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In their redesign, the Coaster Crew's fansites have a new Network Bar at the bottom of every page for easier navigation to the other fansites. The Network Bar uses the fansites' individual color schemes. An example of the network bar for one fansite is shown here.

UX Process in Action: Navigating a network of 10 sites and counting

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Ever since the new Coaster Crew website launched in September, I have been writing articles describing my design process and design decisions.  The series began with a post about how I learned about both the roller coaster enthusiasts and the “general public” segment of The Coaster Crew’s audience and determined how to best target the site toward the general public while still meeting enthusiasts’ needs.  Later posts outlined how several of the pages on the site came to be: the new homepage, the new In the Loop page, the events list, and a page inviting users to participate in the Coaster Crew Network Forums.  I also went over a new membership signup flow which is not currently on the live site due to technical limitations.

Today, I’ll discuss how the Coaster Crew Network ties together with a feature that you can see now on CoasterCrew.net.

The Coaster Crew currently owns and operates ten live websites.  Their official site has been live in various incarnations and web addresses since 2004.  They started operating fansites for amusement parks several years ago when the Kings Dominion Fan Site went under their ownership.  (Prior to this, several Kings Dominion fansites had come and gone over the years.  Usually, these sites had one or two owners and would be maintained well for several years before the owners no longer had time or no longer had interest in working on the sites.)

They later launched fansites for Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Six Flags America.  Most recently, they have added fansites for Cedar Point, Kings Island, Canada’s Wonderland, Dollywood, and Valleyfair.  The Coaster Crew Network site originally just served as a gateway to their forums.  Earlier this year, I launched a complete, responsive redesign of that site with a focus on tying together all of their fansites and social media channels and providing a consistent look and feel with the other sites I have been redesigning for them.

Selling users on the idea of the fansites as being part of a network is important for the Coaster Crew.  The fansites have not always had a consistent way to navigate between them, and it can be hard to remember which fansites are in the network.  The staff suggested a network bar in the sites’ header or footer.  I decided that since tall footers with site maps are common in designs today, I could merge the network bar into a tall footer.

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I sketched five different ideas for the network bar at the beginning of the project.  The first was a simple listing of all of the fansites across one row.  The second divided the list of sites into four columns.  The third put the names of the parks with the fansites.  The fourth arranged the sites in columns by the park chains represented by each fansite.

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The layout that seemed to scale best arranged the parks by geographic region.  It seemed to be the best at handling new sites’ being added to the network bar.  If park chains sold a park, we would not need to update the network bar and users would not be wondering if we still had a fansite for that park.

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I tested each idea’s strength by creating wireframes for them.  The first three ideas seemed to work for a header or a footer, while the last two were definitely for footers.  In addition to scalability, the fifth idea also seemed the best for the design since a tall footer on each page would allow for some strong design ideas there.  I continued to work on that idea through the prototype and later stages.

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In Axure, I initially added bright colors for the network bar before I knew what the background pictures would be.  The copyright and footer links were initially very minimal at the bottom of the page.

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I took this background picture of El Toro with a point-and-shoot camera. It has remained the desktop background on my old desktop computer for several years. This picture seemed to go very well with the network bar, so it became the background.

I built the network bar locally using Zurb Foundation 4.3.  The fansite’s logos fill 100% of their container’s width with auto height.  The copyright and map statements were minimal.  User testers seemed to receive this layout well, but I thought more could be done with it.  It also didn’t have the ribbon yet.

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For performance reasons, the live site on mobile doesn’t keep the background in one place.  It shows the fansites two to a row instead of four to a row to size the logos ideally for the smaller screen.

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The footer now features a panel with the Coaster Crew’s mission statement.

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The network bar currently takes almost exactly one screenful for a tablet in landscape orientation.

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In portrait mode, most of the blue footer panel can also be seen.  Zurb Foundation 4.3 automatically hyphenates words on mobile devices to keep the parks’ names from becoming too wide for their columns.

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The desktop layout shows the blue footer panel mostly obscuring the roller coaster hill behind it.  It gives clear access to The Coaster Crew’s social media channels under the club’s logo in the footer.

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Lastly, here is a preview of how the network bar will look on the redesigned fansites.  I did this as an overlay, similar to the In the Loop background, because each fansite has a different color scheme and that will allow each fansite’s personality to translate into its network bar design.  This is a prototype and still subject to change as the sites move toward going live.

You can see the Coaster Crew network bar live on any page of the Coaster Crew site.  The next and last article in this series will discuss the About page: the best example in this project of my consistently pushing myself toward a better design.

I am a user experience designer specializing in the amusement industry. I work for amusement parks, ride companies, coaster clubs, and any other company or organization affiliated with amusement. If you would like to hire me, please contact me through my website or tweet at @AmusementUX. You can also like my company’s Facebook page or follow me on Twitter.

Screenshot of a page explaining why users should join The Coaster Crew's forums. This screenshot for this responsive website shows how the site adapts on an iPad 2.

