Research & Analysis | IA | Copywriting

Case study of website redesign, narrative development, and event display materials for a growing non-profit woodworking school.

Overview

The Port Townsend School of Woodworking started out as a bootstrap operation with borrowed tools, a makeshift space, and volunteer labor. Over the years as the school grew considerably, it was time to rethink the content, branding, and structure of the online and printed materials. I worked with instructors, staff, and board members to more accurately communicate the school’s values and address the student’s needs.

Research & Discovery

Learning about the students

There were abundant opportunities to talk to prospective students, current students, alum, and casual visitors.

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Talking to Visitors

Because the school was at a state park, a significant amount of foot traffic came through to see the school. Talking to visitors and potential students helped us pinpoint common questions and initial impressions.

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2-hour Feedback Sessions

Feedback sessions at the end of our 12-week classes was invaluable for understanding what students were taking away from their experience vs. their expectations going into the course. Using their concepts and emotional reactions helped us write copy that reflected their experience and develop an authentic narrative.

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Alumni Survey and Exit Surveys

Asking alum about their experience in an anonymous context helped us discover some issues that people were uncomfortable bringing up face to face.

Internal Analysis

As an organization, we assessed our strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, and threats.

Findings

Who are they?

PTSW serves a wide range of students-- beginner to expert, local to international, teenagers to octagenarians.

life-long learner

Explorer

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  • Focus: Creative learning process
  • Attraction: Quiet, relaxed workspace
"Wood Nerd"

Craft Woodworker

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  • Focus: Technical skills and design
  • Attraction: Traditional methods
Tradition Specific

Cultural Woodworker

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  • Focus: Woodworking from a specific culture such as Japanese or NW Coast Arts
  • Attraction: Instructors

Interest and Intention

Students and prospective students typically fell somewhere along these spectrums of interest (process or product oriented) and intention (personal or professional development). Alum often expressed a shift in interest or intention after finishing a program. The school's programming and message were best aligned with students in quadrants 1, 2, and 3.

process vs. product

Issues

Some of the issues that students brought up such as lodging were out of the school’s control because of the location at a state park, but many of their problems came from a lack of communication.

Our Message

  • Beginners weren't sure if the school was right for them

  • Unclear that the school focused on hand tools vs. power tools

  • Confused with nearby NW School of Wooden Boat Building

  • Some students felt unsure before signing up if their gender was going to be an issue

Finding Information in Written Communication

  • Overwhelmed looking at a list of 50-60 classes

  • Wanted to know about certain instructors

  • Cost was a major factor, wanted to know about scholarships

  • Couldn't see website on phone (not responsive)

Physical Space

  • Getting lost on the way to the classroom and navigating the park

  • Getting to Port Townsend can be challenging

  • Finding a place to stay

Website Redesign

Restructuring the Information Architecture (IA)

Since the school had grown from offering about 20 classes/year to around 55, I wanted to restructure the course offerings from a spreadsheet format into a catalog format. This was divided by category and searchable by level, course-length/cost, and instructor. There was still a high demand for a calendar format, so we included a chronological version as well. I sketched out versions of the page structures on a whiteboard.

Approach

At this point, I was thinking more in terms of sitemaps than user flows, but my basic goal was to make most information no more than two or three clicks away while keeping in mind the student profiles we developed.

Browsing

I added short descriptions and images to class listings so students could browse offerings more easily. Links to the full class pages gave very detailed (and long) descriptions of curriculum and important information that were previously overwhelming to users.

Instructor Pages

For students who were searching for classes by instructor, I created instructor bio pages with links to their classes and syndicated those links so they only needed to be updated in one place. This both simplified the user flow for students and improved site consistency.

Long Pages

Students attending longer programs needed access to a lot of detailed information. I added section sub-menus and clearer headings to longer pages so it was easier to understand the overall structure of the page and jump to the information.

Getting Here

Since navigating the physical space was a problem for students, I dedicated significant site space to helping people get here and highlighting the location as a strength instead of an obstacle.

Visual Design

Logo and Colors

A logo redesign wasn’t in the budget, so instead, we shifted to using the existing letterhead more frequently instead of the logo, which was somewhat outdated.

