TransitionWorks is a local business founded by John Harvey, a former American Express HR executive, as a training/forum for people who are “in transition.” Generally that means people who have suddenly found themselves out of a job, but also people who have careers and are looking for insight on how to make a change.
The sessions involve seven to eight weekly workshops in which the participants meet and go through various exercises to better understand themselves and their goals. The ultimate end is a “search plan summary,” a personal document that acts as their blueprint for the process of transition. In following weeks there is an ongoing weekly discussion, to which all alumni of the program are invited.
John and his partner Alfred asked me to look at their current state on the web and come up with a new way to position the organization, and turn their web presence into an active forum to further energize the group.
At the beginning of the project, their presence on the internet was in four pieces. One was their web home page. This was a single flat file on a server, with a mission statement, a course outline, and contact information. Additionally, there were two Yahoo! groups which members could belong to, and a mailing list.
The Yahoo! groups were a problem in particular; they required two separate logins, and a lot of back-and-forth between them to get the whole picture. They didn’t seem to work together at all, and users were frustrated. The most immediate need was to bring it all together into one common area, where the value of the program could be seen by prospective members, and also serve as a common forum for current members.
My first impulse was to use a few best-of-breed components for a bulletin-board system, an events calendar, a blog, and a mailing list. These would be tied together under a single look-and-feel, accessed via a common home page. For a couple of reasons this wasn’t going to work. With the advice of a couple of members of the group who are involved in the semantic web, I took a look at the Drupal system.
With the assistance of the many plugin modules available for Drupal, I realized I could do exactly what I wanted, and in the process integrate the content in several nice ways.
The bare-bones installation of Drupal is only something a geek could love. The display really is bare bones — only the most elemental pieces of content are displayed, and in a not very helpful form. I found that several common modules were absolute indispensable. In addition, the actual management of a Drupal site is cryptic. Many things are very hard to find, as they’re listed in non-intuitive places. Other functions require you to go into separate screens to manage. Other relatively obvious things can’t be done at all without hacking the code. Once you’ve done one or two of these you get the hang of it. But it pays to take notes on what you’re doing.
Views: Without the views module, only the titles of most content nodes is visible on any index page. For example, for most new nodes you have the option of uploading a file. If this file is going to be in any way meaningful, it would be helpful to let users download it. Yet, in the default installation you can upload files but you cannot display a link. This is typical of the often illogical methods referred to above. Views lets you take content of a certain type — types you set up using the Flexinode module — and choose various attributes to display.
Using these two modules together I was able to put together meaningful listings of resumes, search-plan summaries, reference materials, and user profiles; as well as improve the usefulness and appearance of the Forum module.
As session participants work through their innermost feelings about life and work, and share them with their classmates, privacy is very important. Other than the small group, no one else, including prospective employers, should be able to reach this material. The Organic Groups module is an elegant solution.
The beauty of organic groups is that they really are organic to the site. One a registered user has logged in, content assigned to groups is transparently woven into their viewing experience. Events, discussion threads and documents can be flagged at creation to belong to one or more groups. These pieces are invisible to non-members. What’s more, the existence of the group itself can be invisible to non-members. Any user can create a group and invite people of their choosing to participate, allowing for a potentially very deep and wide network of sub-communities.
Add-ons to organic groups make it more flexible. Some, such as Block Visibility and OG_Calendar allow the privacy we needed; Mandatory Group allows you to build a group that all your registered users belong to, so that you can display pieces of content or send messages to your entire readership.
Other helpful modules I installed include Comment, allowing reader comments on posted items; Profile, which in combination with Views allows a directory listing of members; Contact, which sets up a basic contact form with options to forward traffic appropriately; Forward allows readers to send a page to a colleague; Event, an events calendar; Menu and Nice_Menus (for pulldown or popout menus); Search, which requires setting up a cron job; TinyMCE, a WYSIWYG editor; and WebForm, to create custom forms such as the registration form.
Management of all of these is done through two panels; an Administration set and a Settings set. Again, it’s not at all intuitive what you find where, so take careful notes for yourself. You may not look at a given setting for a couple of weeks, and you’ll have to dig hard to find it.
A three-column-plus-header layout seemed appropriate. The logo at the top of course links back to the home page, and a row of drop-down menus below allows access to top-level functions. The permissions settings control which options users can see and do. For example, anonymous users can post their resume. Logged-in users can post events, discussion topics, and various kinds of documents — which are also controlled by their access level. Logged-in users also can see activity in their Groups.
Material in the left column is the administrative material: search, logon, and configuration options; groups that the user belongs to and a listing of who else is currently on line; and coming events.
The right column is for posts and information about posts, such as the most recent entries, most active threads, and new topics.
A minimal amount of tinkering was necessary to make the code do what I needed. In one case a query statement was badly written and need to be redone, otherwise careful configuration and stylesheet management did the trick.
Mercifully, the Drupal installation is mostly table-free (as opposed to Joomla, which I’m using on another project). It’s not perfect semantically — some things that are obvious candidates to be hx level headlines are div classes instead — but generally quite workable. Almost everything (almost) is classed in a reasonable way so that a good css stylesheet can be cooked up. There are a few unclassed divs that are of unpredictable depth within their parents, and hard to get at. The color scheme in general spins off of the colors used in the logo.
Ah the pleasures of digital photography and Photoshop. My camera has a nice panorama setting that makes it easier to weave together wide landscapes, and that’s what I used for these.
Ravine Lake out in Somerset County is one of my favorite spots in NJ. I discovered it on rides with the bike club, and go there often. My daughter and I were out there one day, and the sunset was nice so I had her pop up through the sunroof and take a series of pictures of the lake.
As you can see in this mode, the sky is blown out, though the colors of the trees come through.
In “sunrise/sunset” mode the sky and the color of the water come through beautifully, but the landscape goes too black.
After weaving the first three pictures together to make a continuous flow, I used Photoshops channels and various select tricks to eliminate the blown-out sky. Then, I took as big a section of continuous tone from the colorful sunset pic, and masked it in behind the silhouetted trees and landscape of the first. A little blurring around the edges, and a nice Maxfield Parrish thing started to happen (click to enlarge).
There is a series of four different landscapes that come up at random as users navigate the site. Two are from Memorial Park in Maplewood, and one is of the Rockaway River. All have in common visual elements that relate to transitions, such as winding paths and streams. I also put them through some very artificial color corrections, so that the greens were really live and vibrant, and the water was a magic-realist blue instead of brown.
The online community went live the evening of July 31. The next phase is to migrate users away from the Yahoo! groups, as well as to put in a personal appearance at one of the Tuesday night sessions to give a tutorial as well as some encouragement on using the site.
Comments or questions always welcome.