How we created a new Optimal Workshop blog

10 min read David Renwick

Summary: We’ve just relaunched the Optimal Workshop blog! Here’s an article about how (and why) we did it.

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you may have noticed that things now look quite a bit different. What you’re seeing is the result of many months of work, involving extensive user testing, internal brainstorming sessions and significant content and design work. So why did we do it?

We publish a lot of great content. Optimal Workshop has been around for over 10 years now, and in that time we’ve worked hard to make the blog into more than just a place to announce feature updates, but to serve up useful content for our users and the wider UX community. But while this worked for a time, as a company we were starting to put a lot more emphasis on content, and putting more thought into how we wanted to educate our community. Our fairly basic blog setup just wasn’t going to cut it.

In this article, we’re going to take you through the (mostly) complete process of redesigning the Optimal Workshop blog.

More than just a suite of tools

We’ve always prided ourselves on our set of UX tools. Ever since we first launched OptimalSort, we’ve worked hard to make the Optimal Workshop suite into a versatile, powerful platform for UX professionals by frequently adding new features and refinements, and developing entirely new tools when we think we can build something that will deliver great value to our users.

But we’ve always wanted to do more than just build software. We want to generate an awareness of Optimal Workshop in the research space, not just provide documentation for our platform. It’s important to us that anyone doing research has the information they need to be successful. Whether that’s someone wanting to learn about running a tree test to benchmark their website, or a developer wanting to interview customers for the first time.

This is at the heart of the reason why we decided to overhaul the Optimal Workshop blog. If we wanted to become a reliable source of informative content for the UX community, we’d have to make some changes. What we had before was essentially just a list of posts in reverse chronological order (using an off-the-shelf template), with a fairly basic content categorization system. Here are just a few of the issues we were dealing with:

  • Trying to navigate our categories was nearly always a nuisance
  • There was no way for us to show off shiny new content without a homepage
  • We didn’t have a search function 🙁
  • Updating older content was often time consuming.

We certainly made the most of this blog system’s capabilities, but if we really wanted to realize our lofty community education goals, we’d need to address these issues. Enter, the new blog project.

The Optimal Workshop blog prior to the redesign.

Scoping the task of building a new blog

Work on the blog project started in the way that most substantial projects start: with a healthy amount of internal brainstorming and scoping. We (the blog team) sat down and asked ourselves important discovery questions, including:

  • What did we want the experience of using this new blog to feel like?
  • What types of content would we continue to publish?
  • Who is our target audience and what do they want to learn about?
  • What would do with our outdated blog content?
  • What blog platform did we want to move to?
  • What is the relationship between the blog and any other learning resource we produce, such as videos and product guides?

To answer the first and most pressing question, we started looking at other blogs. How did we feel about how some of these other websites? Were there features or elements that we wanted to consider on our own blog? We kept referring back to other websites throughout the development of our own blog, but we thought it was important to canvas a large number of other websites at the start to help us generate ideas.

We even decided to reach out to one company, Wistia, to find out how they designed their blog navigation. This was a big help. Speaking with people who had recently been through the process helped to frame some of our thinking and planning. In addition to Wistia, we also looked at Intercom’s new blog, which launched just as we were getting started on our own project.

Answers to most of the other discovery-stage questions would come as we moved into the first major phase of the blog’s redevelopment – the audit process.

Auditing Optimal Workshop’s content

Before we started on the designs for what our new blog would look like, we wanted to take stock of everything learning-related that Optimal Workshop had produced up until this point. Doing so would help us analyze all of our content at a granular level and, in turn, figure out what we should move over to the new platform.

In the years since Optimal Workshop first started, we’d produced a wealth of blog articles, videos and resources to support our tools. As is often the case in fast-growing companies, many people had a hand in producing this content, meaning there were variations in the style and it sat in multiple places on the website, many of which weren’t exactly easily accessible. The solution? We would need to conduct a content audit, a process which involves pulling every single piece of content together into a spreadsheet. While it’s a good idea to do a content audit fairly regularly as a kind-of health check for your content, they’re particularly useful when doing something like a website redesign as you’ll have a comprehensive point of reference for all things content.

We won’t go too far into the process of our content audit in this article, but you can read about that process here. At a high level, however, we found that our blog content was performing very well organically, and our practical and pragmatic content tended to outperform the more fluffy content we occasionally produced. Good insights! As part of this process, we also audited our existing guides and videos.

