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Making a Platform Your Own: Building Purpose-Built Apps from Generic Platforms

Posted @ 11:36 am by Caroline Sekar | Category: Community & Social Media, User Experience | 0 Comments

As publishing and collaboration tools have matured over the past few years, it has become more and more common for work done at SolutionSet to be built on a platform rather than from scratch. The platform might be a CMS such as WordPress or Adobe CQ, or perhaps, for a more interactive site, a community platform such as Jive or Lithium.

In the course of doing this work, we have learned that working with a platform is really a whole different ballgame than custom development.  Platforms do bring a lot of benefits. You can launch quickly with just a few configurations, you know the system has been proven performant with a large number of users, and—if you stay on the upgrade path—you can receive the benefits of the platform provider’s continued development. Of course, along with the benefits come constraints. Each platform has its own set of best practices for configuration and usage which should be followed, and any custom development must be done very carefully so that you can continue to upgrade without a lot of rework. Also, platforms can be so generic that it can be a challenge to even know where to get started in setting them up for your needs.

The art of turning a generic platform into your own tailor-made site without spoiling your ability to upgrade is something in which we are well-practiced. We have many examples of simple customizations that have helped to turn a generic site or community into something much more targeted.


Example platform: Jive

Let’s take the Jive community platform as an example. Out of the box, Jive does provide a number of modules (“widgets”, in Jive terminology) to help you tune your site to specific needs and highlight important items. Using only out-of-the-box widgets, however, you’re likely to end up with a lot of lists—lists of content, lists of people, lists of actions. Here’s a screenshot of a very simple Jive home page with, you guessed it, lots of lists!



A user arriving at this un-lovely site would undoubtedly leave quickly, with no idea what the site was for. With thoughtful configuration and a little bit of customization, though, a lot can be done to better communicate the site’s purpose and structure.


Better calls to action

How do you make it really obvious what users should do when they first get to the site? Below are two solutions for two very different sites.

Thinkfinity’s rotating hero banner

Thinkfinity, a community from the Verizon Foundation, is a place for educators to collaborate and find teaching resources. Verizon Foundation also has specific marketing messages they want to promote to the community. One of the ways they set the friendly tone of the community and get their marketing messages out is with a rotating graphical module (“hero banner”) on the home page:




This is simply an HTML widget that references a JavaScript library that has been added to the Thinkfinity theme. So, updating the widget does require some basic knowledge of HTML in order to update the text and image paths, but it was simple to implement and will be easy to upgrade.

Pearson Neo’s Find Each Other widget

One of the main goals of Pearson’s social intranet, Neo, is to help users find others with specific expertise or in a specific location. Out of the box in Jive, this can be accomplished through the main search or the user search pages, however, these pages are a little hidden. To bring the user-search functionality to the forefront, Pearson implemented a custom “Find each other” widget on the home page.

While this widget is more complicated than straight HTML, it is a simple standalone widget and should prove easy to upgrade when the time comes.



Improved wayfinding through a complex information architecture

Communities often have complex structures—sub-communities, sub-sub-communities, etc.—that can be difficult for users to navigate. Below are two examples of ways small customizations have helped with this challenge.

Thinkfinity’s “Places to Explore” widget

Jive does provide some navigation widgets out of the box, but unfortunately they’re not particularly friendly, being essentially just a list of communities and sub-communities without any commentary or graphics. To get around this and to highlight specific important areas of the site, Thinkfinity implemented a custom “Places to Explore” widget.  This is just an HTML widget with static HTML, and so it was easy to implement and will upgrade without trouble.



Cisco Learning Network’s custom communities widget

Cisco Learning Network, a community of users seeking Cisco certification, has a fairly complex site structure with many sub-communities. To help users navigate the most important parts of this structure, Cisco Learning Network built a custom Communities widget that allows expansion and collapsing of sub-communities.

As a completely stand-alone module, this widget will also be easy to upgrade when the time comes, and was not complicated to implement.



CMS-like publishing

How can you keep the “official” content on your site consistently structured, especially when there are many employees contributing the content? While many Web CMS systems provide reusable modules for structured content, Jive does not. Cisco Learning Network built set of simple custom widgets to help with this problem.

Cisco Learning Network’s “Structured publishing” widget

Cisco Learning Network has a large number of community managers who tend to the site, which could lead to some inconsistency in the look and feel of different communities and on the home page. To encourage consistency and to make the job of the community manager just a little easier, Cisco implemented a number of “Structured publishing widgets.” These allow the community managers to fill in a few form fields (such as image URL, title, and text) in order to produce a well-structured piece of promotional content.

One of these widgets, the “Two Feature Large Image” widget, is shown below in both view and edit mode.


In conclusion

These are just a few examples of ways to create a more purpose-built application from a generic platform. With a little consideration, small customizations can go a long way!


Author: Caroline Sekar is a director of client services with SolutionSet’s Social Business Practice in San Francisco. She leads client projects and consults on configuring/customizing platforms to meet business needs.

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