1. Banners/ Slideshows/ Ad placements throughout the site

When Academic Colleges Group had just launched their new Joomla website, covering their 10 domestic and overseas private schools, they immediately faced a problem:

Each school had banners showing key messages as well as call to actions to visit the schools open days. These banners were associated to over 500 Joomla menu items through a common Joomla Banner management extension. While this is the default way of dealing with this problem, it quickly became apparent that making small changes to banners was nearly impossible. First of all it was nearly impossible to find existing entries. Further to this, the backend user interface was not build to handle so many entries.

The underlying issue of all this was that the business rules did not contain 500 single entries. Rather, the business rule was to 

  • Show the same banner group on all pages of each of the 10 private schools
  • Have an exception for the Open day page, which should not show the Open day call to action banner.
  • A similar rule existed for the contact page

Solution: Map actual business rules

Academic Colleges_Group_Backend_Interface_Banner_ManagementWe went to work and implemented a user interface that stores a business rule on a top category level, with options to override this rule on a sub category, page and menu level. This user interface was injected into all relevant backend screens with a simple banners button, that allows for the rules to be changed within whichever screen is necessary, while also showing what business rules where stored at higher levels, so that the resulting banner display becomes obvious.

The frontend rendering system was changed accordingly. With this system, more than 500 single entries were eliminated and replaced with 28 business rules. 

2. Matching case studies with content

thumb Case-Studies-Display-Philips-Selecon-New-ZealandSelecon New Zealand - a division of Philips Entertainment - has a lot of case studies from all parts of the world. There is also information available on which products are used in each case study. For their large website, they wanted relevant case studies to be shown in many areas:

  • With product categories - top and sub levels
  • With products
  • With News

Solution: Implement business rule with fall-back strategy

To make sure case studies are relevant, we built a sophisticated system where data about categories, products or news on the page is collated and then appropriate case studies are found to display. Ideally these may match on a product level. However, when there are not enough case studies available, instead similar case studies relating to the similar products in the same category are chosen.

Of particular importance was that no additional categorisation is required of case studies. 

3. Controlling how content and products are shown in different countries

Selecon New Zealand also had a challenge with display of their products in multiple markets. On the one hand thy have a range of products, which doesn't work in a 110V power network, such as they have in North America, Saudi Arabia and Japan. Additionally, they import some products from the USA, which they only sell in the New Zealand market. Due to their supplier relationship these products can not be shown outside of New Zealand.

Setting up multiple websites for a world-wide market leader like this was completely out of the question.

Even highlighting the limitations of the product proved too be too difficult, unsightly and not user friendly. This is because the product is not only shown in a product portfolio, but also in a more limited fashion in an online store, on case studies, product support pages and news pages. Only a fully integrated, smart solution could solve this problem.

Solution: Rewrite the database queries

What we cam up with is a database-level hiding mechanism, which would allow us to mark in which markets a product will not be shown and then all parts of the website would automatically adjust to this setting, without even having to program the changes into each page of the site.

This proved to be a very effective solution, which was subsequently extended to reorder news according to different country markets.

4. Reusing content snippets throughout the website

thumb Tree-Based-Content-Choser-With-Ordering-Philips-Selecon-New ZealandAnother problem that Selecon faced was to manage a range of content snippets that could be reused throughout the product portfolio of the website. While Joomla and common extensions have good ways to manage reuse of content, this solution had to work within Virtuemart and had to be more visual than what is commonly available. The content snippets had to be easily browsable and a set of exactly 6 had to be selectable in a certain order.

Solution: Inject drag and drop interface

The solution we came up with was to "inject" two Content Tree Displays into the backend screen. One showed all available content in alphabetical order, minus the already selected items. The other tree shows the selected items in order. The user has the ability to drag items between both trees.

This proved to be an easy to use solution to improvethe user interface dramatically for this problem.

5. Making sure the website doesn't break, even if lots of changes are constantly made

When faced with upgrading www.greentree.com - the website of Auckland software manufacturer Greentree Software - from an older Joomla version, we had to make sure that all pages would work exactly the same way as before the upgrade.

Solution: Automate acceptance tests

To do this, we used automated acceptance tests, as you would for any significant software projects. What this meant is that:

  • The different page types in the website were identified including some edge cases
  • For each page type, we identified every single element in the page, including what HTML and text it would contain on an example page
  • We then wrote an automated test - a computer program - that could be run against both the old and the upgraded website.

So when having to be sure that the website upgrade worked, we simply ran both tests and if they both passed, we could be sure the upgrade was complete.

