Spotlight: Emagine Media - Tourism Ireland

April 27, 2010
by Jacob Russell

This week we spotlight Emagine Media and the EE site they built for Tourism Ireland

Our “Spotlight” series of articles gives designers, developers, add-on creators, and just generally great members of the ExpressionEngine community a chance to talk about how they have used EE and its add-ons in their work.

Aaron Jay is a photographer, web developer, and is the technical director at Emagine Media in Ireland.  Emagine has brought a group of web enthusiasts with very diverse backgrounds together to build web sites, and they’re doing some pretty great work.  Today we’ll be taking a look at Tourism Ireland Imagery, the site they built for Tourism Ireland.  They made great use of ExpressionEngine add-ons on this site, and are a great example of when building your own add-on is better than off-the-shelf.

Give us a little background on yourself and your business, what do you do and how did you get started with ExpressionEngine?

We started about 10 years ago. Three of us founded the company and we come from a diverse skillset. We have a graphic designer who’s full time and myself, I used to be a photographer in another life, and our other director who studied architecture. The three of us got into the web one way or another and started doing work as a design company 10 years ago.

We got into ExpressionEngine just by going through different CMS’s and trying them out. We were looking for something that didn’t need a whole lot of proprietary language to learn. All the other content management systems that we found did some of what we wanted,  but they didn’t do everything. Also we found that a whole lot of systems make your design work to their structure, as opposed to the other way around.  Since we were always design oriented and always focused on design first, we had to try to fit our design to put it into someone else’s idea of how a website should look. ExpressionEngine is freer that way. You can do whatever you want with it and our designs look the way they were intended and drawn, and not just another WordPress theme.

You mentioned WordPress there, along with that what other kinds of CMS’s did you use before coming to EE?

We used CMS Made Simple for a long time, and we still use that occasionally for really small sites. It’s quite a good little CMS. We also used Joomla, Drupal, TYPO3, WordPress, a bunch of others that were smaller and less developed. We just couldn’t find anything that was developed enough and had enough features. There’s always something custom on a job; there’s hardly ever anything vanilla out of the box with no changes. We find that our clients always say ‘we want a blog but we want to be to book tickets through it,’ or ‘we want a photo gallery but we want this download thing.’ There’s always something that we have to customize ourselves. We’ve found that if you know PHP and you know a bit about ExpressionEngine, and even CodeIgnitor now with 2.0 coming out, it makes it easy. You don’t have to re-learn a whole lot to make what you want.

How long have you been using ExpressionEngine?

Two and a half or three years.

It’s what you use for most of your web work now?

Nearly everything. We use the odd WordPress if somebody already has WordPress and they don’t want to change, or we use something like CMS Made Simple if it’s really basic and just needs to get banged out in a week. Most everything is ExpressionEngine now; we try to go that way just because it’s so flexible. The bonus from that is that it’s a minimum cost for what you get.

Can you give us a little background on Tourism Ireland Imagery?

Tourism Ireland is a government agency responsible for marketing the island of Ireland overseas as a premier tourist destination. Tourism Ireland Imagery is their library of images which they’ve gathered over the years that illustrates lifestyle in Ireland, scenic places, visitor spots, or all the different imagery associated with Ireland that they’ve collected. They supply this imagery to design agencies, graphics designers, journalists or anybody that’s writing or doing anything that’s promoting Ireland as a tourist destination. Basically what they have is this huge image library and they give these images free of charge to whoever wants to use them as long as they’re using them to promote Ireland.

We started the project 6 years ago and it was initially built in ASP because that’s what was going at the time and it was a good setup. It ran for about 4 and a half years on ASP and then we got a chance to re-tender for it last year. We re-won the tender and we’ve got this new system that’s really flexible and can handle everything. The main key to them was that they could administrate things easily and add imagery easily. That’s a big point for them because they’re commissioning work all the time and it needs flexibility.

What add-ons are you using on the site?

A lot of the basic ones like FieldFrame, Playa, and Wygwam just for people to be able to cut and paste things in from Word or other programs and not need to code HTML tags. There’s a whole bunch of add-ons like Publish Tweeks that put an image on a certain page or redirect back to other pages from inside the admin panel.

