Research websites – one size doesn’t fit all

A big part of what universities do is research. A big part of what we do is to help researchers tell others about that research. Sometimes that’s through digital stories, sometimes through social media and sometimes through a good old fashioned website.

There’s a system for that

I was recently approached by a researcher asking for help creating a website for their project. As is often the case, they’d tried to create it themselves using institutional systems and found they weren’t as easy to use as they’d hoped. In such cases, our first approach is usually to help them work with those institutional systems. Sometimes though, they just aren’t the best solution.

They wanted a site for a research network based across lots of countries with contributing authors from many different institutions. As such, they’d found using one institutional CMS problematic for political reasons as much as technical ones. After a initial meeting, I suggested WordPress might be the way forward. They were keen to try and after some initial paranoia over my possible bias towards WordPress (“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”) I decided it really was a good fit for what they needed.

Site specification: we want a nice site

One of the problems with web design is agreeing what the client actually wants – in detail. The spec for the site when we first talked was roughly: “We want a site that looks nice, uses lots of images, has content in English, Spanish & Portugeuse and makes it easy for us to add and edit content.”

It took a lot of discussion and a few quick prototypes to refine that to something I could start to build. While I’m sure this approach frustrates clients, I think it is vital to avoid “mistakes” that become harder to fix once you’ve built them into the actual site. I’m also fairly relaxed about them having design input. It isn’t my strength, so I’m happy when I get help (which is often volunteered by our resident designer, Hanna).

Getting it built

Spoiler alert: This is the site


Here’s a bit more detail on how it works.

The site is a hosted WordPress (multisite) network installation with a custom theme that was adapted from their previous site. It’s based on the TwentyTwelve theme which I know pretty well and which provides a flexible framework for designing clean sites that work well on desktop and mobile.

I created sub-sites to host versions of the site in Spanish and Portugese, using the Multilingual Press plugin to link page/post translations. Once set up, this adds an extra “Translate this post” box to posts which when ticked, automatically creates a copy of the post on linked sites. So, when I create a post in English, it is easy to create and enter content in Spanish and Portuguese too.


(OK, it was easy as they gave me the translations. Sadly, I don’t speak either of those languages.)

As an aside, it is also fairly simple to set the entire WordPress dashboard to use an alternative language.


I also added a “custom post type” for creating project newsletters. That adapts the built-in post/page mechanism to use language specific to newsletters. It might seem a trivial change, but it reduces the need for content creators to do the translation from “post to newsletter” in their heads. It also allowed me to make custom templates to display the newsletter content type in a different way. In this case, the latest newsletter featured in large at the top of the page with past newsletters shown as an archive below.

Handing the site over

What really impressed me was how quickly people in the research group took over adding and editing content, changing menu structures and adding plugins to add new functionality. I like to think WordPress really is as intuitive as I think it is, but this is a view from someone who uses it a lot. Feedback from the client of “I can’t believe how easy this is!” helps validate that belief. The increasing number of requests for custom sites for research groups on the Jisc Involve blog network I manage seems to back this up too.

I’m not claiming WordPress is the right CMS for all research groups or that is it always better than other instiutional systems, rather that sometimes it is the right solution and we should support people in using the best tools for the job.