Since launch of the upgraded version, these tests have been constantly refined as changes have been made to the site and are now running on a half hourly schedule. This allows for any issues with the site to be picked up very quickly, which also reduces the resolution time.

6. Creating a sophisticated ranked search

The Parenting Place, a leading provider of parenting education in New Zealand has built up a database of parenting advice articles over the past 7 years. Basically a new advice article was sent to subscribers every week by email and then added to their website. However they found that a simple keyword search was lacking any sort of ranking and would not give acceptable results.

We came up with a set of rules for ranking that allowed flexibility, further tweaking and also eliminated some English language particulars that make ranking search results difficult.

Solution: Simple ranked search framework

As a first step, we eliminated the most common 100 words from the search criteria. Then we went to give each part of the article, such as its title, topic, target audience a ranking factor, including the fact in some instances that a word may appear multiple times in the content and that this may have some sigificance as well.

As a result, we are getting a certain number of points per search keyword combination for each article and this drives our ranked results display.

This gave acceptable results, which the client can now refine by rewriting content in a concious fashion as well as by adjusting the ranking factors.

7. Customising the shopping experience for specific accessories

One item that lighting designers - the key customer audience of Philips Selecon New Zealand - buy for every stage production is a "gobo". This is a black disk of varying sizes, which contain cut out patterns that match the topic or mood of a scene and allow for such pictures - clouds, sun, moon etc - to be displayed on the stage.

While a website selling these items needs to show a wide variety of items, lighting designers usually buy a set of gobos for a show along a specific topic or category. In addition to these requirements, Selecon further faced the challenge that their supplier usually provided 4 types of sizes for every shape, with some exceptions in terms of availability and pricing.

Solution: Bespoke shopping wizard

To support an easy shopping process, we allowed for gobos to be bought by category, showing the image, available sizes and prices all in one scrollable interface, that allows a lighting designer to simply tick the ones they wanted and it would add these to their shopping cart.

8. Creating an HTML sitemap which follows the main menu - with exceptions and extensions

thumb Greentree-Software-Automatically-Generated-HTML-SitemapFor large Joomla websites, often an HTML sitemap is required at some point. Usually such websites have a complex hierarchical main menu, some other navigation elements, blog items and case studies that need to all be displayed in a consistent fashion in a sitemap.

A traditional strategy to achieve this within Joomla while having full control over order and detail is to collate all entries in another navigation menu and to displa this menu in the page. However for greentree.com at 1500 content items, this was simply not feasible. There was just too much work to keep all changes in sync and they would have been regularly forgotten before this system was abandoned and no sitemap would be used anymore.

Solution: Sitemap from the Main menu  - on steroids

By putting little markers into the actual menu items, which would then be parsed by a custom written sitemap component, we achieved full control over this process, while not requiring an additional backend user interface, nor requiring for any data to be double entered. At the same time, the sitemap is expanded with new blog items and news fully automatically.

9. Importing a wide range of accessories, images and diagrams

What, if you have to enter 5500 similar items from a catalog of a supplier, which is only available as a poorly coded website? And 80 of these items contain an image and a diagram?

You could hire a whole team of people, but you would likely create unnecessary effort around reformatting the information as well as invite hundred of simple mistakes, whih will make the final result look fairly unprofessional

Solution: Screen scraping to the rescue

Screen or web scraping is a technique where a computer program reads a set of web pages and processes the content, so that they can be inserted into a database. The web page to scrape could be on the Internet or even on a CD or DVD.

We used this technique when Selecon New Zealand wanted to show 4500 gobos and around 1000 colour filters on their website. Information about these products was available only ontheir suppliers website, however in a poorly styled and formatted way.

By using screenscraping we were able to format each page in a professional fashion that matched Selecon's brand and also eliminate a whole lot of tedious work that would have created a lot of errors.

10. Building a complex backend management extension with limited frontend integration

While Joomla is a very extensible system, for which components can be written cost effectively, there are some times cases when the built in extension building features are not enough. There is simply not as much abstraction built in as in other systems.

Some Joomla extension developers solve this problem by developing their own framework, which they then use in subsequent components. But for one off cases, why invent another system, when there are already existing solutions out there.

Solution: Just use Symfony - within Joomla

Symfony is a development framework that can built very sophisticated backend user interfaces which complex data models while having a lot of basic tasks, such as authentication, data references, input checking and searching, built in. For a membership management and renewal system for the New Zealand Green Building Council, we required a lot of such backend interfaces, while we also wanted to retain the easy of use of Joomla and integrate between the two in many places.

