Spiritual Wayfinding: Namaste Publishing
I knew it was coming for a couple weeks, but this tweet from @somisguided was one I’d been looking forward to:
Totally and utterly thrilled to launch the Namaste Publishing website: http://ow.ly/1kJDB
Seeing any work go live is a satisfying moment, and with the new Namaste Publishing site that is especially so for three reasons:
- the client vision
- the team I worked with
- the information architecture and experience design challenges in meeting the vision with the audience and subject matter
With all that going on, this project deserves a full writeup.
When I joined the project last year, Monique had just concluded strategic sessions with the help of Boris Mann and Jordan Behan. In Monique’s words, taking that time revealed that Namaste didn’t just need ‘a website’:
Namaste’s online presence needed a radical reinvention and expansion. The team wanted a deeper long-term engagement with their community of fans, authors, spiritual leaders and staff. The project required a full re-branding and entire re-experience and re-interpretation of what publishing meant for the company.
That clear direction spoke to the business side of my brain, but I also wanted to get in touch with the motivation and emotion behind those goals. To do that, we had extensive conversations with Namaste’s founder and publisher, Constance Kellough, who brought all that and more to the table.
I learned that the entire Namaste team had been having the all-important conversation with their audience for years before hitting the web. They saw their audience becoming more interested in online experiences, but decided not to turn that interest into a mere sales channel. Instead, Constance focussed on the connections she had seen between authors and audiences, where the exchange of ideas took people between teacher and learner roles. It was that connection she wanted to bring to the web.
So our mission became clear: make a place on the web to facilitate that author-audience/teacher-learner dynamic, without the friction of time and geography, and enable Constance’s team to take Namaste’s mission beyond books.
In the proposal review process we decided to split graphic design as well as site programming between two groups, given their extraordinary portfolios in those areas: LiFT Studios on the visual rebranding, graphic design and multimedia production expertise, and Raincity Studios tackling the complexities of implementation.
These are the kinds of teams that contractors dream of: a passionate and empowering client, a tuned-in and calm project manager, great designers and skilled engineers. In the middle of all that was my part, the information architecture and user experience design.
The project presented unique challenges to the traditional IA and UX design processes. In most projects we discover the natural hierarchy of the content and boil down experience scenarios to a small number of optimal paths.
But solid pathways and silos of topics wouldn’t work in Namaste for two reasons. First, the content library ranges widely, from spirituality to brain science to nutrition and more. Second, much of the Namaste Publishing mission is not about leading people to growth and better lives, but about helping them find their path. The vision for the website involved many voices: authors writing various blogs, facilitated discussions, and all sorts of content types including audio, video, books and so on.
Hand in hand with the content was the audience profiling, which brought a mix of age groups, educational and cultural backgrounds, and varying familiarity with Namaste and its mission. We would be serving multiple audiences with no single unifying traits other than a curiosity about life and personal growth.
Working closely with Monique and Mary Kellough (now of MustBe Marketing), and later with key input from the LiFT team, we spent several days workshopping various concepts. That collaboration produced 3 key supports of the IA and experience design:
- Clear separation of Store
- Low Detail, orientation-based Navigation
- Range of ways to participate in the community aspects
Clear Separation of the Store
It was stressed to us from the start that the commercial aspects of Namaste Publishing couldn’t interfere with the broader mission for the website. In response, we made the store its own category, using a layout that differentiated those pages clearly from others. Where store titles are incorporated into the site, they link to the store but are cannot be purchased except by going to the store. By doing so, we created spaces that don’t feel commercial while ensuring that the store could be recognized as such, no matter how a guest enters the site.
Rather than cram the entire site contents into the navigation, we used a structure that started from the most basic intentions of the audience: personal exploration, or connecting with others for sharing and learning. We named these two primary paths Inspiration and Community, adding to them the Home and Store categories for an easy to digest navigation. Under each we kept menus short to progressively narrow the paths from these very broad starting points, but not too specifically to avoid list overload.
Without the full complement of categories in the navigation menus, we were placing a lot of weight on people using search to find something specific. Moreover, there were concerns about getting across the range of Namaste’s subject matter. To bring attention to search and cue people to the range of topics, we made a search box with some clearly suggested topics which are updated regularly to reflect current topics.
To handle the need for details, we added a fat footer to the bottom of each page, which included the basic site architecture as well as a lot of specific links associated with the site’s content and the customer service needs of the store. I’ve made some fat footers in my time, but this is the biggest of them all.
Range of Engagement
Given the diverse audience, we knew there would be a range of willingness to participate in the community aspects of the site. We met that range with a number of participatory features.
Gratitude is the simplest engagement, a single gesture on discussions, comments, blog posts, books, and even member profiles. Gratitude gestures convey good will, and are remembered by the system as markers of content that a member can revisit later.
It’s similar to the Thanks feature in Gnolia, but with an important difference: Gratitudes are public acts in the Namaste community, so they’re displayed on member profiles for others to see, whereas we’d kept Thanks as a more intimate act between two members in Gnolia.
Going up the scale of engagement effort we designed a Spiritual Status space, much like a tweet or Facebook status, but cast as an invitation to check in with the spiritual side of life. Appearing at the top of the Community section, this feature is a way for the community to discover and re-discover each other through their own words.
Knowing that some members of the Namaste audience could be verbose in sharing their insights, we searched for a way to give those people more room to be expressive. We wanted to avoid setting up countless soap-boxes, and focussed on something that people could add collaborate around while being expressive. The solution was a dictionary of spiritual terms, to which any member can add their own perspective, allowing others to browse different takes on what are sometimes elusive concepts.
Blog Comments and Discussion Forums
These are the regular stock in trade for many web communities, and we knew that they many members would be right at home with them. While the blog comments are pretty standard, a twist on the discussion forums was to only allow moderators to post new topics, and to frame the discussions around specific subjects.
Since the site launched, I’ve been watching those community features quite closely to see how they’re used, and talking with Monique and Mary about the response from the community. Early results have been very positive, both in use and comments, and it will be enlightening (no pun) to see where this community takes the new namastepublishing.com.