In late May Darren Rowse, the Problogger, asked me if I’d be interested in redesigning his blog Problogger.net. About two years ago I think I saw Problogger for the first time and it was the place I learned a lot about blogging - best practices, writing content, etc. Since then his RSS feed has been a daily read in Bloglines.
So when he asked if I’d like to redesign one of the most popular blogs on the internet I was pretty excited.
I always try to give clients my best work, but designing for such a large, vocal community added a bit of pressure. If I didn’t do a good job they would almost certainly let me know where I made mistakes. And so the process began, or as much of a process as I have - my design flow changes with every project. Sometimes I sketch out some wireframes (for Problogger there were probably 20-30 sketches to start) and sometimes I just jump into Photoshop and start arranging boxes.
In the broadest terms, the primary goal for the redesign was to give Darren a platform to expand the Problogger brand. We needed to create a design that could easily incorporate more than just a blog while realizing that the whole point of this website was to teach people about blogging.
Darren also wanted to highlight old content that hasn’t lost its value. The sheer number of posts at Problogger make this a challenge - there are a lot more than ten great posts - there might even be more than 100. How do we get people to go back to these old posts without taking them away from new content?
Darren, much like Brian Clark, puts a huge emphasis on his RSS subscriber count. A blog with 10,000 unique visitors is nice, but when you write an article that is instantly sent to 25,000+ subscribers your blog has significant value - those people are waiting for updates, they aren’t casually browsing the web. We needed to make subscription options obvious and easy to use to get from 25,000+ to 50,000+ and higher.
Also along the lines of building a loyal fan base, we needed to get people from a single post page that has been linked by another blogger or submitted to Digg to get deeper into the site. We wanted to turn that casual visitor into a loyal, returning fan. Once again, easier said than done.
Tackling the problems
Goal 1: Give Darren a website that can expand with the Problogger brand
This was the broadest and most important goal. I’ve designed a lot of blogs, but never one the size of Problogger. Given the size of the community Darren has built up it makes sense that he might want to expand the brand down the road.
Incorporating those plans - which don’t necessarily exist yet - into the design consisted of building a front page that could expand and be realigned quickly and easily down the road. This allows Darren to adjust the front page easily to incorporate new pieces of Problogger - whether it’s the redeveloped job board that’s launching in a few days or forums down the road, adding new content to the front page is a breeze.
Goal 2: Highlight old content
A lot of blogs do this well, but not a lot of blogs have as many posts as Darren does. The posts span many years and he often posts more than three times per day. Rather than simply list popular posts in the sidebar I used some DOM scripting to create tabs on the home page that present four different sets of popular posts - all time, monthly, beginners, and Darren’s favorites. The all time and monthly popular posts are using a modified version Alex King’s Popularity Contest, the other two sections are static.
This is not available as a WordPress plugin - you can build one yourself using code from around the internet, but I don’t want to spend time creating a simpler version that is expandable for other people’s blogs.
There are also a few other ideas for highlighting older content that we’re going to be adding down the road including rotating banners and maybe some more widgets - we’ll see how well the first attempt works first.
Goal 3: Increase the subscriber count
If you look around the blog you’ll notice there is a pretty big emphasis on subscribing. We didn’t do anything extraordinary - we added a link at the bottom of each post, but a “subscription widget” above the ads, and made sure to make all the RSS links stand out with icons and brighter colors.
Goal 4: Turn one time visitors into loyal fans
This is something every blog is (or should be) trying to do. We listed recent posts and related posts on single post pages. This has worked well for me on other blogs and with the quality of Darren’s content it should be sufficient to drive people deeper into the site.
Once we integrate the rotating ads that are focused solely on Problogger content we will have three obvious ways for people to find more content - this should be more than enough and won’t take the focus off the page they were originally interested in.
Successful redesign? Sure
Was the redesign a success? The reaction from people has been good so far, but there are always things that could be perfected. We’ve been ironing out bugs the past few days and integrating a few suggestions from people’s comments.
I am sure I will be tweaking the design for the next week or so, and even so it will never be perfect - but that’s the deal with design. I am happy with it and I feel like I put the best possible product out there and came up with a few innovative ideas to push blog design a bit further, but I’ve already started my next design and I am already coming up with new ideas, so we’ll see where it goes.