This weekend Culture Days is celebrating its fourth anniversary, and we’re proud to say Plank has been working with the team from the very first year. The big event starts tomorrow, Friday, September 27th running through Sunday the 29th, and with close to 3,000 activities already published on the site, it’s time to start planning your weekend! Even though the official festival still lies ahead, it’s already been a big year for Culture Days. In May, they hosted The Art of Engagement: Finding, Igniting, and Keeping Audiences at The Royal York Hotel in Toronto. It was the first National Congress on culture and was streamed live online — videos of speakers and panels can be viewed on the Culture Days site. For the site itself, there were a number of significant changes in 2013. Here are four highlights for us…

1. Activities Search

Going to activities on the festival weekend is what Culture Days is all about, so a robust search is absolutely necessary. We completely re-imagined the search experience for 2013, re-designing the features while keeping two main points in focus:

Don’t Overwhelm

From categories to keywords to activity “type”, there are a lot of ways you can filter your search — but presenting it all at once makes for a very large, intimidating form. We kept it to the essentials: when & where. All three dates are pre-selected by default, and you can get started by simply entering your postal code and clicking search. (and if the user’s ready for more, all the categorization options can be displayed with a quick click on the “filter” options).

Be Flexible

It’s a big country. People live in cities, towns and small communities, and one search approach is not perfect for everyone. A user living in Toronto, spending the day on foot or a bike, might be interested in a 5km radius around their home postal code, but someone in PEI, travelling by car, might want a view of everything in the province, and then plan a day trip involving activities in different parts of the province. And when you get your results, we added some more flexibility, by introducing a “Refine
Results” step, letting the user narrow down their initial choices even further.

2. Mobile

Nowadays, it’s more and more common (as it should be) for sites to be mobile-friendly. Festivals were often early adopters of mobile, though more often than not, native iPhone and Android apps were the path they chose for delivering content on the go.

Dedicated, native apps have their advantages, but development time and project scope are sometimes factors that affect whether they’re something that can be pursued. The good news is you don’t need an app, when you can deliver your entire site to mobile users by adapting it with responsive web design. So this year, we retired the humble, custom mobile site Culture Days has been using since 2010, and we made the whole site responsive. We knew that peak mobile traffic would be this weekend, when everyone’s going to activities, so we made sure to add quick access links to the activities search and schedule tools, as well as a location-detection option front and center on the search page.

3. The Blog

This year, Culture Days wanted to take their blog in a whole new direction. Rather than treating it as a section of the main site, using it as a repository of news and other updates, it was re-imagined as a year round space dedicated to culture, with all posts falling under one of three thematic categories (Resources, Inspiration, and Events). We re-designed the look and feel to give it its own unique online presence, and the entire existing catalog of posts was audited to re-classify them all under the new content structure. Now with over 30 contributors, culture365 is the festival’s year-round home for all things culture in Canada.

4. Cleaning House

Tackling the changes above this year would have been a much bigger task, had we not taken the plunge and decided to do some house cleaning in our code. With the pace at which web technology moves, a site can become outdated pretty quickly. Factor in some major features integrated on tight deadlines, sprinkle with too many “quick fixes” over the years, and the code was beginning to show its age. So what do yo do? Pat (lead developer on the project) summarized it nicely in an internal email: “We set out to ‘cut the fat’ and get the codebase working for us again rather than enslaving ourselves to its quirks. JF tossed out the entire CSS codebase, the whole damn thing, and carefully rebuilt it piece by piece. I deleted more code than I added in the first several weeks. Geoff willingly engaged in long negotiations with JF and I as we sliced-and-diced old features, allowing us to focus on the important details. After every week, we had a leaner and more straight-forward codebase than the week before. Development time dropped despite us adding new features while refactoring code.” As a manager, when you’re staring at deadlines, it can be daunting to face the prospect of an overhaul — it’s tempting to take short-cuts and just ask the team to build and patch with what you already have. But the payoff is worth it: any extra time going in at the beginning, you get back many times over in later phases of development.

Have fun!

Get out there and enjoy some culture this weekend, and when you have a moment, give the Culture Days team feedback on your experience on their annual survey.

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