Behind our redesign for the Aspen Ideas Festival

Rethinking content strategy and modularity, from the roots to the tree.
By Jesse Golomb

Our collaboration with the Aspen Ideas Festival on their newly launched website matched our agency’s expertise with our partner’s ambition to extend the impact of their mission. In doing so, it provided us the opportunity to reimagine a cultural experience for the digital context through a coordinated effort between content strategy, product design, and engineering.

Content strategy, in particular, was a critical component of our collaboration. This post provides a peek behind the curtain of our process. Why, for one, was content strategy so vital to our solution? What was our approach to resolving content strategy? Perhaps most of all, why did our content strategy require particularly close collaboration between strategy, UX, design, and engineering?

The Aspen Ideas Festival is a weeklong public gathering of leaders from around the globe that takes place on the Aspen Institute’s picturesque Aspen, Colorado campus. For a few days each summer, thousands of civilians join leaders from across public and private life in conversations that span and shape the public interest.

Last summer, we had the opportunity to take in this singular event ourselves. On the ground, it was apparent Aspen’s splendor had a role to play in the Festival — and one that transcended mere aesthetics. Just as Aspen’s towering peaks silhouette its crystal blue skies, and its sparkling streams sculpt its rolling green valleys, all this natural majesty forges a particular pattern of dialogue: convivial, vibrant, present.

In the spirit of dialogue, we asked Festival leaders to describe what they wanted from their digital platform. A theme emerged. The Festival itself is only able to accommodate a few thousand guests each year. For Festival administrators, this limitation was at odds with the Institute’s mission to foster a better, more civil and enlightened public discourse on a national scale. Not to mention the brilliance of the event — shouldn’t everyone get to experience the Festival, and all the fruitful conversations it hosts?

It was clear to us an editorial platform would allow the Festival’s content to reach many more people, and do so throughout the year. This transmutation of the Aspen Ideas Festival — from a once-a-year, on-the-ground experience into an evergreen, editorial platform — offered both an incredible opportunity and rewarding challenge. On the one hand, we had gusty tailwinds to work with: a trustworthy, recognizable brand; a fantastic flagship event; and, thanks to an archive of past Festival ‘sessions’, hundreds of hours of powerful video and audio content featuring some of the most prominent voices across business, culture, and academia. Excellent, exclusive content is only half the battle, though. To engage users, presentation and format are just as important. To provide a twist on the old Marshall McLuhan phrase, the digital medium you create must be right for the message you’re hoping to send.

From this angle, session content didn’t seem an immediate fit for an editorial platform in the digital context. Befitting the Festival’s organic style of conversation, sessions are often loosely formatted, wide-ranging and about an hour long — and thus not in line with the inclinations of web audiences toward brevity, multi-tasking, and ‘TL:DR’ takeaways. While we wanted to encourage immersion, we also knew that users would need ways to ‘grab on’ if we were going to capture and hold their attention.

It was clear, then, that active collaboration between content strategy and user experience design would be vital. We needed to determine how best to break up the components that make up a session, and reassemble them into a format that encouraged the habits of browsing, scanning, and skimming native to digital audiences.

Our methodology involved a synthesis of market analysis, interviews with Festival stakeholders, user research, and more than a few collaborative UX workshops. Ultimately, we landed on (and validated, through user surveys and months of prototyping) a few core strategic insights that had a corresponding imprint on the user experience:

  • For web audiences, sessions could be broken up into component ‘ideas.’ Whereas in-person attendees value the holistic experience of attending an entire talk (listening carefully to a presentation, asking questions at the end), digital users want to get directly to the nut of an issue; a takeaway. Therefore, the UX needed to put the focus on these critical elements, and make it easy for users to jump around and ‘scan.’
  • With individual ‘ideas’ elevated, the video of the session could become a complementary — rather than central — element. We took a cue from Audm here and the emerging concept of ‘listening to’ articles. The video could be played in the background, and the user could listen as they scanned other ideas. Still, the experience needed to balance both modes and give users a way to bounce between each.
  • Users would arrive out of interest in an individual ‘idea,’ and stay if additional engaging ‘ideas’ were presented. If they were particularly interested in an idea, they would search out related content, diving more in-depth, and staying longer. In this way, individual ideas provided our best entry point and our best ‘breadcrumbs’ for recirculation. It was clear that these ‘Ideas’ (rather than, say, the titles of sessions or the name of the speaker) should be the most prominent element across the site. If we did our job, users would not be able to go very far without running into an idea that might grab their attention and pull them into a piece of content.
  • In addition to serving as entry points, ‘Ideas’ could be assembled into inter-and-intrasession narratives. In other words, the ‘story’ of a session could be told through a few core ideas. Likewise, a thematic story could be assembled through ‘ideas’ from across sessions. This generated a new content type called ‘Collections.’

