Spotlight: Andrew Gunstone - Eastern Ranges GP Association
February 9, 2010
by Jacob Russell
This week we spotlight Thirst Studio’s Andrew Gunstone and the site they built for the Eastern Ranges GP Association.
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.
Andrew Gunstone is an ExpressionEngine web and add-on developer and the Technical Director of Thirst Studios, based near Melbourne, Australia. He recently released his first add-on, SC Publish Redirect, and has many more promising add-ons on the way. His example of developing add-ons to fit development needs is an inspiration to web developers who have a need not filled by current offerings, and we look forward to what he has coming up!
Give us a little background on yourself: What do you do and how do you use ExpressionEngine on a daily basis?
I first have to admit something…I am a total EE evangelist. So if this interview sounds slightly biased, it is because it is.
I have been a freelance web designer and developer for the past 12 years. I originally trained in the early 90’s as a print designer, but quickly moved into buildinga websites. I have always been a tech-head, and started playing around with classic ASP, Cold-fusion, and then finally PHP and MySQL.
Over the past year and a half, I have partnered with another excellent freelance designer and usability specialist (Ben Tollady), and we have formed Thirst Studios. Ben takes on most of the front-end design, whilst I have taken on the role of Technical Director. Thirst was founded on the principle of creating beautiful, user-friendly websites that are built to web-standards.
ExpressionEngine has become our “go-to” CMS for almost all sites we now build. As Technical Director, I get to play/work with EE on (almost) a daily basis. I now find that even for small sites that perhaps don’t require such a powerful CMS, it is much quicker for me to get it up and running in EE, given the incredible flexibility of the templates, and the plethora of add-ons available.
How did you get started with ExpressionEngine?
I came across EE about 2 years ago as I was reviewing CMS’s for an up-coming job. Before web apps became all the rage, I used to build my own simple, bespoke Content Management Systems for clients, so I had a very clear idea of what I wanted. Over the years I had tried a range of different off-the-shelf solutions, but found most of them difficult to extend, or you need a high level of knowledge just to implement the templates, or very confusing for the content editors to use.
After downloading and installing EE, I really found the templating system to be very intuitive, and actually FIT into MY workflow! It really was true love though after I discovered that I could save the templates as files and work on them in my favourite text editor. To me this was better than chocolate.
As I delved deeper into using EE for a real job, I was delighted to find such an active and generous community, who provided not only examples and support, but for the most part were giving their add-ons away for nothing! I was genuinely surprised and impressed by the speed with which I received responses on the EE Forum. To this day, I believe it was the EE community that has really sold me on using EE as the CMS of choice for Thirst Studios.
What is this site, and why is it special?
Almost all of our sites are now built using EE, however we especially enjoyed working on the Eastern Ranges GP Association (ERGPA) website. Firstly this client was a joy to work with, and they do some really great work with the GP’s in Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs. The area they work is mostly rural, and many of the GP’s were directly affected by the 2009 Black Saturday fires.
Secondly, ERGPA provided us with a realistic budget for producing a high quality site. As most web designers know, this is a rare thing (we have all had the emails… can you build me brilliant new website - my budget is $250)!
Finally, the site was quite a challenge to put together (which is a good thing!). There are many areas to the site, including a couple of sub-sites, that really required some thinking on how they all work together.
Given the complexity of the content, the large number of sections, the need to link them all together in a cohesive way, and the requirement to split certain content into sub-sites, using EE was a bit of a no-brainer for us.
What add-ons are you using on that site?
We used quite a lot of add-ons to help us get the site working right. I won’t go into what we used them all for, as most of them are self explanatory, but here is a list of most of the Modules, Plugins and Extensions we used: Solspace Freeform, Fresh Variables, Geofinder, Geotagger, Structure, Edit Menu, FieldFrame, Playa 2, Gypsy, LG Add Sitename, Preparse, Publish Tweeks, LG Twitter, Twitter Timeline, BU Search pagination, Image Sizer, Nice date, and nGen File Field.
I wasn’t able to find add-ons to help with all the required functionality for the site, so I ended up building quite a few (unfortunately whilst I had big plans to release them into the EE community, I just haven’t had enough time to clean up the code yet!). Quite a few were custom Fieldframe fields (a date picker, field instructions only, and my own custom version of a TinyMCE field that included the ability to upload files to the EE native File Upload Preferences), but I was also very excited about a Alphabetic-tab list plugin for entries, and a Google CSE search plugin.
Were there any particularly challenging parts of this site that required creative solutions? What add-ons were involved with that?
I think that the most challenging part of the site was getting the “Find A GP” section working. It has a built in search that allows users to enter their local postcode, or suburb, or even a GP practice name, and then it brings back the closest match based on the distance from that area!
This section went through a few iterations before we got it right. Initially I used the fantastic Solspace Preparse plugin to create a single field with all possible search terms that might possibly be used… for example, if the postcode for a practice was 3788, then we added plus and minus 10 postcodes to the preparse field. We also added in the practice name, suburb, etc. We were then able to simply search this single field (using the built in exp:entries search tag) for a postcode, suburb, etc. Unfortunately we weren’t able to ORDER the results in any useful way!
It was then that I discovered two great add-ons from Natural Logic - Geofinder, and Geotagger. It was like these two add-ons were custom built for this job! Geotagger allowed us to easily add a latitude/longitude to each practice entry, and then the Geofinder provided the distance based results. I ended up leaving the original preparse search functionality in there as a “fallback” when no Geofinder results were found. This allowed users to still search for the practice name.
What is the greatest need you have on this site that you wish were met by an EE add-on?
Probably a better search add-on (Solspace’s Super Search was still in beta when I was building this site!) would have been useful. I find that the built-in EE search is great if you are running a simple blog site, but for a site where you want relevance based results it is seriously lacking.
That said, I am very lucky as I feel quite comfortable with building my own add-ons. I indexed the site using Google CSE, and then was able to quickly build a basic search plugin using the Google CSE API. I extended the plugin to allow users to search the site as a whole, or just specific areas of the site. The only downside to using Google CSE, is that it takes Google a day or so to re-index your site, and through that time, new content is not available via the search.
There are a lot of add-ons in the EE world now, which ones do you find most useful throughout your work?
This is a very difficult question to answer, as it really depends on what the requirements for the work. I would probably say that the “can’t live without” add-ons would be Brandon Kelly’s Fieldframe and Gypsy (please hurry up with Fieldframe for EE2 Brandon!!), and Travis Schmeisser’s Structure (sorry EllisLab, but Structure is way better than Pages).
Thirst Studios has an exciting year coming up. We are getting lots of work, not just designing and developing sites, but doing UX and usability reviews and consulting.
EE has very much become a cornerstone of our business, and as much as I love EE 1.6.x, we are really excited by the possibilities of EE2. We have started developing a few simple custom add-ons that will be released to the community in the next month or so (so stay tuned!).