Over the past four months, we've been working very hard to redesign openDemocracy.net to suit the way you, our readers and members, use the site. The internet, and site design in general, has changed a lot since we launched our original openDemocracy design in 2002, and it's very exciting for us to be moving to a new platform. We're now ready to start showing you what we've been working on, and we'd love to hear what you think.
We looked at the way you use openDemocracy, and found a few interesting facts. Firstly, not many of you scroll beneath the "fold" (where the page disappears of the bottom of the screen). This means that the top few articles on the front page are getting lots of attention, but other content is getting sidelined. We've tried to change this with a new front-page design that highlights six articles above the fold. We'll be looking at ways to make the space even more efficient, but we don't want to detract from the new design or overwhelm people.
We also found that the bars down either side of the page were getting too "busy", and this was overloading people to the extent that the links were getting very few clicks. We've made the sidebars bigger, and will be making sure that we don't fill them with too many items this time around. We are also using the top of the page much more for items that are really relevant to logged-in users.
The way people use websites has changed as well. Five years ago, the dominant model in online publishing was based on print magazines, with periodic updates, strict hierarchical categories for articles and a focus on presenting the article without "web features". Times have changed, and many new online media sites are using new technologies very effectively. We'll be introducing lots of features with the new site, including easy adding of articles to your favourite bookmarking service, the ability to add our content to your blog or website, recommendations based on what you (and other readers) like, and much more. We don't want these new features to confuse or overwhelm, so we'll be introducing them gradually and with plenty of instructions.
One of the biggest changes we have made is to the way we organise the content on the site. We currently use a very 'hierarchical' system of themes, debates and regions. We're bringing all of that information over to the new site, but we'll be representing it as "tags", which means it's easier for you to navigate their way through our archives and find relevant articles. We'll also be introducing a section where our deputy editor, David Hayes, will be able to highlight interesting articles from the archives, as well as recommending great content from the rest of the web.
How you can help
We've also talked a lot about the "beta" culture that has taken hold over the last couple of years. In a field as fast-moving as the internet, we can no longer have a platform that is only changed every year or two: we need to be able to add new features quickly and remove stuff that isn't working or gets in a user's way. We want to be able to react quickly to how you, our readers, want to use the site. To help with this, we'd love to recruit a group of dedicated openDemocracy readers who would be happy to test the new site, give us detailed feedback and suggest new features. We need about 10-20 readers who would be happy to give the new site a lot of testing over the next two weeks and tell us about their experiences over email and phone. We'll give those who help us out in this way a free copy of our latest openDemocracy quarterly.
To start exploring the new site, just go to beta.opendemocracy.net (it's just a "sandbox" for now, so we won't be importing any comments or user sign ups you make on the new site. You will be able to log into your existing openDemocracy account though).
Please get in touch with me, Felix Cohen, if you have any suggestions about the new site, or if you'd like to be involved in our beta-testing team.