strong, vibrant branding and we loved it. It’s the best design decision we’ve ever made.

Over the years, however, the design has needed to evolve to suit new services, new form factors and screen sizes, and also a new century. We had a major redesign a few years back that brought the design forward a few years, but again the need to evolve became pressing which resulted in the latest redesign last year.

It’s time to rethink the entire design in order to focus on what we do best – which is allowing our members to share their enthusiasm and knowledge of code by sharing their articles and projects.

We often throw around websites that we love, and also those that are awful, in order to keep the concept of design importance alive in our conversations. That being said, the cleaner the design, the more we (usually) like them, but one point with many of the clean designs is that they are clean because they have very little content. We’re not a brochure for a sports car. We’re a newspaper. Limiting information for the sake of design is counter to our goal, and we most certainly don’t need to use 32px font to fill up the whitespace.

Designer:

Okay, so that's where you've come from but where are you going with your brand? What are you trying to achieve with a rebrand exercise? After all, this could be a real culture shock to your user base, so how can we help you freshen up the brand, and give you the ability to provide the maximum reach to the different form factors your readers have available?

Chris:

In reviewing the design languages and styles out there Apple’s website is on one end of the spectrum for us and Google’s is on the other. Microsoft, to throw in the other major name usually mentioned with these two names, has always been a “meh” player in terms of design. The constant redesigning of MSDN became so painful to me that I found I simply never used it anymore. There are dozens of websites that sit along this spectrum that we’ve tossed around, but the gist of it all came down to

  1. Making the content the most important thing on the page
  2.  Giving everything enough space.

Take two seconds to think about this and compare it to the design goals of Microsoft’s Metro design language. It’s fundamental principles are

  1. Content over Chrome
  2. The use of negative space

The Metro designs we’d seen were often centred around tiles, or pushed the stereotyped “large, ultra-thin font and dim text” pattern that is already overused, and inappropriately used. We think the underlying philosophy of the Metro language is obvious and sensible and that it can be applied to content rich sites perfectly well since that is the entire point of Metro: Promote the content.

So, ignoring the design language we use, I have a number of goals with the CodeProject design.

  1. The site must be obvious in what it does and obvious in how it can be used
  2. The content that is most important should grab the most attention
  3. The site must be overwhelmingly recognisable as CodeProject. MY standard test is a developer, from 10 feet away, looking at a page for no more than a second, must know that the reader is on CodeProject.
  4. We are still advertiser supported so advertising must be present and must be sympathetic to the layout as a whole.
  5. The design must be flexible to allow us to add new services and features in an obvious and sensible manner.

This comes down to a few specifics:

  1.  Do not mess with the orange.
  2. Do not mess with our logo. The text on the logo can change, however.
  3. Do not mess around too much with the ads. While it’s possible to renegotiate current advertising contracts and move things around, it is easier if we don’t have to. Besides, the units we have are the ones that are being requested. Except for full-page interstitials and fly-out ads. They are also requested, but repeating my answer to those requests would not be polite
  4. Article content width can be assumed to be at least 640px.
  5. The site must work on a touch device
  6. I’m a tranditionalist and think that links should be blue, and that the only text that should be blue are links. Visited links should be purple.

The next step is now for us to define what the site should do, identify the hierarchy of information, and decide what stays, what goes, and what can be done with some of our design challenges.

Next steps

Well, we have the brief in place, so it's time for us to start throwing some ideas around. There are a few points that we can take from the initial meeting. First and foremost, we have to leave certain key visual elements in place; Bob has to be present but we can change the logo if we want, the Orange must be #FF9900, and we have to provide space for the adverts. Beyond that, there's plenty of scope to play with the site element, so we can make play around and see what elements really stand out.

The big question as far as we are concerned is how do you visually identify CodeProject as CodeProject from 10 feet away? What makes it stand out and instantly identifiable? By identifying that, we go a long way to identifying the cornerstone that we hange the design on. Whatever this ident is, it needs to be present right from the first screen that we see and it needs to be consistent. Okay, let's step back 10 feet and see what makes CodeProject, well, CodeProject.

Let's start with the home page. Open it up and what do we see?

CodeProject Home Page

 Okay, an initial view would seem to indicate that there are three clear visual hooks.