UX shows 8 reasons why you should join this roller coaster forum

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I have recently been explaining the design decisions for the new Coaster Crew website, which launched in September.  During this series, I have demonstrated how I came to understand our target audience and have illustrated my design process for the homepage (this site went from a multi-page layout to a one-page layout and back!), the new In the Loop homepage, and the Coaster Crew events list.

Today, I’ll look at a page which received some very interesting feedback from users: the Forums page.

As a freelance user experience (UX) designer, I wear a lot of hats for my one-person business.  Part of this means I maintain accounts on a lot of websites: social media sites, sites for freelancers, software vendors, and many more.  Before I started using a password manager, I was forgetting a lot of passwords.  When I evaluate a website or app, one of my first gripes tends to be this: they assume I will create an account without telling me why I should.  The worst offenders make me sign in before I even see what their site is!

Yet, this is almost exactly what I was doing with an early design for the Coaster Crew forums page.  I was giving a quick description of what the forums were and leaving them hanging.  When they tested one of my old one-page layouts, some users told me that this section “doesn’t look important, so I skipped over it.”

That’s one of the big reasons why every park, every ride company, every coaster club, and every other amusement-related organization with a website needs to have their target users test their site.

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Here is my initial wireframe for the Forums section.  Part of a one-page layout, users would have seen this after the Events section.  The content seemed to stand out well enough at this stage of development.  But as other sections of the page evolved throughout my design process, this section got lost.  And that was a problem because The Coaster Crew is trying to increase their forum activity.

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The original prototype gave the Forums section a similar white-on-orange color scheme to the Podcast section.  This provided good consistency through the one-page layout.  I was planning to add a background picture but had not yet decided which ride it should be.

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I decided on Dominator at Kings Dominion for the background picture. Several years ago, the KDFansite forum merged with the Coaster Crew Network forums, where it became a board within the larger network’s forums. It’s still the most active part of the forums. The most active topic was the Intimidator 305 announcement, but I decided to use an I305 picture as the background for the mission statement. More users would see that in the one-page layout because that was almost prime real estate in that layout.

The background picture in this mockup was just a placeholder. I had taken it on the way out of Kings Dominion several years before I bought a professional camera, and it was an old Facebook upload. It did the job for a prototype even though I needed to make the picture bigger, but I wouldn’t use a background picture like this in a live site. Our first round of user testers saw the prototype with this background image.

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By now, I had a much better picture of Dominator thanks to Nikki at KDFansite.  I darkened the picture slightly to make the section’s text easier to read.  I also decided to put the calls to action on their own row instead of in front of the picture.  Users did their second round of testing on this beta site.

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Here’s the forums section at this stage in mobile width.

One of my questions for user testers in the first two rounds was, “Do we present good enough reasons to join the forums?” One positive thing they mentioned was actually the Register call to action. They didn’t want to see spam on the boards. But users also didn’t find the Forums section that eye-catching in this layout. By this stage, I had added icons in several other sections of the site. They found those sections drew their attention more.

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Going to the next round of user testing to the third was a big leap. I added a panel for readability and icons to draw users’ eyes.

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Some users in the last round of testing remarked that I had drawn attention to the wrong features of the forums.  The number of members and number of posts sounded more intimidating and tedious than helpful when it was placed in the top row.  I ended up moving those down and putting the visit tips and trip reports at the top on the live site.

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The site looks very similar on a tablet.

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Here is the row of calls to action on a tablet.

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At mobile width, the page draws users’ attention toward viewing the forums before registering.  This width is the best for this flow of events.  Users now expect to be given concrete value before they register for a site.

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When I was directed to split the site back into a multi-page layout, this created a new challenge because each section needed to be represented well on the homepage.  I opted for a shorter section of copy and just a few of the forums’ features to make it onto the homepage.

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In the live site, the social media section appears right below the forums section to enhance the feeling of being part of a community of coaster fans.  Further up the page, users are given a list of events for real-life meetups.  The forums and social media sections encourage discussions at any time of the year, regardless of whether or not parks are open.  Actually, in my experience as a Coaster Crew forum moderator, forums get quite a lot of activity in the offseason too because members take the offseason to speculate on what will happen at the parks in the following season.

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In the mobile width, I hide the icons on the homepage and try to just communicate the right things with the text. I didn’t want to go too far off of the desktop width for this because the mobile site and desktop site are the same site. The design both adapts to users’ devices and responds to their window size.

Thanks for reading about Coaster Crew’s new forums page. You can see it live here. The next article will detail a new signup flow I designed for the Coaster Crew site, which could not be delivered yet due to technical limitations. I’ll close the series with posts about the new Coaster Crew Network bar and the About page.

I am a user experience designer specializing in the amusement industry. I work for amusement parks, ride companies, coaster clubs, and any other company or organization affiliated with amusement. If you would like to hire me, please contact me through my website or tweet at @AmusementUX. You can also like my company’s Facebook page or follow me on Twitter.