As a result, we created a wrapper system that allows for a symfony program to be run inside of Joomla, therefore gaining the benefits of both systems.

Over to you

Do you have challenges in large Joomla websites to overcome? Tell me about it!

Case Studies

  • Automated Quote and Import System - Streat Control

    Streat Control - an importer of electrical engineering goods - has a distributed operation in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, serving the local waterworks, refineries, breweries and others with instruments for liquid and gas monitoring and control. With these clients, everything is about accuracy. Their goods are five figures plus per unit and are custom manufactured to order and shipped to New Zealand. As this process is lengthy and costly, mistakes are very expensive.

    streatcontrol-case-study-smallWe provided a custom build and web based importing and tracking system, which also covers some areas of the Customer Relationship Management and the complete process of quoting, ordering and delivery. Through our development process we have replaced 7 MS Word templates, several disparate Outlook address books and thousands of uncoordinated emails between staff.

    The new sales management system leads the sales and support staff through a well defined process, which ensures the necessary information is gathered and stored consistently. The main focus in this project was on minimising the need for double data entry. This is achieved by storing all customer details in a flexible information model that even allows to track the same person with several roles with different companies.

    Quotes and sales documents are produced automatically by the system as PDF documents – this format has been chosen due to its compatibility with a large number of computer systems. The system also keeps track of all past quote information, which is accessible for reports. Reports, which have previously been done by copying information into shared Excel sheets is now available to staff in real time.

    The equipment that Streat Control imports is extremely complex and requires hours to days for the construction of quotes. They further deal with heavy weights such as NZ Steel, Auckland City Council or DB Breweries, who will tender out every job, but sometimes it is known in advance that Streat Control will not get a job. This situation allowed for the system to provide return of investment by reducing the amount and scale of repetitive unnecessary work.

    Once ordered, the equipment is then manufactured overseas and usually ready for shipping within 6 weeks. A mistake in this period will lead to a delay of a further 6 weeks, as manufacturers will “re queue” the order. Once shipped, a mistake can mean that you have a 500kg/ $30000 instrument in New Zealand that is hard to get rid of and unsellable.

    Copy and Paste mistakes were wide spread and frustrated sales staff, causing unnecessary follow up communication and searching of email archives.

  • Mental Health Service Database - Mind and Body Consultants

    Mind and Body provide Mental Health Peer Support - a support service that they have pioneered themselves and that is currently delivered in Central and West Auckland as well as Christchurch. They were looking for an integrated management system for their peer support workers. Initially this was triggered through the government requirements to deliver billing data electronically under the PRIMHD standard. At the same time, Mind and Body wanted to "own and control" the solution, so they are not dependent on a specific vendor.

    mindandbody-casestudy-smallWe provided a custom built database management system that tracks patients/peers through their year long engagement and collects all relevant time sheet and costing information along the way. This was built as a web based secure system, so that it could be easier extended with mobile phone travel expense tracking at a later date.

    We were also involved in training and delivery of the software, which was based on a "train the trainer" model. The choice for this was made to create maximum engagement of staff with the introduction of the software, so as to minimise any resistance that might otherwise to be expected.

    Finally with our help Mind and Body became PRIMHD compliant within 1 month after launch - the accepted minimum time frame typical for this was 6 month, with implementations ranging up to 2 years in terms of turnaround time.

    "Eileen informed me today that we are now officially PRIMHD compliant. That is a huge feat in the time that we have been sending off reports to the ministry. Quite frankly I am astounded (in a very good way) that we have done this in such short order. The expectation out there with other organisations is that it takes at least 6 months. Jochen and Eileen have managed it in about 1 month. Well done to the both of you and thanks."

    Rodger Jack - Mind and Body Consultants

     

     

  • Multi-National Multi-Lingual Website - Philips Selecon

    Philips Selecon - formerly Selecon New Zealand - designs, manufactures and exports theatre and architectural lighting systems to the world. Having been their Content Management System (CMS) provider for the past 9 years, we were charged in 2008 with building a 2nd generation corporate website, which included dealing with over 5000 products, over 1000 detail pages such as news, case studies and support material as well as E-Commerce facilities.

