Founders of ViaNolaVie Photo by Torbjorn Tornqvist
ViaNolaVie.org came about through a partnership between MediaNOLA.org and NolaVie.com; it was the marriage of an historical archive and a journalistic endeavor, both focused on culture in New Orleans and the Gulf South.
The ViaNolaVie.org platform combines the content of two very different websites. NolaVie is a cultural digital magazine that produces content from local writers, artists and other contributors about life and culture in New Orleans. MediaNOLA is an archive of Tulane student-produced work about New Orleans. The process of conjoining these two different websites was a fairly complex one. I know because I was a participant in this union from the start.
The creation of ViaNolaVie.org was rooted in community-based design thinking principles. Design thinking is a methodology that solves complex problems around people’s perceived needs, and then uses creative processes to find answers to these problems. The problems we were trying to solve with ViaNolaVie included:
• How might we make our web interface user friendly?
• How might we organize the content of our website?
• How might we inspire the community to contribute?
While the design thinking process is flexible, and there is no set number of steps, the method that created ViaNolaVie.org was a five-step program: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.
The process started in the winter of 2016 with Dr. Vicki Mayer’s Tulane class The Public Intellectual 2.0: Spreading Knowledge in the Digital Age. Working together, students in the class began by identifying our stakeholders; finding out who would be interested in using a new website about life and culture in the city was a crucial first step. We settled on, and made profiles of, various types of users and readers who create and disseminate knowledge about culture: artists, professors, journalists, entrepreneurs, and students, too. We tried to empathize with our stakeholders by interviewing these creators of culture about how they sought knowledge about the city, and more importantly why.
From there, we moved on to define our issues, in order to tackle them more concretely. We reframed our issues as questions, using the data garnered from our empathy interviews, big data about various cultural websites in the city, and our own knowledge of media uses and creative possibilities. Those questions were:
• How might we keep silos from forming during the merger of NolaVie and MediaNOLA and improve contributor experience and community engagement?
• How might we create a user-friendly platform that unites archived and magazine content, while welcoming and encouraging the inclusion of other types of content?
• How might we select, organize, and structure content to make it accessible and inclusive to a large and diverse pool of users?
• How might we raise awareness about our cultural content on external sources?
In the ideate stage, we thought of as many ideas as possible to create a website that housed two very different types of content. Through brainstorming sessions, in which we collaborated on building complex ideas, and poured our personal ideas out onto post-it notes, then shared them with each other, to cognitive mapping, in which we physically planned out steps of solutions to our problems. Some of the ideas made it into the first prototype. Most did not.
By the end of the semester, we were ready for the prototyping phase. We mocked-up four sample web pages, each one iterating our ideas from our brainstorming sessions. My team designed a web page we named “ThisIsNewOrleans.com,” which included ideas such as an interactive calendar of events in the city and organizing articles by neighborhood. Allowing our peers to vet our concepts made us answer tough questions. Did we want to structure our site similarly to another one? Could we, as busy students, reasonably maintain a full calendar of upcoming events? Would a weekly e-mail newsletter be feasible for readers and authors? This process gave the data and the ideas to the project directors, Dr. Mayer and Mike Griffith (Tulane), Renee Peck and Kelley Crawford (NolaVie.com), plus Blake Bertucelli (Decubing Web Design), Sarah Woodward (Tulane), and myself.
By the end of summer 2016, we had an official prototype of ViaNolaVie.org, and it was time to bring the ideas back out to the community for more testing. In fall 2016, Dr. Mayer’s Technology Analysis class did yet another stage of the design process. Working in teams of two, they gathered opinions on the website through more in-depth empathy interviews. I compiled a list of stakeholders for our students to reach out to, identifying who from the community would most likely be a reader or contributor to the website, who would be tapped into arts and culture in New Orleans, and who would offer the most valuable feedback. Once again, we redefined problem areas through the stakeholder data gathered. The project directors had new challenges to resolve: How can we add more color, but not Mardi Gras colors? Do we scratch the trending topics bar? How do we tell people how to contribute, or let them know what the website is all about?
This iterative design process keeps reinventing the site. By going back to various communities of students and stakeholders, we have focused on users’ experiences when designing the website, and catered to their needs. Rather than being concerned with what we would have liked to make, we had to focus on people unlike us. So far, the result has been a superior product, merging not only two websites, but also their users’ aspirations and desires as well.