Friday, 26 October 2012

What’s going on at the Rationalist Association?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

This morning we launch RA Today, the first look at the work being done by our web team that will – in December – result in a completely new way to view and interact with everything we are doing. These first pages give an early look at what the new site will be like. We’ve had a complete design overhaul, with a new and lovely font, Ubuntu (which is available free to download), a much better use of space and pictures, and a whole new feel.

But what’s really innovative about the site is not simply a matter of design, or to be precise it is a matter of design but not just pretty pictures. At the heart of the project is UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) design by the talented duo Mr & Mrs OK (aka John Oxton and Rachel King) who have designed the experience of the site with two core, and very new, principles in mind: “Mobile first” and “Responsive design”.

Mobile first, as the name suggests, means thinking about people who are coming to the site on mobile devices first and working back to desktop. Rather than designing a flashy, heavy site which fails to load or looks crap on phones, we have taken seriously the transformation that has been wrought by mobile internet and recognise that the use of the internet on hand held devices has gone from unusual, to normal to ubiquitous in what feels like a couple of weeks. (On my commute books are already outnumbered by Kindles and newspapers completely dwarfed by those reading on their phones.)

Mobile first goes hand-in-hand with "responsive design", which means the website changes and resizes and is pretty on any screen size, any device. Rather than having to have lots of different versions of the site, one size really does fit all: it works properly and looks beautiful however you wish to access it (to test this, visit the RA Today page on a desktop monitor or laptop and resize your browser window to any size - see how the page changes to remain readable, and lovely, on any size screen).

This design philosophy, which hasn't been around that long, has recently become the industry standard with both Google and Microsoft coming out in favour (Microsoft’s new site is responsive and, because of that, we forgive them a multitude of sins). The Guardian are working on a responsive site of their own – they released this prototype only last week. We have been really lucky to find, in John and Rachel working with our developer for many years Julian Halliwell of Simplicity, a team who really understand the new environment and have the skill and flair to make it happen. They have also been introducing us to a new ways of working, using Agile, Google Docs and regular "stand-up" meetings, which are seriously fun and productive.

But what’s it all for? Of course, it will be great to have a beautiful and fully accessible new website to host all our great content. But what are we trying to achieve? We are seeking to fulfil our charitable aims which are and have always been to promote and educate about rationalism, humanism and secularism. We do this through publishing – New Humanist magazine, our website, our blog, podcasts – through events and media advocacy. A new accessible and attractive site will increase our ability to do this, especially to reach out to the younger people who (as Whitney Houston knew) are the future.

But the new site is also a response to some harsh economic realities. We are a small independent charity. We've never had money from governments, foundations or corporations (who won’t even advertise because they are scared to be associated with atheism). In recent years our focus has been on attracting paying subscribers to our print magazine. We've done a good job, growing our subscriber base from around 1,000 to more than 5,000 in 4 years, and increasing revenue by 80 per cent over that period. But it’s still not enough to sustain us, and, oh yeah guess what , print is dying if not dead already (or so says Andrew Sullivan).

We are not stopping printing New Humanist, but we are trying another tack alongside it. We want to persuade people who are sympathetic to the values we represent to join the RA. We want this website to showcase, in the best possible light, the things we do  – the great articles, the relevant blogs and links, the events, the campaigning. We want to show people what we do, and keep them up to date and connected to the issues that matter, so they are persuaded that we are A GOOD THING and worth supporting. See our membership page to see the full pitch (you can even watch me make the pitch in a video, if that's your thing), and, if you are convinced, please become a member.

So that’s the plan.

At the moment we are thrilled to have something to show you. It’s a work in progress, though we hope you'll find it useful. Every day we’ll post something new on RA Today (weekends and holidays included), and although at the moment it links back to our ‘old’ New Humanist site it should still work as an efficient way to see what we’re up to. So why not bookmark it, and please do visit it on all your appliances – iPads, phones, washing machines, whatever – we need to know it works for everyone.

We want to know what you think so please use the feedback form to tell us – good or bad, glitches or gripes, bring it on.

This is merely a taster for the main course. I've nipped into the kitchen and seen what the chef is up to for the main site, and believe me it looks delicious.

Read more about the project on designer John Oxton's blog.
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