CodeProject Home Page

So, 1 is obviously the site header, 2 represents the main body and 3 is the side bar providing widgets and advertising. It's obvious looking at this site that the orange really does have a strong presence, so we may want to cue this in for action elements such as buttons. Now Chris has said that he likes to use blue for links with the defaults for visited links, but looking at this page, it's pretty obvious that this isn't a hard and fast rule because there's one set of links in there that don't correspond to this: the menus. This should give us some leeway to provide a stronger visual, so I think we may want to consider incorporating either the CodeProject green (#488E00) or the orange as menu colours.

Okay, there's no footer present in that screen, so it's obvious that the footer doesn't play a strong part in establishing the visual identity.

Let's take a look and see how well the current design carries through to other areas of the site. We should be able to get the commonality here. As Chris has intimated that he sees the articles as the main focus of the site, let's start with those.

 

Excellent, this corresponds to roughly the same layout as the home page. The widgets have changed, but we have the same header in place and the main body bears a strong resemblance to the home page, including a strong use of tabs. The iconography isn't immediately apparent, and could be tricky to use in smaller form factor devices so we'll want to focus some attention on those to see how we can represent them.

We're definitely seeing a consistency with the use of main advertising in the header banner. Looks to be 725 by 90 pixels, so that sets a hard limit for that area - we cannot offer any less than 95 pixels as the header. The sidebar width is set to 230 pixels, leaving the main content area to be resizable. Chris mentioned that CodeProject could either operate fixed of fluid layout. I think we should offer a fixed layout; the width of the sidebar will help us to determine just how wide our main content area is going to be.

*Note. Need to find out from Chris whether or not we can constrain the site to fixed. He may have strong feelings on this, so we may need to find some middle ground. We'll clarify this before we go much further with the wireframes.

Now, the other two main areas of the site are the forums and the Q&A sections. Let's check those to see how the branding carries across. First of all, let's see what the forums look like.

Code Project - forums 

Okay, we have some inconsistencies from the first two parts that we have looked at. While we can still see a side bar, it has swapped sides to the left hand side, and the whole look and feel of it has changed. There's no white space in there, and it's much more in your face, despite being a smaller width at 170px. The tabs have dropped away in the main body as well, plus we can see that the rules surrounding the link colours have been relaxed here somewhat. Chris tells me that the grey text indicates low votes on a link, reinforcing the idea that the link colour rule is a guideline rather than an absolute. We may be able to do something with that.

Note*: I'd like to get Chris' opinion on making the sidebar consistent across the site, so it would have to move to the right hand side on this page, and it would have to make more use of white space.

On a positive note, the header is still there and is still consistent. That has to be the visual cue that we hang the brand off - if we keep that relatively consistent with what it is now, people should still be able to tell at a glance that the new site is CodeProject.

Finally, let's take a look at the Q&A section.

Quick Answers section 

Well, we are back to the layout that we are used to, but again there's that deviation in the link text colour scheme. This time, green has been introduced and at first glance it would seem that it relates to the colours in the box at the far left, but that's not the case - if we look at those boxes, we can see that they can be green when the link text is grey. One of the first tasks we will have to undertake is to lay out the rules for colours in the design. With those rules in place, we can start to block out the main areas of the site before we start to refine them.

One thing I do have a concern about is that use of white space at the top of the header. It's a jarring scheme for a header - the two just don't go together. We will take a look at that area, to see if we can remove the white altogether.

So, it looks like we know what the key elements are to make the site instantly recognisable:

  1. The header area will be Orange #FF9900 and will feature the alien logo (aka 'Bob'), and the main advert. The header will be a minimum height of 90px.
  2. A sidebar will be present, 230px wide - this sidebar will be situated at the right and will consist of "widgets" and a smaller advert
  3. The main content will be situated in the main body. This will be to the left of the sidebar.

A point to consider. What strapline should we use for the site? "Your Development Resource" isn't a strong hook.

Day 2

Okay, I've had a chat with Chris and he's come back with the following feedback:

"Thank you for also pointing out that I'm inconsistent with link colours. I can't believe I didn't realise this myself.

The columns being on the right, then the left, then the right - yeah, inconsistent, and the whitespace in Q&A. All good comments.

The sidebar needs to be consistent for pages where it makes sense. Having more whitespace is a tricky balance since we want to allow 640px wide articles and a min width of 960 (give or take - these are just rough guidelines). If by whitespace you mean extra padding: definitely.

Not all pages should have a sidebar, and some pages may make sense to have a left hand bar. The homepage, for instance, probably needs a right hand sidebar, but the page for setting member settings may want to have a left hand sidebar. I'm using Chrome right now and like the way they have links in a left hand sidebar instead of the usual tabs for choose different settings pages. I'd like to experiment with that approach to see if it makes sense.

