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Monday, July 4, 2016

The New FEE.org: The Backstory

How FEE became amazing


Sometimes new website designs work and sometimes they do not.

Most often, users have to be brought along. At first they hate it. Over time, they come to appreciate it.

What I’ve not observed in all my prior experience in releasing new sites was what greeted the new FEE.org, released the last week of June 2016: universal acclaim.

What this design has achieved is a beautiful unity of content and presentation. Sophisticated, classy, effervescent, credible: these are the words people are using to describe the experience.

Success! It’s been very gratifying for the team that made it all happen. The entire staff of FEE was involved. We took some risks. We considered all the tradeoffs. We all worked ridiculous numbers of hours. The result is joy all around. FEE has a 70-year heritage, and the current generation of staff and managers have so much to carry forward into the digital age. Of all the iterations released over 20 years, this one comes closest.

One Year Ago

Traffic immediately turned up, even dramatically.The new FEE.org is the culminating (for now) event of a long process that really began one year ago with an ambition to massively upgrade FEE’s digital presence. We were in the process of finally closing on the old mansion in New York that had served as our headquarters since 1946.

There was a certain symbolism at work: closing that building and moving to a modern office in beautiful Atlanta, Georgia, marked the end of an era that focussed on physical distribution. As such, it must also mark the beginning of a new excellence in digital distribution.

The initial and seemingly insurmountable problem we faced was that FEE’s website was built and controlled in its code by a third-party provider, and always had been. We had no code access and depended on one company for all site work.

That was fine for its time, but these are new times. FEE needed to bring the digital property in-house in order to exercise maximum control, competitively bid among developers, and deploy new features to stay ahead of the curve.

This might sound easy. It wasn’t. Oftentimes, third-party providers claim ownership over the code and database structure and only grant clients control and ownership of content itself. This was indeed the case here, much to our disappointment.

We had to accomplish something few others in our industry have attempted: a complete rebuild on a development server, without cooperation from the provider. That reconstruction included all content, imagery, structure, database connections, and even the entire suite of management tools.

After three months of herculean effort, it was done, one year ago next month. In the end, the user experience was identical (this was the initial goal) but the underlying reality was dramatically different. We were owners, not renters. And so anything was possible, with the right level of expertise. We also had to take responsibility for the results.

A Release Every 1.3 Days

That was only the beginning. What followed were many whirlwind months of building, creating, tweaking, marketing, plus a new effort on the content front. Production doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. Demand was keeping up with supply. And with development comes breakages, fixes, late nights, new ideas, new dreams, and so on.

As we look back, we did some calculations based on the documentation of the site since last August. As it turns out, we released a new version of the site every 1.3 business days since that time. For anyone who builds sites, you know that is a break-neck pace of development.

We implemented new search methods, tagging and topic sorting, fixed legacy authors, streamlined article code, implemented new donations methods, integrated the store, restored important texts, created new sections and sharing tools, and so much more.

Traffic immediately turned up, even dramatically. This was due to better optimization in every area of the site. Today, site traffic is up four and five times over two years ago. We are experiencing as much as 1 million page views per month.

The Look and Feel

What if we ask for bids for designs? There was no downside, so we tried.It was less than three months ago that we realized that we had a more serious problem that we had been unwilling to face – the elephant in the living room, so to speak. We had a fundamental design problem. We had been successful in scraping and tweaking the old third-party site. And yet there was a discontinuity between design and content. It was a nice design (charming in its own way), just not for FEE, given our mission and purpose.

Professional, beautiful, balanced designs are expensive. We took some bids from great design companies in the US, the prestige type of firm that had done some of the best out there. Then the sticker shock came. This path was unaffordable for us. Inconceivable really. And we suspected that the quoted price tag would be much higher, even into six figures. After all, there are five substantial phases between concept and final implementation, and the quoted price covered only three to four of those. It would be a lot more.

What to do?

Throughout the last year, FEE has become very adept at international contracting, with specialty work contracted out on a piecemeal basis all around the world. It is a simple matter of the division of labor. We can hire a few hours of work from an expert on payment systems, feature development, database work, or whatever, and leaving our own staff to do what they do best. This is one of the advantages of keeping the site in-house: we can competitively bid for service workers.

What if we ask for bids for designs? There was no downside, so we tried. We put a maximum amount. Here’s the key: it was about 8% of the estimates from US providers. Absurd, right? Not really.

The applications poured in. Many dozens of them. Some pitched designs while others just promised good stuff but refused to provide samples for fear that we would somehow take their designs and not hire them. That’s an understandable fear, but it makes it rather difficult for us to decide.

Imran Joins the Team

FEE is still iterating the site almost daily. One application stood out. It was from a young man from Pakistan, a self-taught designer named Imran Nasir. His proposals were beautiful. He was extremely responsive. He would take care of not only wireframes but also style sheets and structure. He was not intimidated by the vast scale of the project. He was friendly and fast and ready to work.

Who is he? He is like every reader of this website and anyone who aspires to a better life. It so happens that he was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and then his family moved to Lahore where he lives today. He is 26 years old. He started doing front-end development at the age of 19. He is still unknown – maybe his work for FEE will change that – but has high hopes.

“Design is one of the most powerful influences in our lives,” he told me. “My dream is that great design will help change the world for peace and prosperity. I want to leave the world better than I found it. This doesn’t mean only working for nonprofits. Every commercial enterprise is life changing. All of us have limited resources. I want to use mine to make a difference.”

Over the coming weeks, our team became good friends with Imran. Even though he was on the other side of the world, in a radically different culture, and we had never met before, we became a solid team. He worked with FEE.org’s architect David Veksler, project manager Jason Kelly, the keen design eye of FEE’s COO Richard Lorenc, the wise counsel of Wayne Olson, and so many more.

In the end, the entire process was complete in about six weeks: a complete transformation of some 40,000 site pages. And it was accomplished for a tiny fraction of what the same might have cost had we gone with a prestige US company.

Think of this operation in light of all the political rhetoric about shipping jobs overseas and the need to buy American. We felt great about the transaction. FEE helped launch the career of a young and brilliant man in Pakistan, who otherwise lacks opportunity. We ended up with a great website. Our donors got the best value from their contributions to FEE. Our decision hurts no one, since evidently the US design firms that charge so much have plenty of business.

The Future

FEE is still iterating the site almost daily. The work never stops because history never stops moving forward. We want to drive that process forward, not merely follow it. FEE today is the leading edge of technology in the service of human freedom.

Seventy years ago, Leonard Read had the idea of creating a sanctuary for liberty in dark times. He wasn’t satisfied merely to preserve an idea; he wanted to propagate the freedom philosophy as a light unto the world. He used every method then available.

Today we have more tools than ever before, and we are using them in ways that were inconceivable only a few years ago.

Thank you donors to FEE, and thank you customers of our product! If you are not yet a donor, know that every bit of support you give us will be used to build a freer world.