By Daniel Vidoni
When Rebecca and the nice folks from That Crystal Site approached me to build their new-age crystals website and told me their needs I knew I'd have to come up with something special. They had clear ideas about what they liked and (just as importantly) what they did not like.
Their instructions to me were:
- It should be easy for our clients to find the products they seek, present them with lots of quality information and photographs
- It should be easy for clients to purchase items from the website
- Because we are selling unique, one-off items, we need a reservation system
- Once a transaction has occurred and an item is sold it should be placed in a sold area of the site and archived there so it may still be viewed but no longer purchased
- The site should be fast loading and aesthetically pleasing
- We will need to be able to take care of the stock database ourselves
- Finally, the site has to have very low running costs
Clearly, this was going to be a challenge. I knew nothing about Crystals, and very little about metaphysics. I literally didn't know what I was doing. It was very exciting to see if I would be able to construct a site to sell product that I was clueless about.
In order to do this I had to focus on the fact that like all e-commerce web sites this one was going to sell something, and that what the 'something' is is not actually important or relevant. In fact I've designed the system in such a way that it could be used just as easily to sell real estate as effectively as anything else. It is a "selling" platform, not a "selling crystals" platform.
Adding to the challenge was the fact that my client was not proficient with photoshop or any other imaging software, yet they made it clear that photography would be a very important part of the website. Even if they were photoshop gurus, they didn't have time to endlessly muck around creating thumbnails and optimising graphics for size. I'd have to come up with something special for them.
To my knowledge there was no off-the-shelf software that would fit the bill. No easy solution that I could just plug-in. This was going to be a custom job.
Their web site would be selling a variety of crystal and mineral items so a database driven shopping cart would be needed to facilitate the exchange of goods from the business to the clients. I would need to supply all the graphics, framework and software for the site.
Well designed database system
Having spent many years as a programmer I was well versed in the concept of writing reusable code and designing reusable systems. I knew that building this site would be a lot of work and take many hours, but if I did it properly I should be able to reuse a lot of the technology on future website projects.
The alternative was to create a hack that would work for this site but wouldn't really be useful for any of my other sites in future. I could probably create a hack in less time but it would come back and bite me as soon as I tried to implement some new feature or tried to pinch some code for another site.
If you're ever tempted to hack - just say no!
Meeting my deadline
Fortunately, time was on my side because they gave me no deadline on when the site needed to be completed. They were far more interested in a quality result than on getting it done before Christmas (which as it turned out, I managed to do anyway).
The design and implementation
I began with a specification list of exactly what kind of information they needed to be displayed for each item. I also made list of broad categories into which items would be placed. This was the beginning of the information architecture.
I also did considerable research to make sure that it was as easy to use and accessible for everyone as possible. For example, no matter where you are on the website, no stock item is more than two mouse clicks from any other stock item. In fact, two mouse clicks is all you will need to get from any given location to any other location on the site - everything is just two mouse clicks away!
I wrote some software to create unique, auto generated reference numbers which would be incorporated into the item objects thus making them easier to track.
The shopping cart was relatively straightforward with orders being placed and tracked across the entire session. A straightforward checkout listing useful totals and taking some client details completed the shopping section. There are no payment gateways and no need for elaborate certificates or transaction servers. As there are no third parties involved in the transactions the cost of running this e-commerce system is virtually zero!
We also developed the idea of having a reservation system for items. Once items in the shopping cart are paid for the item 'reserved' flag is set meaning that it is no longer available to the public for purchase. The items are not deleted from the database, they are just flagged as being reserved. This allows items which have been bought to persist on the website drawing visitors to their uniqueness and beauty regardless of the fact that they are no longer available.
Auto thumbnails and optimised graphics content
The stock lists consist of a thumbnail dimensions measuring 80x60 pixels, the name of the product, a brief description and the items price. If a client clicks on either the thumbnail or the product name they are brought to a detailed item data sheet.
In order to minimise the amount of work involved in creating imagery I wrote specialised imaging software which automatically rescales uploaded images and creates thumbnails which are used in the products sections.
By utilising thumbnails in this fashion I was able to keep dowload times down to a reasonable level considering the number of items in the lists.
All the graphics are optimised and organised in such a way that even on a modem connection you will find 'that crystal site' to be a swift shopping experience. You will never be kept waiting for photos of crystals and other specimens to download or content to be rendered.
Accessible stock item data sheets
The item data sheets are reached from the product sections. The data sheets contained details on the items as well as access to photographs and other information and options.
Essentially, the deeper you go into the website and the more information is revealed to you. If a user clicks on photographs in the data sheets a fixed size pop-up window appears with a high-resolution photograph.
Content management system
The entire website is backed up by a browser based content management system that allows the administrator full access to the database from anywhere in the world. The idea behind this is that they can be in a foreign country at a trade fair collecting a wide variety of new crystal stock, which they can easily upload to the website as soon as they get to their hotel room and photograph the pieces and write verbiage.
They can also check for new orders and contact clients remotely. The entire system is SSL secured and very simple to use. If you can use eBay you can use this!
In Rebecca's words
"What an awesome feat - building a website! Daniel made the whole process simple and efficient. I now have an attractive, easy to navigate site! Daniel reviewed it and reviewed it until it was perfect! A Brilliant Designer who really knows his stuff. Daniels 'can do' attitude makes him a joy to work with."
An enormous amount of time and thought goes into creating these systems. Usually, the simpler the experience for the client and the more time and thought has gone in to development.
From a certain point of view I have two clients when I design an e-commerce web site of this kind, one is the merchant who has hired me to create his e-shop, and the other is their clients who will actively be using the site. The final crystal website is easy for both the merchant to use and also for the clientele.
I hope this article gives you some idea of the process involved in developing such a site. I was not able to include everything otherwise this article would be five times longer than it currently is. Suffice to say that it was a significant job.
The client is very happy and the results speaks for themselves. Another job well done? You decide, that crystal site may be viewed here: www.thatcrystalsite.com