Ross on
7th March 2017

The Royal Society of Edinburgh is one of the city’s most venerable institutions, and has hosted some of Scotland’s most prominent thinkers of the past, present, and future. A living link to the flourishing of knowledge under the Scottish Enlightenment, its current roster of Fellows includes Poet Laureates, members of the House of Lords, and Nobel Prize winners. Its publications, including highly esteemed scientific and academic journals, help to ensure Scotland’s public standing around the world. And its public-facing mission, ranging from political consultations to outreach in schools, ensures that the Society remains anything but a stuffy member’s club.

With great age, of course – 234 years and counting – comes great wisdom. The staff behind the RSE know that no institution, not even theirs, can rest on its laurels. Successful stewardship of the RSE to ensure its future requires conveying a fresh and modern image, engaging in lively and open communication with the public, and providing staff with the best possible tools for the job.

When the RSE embarked on its first web site revamp project in several years, they turned to Design33. We were honoured to be asked to help breathe new life into an 18th century institution, and took on the creative and technical challenges with pride.

We were honoured to be asked to help breathe new life into an 18th century institution, and took on the creative and technical challenges with pride.

The Discovery Process

Design33 began its work on RSE’s web site revamp through our discovery process. This is our means of understanding the customer’s needs and requirements. The discovery process involves three phrases:

  1. Evaluating
  2. Investigating
  3. Recommending


For the evaluation phase, we looked at people and places.
For places, this meant examining the content spread across RSE’s four main domains – its main web site, its foundation’s web site, a separate site for one highly popular academic journal, and a web site for its building’s venue hire. The spread of information across these four sites, often linking back and forth to each other, had confused public perception of the RSE’s outreach. We determined that all four of these sites needed to be brought under one unified domain.

We also looked at the people who use the web site by setting up personas – imaginary typical visitors to the RSE’s web site – ranging from an octogenarian Fellow looking up a phone number, to an MSP searching for a research paper, to a high school student looking up information for a school project, to a conference planner looking to book a corporate dinner. We walked staff through the steps that each persona might take through their journeys on the web site.

By stepping out of their own shoes and mixing domains and personas, RSE staff gained a wealth of insight into who used their sites, when they used them, why they were coming to them, and what they found when they got there.

Another issue to address was the delineation between public-facing web site processes, such as enquiring about becoming a fellow through the web site, and the RSE’s back-office processes, which were on a separate, bespoke, and complex database system, such as actually registering that enquirer as a possible fellow.  We had to determine what processes could be streamlined and improved through the front-end web site and which processes could, or should, remain within the complexity of the existing back-office system.

Responsible web site development never seeks technical upgrades or solutions for the sake of it; sometimes it truly is better to leave well enough alone, and the complexity of the RSE’s internal systems made us very mindful of that fact.


For the investigation phase, we spoke with thirteen staff members, as well as frequent users, of the existing RSE web site. This process helped us to determine which desired web site improvements, both on the front and back end, were:

  • Absolutely needed
  • “Nice to have”
  • “Nice to have”, but could be deferred to a future phase.

The RSE’s clear insight into their frustrations allowed us to narrow our focus to three areas:

  1. Search engine optimisation issues caused by duplicated (canonical) content, missing pages, and a lack of meaningful analytics and insight;
  2. The unusually large volume of data to be dealt with;
  3. Security issues ranging from the complexity of existing content on four different systems, which had resulted in at least one successful hacking attempt.

Staff were also frustrated with the restrictions of their existing web site content editor, an ageing closed-source application unnecessarily tied to a back-office system.

Each of these areas, once clearly outlined, had a clear solution. For example, from a technical perspective, we had to get to grips with the incredible volume of data to be migrated from the old site to the new. There were nearly 4,000 unique individual web pages to be moved, trimmed, and managed; nearly 400 pages of registered users of the Science Scotland journal alone; and large numbers of missing pages, known as 404s, resulting from the size and complexity of the RSE’s public output.

To address this issue, we advised the RSE to purge what we call “ROTten content” – Redundant, Outdated, or Trivial pages of information – which served no real purpose to the RSE’s mission. The ROTten content process separated the wheat from the chaff, removed a few thousand pages from the state of play, and allowed RSE staff to focus on better curation of the content that mattered rather than the maintenance of ephemeral data.


Having thoroughly investigated the technical and human issues at hand, ranging from content curation to personas to security issues, we provided the RSE with two options:

  • A new front-end site only, with the back-office options remaining untouched;
  • A new front-end site incorporating certain aspects of the back-end options, with a budget and timescale reflective of that fact.

A complete overhaul of the back-end systems, as well as the front-end site, was neither within our field nor the scope of the project.

The RSE chose the second option, and Design33 commenced work on a complete overhaul, based on the WordPress content management system in early 2016.

For visual style, Design33 worked with Wolffe Design Edinburgh, who through a separate commission created a new visual brand for the RSE. The design suite, including typography created by an RSE fellow, inspired a visual theme featuring colour-coded sections, bright graphics, and entirely bespoke imagery.

Where links to back-office interfaces were required, such as the options to donate to the RSE or log in to the “My Account” system for Fellows, we used simple styling to display that content in a sympathetic manner to the new visual scheme so that visitors would never really know that they had moved from one system to another.

Design33 launched RSE’s new web site in October 2016.

The Results

A web site revamp is only as effective as the results it generates. So what sort of success has Design33’s work brought to the RSE? The numbers tell the story.

Within three months of the launch of the revamped site, visits to the RSE’s home page nearly trebled. Visits to the RSE’s calendar of public events quadrupled. And thanks to the new site being completely responsive, visits from mobile and tablet devices doubled within three months.

Pages containing resources for teachers and schools have also soared from being barely measurable to being among the site’s top twenty pages.

With the new site, the RSE has also seen a dramatic uptake in enquiries for venue hire for private events such as conferences, seminars, and even weddings. This higher profile for venue hire supports a critical revenue stream which funds the RSE’s wider mission.

Staff at the RSE have also benefited from the revamp. Instead of fighting against the restrictions of an old content management system, they are now free to make the most of the web site in a fraction of the time it used to take. The content evaluation method they learned during Design33’s discovery process also gives them a useful toolkit to prevent the site from becoming stale, cluttered, or irrelevant.

Design33 is proud to have provided the RSE with a robust, stable, and beautiful platform to support its work well into its third century. You can view the finished site here :

We would be delighted to do the same for your organisation. Contact us to find out how we can help your business perform more effectively online.