    Philips Selecon's products are market leaders or well presented in many major world wide markets, because of this the website Content Management System (CMS) had to manage multiple translations of the content as well as content that is only available in some markets or is hidden from some markets. We achieved this by

    • providing a language translation platform that can be selectively applied to content with an automatic fall back to British English as the default language. This includes facilities to detect changes to the original, so that translations can be refreshed. Languages in use are British English, US English, German, French, Russian and Spanish.
    • providing a facility to hide a complete US supplier portfolio from markets outside New Zealand, as this would otherwise lead to conflicts in the supplier relationship
    • providing a facility to easily hide key products from markets with 110V power current, as some products are technically not compatible with it. This has proven much more successful that marking these products with additional information. Our approach also allows to mark such products once, even though there may be references at 8+ areas in the website.
    • providing a facility to show country specific welcome messages in some areas of the website.

    To showcase Philips Selecon's work, a large number of case studies were reworked and produced. We extended the CMS to provide a simple keyword manager, so that these case studies can be easily categorised by country, type of use and various other keywords. Furthermore, the products use are linked to the case study.
    Based on this powerful information model, we are able to randomly retrieve select case studies in nearly all areas of the website - by relating the products used and keywords to the content of the core functionality of the page.

    To allow easy shopping for repeat users of the website, it also features a store area, where all key products and accessories are listed in 5 sections. While the core products have various support documentation and feature lists associated with them, we also had the challenge to present 5500 imported colour filters - basically coloured plastic sheets and gobos - metal frames to create different patterns on stage.

    We firstly proceeded to create a screen scraping program as to retrieve the information from the suppliers website, because they were not able and motivated to provide this information in a structured format.

    As a second step we created structured product pages for these products. As a third and final step, we created categorised shopping pages for groups of these products. This was done to present the products in a more concise fashion and also because a user would typically buy a number of colour sheets or related patterns in different sizes for a stage production. For this reason our presentation saves time for the user as well.

    Selecon New Zealand was acquired by Philips corporation on 1 Apr 2009. Since then www.seleconlight.com has continued to be the by far most sophisticated, detailed and extensive website in the stable of Philips lighting technology subsidiaries.

    As a result of this, we have also proceeded to integrate the products, case studies and support material of a US based sister operation of Philips into the website system. The fully integrated manner in how these 2 websites operate allows Philips to position themselves as a full service operator. At the same time, we are able to retain all existing links and domain names, as these remain unchanged.

  • Large Joomla Website - The Parenting Place

    The Parenting Place is a non-profit organisation specialising in parenting education. Having educated 15000+ parents in courses and sold over 20000 books and education resources, all largely through their website they were faced with a number of challenges.

    • The website needed a facelift to keep up with branding changes and an expansion of the services and approach of the organisation to parenting education. At the same time they wanted to use their excellent in-house graphic design resources to maximise brand cohesion and cost effectiveness.

    • It became difficult to extend the existing website and provide security updates. This was because it contained a lot of custom developed modules and complex extensions to existing modules.

    • Email marketing is a major activity for The Parenting Place, but it was hard to assess how many emails reached recipients due to emails being sent directly from the web server and being likely a target of spam filters.

    Facelift

    theparentingplace-case-study-2-smallFor the changes to look and feel, we worked closely with the Parenting Place in-house team to develop a new brand expression for the website. Once this was complete, we took over and developed website code and the associated Joomla templates.

    One of the key drivers was to implement a solution that would work well on many mobile browsers and as a result responsive web design solution techniques were chosen to allow for a cost effective coverage of desktop, IPad, IPhone and other mobile browsers.

    Website Upgrade

    To upgrade this website to a current Joomla version we used a combination of techniques:

    • Complex extensions, such as product and country specific promotional codes in Joomla's Virtuemart E-Commerce module were upgraded to the newest version using best practice software development techniques. This allowed us to re-use previously invested effort and kept specification changes to a minimum

    • Simpler extensions, such as webinar management were simply upgraded and audited for security and concerns for code complexity.

    • Fairly simple modules, based on complex off-the-shelf Joomla components, such as the event calendar were replaced with newly written components based on the popular Symfony framework.

    Email Marketing

    To increase effectiveness of the email marketing, the delivery platform had to be moved away from the web server and onto a dedicated platform.

    We chose Mailchimp for this, due to its ease of use, ability to target emails to different audiences and options to automate integration of email list management.

    As a result, email subscription preferences are still tightly integrated between The Parenting Place website and the email marketing platform and at the same time, we enjoy excellent delivery rates and the features and statistics of a major email marketing platform.

Welcome

jochen-daum-automatem

Welcome to Automatem Ltd.

I'm the owner/ operator, Jochen Daum with over 15 years of experience in Website and Web Application Development. Please contact me if there is anything I can help with.