The Software Behind the Website

May 31, 2013 in General

I worked with Valarie to set up ilams.org and would like to share with you about how the website was created.  Full disclosure–Valarie did most of the heavy lifting to get this site up and running, I just helped with a few tweaks here and there.

So let’s say you want to get a website like ilams.org up and running.  What are the steps involved?

Purchase Web Hosting & Domain Name

There are a number of companies that sell web hosting services that provide you with the ability to run a website or multiple websites.  Most of them cost about $5-$10 per month. ilams.org is currently located on my personal web hosting account along with several other websites that I host for other non profit groups .  If at some point ilams.org needs to move to another host, that’s easy to do.

There are several free alternatives for creating a website such as Google Sites, or Blogger, or WordPress.com, or even Facebook.  But web hosting provides the ability to install a variety of software applications and more control over your website.

You will need to purchase a domain name for your website.  This is the  web address people will use to access your site.    Purchasing a domain name is easy and indexpensive ($5-$10 per year) and you can usually buy it from the same company as your web hosting.   But figuring out a good name can be tricky.  You want the name to represent the group or activity;  it should be short and memorable; and it can not be a name some else has already bought.  Valarie eventually came up with ilams.org, which met all three criteria.

Selecting and Installing the Software

As mentioned before,  web hosting services typically offer a number of software applications  that can be installed for different types of websites such as a photo album, a blog, an online shop, etc.  For ilams.org, there were two primary goals for deciding what application to install to run the website:

  1. it must allow individual authors to share their stories
  2. it needs to let people share ideas and discussion around areas of common interest

These are two somewhat divergent goals–one emphasizes the individual voice, the other the group activity.  For authorship, an obvious choice is WordPress, a well known blogging platform that can support multiple authors.  WordPress can be used on their website (WordPress.com) or installed as a local application on your web hosting.

For group collaboration, there are a couple of types of websites to consider–traditional discussion forums, wikis, or a social networking site. A number of different applications are available for installation on the web hosting service for each type of website.  In addition, WordPress itself can be extended through plugins to offer these types of websites.  After a good bit of research into the options, Valarie chose WordPress combined with BuddyPress, a plugin that allows you to create a social network where people can participate in group activities.

Installing WordPress took 5 minutes using the one-click installation button in the web hosting service.  The BuddyPress plugin  took another 5 minutes to install through the WordPress administrative dashboard.

Customizing the Software

While installation was quick and easy, the process of learning and customizing all the features was time consuming.  While the default version of WordPress is easy to set up and use, it is very powerful software can be extended and customized by those who have the time and are willing to learn.  The customizations to the website fell into three inter-related categories:

  • Theme for the overall look and feel
  • Plugins for additional functionality
  • Configuration of options

WordPress offers thousands of themes, however only a handful of them are compatible with BuddyPress.  After trying several themes Valarie settled into working with a responsive theme and installing additional plugins.  After a number of months working on this theme in her spare time, she decided to change to a simpler theme that focused more on blog authorship but still supported the collaborative aspects of BuddyPress.  She also chose to reduce the number of features initially available on the website in order to make it easier to use.

Building Community

This is the most challenging part of the project but the most rewarding–getting people to use the website as resource to help them in their workplace and profession.  We’ve tried our best to create a website that is powerful enough to house a community but is still ease to use.  Now its time to build a community by sharing our experience and our stories with our colleagues and peers.

 

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