Now, about the fixed/fluid question. I have no problem with this, though I think it's really easy to make it fluid while keeping the basic design elements of a fixed layout. I tend to shy away from fixed due to the history of screens getting larger and large. I think we may have hit a point similar to CPU speeds hitting a ceiling and the move being to multi-core: screen sizes may not get much bigger, but resolutions will double, and maybe triple. I can buy a 23" screen for my PC, and have a 24" on my iMac, but I still prefer 3 x 19" monitors so that I can maximise documents without them being stupidly large. The Windows 7 feature of docking docs to the sdes of the monitors is fantastic in this regard.

On the flip side, fixed widths do cause problems if the browser is shrunk. I often make a browser window a third of the screen space simply because I'm trying to fit so many windows on at once. Having the design accomodate this is a nice to have feature, and means that when the site is viewed on new form factors (mini-iPad?) it will adapt."

This is good stuff, and starts to flesh some things out for us. If we do the maths, we see that taking a sidebar of 230px and adding it to the minimum article width of 640px is just 870px, well short of the 960px rough guesstimate that Chris supplied. We have two options here; we can either make the 230px bigger, giving us 320px, or we make the minimum article width 730px. We'll rough out both sizes to get a feel for which is more appropriate.

In the rough draught, let's try the side bar out on both sides and see which feels right. While Chris has said the sidebar consistency should be applied where it makes sense - let's trial it so that he can get a better idea. We can always fix this at a later stage if we find that we need to change things around a bit. Also, while we haven't discussed the use of the footer, let's include that in the wireframe so that we have the whole picture in place.

 As we want this site to be easy to use on touch devices, and at various sizes, I'm going to go with Chris' idea and we'll make it a fluid reactive layout, and we'll move away from menu based interaction as much as possible; it just ends up being really fiddly to have to navigate via menus on a phone.

The first thing we need to do is actually identify what satisfies Chris' requirements for the site being instantly identifiable as Code Project from 10 foot away. At first glance, it would appear that the solid Orange bar and alien logo are prime candidates for this. So, we'll set up a basic template page that uses this identity - and as this is the focal point for advertising, we'll position the advertising there as well; keeping Chris' criteria for advertising satisfied.

As I mentioned, we can use this to try and change from a pure menu based approach to navigation to something that is more suitable for touch interaction. This will help open up the site to tablet/phone users as the current menu system does not represent an ideal choice in these environments. As we are changing the menus around, we have the opportunity to organise the interaction based on the key elements of the site. As Chris has mentioned, before, that the key element of the site (indeed, this is one of the main differentiators of CodeProject from other sites) are the articles, we will put that first in our "menus".

As an initial pass, I would suggest that this represents a potential default layout for the other pages in the site.

Default styles 

Now that we have a simple page layout, we need to see how this fits together with the site. The obvious place to start is with the home page, so we will restyle it and take the opportunity to apply some rules to the design.

  1. As we have already ascertained that the link colour rule is flexible, we will choose to use the CodeProject orange for link text.
  2. Site based link text, menu text and headings will be lower case.
  3. Headings will use the CodeProject green as a visual cue.
  4. The layout system will be grid based.

An initial styling of the home page, borrowing heavily from the current home page, suggests that the following design would satisfy some of the criteria for the home page.

Initial home page wireframe

After an internal review of this design, we have found that it is not suitable for presentation as a design to the client as it does not satisfy some of our criteria for creating a Metro design. While some of the rules do seem to be acceptable, the overall design feels cramped and does not make effective use of white space. Retaining the tabs makes for a curious mish mash of styles here, so we will revisit this styling and provide more space.

First of all, we have to have a mechanism in place to cover the different tabs. While we could keep the tabs in place, and remove the borders from them, I feel that a better mechanism would be to convert the tabs into combo boxes.

Tabs replaced. 

I've added the language in there as well, to flesh this out. As you can see, there's more room to play with space here, so this is starting to feel less cluttered. I am concerned, though, that we have repeating content here (we have articles in two locations). We may need to revisit that soon. For the moment, let's see investigate this screen further.

In this shot, we can see the articles selection in operation. Clicking an item in that list will change the article selection. So, for example, clicking tips will show the latest tips and the latest best tips.

