Architecting Information for the IA Summit with Drupal 8 and Acquia

Planning a website for a conference about information architecture is never easy. With every content and structural decision you make, you feel the core audience silently judging you. The team that built the 2015 IA Summit conference site knew that it would take a flexible architecture, and a fast and reliable platform, to meet audience expectations. That’s why we turned to Acquia and Drupal 8.

Built to last

Many conference websites are designed and built for a single event, then tossed away and built again the following year. This can be hugely wasteful, something a volunteer-run event like the IA Summit can ill afford. After 16 successful years, it’s clear the event is here to stay. So we wanted more than just a presence for 2015, we needed a platform that could support multiple events for years to come.

This takes some serious planning and foresight, including an understanding of the people involved, their roles and contributions, and how these might change over time. This year’s workshop assistant might be next year’s speaker, and one day may give a keynote address. A presentation given in 2015 may have thematic connections to one given in a past, or future, event.

Model views

Thanks to Drupal’s nodal structure, we were able to model the concepts of people, their roles, and the types of sessions given in an annual event. We wanted each person’s profile page to tell you about their involvement in every IA Summit event. If someone has spoken at one or more events, we wanted links to every session she's presented. Drupal’s flexible views are perfect for expressing these connections dynamically.

These views also power smart index pages, such as automatic curation of the popular sea-of-faces headshot matrix so common to conference websites. By building this page as a view, it updates automatically whenever a person is assigned as a “speaker” for a specific event. Handy when speakers drop out, or decide they’d prefer a more flattering photograph. Thanks to Drupal’s node and view structure, making such changes is a breeze - even from a smartphone.

What You See is What You Want

WYSIWYG editors are usually loathed by designers for allowing authors to unwittingly create terrible markup when pasting in formatted content. Drupal’s CKEditor produces (mostly) acceptable markup with no additional development. Editors were able to work on content in parallel to development work. Right up to showtime we made tiny tweaks to session details, and were grateful for D8’s new quick edit tools.

A Drupal 8 WYSIWYG editor in action

But really, that richly-linked web of nodes needs structured content. To be able to define fields for People (first name, last name, Twitter handle, email address etc.), Sessions (title, description, type, date, location, takeaways), and even the event Sponsors (along with the sessions they’ve sponsored this year, and elsewhere) is a dream for information architects. Here too, Drupal 8’s core admin functionalities got us up and running quickly, prototyping how we wanted this content to take shape.

An edit form for a session, showing many of the fields for structured data

Modeling content relationships at data-level gives us flexibility in interface design. We certainly needed a site that worked across desktop and mobile, and with a little experimentation were able to get a responsive theme to perform across platforms. (A word of warning: Twig, Drupal 8’s theming engine, is so different from previous versions that even experienced themers may find themselves lost. Getting comfortable with the new system should be factored into any project.)

We were dedicated to ensuring content was accessible, with sensible tab-ordering and Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) markers. Accessibility support comes as standard in Drupal 8, so once we marked up theme templates appropriately, we were confident that the rendered pages would remain accessible.

Keeping up pace

The conference lifecycle moves fast. From initial announcement, to the call for papers, to the publishing of the program, to the days of the event itself, the Web platform has to adapt to meet evolving needs and increasing demand.

We were grateful for Acquia’s solid hosting and development environment. We maintained staging and production environments, so that our volunteer teams were able to develop and QA each phase of the site prior to launch. Oh, and we had several compliments about how fast the site was compared to previous years.

We’ve only just begun

The strategy for the IA Summit’s Web presence was ambitious. In 2015 we started a structure that will adapt and grow with us. But there’s so much more to do, from integrating slide presentations and podcasts, to publishing machine-readable data for better SEO and public remixing.

Our intention is to build a rich repository of knowledge and to deliver on the IA Summit’s core purpose: to become the home of information architecture. In 2015 we met our goal: to provide a robust and flexible platform and structure, saving our volunteer successors time, energy, and hassle.

With the help of Drupal 8 and Acquia we’re making the IA Summit, and its digital presence, a future-friendly phenomenon.