This follow-up to RCD’s inaugural blog post is about a week overdue. But this is a good thing… as well as more or less inevitable.

The inevitable parts included my wireless home internet solution getting kicked to the curb by the same solar storm activity that made the night skies pretty with the Northern Lights, as well as an SMTP configuration error that rendered the contact form on the website I was trying to launch… an exercise in futility (the form, not the website– well, okay…both). These inevitabilities were eventually solved by the usual exercise of patience and tech support calls… but these are not the challenges I want to write about.

In any case, I was able to soft-launch Portland Community Network (PDXcomm.net) over the weekend. As mentioned in my last post, the purpose here is to show that my “blog pretending to be an agency” is actually capable of doing agency work. In this case, taking a concept for a 100 page community website through design, development, and deployment in a period of roughly five weeks… with a production staff of exactly one unpaid volunteer.

Along the way, I made some decisions (also discussed in my last post) about platforms and what constitutes “fit for purpose” for a project like this. Since then, I’ve had to make similar decisions about when and how I wanted to make this proof of concept project live / available on the public internet. The plan was always to launch as work in progress / proof of concept… but the critical question remained: just how much work actually does constitute “proof of concept”?

Obviously, the more complete the better– but I’m just one guy, I have other things going on… and until this work is actually available to potential clients or employers, it does me no good whatever. On the other hand, pushing something into production that is too far from completion or fails to meet the standards for professional web design does even less good, could do active harm to whatever professional reputation I actually have.

Where I netted out was to divide the project into three main components: Search, Explore, and Connect. I wanted to have an easily searchable database of local businesses and organizations that would grow over time. I wanted to have an easily explored information architecture representing the neighborhoods of Portland. Finally, I wanted to have a social component that would encourage people to connect (and contribute) to the project.

The first two components were easily developed, using Concrete CMS as a platform. Building a searchable directory using Concrete Express Entities was fairly simple, even though the “search” part was not without challenges (more on that later). Building out just under a hundred pages of static web content enabling users to “explore” Portland was time-consuming– but once I had figured out how best to use Concrete’s block-based page composition system and customizable block templates, the work went fairly fast.

Where Concrete could not help me at all was when it came to the Connect/Social component of the project. Concrete is a very respectable CMS, one that I intend to use as much as possible for future custom site builds. But it is not a social media platform. I need to look to other platforms for that part of the project, and that’s going to take awhile– so I’m launching PDXcomm.net with the “connect” part clearly labeled “coming soon” (hopefully real soon… but we’ll see).

I also had an opportunity to change out my “developer” hat for my “UX/designer” hat. Let’s be clear: I haven’t called myself a developer in close to 15 years, haven’t had the nerve to call myself a “graphic designer” in a lot longer than that. But I have fairly developed sensibilities when it comes to things like user experience and information architecture. Once I was done with the purely functional aspects of writing custom block templates in PHP, I could step back and take a fresh look at look/feel and experience. On the basis of that fresh look, I made a few modest changes. I also took a long look at the relatively primitive site branding and decided it was good enough– even though I will likely revisit it, if this project actually goes anywhere.

I do have some ideas for ways I can leverage open-source social networking tools for this project, but that’s current research in progress– hopefully, something I can discuss soon. For now, I’m just happy to get this “work in progress” / “proof of concept” out the door. I can walk away from it for a while and consider other projects– like looking for work, building a business plan, and getting a few canned blog posts queued up so I can ensure a weekly cadence on this thing.

For my next post, expect a fairly deep (and technical) dive into custom solutions I came up with in the process of building this site, a follow-up discussion on how this work compares to what I would’ve had to do to get this far in WordPress, and (maybe) a progress update on adding a social media component to PDXcomm.net. Please subscribe (see below)  and stay with me as this story develops.

Cheers, all!

–MM

Solar Storms, SMTP Errors… And Why Sometimes Late is Good
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