Although this project has been superseded by another developer since I built it some years ago, nonetheless it was a good example of a massive improvement in design when I took it over. The client was very happy. It was complex yet organized and self-sustaining in that the client could create and edit without needing developer intervention for content management. I think there are also clues in some of the notes below why I look fondly on this project as a challenge and follow through.
Let’s Talk About Process
In our introductory meeting Bahn family, a team of commercial real estate brokers, they stated that they needed to show their company more professionally through their website. Their existing site was very simple and outdated. They would want to publish their properties giving the property data a consistent look. And my process is to find out what they had and break down the necessities and try to assess what they were willing to accept.
- Ask what the client wants and find out the current pain points
- Look at the existing work and establish (even if redundant) what they like or don’t like. The client doesn’t always want to throw out everything. They invest time and training into their own systems and their clients also have expectations too. In the case of Bahn, they were making PDF “sales sheets” of every property and they would continue to do that for the foreseeable future so making those easily available to print off was important.
- Bahn did not need to worry at the time about hooking into existing listing services, they neither needed to, nor did they want to be restricted by them.
- They wanted to be able to edit the site. But there would be some featured properties that would require some special banner graphic work that could be technically prohibitive for them without some training.
- I would need to come back to them with a fairly detailed proposal, which included a flowchart and some wireframes. Just enough at this stage without presupposing it was a final structure or hierarchy. At this point I’ll note, I am not very good on paper when I sketch quickly. For the longest time I didn’t even keep a ruler or set of stencils nearby (I have them now). But just talking through things I often get by just thinking of my sketches as “thumbnails” or “identifiying placeholders” because that’s what they are when you really think about it.
- Let me tell you how I established a couple of the design “features.” So my design I was thinking of expressing what I considered elements of a ‘building’ but without trying to force them. Harder edges, and some simple lines and subtle geometry, such as a pattern as a background for a menu panel. Looking back on it, I still like the design and I think it worked for the budget. But as anything you get so close to and look back on, it’s always “hmm hindsight says I can do better.”
- After the wireframes and proposal was accepted I then delivered some high fidelity mockups, that showed close to exactly the categorization of the properties. At the time, responsive mobile was not a concern for them because of their clients needs. This didn’t mean it was ignored all together but there weren’t any special consideration for the mobile media queries save general readability.
- This next step was critical. I had another meeting with them that focused on data elements. What bits of property data were important, were always shown, were conditional, and what were the various “states” that a property could be in (e.g. Open, Pending, Closed). Gathering the data elements and having them in front of me was surprisingly exciting and a relief.
- Another important detail came from a bit of intuition, asking the right questions and understanding the business. Many commercial properties are not “addresses” in the sense that we’re used to. They are listed as an old deed might show them, and of course can be located based on geo coordinate systems. I wanted to implement an automatic map query after they enter the address on the back end. But I needed a way for the map to be accurate when the address was not on Google. This involved creating a straight-forward set of instructions to use in the event of address problems leveraging coordinates on Google.
- WordPress with custom fields was a great way to implement all of this, including additional plugins that would pull from these custom fields. Sometimes WordPress feels a bit like cheating but when it comes to solving nuanced problems, it has been extremely helpful.
After being built, and a couple hours of training and testing whether they would have issues doing the data entry I was pretty confident and proud of the work. I had even documented a lot of the process inside the WordPress dashboard thanks to a help plugin. Part of the success of this build was doing for them more than they had asked. They wanted a nice new website but not being asked I also entered in all 50 of their existing properties for them. So they’d be set day one. All the good stuff was retained from their existing process. Imagine being the client and all your data from static content in PDFs was all data-entered into the new site. You now also have multiple list views and index views for convenience and it’s searchable and you have maps! Very happy.