The Chicago Architecture Foundation has been welcoming the world to Chicago since 1966, and now welcomes visitors in the digital world to the iconic architecture.org domain. When CAF’s Digital Master Plan called for an immediate overhaul of the primary website, the Foundation turned to Fastspot for help. What followed was one of the most successful—and most fun—projects to cross our desks in some time. With 11 months of the live site behind us, we sat down with Jill Farley, who was CAF's Manager of Digital Initiatives during the project, to look back on how we got here and what worked well.
Can you talk about how this project came about on the CAF side? We know it takes a real commitment to do something innovative with your web presence.
Jill At the time, we were building on legacy systems that were not helpful. Our website was clunky and wasn’t really communicating our brand. When you interact with the Architecture Foundation, it’s a really enriching experience, and that just wasn’t coming across.
What were your first impressions of CAF and what they were going to need from our team?
Tracey We love juicy problems, and I think that CAF had one! We could easily see that this wasn’t just going to be a facelift. CAF is a complex organization and there were aspects that weren’t being conveyed by the website at all. Once we got to Chicago and started meeting with the team at CAF, we were struck by all of the interesting people doing diverse and fascinating things. We had to find a way to let it all shine on the new website, while always making sure that users can still buy things like River Boat tickets. It was a really fun set of problems to dive into.
"You can make the most beautiful, content-rich thing in the world, but if it’s not doing anything for your organization, it doesn’t matter."
We’re working with all of our clients to think about the quantifiable, measurable impact that the website has on the health of the organization or institution. When did results come into play for CAF? Were they discussed early on?
Jill This was definitely a learning process for me. Marilyn Jackson, our VP of marketing, taught me so much about measurable results. That was really her mantra: ‘You can make the most beautiful, content-rich thing in the world, but if it’s not doing anything for your organization, it doesn’t matter.’
Tracey It’s great for us to see a client acknowledge how important success metrics are early in the process. It lets everyone know that data is important, and that everything we do is going to be held up against the metrics that we’ve all agreed on.
As wonderful as a new site is, we don’t want people just hanging out on it. We want people to take action! Having concrete objectives allows you to examine every decision you make: ‘Who is this content for? What is the end outcome that the audience should be taking with this content? What are some of the past metrics around this content? How are we going to see it improve?’
"Having concrete objectives allows you to examine every decision you make: ‘Who is this content for? What is the end outcome that the audience should be taking with this content? What are some of the past metrics around this content? How are we going to see it improve?’"
Speaking of audience needs, this is definitely a website that has to do a lot of things for a lot of different people. How was that addressed?
Jill I actually think that the development of the website, along with the Digital Master Plan, helped the whole organization get a handle on that. CAF has always struggled with who it is: are we a tour company? Are we an education institution? Are we focused on public programs and public awareness of architecture and urbanism and city design? The redesign process helped us to focus on our core: the city, learning about design, and how design relates to other things. The website allowed internal groups to come together and focus on what our commonalities were instead of operating in silos. We found we could start with the buildings. Start with the beautiful photography. Start with what people care about and are interested in. And then we can add on from there.
I think the organization was better off strategically after the website, because it helped rally everybody towards one common cause.
Tracey One of CAF’s big objectives was educate people on the importance of design—why design matters. That’s a much bigger topic than architecture or River Boat cruises. A concept like this starts to unify everyone. Because no matter what anyone was doing at CAF, there was always an underlying educational mission. We used the buildings as a way to talk about design, as a way to show the relevance of design.
We felt really strongly, at least on the desktop experience of the site, that having a big introduction to the navigation would let everyone see how rich the sections were within the main areas of the site right off the bat. Nothing is hidden. No one has to look very far. You’re immediately aware of the complexity and the dynamic offerings that CAF has.
Jill I think the other thing that we were able to rally around was content, specifically educational and editorial content. It’s something that every single department understood could help their cause. Some people were skeptical about what we should be writing about, and we had to figure out tone and length and topics. But our commitment to creating content was the biggest revolution in our organization around digital. It was an absolute culture shift for us to have a website that was a way to share information and content rather than just help you buy a ticket.
The whole content revolution that happened after we launched the site was unexpected, and a really big deal for us.