A small slice of the content audit we carried out in 2018.

Research and design

Right from the outset of this project, we knew we wanted to build something user-centric. In a nutshell, we wanted to practice what we preach!

Our research process was exhaustive. We spent time speaking with researchers familiar with our tools and learning resources, as well as those who had little to no experience with Optimal Workshop. It was a substantial undertaking, so let’s dive into the research process behind the new blog!

Testing the old blog

At the start of the project, we wanted to understand how researchers and designers were currently searching for information related to UX research topics – what they were looking for, what resources appealed to them, which ones were the most trustworthy and why. From there, we also evaluated how they would go about finding various types of learning information on our existing website, with the aim of identifying problem areas, issues with labels, navigation and the overall usability of our learning resources.

The results weren’t altogether surprising. Users were having trouble finding the learning resources on our website, and clearly our labels and page structure weren’t doing much to help them. Furthermore, many people were unaware that our blog even existed.

Testing our categories

Our old blog had too many categories – we had 76! As we’d added more and more content to the blog, we’d also expanded our category list to cover every possible article, without putting much thought into the overall taxonomy. This meant our attempts to understand how we should categorize our content moving forward were quite challenging, so we did some research to find out how people grouped and viewed the relationships between certain topics. One example here was looking at the relationships between practical content and more strategic content.

It’s a tricky balance to get right. We primarily want to write about research, but we also frequently cover any number of other interesting topics.

As part of this, we did a moderated card sorting activity with the different types of content we offer. This was accompanied by more usability tests on our website to keep the key issues front of mind.

Designing and tree testing our new navigation

Our initial tests and category research meant we were able to draft a new navigation for our blog, with adjusted categories to better reflect the content we’d published and to allow for new content in the future.

With a new, proposed navigation in mind, we decided to test how this navigation would perform in the context of our website. We wanted to find out whether people seeking answers to product and research-related questions could distinguish between sections of the website that provide product information versus those that provide more general research guidance (such as the blog). We ran a tree test, which showed that the proposed navigation for the blog performed well, however there were improvements to be made in where people expected to find product-specific guidance. This was feedback we could roll out to the entire marketing team.

Finding a blog platform

Next we had to figure out where our blog would be built. Our existing blog was built on Hubspot, which was the platform used by our marketing team. It met the basic needs we had for the blog, and at the time, it was a good fit for our company. However our ambitious education goals meant we needed a blog platform with more flexibility and more room to grow. Some of the features and designs we were looking at in our initial scoping discussions just wouldn’t work with HubSpots themes.

We started looking for a suitable replacement, with 3 main platforms emerging as clear contenders:

  • Ghost – This platform has an excellent array of themes, but we found some issues with security and flexibility.
  • Medium – While Medium is an excellent community in and of itself, there’s a danger in that all of our blog content would have to exist on another website.
  • WordPress – WordPress offers the most flexibility of any platform, and the number of integrations means we can easily add features and functionality that we need.

We eventually settled on WordPress, which gave us a lot of flexibility. WordPress allowed us to implement an interesting new feature called ‘content blocks’, which allowed us to rapidly build new pages and articles and adjust elements as needed. You’ll see some of this functionality as you browse the new blog!

More than a fresh coat of paint

Design work started in earnest after we’d answered most of our fundamental questions, like the types of content we planned to publish in the future and what we’d be cutting out. While our research was mostly a discovery activity, we still made time to test even as the project moved into design and development.

We decided to carry across the color palette from the existing Optimal Workshop website to ensure  consistency across both websites. It was important, as the blog is accessible through a drop-down in the main menu of our website and we wanted to make the blog feel like part of the wider website.

In terms of the platform, we worked hard to add much-requested functionality, including:

  • A site-wide search function
  • Improved navigation options
  • A new single article view for content.

We also wanted to improve the navigation experience for people who first enter our blog through search (like Google). It was important for us that they could move on to other articles and content after they  reading their current piece.

You’re now presented with options for further reading at the end of a piece of content.

If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog for some time, you’ll certainly notice the new illustrations, too. Our designer started toying around with this updated style during the final stages of the blog project as a way of introducing more color on the homepage without going against the color palette we’d decided on. We think the results speak for themselves!

Overall, we’re really happy with the way this new blog turned out, and we’re excited to continue evolving it. Stay tuned, we’ve got great things in the pipeline!