Typography

I chose Palatino Linotype as our main typeface to reflect the "old-timey" feel of hand tool woodworking but mixed in Oswald as a counter-point.

Platform

The platform we chose needed to be able to be maintained with volunteer or non-expert resources, so free tech support and an automatically responsive site were crucial.

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Between Wordpress and Squarespace, I chose Squarespace for the school because it would be sustainable for a low budget through potentially lean years and the office staff felt less intimidated by the backend interface.

    Challenges

  • Working with templates limited the ability to customize the design.

  • Squarespace isn't primarily intended to support a website this large. (WP would have been better)

  • No archive of pages, anything accidentally deleted is gone forever.

Developing the Narrative

Centering the Message

Understanding who our students were and what they were getting from their experience informed the message we wanted to communicate through these projects.

We wanted to reflect the personal growth that many of our students felt from their time at the school.

27.6% of students reported their gender as female or non-binary. Equal representation in imagery was the main tool we used to build a message of inclusivity.

We identified four sub-concepts that aligned with the school's values and the student experience and expanded on the language we used to describe the school's philosophy.

Core Concepts

Philosophy

"We're committed to passing on the living tradition of woodworking--rooted in techniques that create lasting results and instilling the values of fine craftsmanship, sustainability, and creative expression."

Working with a mission-based organization meant that the community we served needed to be at the core of everything we did.

Website Homepage

The homepage went through a series of iterations. Featuring upcoming classes on the homepage was wholly ineffective as was listing specific instructors.

Over time, I shifted the content to emphasize what makes the school distinct and reflect the mission.

Ultimately I simplified the homepage to include a welcome video, a newsletter signup, a space to feature a link to any events or news that had been recently promoted through marketing, and recent blog posts.

Further Support for the narrative

We developed several other projects in collaboration with our partners, founders, and alum to tell more of our story.

Welcome Video

Alumna and local animator, Andrea Love, made a welcome video that told the story through student interviews.

Interview with the Founders

The founders gave an interview that told the school's origin story.

"Learn With Your Hands"

Joint Marketing campaign with other craft and trade schools on the Olympic Peninsula to establish the location as a destination for traditional craft and to distinguish our messages.

Event Presentation Materials

A significant amount of students came to the school after finding it at an event. We wanted to update the presentation materials to support those interactions with visuals.

This was the easiest part because so much of the groundwork had already been done with the website and narrative.

Practical considerations were that any display needed to be collapsible, lightweight, easy to transport, and weatherproof. It was important that the materials didn’t feel too corporate or plasticy.

We decided to make hanging banners with turned wooden dowel supports to give them a handmade touch. This also allowed for flexible configurations depending on unpredictable space and positioning requirements at event venues.

What I learned

Developing a Process

Since I've gained more formal training in web design and user experience after this project, it's interesting to look back and think about which strategies for design I accidentally stumbled upon and which parts I struggled with. Thinking about some version of personas, IA, typography/colors, and wireframe sketches came out naturally through the work. User testing, however, would have benefited this project immensely. Though I generally got positive feedback from students about the site, I wasn't pinpointing specific problems. When some part of the site's content or structure didn't seem to be effective, I often had no good guesses as to why.

Accommodating Content

I made a lot of accommodations on this site for existing content that was 'grandfathered' into the redesign. In retrospect, the message would be stronger and the information would be clearer with less content. I would advocate for cutting a lot of the existing material, and make the case to stakeholders as to why less is often more.

Pushing the Limits of the Platform

Some of the challenges I faced by choosing Squarespace as a platform that didn't seem overly limiting when the project started tended to mushroom as the site grew. I had to jerry-rig a few imperfect workarounds to achieve the structure I was going for. Figuring out those workarounds was actually a lot of fun, and I still think it was a good choice for this organization in terms of being accessible and user-friendly. Paring down the site content would help make it more compatible with the platform.

Passing the Baton

Since passing off this project, there has been some issues with layout consistiency and typography choices. I'm currently helping the school develop a style guide for maintaining visual consistiency across new pages and guidelines for homepage strategies.

Currently available for design projects