Most of it is out of the box; I think the biggest one we’ve used is Super Search. Even though it was in beta at the time, we went with it, and we worked with the guys at Solspace. We found that Super Search did about 95% of what we needed but that extra 5% was really important to us. It’s searching on keywords that Tourism Ireland can go in and assign themselves. There’s a list of keywords that they can assign with drag and drop and lay things out easily. Ease of use for the Admins was key.

What kind of change was it moving from ExpressionEngine’s built-in search to Super Search?

Well initially when we were proposing the site to Tourism Ireland we decided ourselves that we were going to hack the main ExpressionEngine search because it just didn’t do what we needed. With Super Search you can search on a variety of different fields but one thing that we worked on with Solspace is the Playa search. That’s really key to us: that we can put a Playa field in and you can drag multiple keywords to an image and do relational searches on that. You can do ‘and’ searches and ‘or’ searches or put a wild card in to do a free search.

I think from Tourism Ireland’s point of view and from using the site they had a lot of images and they had a lot of keywords but in order to find them intelligently was really important because they have so many images in the system. It used to be if you’d do a search for ‘Dublin’ you’d get 600 or 800 images for county Dublin or anything that had Dublin in it, and that’s what ExpressionEngine did out of the box. Now we can do a search for the word “Cork” and it does an exact search for that word in certain specific fields, one of those being a Playa list of those keywords.

One plugin you use on the site that I’m not familiar with is Modulo Operator, can you tell me about Modulo Operator a little bit, what is that doing for you on the site?

Actually, we used that initially for when we had a coda slider and you’d do a search for Dublin and get 600 images back and instead of seeing 600 on a page you’d see 15 per page and then you had a slider to review them all in one batch. We used modulo to count every 15th record that came back so every 15th it reset another list and added another set of ul tags and divs.

We’ve actually taken that bit of functionality out of the site now and refined it even more recently and we went just pure jquery. We found that using a coda slider you’d have to load in 600 images in one go and there’s so many users on the site that it was just too much of a draw on the server’s resources. So we switched it to a short 15 image ajax call each time.

How about Pur Developer?

It’s basically for the back-end; you can use it for front end stuff but for it’s just a shortcut for us. We try to work quickly and it’s a drop down tag in the admin panel that you can click to view your channels easily. It’s basically one click to the extension manager and one click to plugin manager. We were under pretty big time pressure from deadlines and 15 more clicks a day is too much wasted effort. It’s a shortcut device more than anything.

Another one I’m not familiar with is First Timer, what does that do for you?

Since we moved the site over from the old version they had about 6,000 or 7,000 people that needed to be moved across as members. We used Importer from Solspace to move the bulk of the accounts from the old MSSQL/Windows to the new MySQL/EE setup. Since the security was stricter and the password scheme was a bit more complicated what they wanted to do was require anyone logging in on the new server with an old account to go to a change password page the first time they log in. This plugin points someone to a page the first time they login.

The site also uses a custom module you built for the site to handle the images. Can you tell us a little bit about what that does?

It is a shortcut for administrators of Tourism Ireland imagery itself to be able to log in and instead of going through to the members area and view all the data in default ExpressionEngine we put all of that data inside a Tourism Ireland button. The can view all the images in the catalogue, do a mini-search, create their own galleries (which are the dynamic ones that show up on the front page), and administrate and upgrade accounts. The whole thing is based on permissions so if you log in with a certain permission you get to see a certain range of imagery. So if someone got in contact with them and said look I’m not finding the images I want they’d upgrade their account to give them better access, and that’s all handled through the module. The module gives us the ability to place custom reports into the system as well, like the number of accounts per permission level, or keyword assignment lists.

The other custom work that we put into that module is the custom gallery functionality. As a user, you drag and drop images in to save a personal gallery and when you go to click download it gives you options for resizing the images. When you resize the images and say I want these 20 images at a medium size it wraps everything up at the right size and zips it all into a .zip and throws in a .pdf that gives you information like descriptions and filenames. That way the next day when you’re looking at it you see 20 images and you can’t remember what you’re looking at it’s there in one big chunk for you, filenames and all.

