Towards the end of 2019 we launched a new website for Dolls’ Houses Past and Present (DHP&P), a knowledgeable and friendly website and e-zine about dolls' houses - antique, vintage and modern - as well as furniture and accessories. Dolls’ Houses Past and Present began in 2009 as an online meeting place for owners and collectors, conservationists and restorers of both old and new dolls’ houses, with the intention of helping to fill the gap left by the demise of the print publication International Dolls’ House News. The site is now considered to be an internationally significant dolls’ house resource referenced by museums, collectors, sellers and restorers of antique and vintage dolls’ houses.
The team at DHP&P aims to promote research into, and provide information on, dolls’ house makers of all periods, especially the 19th and 20th centuries, in production in the USA, the UK, Germany, Sweden and other countries. The website and e-zine has a large, worldwide membership, and many members gladly share their expertise in identifying makers, restoration and conservation, or finding materials and miniatures for dolls’ houses old and new. The organisation is coordinated and managed entirely by volunteers and is non-profit making.
We were first approached by Zoe Handy, our UK contact and one of four admins at Dolls’ Houses Past and Present who are based in the UK, Germany and Australia, for support with a transition from an old website to the creation and build of a new modern replacement website.
The concept of collecting and building dolls’ houses may seem unusual to some, but to Phil our Managing Director, it harked back to his childhood. His family are very familiar with dolls’ houses, from the collection and restoration to the building and upkeep of them, as his father, Len Upton, used to make dolls’ houses while his mother, Jean, was an antique dealer and often working with antique dolls. So, Phil had great empathy with the project which lead to us not only winning the project, but the admins at DHP&P were so pleased with our efforts that they also added a ‘Len Upton’ category to their website in honour of Phil’s dad.
The previous Dolls’ Houses website faced many challenges, mostly due to the lack of modern elements within the web platform which had aged to the point where it was beyond upgrade and the Content Management System for the website was becoming obsolete. If the team had not acted to transfer the content to a new site, it would have eventually lost all of its valuable data and content that had been created over the years, losing a huge history of contributions. As the website was beyond upgrade, this also meant that some functions had already stopped working, and the site was unresponsive on new technology such as mobiles and tablets – which is essential for any website.
An additional challenge of the previous site was the counterintuitive CMS that made it difficult for site admins to upload and alter content other than through what had become an archaic interface and by manipulating HTML and code. This limited who could administrate the site and reduced its longevity as it was difficult to share the webmaster roles with new members. A new website offered up the opportunity to tackle some of these challenges, making it a much easier interaction for both admins and users.
When coming to us, the team at DHP&P wanted to increase the quality and usability of their content, in order to bring together the brand and represent it well. Coming to us to create their new site offered them the opportunity to reinforce the structure of the site and increase the quality of the environment. To overcome these challenges, our developers sat down with the team at DHP&P and spent time trying to understand the process, to find the easiest and most logical and manageable way to tackle the task while fulfilling the wants and needs of the team in the best way possible.
As with all projects, we felt it was important to understand who used the site, from the admins and contributors, to dolls’ house enthusiasts looking for inspiration. For the new website to work for each of these users we distilled this down to three main functions:
- Forum – the new website needed somewhere for users to be able to share online through conversation threads and a mechanism for finding relevant threads through categorisation.
- Gallery – Image sharing was key to this project and allowing registered members to create their own galleries, tag their images and make it easy for other enthusiasts to then enjoy their images was essential.
- Magazine – The new website needed to host the online magazine archive which is enjoyed by its many members.
It was also important that the years of information that had been collected on the old website was not lost and the project involved migrating this information to the new website in a logical new site structure.
As a forum featured on the old side, the team decided that they needed to provide this same function on the new site, with more modern improvements. The forum provides a discussion area for collectors and researchers, sub-sectioned into categories under the control of the team at DHP&P, where registered users can create topics within these categories, and add comments. Ultimately, the forum provides a space for users to come together and discuss Doll’s Houses as part of a community, exchanging knowledge and expertise.
The gallery of the website is made up of two areas, a database area maintained and edited only by the admins, and the photo gallery, a public domain for members of the site. Membership is required to be able to post on the site but joining is free. Members may donate towards the costs of maintaining the site, but this is optional.
One area of The Gallery of the site is the Database, maintained by the team at DHP&P, rather than the public, containing a historic volume of information about dolls’ houses and is a repository that’s called upon by people and organisations worldwide who look at this as a research tool. For example, when looking for a specific manufacturer from the 1940s, typically it’s the Dolls’ Houses Past & Present website that they’ll come to find this information.
The other area of the Gallery is the photo gallery that is run and contributed to by the public domain, filled with user generated content by members. Content can be viewed by anyone visiting the site, but to contribute content users must register and create an account before creating albums and uploading photos. Others can add to your album, resulting in a huge resource and a growth in the content shared. To make this expanse more accessible and navigable, the gallery is split up into categories, such as by Makers, where you would find the likes of Len Upton, Phil’s dad. There is a degree of control by the DHP&P team over this section, simply to keep integrity and control over the new site.
The third main function of the website, and one of the biggest tasks of the project, is the magazine. The magazine’s content spans over ten years, dating back to 2009, with the magazine publishing quarterly – making for a huge expanse of material that had to be transferred from one site to another. Throughout the process, there were lots of conversations between the two teams about how best to deploy the magazine, before it was decided that they wanted each individual page of the magazine to be a ‘thing’ in its own right on the new website, making space for following issues to be uploaded too. This included transferring each and every page of all issues across from the old site, with some pages containing up to 200 images, and up to 14 pages on any one edition!
A huge part of the process was making the new site easier to navigate from the back end too, as the team put in place administrator tools to help admins enter and maintain the content as easily as possible. Their former site had to be edited through HTML and code, something that had to be extensively taught for changes to be made to the website. With the wizards we put in place to bypass this, the new site will be easier to transition through the ages and be passed on to new people. The interface is much easier to tackle, and users can go in blind, which is imperative for an organisation with administrators worldwide as not everyone will have access to training with us.
Following back and forth communication with the team at Dolls’ Houses, the completion of the website has been a year-long process replacing an existing website and transferring all existing information and data across, but the project isn’t over yet - a site of such a huge and impressive nature will be an ongoing process to upkeep. The new website is predominantly made up of 3 main functionalities: The Forum, the Gallery and the Magazine, within two of which the content is user generated. Existing content from the old site has been impossible to migrate across, so it’s been a crucial effort to get users to upload their old content to new site, to slowly but surely regain the level and quality of content on the previous site.
The Dolls’ Houses Past and Present site is a huge resource tool and community, that satisfies the needs of hobbyists and researchers, which is made evident through the support and passion of its users. Every penny towards this was contributed by the Dolls’ Houses Past & Present community, and it was only these donations that made this fantastic project possible.
Testimonial from Zoe Handy
“Let me start by saying that we are SO glad we decided to go with PCS to build our new website! Yes, you came in with the best quote, but you also impressed us with your enthusiasm and commitment to delivering exactly what we wanted.
And our confidence wasn’t misplaced: you and every member of your team have been friendly, helpful and professional; you have guided us through the process with endless positivity and patience, and your ‘can do’ attitude has been superb.
Of course, the end product is the real testament, and we absolutely love our new site! Over 350 members have now joined and their feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Our aim was to retain the identity of our old site but with a fresh, up-to-date look - tick. We wanted our members to be able to navigate around and interact with the site easily - tick. We wanted the site to be easy to administer and update - tick. So, a million thanks to you and your team - we would (and will!) recommend your services to anyone without hesitation.”