Tracey If you just look at the site, it’s constantly changing. There’s always fresh, interesting information that’s presented in a really engaging way. I’ve been so thrilled to see how vibrant the site has remained post-launch.
"The redesign process helped us to focus on our core: the city, learning about design, and how design relates to other things. The website allowed internal groups to come together and focus on what our commonalities were instead of operating in silos."
Thinking about content naturally leads to thinking about content management. How important do you think the CMS [BigTree] was to this project?
Jill Moving to BigTree was like night and day from our old system. Instead of being a hindrance, BigTree actually made it fun! We could just focus on a great set of tools to showcase different things within the content. The system allows CAF to post something once and have it show up across the site — such an old concept, but it was new to us. This meant that a less technical team was able to maintain the site, so we were able to have more people in the marketing department contributing.
Tracey That’s just really great to hear. It reinforces why we put so much effort into the CMS. It’s so nice when we are able to put it to work for a team like the CAF team and know that it’s helping them.
"Moving to BigTree was like night and day from our old system. Instead of being a hindrance, BigTree actually made it fun! We could just focus on a great set of tools to showcase different things within the content."
In many ways, the focus on content can’t be separated from design. We knew from the beginning that this needed to be an extraordinary design. Tracey, how did Fastspot approach this challenge?
Tracey What’s great about working with a client like CAF is that they have beautiful materials that make up the essence of the organization. We knew we’d have great assets to look at and be inspired by. And you don’t want to put a lot of design on top of that. There’s no need to overwhelm the natural resources that you’re working with.
It’s hard to explain, but the design has to get out of the way to really do a great job. We want the design to reinforce the great ideas and vision of the organization in a way that feels innovative but isn’t the only thing you’re paying attention to. We discussed this a lot in the office, and I feel like a really wonderful balance was struck in the end.
"We want the design to reinforce the great ideas and vision of the organization in a way that feels innovative but isn’t the only thing you’re paying attention to."
Jill I think that it was quite a challenge to bring us into the 21st century, but not to go so far to alienate some of our key audiences, who are not millennials. As Tracey said, the site had to feel fresh and exciting, but couldn’t abandon some of the conventions that a lot of our older audiences would need to have in order to feel comfortable. So that was a big design challenge, and I think that that challenge was definitely met.
Feedback from one of our most passionate audiences, the docents, was overwhelmingly positive. They didn’t feel like the site was too slick for them; they didn’t feel like it was confusing. It all just made sense! What they focused on was the fact that all this imagery had been surfaced. That was one of the biggest complements on the design—our most critical audience was really happy with it.
How has the site been performing beyond the desktop?
Jill I don’t think anybody has any sense of how big of an impact having a responsive site has had so far on the organization. That was such a big deficit for us for so long. The mobile site, in some cases, is even cooler than the desktop version. That was huge for us.
Tracey Everything we do is responsive, and we’re trying to take advantage of what that smaller screen lets us do, which is different from what the bigger screen lets us do. I would agree, I really like the CAF experience on mobile.
I think when it comes to a finished site, this is one that we’re all pretty proud of. What surprised you about the process?
Jill I was surprised at the degree to which the website became a rally point for everyone. The institution—the employees, the board, leadership, the docents, volunteers, everybody—had high expectations. I cannot tell you how glowing the response was to what we did. It was such a good rally point for everybody to come together and be proud of something, because it was our most public-facing project. I know that’s not a surprising part of the process, but I was just surprised at how smoothly it was received.
Tracey Initially, when you do have that many people who are invested and, to some degree, frustrated because of the constraints they’ve been under with the current site, there’s an opportunity for too many cooks in the kitchen. That can dilute the effectiveness of the solution. It doesn’t ruin things, but it distracts everyone. It makes people spend energy where they shouldn’t have to spend it, and it takes away from the end result you can get with a very focused team.
Happily, that didn’t happen with CAF, even though there are so many different kinds of people that are very passionate and very involved with the organization. We were able to involve them and hear from them and collaborate with them, and yet it stayed right on track and the end result is fantastic. It’s one of our most favorite projects today and I’m sure it will be for a long time.
Jill is now UX/Content Strategist at Elevated Third in Denver, Colorado. Fastspot wishes her all the best in her new adventure.