Is that something that you could have done without building an add-on or with add-ons that are already available? What was the thought process behind building a custom add-on to meet your needs?

The thought process initially is that we wanted to make it as easy as possible for the Tourism Ireland imagery admin people without having to learn a whole new system. It’s easy enough for them to go in and click three or four menu tabs that they work in all the time and they know how to use and that’s all they really need to know. We don’t really need to give them access to templates or administration or any of the preferences because it isn’t their daily focus. They need to see what they are responsible for and they leave the rest to us.

The main thing was that we couldn’t get any kind of a .zip package out of the box. There was no way to zip a whole lot of images up and download it based on choices the user makes. There’s a lot of sophisticated logging in there as well because they wanted to be able to look through their search logs and see that the people who are searching from France are looking for this type of image, for example. They can detail out that information now which is quite good for marketing.

What kind of really challenging problems did you run into on the site that required creative solutions outside of the module you created?

The challenge always is that it’s really hard to be creative in a design sense and make something that looks nice but at the same time make it work. We find that there’s a lot of designers that design well, but can’t program.  We find that there’s a lot of programmers that make working sites but they don’t look like anything. It’s hard to find the marriage of the two.

I noticed that your list of add-ons is fairly short. Is that by design or did that just end up being what you needed on this site?

That’s just what was needed. I don’t think that we use a ton of add-ons just for the sake of it.  You use the tools you need for the job. We went through the brief and said, ‘I need to make it so that when I look at the edit screen there’s an image, so where can I find that?’ and we’d find it and we’d use it. We’ve had to adjust a few of the add-ons in there like the live search add-on which is a javascript predictive-textdrop down. We had to hack around in that a bit just to get what we wanted because it was drawing from descriptions only. We edited that to make sure it would pull in counties in Ireland and it would pull in titles off the image weblog. I suppose in the end we don’t use a whole lot of add-ons if we don’t need to. I don’t think there’s any need to over-complicate things.

What’s your every-site toolbox of add-ons that you couldn’t live without or wouldn’t want to?

There’s definitely some like nGen File or anything to do with FieldFrame. It was kind of a revelation when it came out a couple of years ago. We were doing things the old fashioned way: pulling images into a galleries or repeating weblogs and trying to do related weblogs and entries. Now with FieldFrame we don’t have to, it’s just repeating data-grids. Wygwam we also use all the time. Those are the main ones really. There’s the odd few others like LG Better Meta that we use on a few sites, a lot of Leevi Graham’s extensions are quite good. Structure is another one that we’d never go without.

Structure is kind of a big change from the old Pages module.

As soon as that Structure module came out I almost sent an email to the guy thanking him because we were finally past listing entries by category for navigation. I suppose that the big thing is for us is that it’s been nice to grow with the software as it evolves. We started with version 1.6.3, so I suppose we came a little later than the original versions, but even in the last little bit EE’s functionality has kind of ramped up. We were in the beta group so we got to see 2.0 and put it through its paces and it’s really nice now. We have some guys who are CodeIgniter heads who are just dying to get into that and make some extensions.

That’s another question for you too then: how do you feel about 2.0 now? Would you use it for a client site or do you feel like it’s not ready for prime time yet?

We’re kind of the same as a lot of web designers in that the cobbler’s son has the worst shoes. We’ve been trying to get back to our own site since mid-august of last year. Since when we first got 2.0 we decided to launch our own site in 2.0 just so that we can learn it and if there’s problems they don’t really matter because it’s our own site and we’re happy with what it is. The plan is still to re-launch our own site in 2.0. As far as client sites go there’s two or three things missing from it like certain plugins like Playa which we tend to use and if that’s missing then there’s no point in trying to re-invent the wheel if 1.6.8 works. For something basic and easy and straightforward we would use 2.0 but being in pre-release we kind of shy away from it until it’s really ready.

What do you have coming up?

We are working with Tourism Ireland in the next phase of things.We also have a good base of clients who are active and engaged. It’s always nice to work with people who are passionate about what they do, and thankfully we have a lot of those types on the books.

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