Finding a Sustainable Web Solution

Heidi Olsen
Senior Developer

Recently I embarked on a search for a website framework that was easy to manage but custom enough to tell a client’s story without undermining their brand. My findings resulting in something similar to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Some were too hot, some were too cold, but what was just right for us?


Web Solution #1: Snowfalling

One of the first sites I came across was Complex’s interview with Danny Brown. It was beautiful. It brought the story to life. I was so excited about the potential this approach could provide in terms of content, design and development. “Why weren’t we doing this for our clients?” I pondered. I started daydreaming about all the amazing microsites we could create and how magical it would be.

The problem came when I realized I never READ the article. For shame! I was so excited about the interaction that I became completely distracted from the actual content. Plus to replicate it, while super fun, would be a nightmare on resourcing not to say take a beating on our partners’ checkbooks.
“Snowfalling”, aptly named after NYT’s Snow Fall feature that appeared in 2012, are experience-based features that have been widely-adopted by media sites over the past year. Reserved for larger “cover stories”, these interviews beautifully marry reporting, design and interactivity in a way that feels like you are being taken on an adventure rather than just reading an interview. It takes a large team working for months on end to create such a unique experience. So unique in fact, that it would be impossible to integrate into a content management system like WordPress.

So let’s weigh it out:

Tells a story
Integrates supportive imagery in a seamless way
Makes reading fun
✗ Can’t integrate to CMS
✗ Costly to produce
✗ Costly to maintain
✗ Distracting from the actual message


Web Solution #2: Complex, Custom Templates

The next approach I came across appeared promising; complex, custom templates in a manageable Content Management System. We could provide a multitude of editable fields on a variety of templates to cover all our clients needs. Wonderful. Upon further inspection and experience, unique templates seemed sophisticated, but it pigeonholed the way the site communicated to their audience. With this solution, the client would enter content into page-specific field sets. Furthermore, the client inevitably would find a new type of content they wanted to implement and feel restricted by their current template and want to change it. This results in more development work and sometimes requires another pass through strategy, content and design.

Overall we are looking at:

✗ Forced to think about layout too early
✗ Only tells one story
✗ Too many templates to cover only a few layout scenarios
✗ Designers workload increases significantly
✗ Maintenance is expensive over long-term
While this provided more flexibility than a snowfall approach, it would result in headaches for the team and the client if any of the pages needed to change from the original scope.


Web Solution #3: Modular Framework

A dezzie friend of mine sent me a link to an article about modular content. Rather than force ourselves to think about multiple templates to fit all scenarios, we can develop a modular design that will allow us to add any content in blocks. These blocks are designed to integrate seamlessly to provide a cohesive user experience and will support building our pages as the content is created and allow us to expand easily and efficiently. I like to think of it like building a burrito. Your global elements (header and footer) are the flour tortilla, the other blocks are the ingredients you pile inside. Ingredients could include a text block, an image, page dividers, data visualization, social blocks, contact forms, slideshows, block quotes. The list goes on and on!

So where does this leave us:

Tells a story
Editable and flexible
Integrates supportive imagery in a seamless way
Makes reading fun
Minimal templates
Efficient workflow
Easy to maintain
✗ Potential to always want more modules/options


While the pros clearly outweigh the cons, it is important to set expectations when building a site with this framework. Can you accomplish what you need with a textbox, image and a pull quote? Or do you need a custom module for your blog post? We think in terms of narrative, we should be telling a story. We need to stop planning our content to fit within a template and instead create fluid solutions that work to be sustainable with our partners’ needs.
Heidi Olsen
Heidi Olsen, Senior Developer at eROI.