You’ll find these insights blanketing the user experience of the new site; from a dynamic homepage, where various content features place compelling ideas and perspectives front and center; to explore listings, which do the same as a home for archival content; to enhanced session pages, which provide myriad UX and design interactions allowing users to browse content at any depth they choose; to collection pages, which offer Aspen the flexibility to assemble thematic stories with content from across sessions.

What might not be evident without looking under the hood was the level of precise collaboration required to bring these insights to life.

If content strategy served as the roots of our collaboration, a uniquely collaborative approach to modular design and engineering was the trunk. Over many product builds, we’ve iterated on our modular design methodology. Our work with the Aspen team challenged us to push another step forward.

As outlined above, our content strategy relied on ‘ideas’ being broken up, assembled, and placed in different contexts and forms across the site. This meant the concept of ‘modularity’ — going beyond page ‘templates’ to focus on their component parts — was even more critical to our product build than typical: for our solution to work, design, UX and engineering all needed to go above and beyond the usual call of duty to actualize an effective modular system. Here are a few examples of how that unfolded.

In collaboration with strategy, our UX and design teams worked to define and design an array of module types for showcasing ‘ideas.’

Beyond that, we also needed to determine how these modules would be used (and reused) in different contexts, whether on other Editorial Pages (such as the aforementioned ‘Collections) or in areas of the site dedicated to wayfinding and informational utility (such as Speaker bio pages).

Finally, the designers and front-end engineers also needed to create a series of interaction models that would make it simple and straightforward for users to jump from idea to idea. Spend just a few moments clicking around, and you’ll see how just a few core strategy insights blossomed into a fully-formed modular design system.

In actualizing content strategy, it’s become clear to us that great administrative tools are as critical as the strategy itself. Without intuitive tools and workflows, admins sometimes take short cuts, make mistakes, and abandon best practices completely. As a result, the product can end up looking a lot different to users than it did in a design file or a presentation. In the end, a front-end user experience is often only as successful as an administrative ‘user experience.’ Much as the FE of a product offers its users ‘affordances’ — actions, CTAs, and paths of least resistance — that ultimately shape user behavior, a good CMS must also make it easy for its users to make effective editorial decisions.

Thankfully, we had the right tools to build with. The new Aspen Ideas Festival site is made by Twill, AREA 17’s open-source CMS toolkit for Laravel. Twill offered our engineers (and ultimately, Aspen’s admins) a few advantages:

  • Many ‘out-of-the-box’ conventions that offer clear user paths, simple interactions, and clean editing experience.
  • A best in class block editor allowed us to create and customize as many modules as we needed without affecting performance or cluttering the admin experience. The final system has nearly two dozen different modules, and the admin UX is no lesser for it.
  • A lack of constraints, and the flexibility to build and extend bespoke tools to empower Aspen admins.
  • The flagship effort on this project was the creation of a content bank, which allows admin to save modules to a database and then quickly find and reuse them elsewhere later on.
  • Integrations with crucial Festival APIs ensure the site can be operated — and new content created — with little overhead or resources required.

There’s much else to be done to extend our platform and content strategy. We’re already at work advancing the Twill workflow to ease the burden on admins even further. Down the road, we might envision further ways for users, festival attendees, and speakers to engage on the platform. For now, we’re looking forward to this year’s Festival and watching as a new batch of ideas bloom on the web.

Originally published at Optical Cortex.

A brand and digital product agency in Paris and New York. We solve problems to serve people with work designed to simplify and engineered to endure.