Founded in 1885, the American Economic Association (AEA) represents more than 20,000 professional economists. The AEA independently publishes seven journals, and provides key services to its members and professional communities, including job listings and an Annual Meeting.
While the organization provided invaluable support to its members, the website had become disorganized, according to both stakeholders and users. What was once two separate sites — one for publications, the other for the organization itself — had been combined into one, without ever restructuring the information. The result was a site with segmented search for each separate content type, and lists of lists of links rather than filterable resources. Important information was silo-ed into PDFs, and the site’s written and visual tone was dense and stuffy — the antithesis of the AEA’s goal to be a welcoming, accessible hub for anyone interested in economics.
To untangle this content challenge, we started with the AEA’s mission, and wondered how the current site supported that mission of encouraging communication with economists around the world.
We conducted interviews with AEA leadership and members, did a comprehensive content inventory, competitor analysis, and other foundational work. We discovered that the AEA is the “club you want to belong to.” Presenting at the Annual Meeting or publishing in an AEA journal can make an economist’s career. But while membership is open, the AEA can feel like an “insider’s club,” restricted to a small segment of well-known academics at elite universities.
Bearded’s goal was to help the AEA position itself as a helping, engaging community for all professional economists by making its wealth of useful information easier to find and navigate – by all users, on all devices.
The AEA is in the unique position of serving as an independent publisher for its seven journals. These journals are a core source of prestige and help support other member services. We worked with the AEA to reposition journal articles as central content on its website.
Before, users had to navigate to a specific journal title, then a specific issue of that journal, then to a specific article within that issue. Then, they had to download a large PDF file — a difficult and unwelcome experience for users on mobile devices, especially for those on limited data plans.
Instead of burying this core content, we designed a system for featuring articles on key pages, like the homepage and the journals landing pages. The featured articles are available for free now, without users having to pay a fee or authenticate access. We also turned the journal abstracts and primary information into HTML, making the browsing experience easier and friendlier.
Bearded’s process is open, honest, very focused on results – and at the same time flexible enough to meet changing needs. We couldn't be more pleased that we achieved a modern stage for our content with a vastly improved user experience for our members, and managed to stay within budget.
Featuring articles was just one of the many ways we re-architected the site to deliver on the AEA’s mission of reaching out to and connecting with larger, more diverse audiences who felt overwhelmed by the previous information structure. We also realigned the navigation schema into more logical, concise content buckets, which was critical in making the site more accessible.
Striking the right tone was important, but the AEA did not have a lot of visual assets to add personality and texture to the site. There were some photographs taken at Annual Meetings, and head shots of leadership, but for the most part, the site’s compelling content is its words, not its images.
So the visual interest emerged in the typeface choice, in the creative use of white space, and in creating new, web-friendly icons, as well reworking the AEA’s logo for the digital space.
The AEA had a lengthy, convoluted web workflow, relying on a combination of Dreamweaver, a homegrown CMS, and integrations with applications they’d developed in-house.
One of the most important goals of the redesign was to transition to a CMS with defined user roles and permissions. We wanted to empower distributed content creation, approval, and publication in order to keep the site current, accurate, and useful. Based on our work together, the AEA built their own CMS on the Yii 2.0 framework.
We also paired with key members of AEA’s web editorial team to train them on best practices of writing for the web. We collaboratively modeled site content, defined new page templates, and trained them on how to work within those structures.
Photograph by Craig Huey, 2015.