Winter-Spring 2004

Interactive Web Design for the Technically Uninclined

In the work that I have done with different nonprofits, the importance of community participation can't be underestimated. Nonprofits reach out to the community they serve, and in turn, that community supports their work. The Internet can greatly facilitate community building through interactive features such as mailing lists, guestbooks, and message boards. A forum for discussion can greatly enhance your Web site's power to attract and build community. By giving community members a place to post their ideas, concerns, and questions, and allowing them to interact with one another as well as your organization, interactive features create a source of interest for the community as well as a pool from which to draw feedback on your organization's activities and goals.

To the layperson, interactive Web features may seem extremely complicated to create and maintain. Fortunately, organizations that don't have full-time or highly skilled IT people need not be left behind. The Internet is alive with people and organizations providing already-developed interactive add-ons, code that can be cut and pasted into Web pages, or, even better, easy-to-install software. The best part is that much of this is provided for free online. You may be required to display a small logo that links back to a software developer's site, but most companies make this a fairly unobtrusive bit of advertising. With a little careful searching and investigation, it shouldn't be difficult to find the software that will work best for you.

Providers of free code or software usually offer a demo of the product on its Web site. You should be able to check out the product, see how others use it, and get a sense of how it might appear as part of your site. Most products can be modified to match your Web site's color scheme and fonts, so keep an eye on which features are described as customizable. Many providers even offer support on how to customize these features, which can be especially helpful.

Before you download anything, look for online instructions for installing the product. It's important to feel sure that the procedure makes sense to you. Technical people have varying success at explaining their work in laypersons' terms, and their clarity can be a bellweather for the ease of using the product. If the instructions overwhelm you with jargon or don't flow in a way that seems logical, there is a chance that you will always feel like you're fighting with the product, not working with it. Instructions and the "Read Me" files are important and useful.

The American Humanist Association, where I work, recently created a new site——where I was able to use an out-of-the-box solution to create a message board as a useful supplement. My experience is an example of how this process can succeed. We used Snitz forums because it was free, easy to install, customizable, and met our hosting requirements. There are many other free message board products available; it is vital to know your own site's needs and study how different resources could meet them. When I opened the "Read Me" file, it made sense to me. Now, I am not a tech-savvy person, but I was able to put this together very quickly, without coding, and have it blend in with our site. Most of the customization was done though a form-based user interface, not coding, which made alterations easy for our less technically savvy content manager to work with. Forms were available to control colors and fonts; a banned word list was available and easy to edit. The software gave us a broad range of administrative functions with minimal technical work on my end.

Most organizations will probably want one or more administrative accounts to manage the forum. This allows multiple people to create the major areas for discussion and then "seed" these areas with topics to help get a conversation going. In my experience with free forums, this process has been remarkably easy to implement, allowing us to focus more on they type of community we've wanted to create and how to lead and moderate the discussion, and less on how to implement it from a technical standpoint. I've had similar good experiences with code snippets to install guestbooks and "Mail this Page to a Friend" links.

There are a few technical things that you will need to keep in mind as you look into adding interactivity to your site. You need to know if your website is hosted on Windows or Linux/Unix. Your web-hosting provider can tell you if you aren't sure. Windows hosting means that you will probably want to use Active Server Pages (ASP) and that means you will look for code written in ASP or VBScript. Linux/Unix servers will likely use PHP or Perl for coding. With many of the scripts that are available, that's almost all the coding you need to know. You might also need to find out whether you can add a database to your site. If you choose to add a guestbook or a message board, you will probably need a database to store gathered information. With Windows, this means you need to know if you have an SQL Server available or if your hosting company will allow you to add an MS Access database. For Linux/Unix, you need to see if they will let you run a MySQL database. Make sure the products you look at support the database that your web-hosting company uses.

Armed with this minimal amount of technical knowledge and a willingness to search out the package that best meets your needs, it is easy for a minimally-skilled technical person to enhance a web site with free, interactive features. In my experience, this simple strategy can do wonders to facilitate the exchange and tighten the bond between your nonprofit and your community.

Useful links to get you started:

For ASP:
ASP Resource
Programmer's Heaven

For ASP and PHP:
Free 2 Code

For PHP and Perl:
Free php and perl scripts
PHP Freaks
The PHP Resource Index
Matt's Script Archive

Lisa Smith is currently the IT/Office Manager for the American Humanist Association. She worked with numerous nonprofits in 2000-2001 as a VISTA member with the Teaming for Technology Program in Washington DC.

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