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The Ongoing Process of Site Redesign
Erowid 3.0
by Earth & Fire Erowid
Citation:   Erowid F, Erowid E. "The Ongoing Process of Site Redesign: Erowid 3.0". Erowid Extracts. Nov 2003;5:4.
As we work on the day-to-day management of new and existing site content, there are also several large ongoing projects that we try to keep moving forward. The largest of these is what we call Erowid 3.0, which received a great deal of our time over the summer of 2003. The project has been mentioned briefly in past Extracts, but we wanted to provide a further outline to keep members informed about the progress we're making.

Conceptually, the Erowid 3.0 project is a complete redesign and restructuring of the site. It includes front-end changes to the look-and-feel, user interface and site organization, as well as back-end changes to the data storage and processing systems. Because Erowid has grown organically over the past eight years, it is made up of dozens of different "areas" which were created at different times, in different formats, with different looks to meet the needs of the moment. The primary design goals of the Erowid 3.0 project are to:

  • Update the look of the site.
  • Improve site interface and navigation and take advantage of dynamic browser capabilities.
  • Move to using the HTML 4 standard (including CSS) for better maintainability.
  • Create the necessary underlying structure to make the look-and-feel of the site user-configurable in the future.
  • Add an error and correction reporting interface to every page.
  • Implement a first draft of the Erowid content review system.
  • Make it easier to add documents.
  • Integrate existing sections of the site into one coherent system.
Although we hope to make Erowid 3.0 work well in all browsers, we are targeting Mozilla, Internet Explorer, Safari (Mac OS X), and Lynx (a text-based web browser) as our testing platforms. Erowid 3.0 will not support Netscape 4.x.

Interface Changes
The current site navigation is more than four years old. While it is still functional, it is obviously outdated. For the past few years, we have prioritized working on content over working on the interface and design, but it's obviously time for a change.

The most noticeable changes to the interface are new headers and footers that use dynamic drop-down menus (ECMA/Javascript) to improve navigation. These menus provide quicker access to a deeper site structure, meaning less intermediate pages to click through when moving from one area to another. Second, the headers will include a search field and links to associated topics. Documents will have more standardized authorship, copyright, and publication information, hopefully reducing confusion and improving citability. Another major addition is that page footers will provide direct access to a form for reporting errors and corrections, making it easier to manage suggested changes to the site.

Once the new interface has been implemented and files have been updated and regularized, it should be much simpler to make interface changes in the future.

Two sections of Erowid already have preliminary versions of the new design and interface in place. We began beta testing the new designs with the smaller and more manageable Spirit and Freedom Vaults in July 2003.

Back End Changes
Currently, much of the core content of the site exists only as static HTML files, coded and linked to by hand over the last eight years by the Erowid crew. The Experience Vaults, the References Vaults, and Ask Erowid are all database applications, but they were written years apart in different languages, do not use the same ontology (category system), and share very little code. This hodgepodge means that currently: links between sections must be made by hand, the systems are cumbersome to update, and changes to one area are not automatically reflected on the rest of the site.

Content Review System
While the initial release of Erowid 3.0 will likely contain only hints of the larger Grass Roots Peer Review system we're working on, we're very excited about this developing part of the project. The content review system for Erowid 3.0 uses something known in the software development world as "collaborative filtering". Voting and rating systems are types of collaborative filtering. Early versions will involve managing the per-document comments and corrections submitted through the new interface and providing a system for volunteers and crew to work together to filter and validate these submissions. Simple error corrections can be handled by crew, while more complex comments could be approved for display at the end of the relevant document.

Another early piece of the content review system is a "triage" process (described briefly in Extracts issue 3) for incoming experience reports, images, and article submissions. Currently, one of the primary bottlenecks in our information publishing system is simply sorting through and keeping track of the status of thousands of waiting submissions. The primary function of triage will be to allow a much larger number of people to help categorize, critique and approve submissions before they are ready for publication without reducing overall quality or reliability. The triage process will track submitted items and comments by triagers, as well as help us identify valuable volunteers.

Other major features of the Erowid content review system include:
  • A standardized public interface for viewing a document's review status.
  • Seeing a list of identified articles that contradict or support a document.
  • Viewing back links (links from other documents).
  • A way to track, browse, and compare the reviews by different crew members.
Erowid 3.0 will continue to see progress amidst other necessary work, but beta testing parts of the release on the live site has begun and we look forward to feedback about the new designs.