Tabs replaced - article tab open

Again, a tab that looked cluttered in the initial design was the approvals tab. Showing that as a drop down selection feels much neater.

Tabs replaced - article tab open

Hmmmm. At this point, the design still doesn't feel quite right. I'm not 100% happy with the duplication, so let's revisit this.

Home page - menu system moved 

That seems to be a more cohesive design, and we've instated some more colour there, but we've lost something there. Thinking about what we are trying to achieve with this navigation, something that we have to remember is that the home page articles link is not the same thing as the articles list in the main menu. We can use the style of the drop down to indicate the difference between the two. Let's reinstante that combo and present this to Chris to get his feedback on the home page. Before we take this any further, we need to make sure that Chris is happy with where we're at.

Home page - menu system moved

License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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About the Authors

Chris Maunder
Founder CodeProject
Canada Canada
Chris is the Co-founder, Administrator, Architect, Chief Editor and Shameless Hack who wrote and runs The Code Project. He's been programming since 1988 while pretending to be, in various guises, an astrophysicist, mathematician, physicist, hydrologist, geomorphologist, defence intelligence researcher and then, when all that got a bit rough on the nerves, a web developer. He is a Microsoft Visual C++ MVP both globally and for Canada locally.
 
His programming experience includes C/C++, C#, SQL, MFC, ASP, ASP.NET, and far, far too much FORTRAN. He has worked on PocketPCs, AIX mainframes, Sun workstations, and a CRAY YMP C90 behemoth but finds notebooks take up less desk space.
 
He dodges, he weaves, and he never gets enough sleep. He is kind to small animals.
 
Chris was born and bred in Australia but splits his time between Toronto and Melbourne, depending on the weather. For relaxation he is into road cycling, snowboarding, rock climbing, and storm chasing.
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Pete O'Hanlon
CEO
United Kingdom United Kingdom
A developer for over 30 years, I've been lucky enough to write articles and applications for Code Project as well as the Intel Ultimate Coder - Going Perceptual challenge. I live in the North East of England with 2 wonderful daughters and a wonderful wife.
 
I am not the Stig, but I do wish I had Lotus Tuned Suspension.
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Comments and Discussions

 
Questiona question Pinmembereternalnetworker18-Nov-12 7:13 
AnswerRe: a question PinadminChris Maunder18-Nov-12 8:37 
GeneralMy Vote of 5 Pinmemberbdlocks26-Sep-12 13:30 
GeneralRe: My Vote of 5 PinprotectorPete O'Hanlon26-Sep-12 21:54 
QuestionMinor Bug PinmemberBassam Abdul-Baki20-Sep-12 2:36 
AnswerRe: Minor Bug PinprotectorPete O'Hanlon20-Sep-12 2:42 
GeneralRe: Minor Bug PinmemberBassam Abdul-Baki20-Sep-12 2:44 
AnswerRe: Minor Bug PinadminChris Maunder20-Sep-12 7:52 
GeneralRe: Minor Bug PinmemberBassam Abdul-Baki20-Sep-12 7:59 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pinmemberlinuxjr19-Sep-12 10:33 
GeneralRe: My vote of 5 PinprotectorPete O'Hanlon19-Sep-12 10:36 
GeneralMetro Style Pinmemberledtech317-Sep-12 14:53 
GeneralRe: Metro Style PinprotectorPete O'Hanlon17-Sep-12 22:00 
GeneralRe: Metro Style Pinmemberledtech318-Sep-12 3:47 
SuggestionFrom an users point of view PinmemberYusuf Uzun17-Sep-12 13:48 
GeneralRe: From an users point of view PinprotectorPete O'Hanlon17-Sep-12 22:03 
GeneralRe: From an users point of view PinmemberYusuf Uzun18-Sep-12 12:29 
QuestionPlease Fix the images to 640 width or scroll PinmemberVectorX17-Sep-12 12:13 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmvpSacha Barber17-Sep-12 7:01 
GeneralRe: My vote of 5 PinprotectorPete O'Hanlon17-Sep-12 7:13 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberSimon_Whale16-Sep-12 22:12 
GeneralRe: My vote of 5 PinprotectorPete O'Hanlon16-Sep-12 23:32 
GeneralRe: My vote of 5 PinmemberSimon_Whale16-Sep-12 23:35 
QuestionDesigner PinmemberMycroft Holmes16-Sep-12 14:34 
AnswerRe: Designer PinprotectorPete O'Hanlon16-Sep-12 19:33 

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