Back in 2022, we launched a new website for Durham Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site with more than 370,000 tourist visitors each year.

As you can imagine, all those tourists want to know where in the cathedral they should be going and what they should be looking at. But although Durham has a number of incredible tour guides, they are often oversubscribed, and many visitors simply want to show themselves round the cathedral independently.

So now, in 2024, we’re very happy to launch a new, interactive, self-guided tour for visitors, using just the existing website. No new app, no custom hardware. Just some planning and product thinking upfront, and a couple of weeks of development time.

Here’s how we did it.

Discovery, research, and planning (website phase)

When we were designing the website back in 2020, we held discovery sessions with all levels of cathedral staff, from marketing to visitor services to the clergy.

Something that came up again and again was the aspiration to launch a new digital tool to help tourists find their way around the cathedral and explore its hidden history independently. The exact form of this tool was undecided — we discussed an interactive map, an app, a separate microsite, and more — but the key thing was that it had to exist on a visitor’s own device. Durham simply doesn’t have the resources for the kind of for-hire tour technology you often see at other visitor attractions.

Ultimately, the self-guided tour was put on the back burner during the original website project: there were too many questions to answer, and not enough time to deliver it at launch. But because we knew this new product was coming down the pike in the not-too-distant future, we were able to plan for it in a few important ways.

People standing around a central table placing post-it notes on larger pieces of paper
People standing around a central table placing post-it notes on larger pieces of paper with a large floral mural in the background
Lots of post it notes on a table


One of our discovery sessions at Durham Cathedral

Modular information architecture

It was clear from the analytics that some of the most popular pages on the website detailed the history of individual spaces in the cathedral — what we came to call “Places”.

But it was also clear that people weren’t just interested in the history of these places; often they wanted to find out about access requirements, opening hours (if they differed from the cathedral as a whole), and even the customs of Christianity they might encounter in different areas of the cathedral.

Thinking about the website as a functional product, rather than just a flat source of information, made it easy to conceive of an efficient solution to meet all these competing needs – not just from a user experience perspective, but from an information architecture one.

Specifically, the result was two overlapping channels in the website CMS called “Places” and “Place topics”. The former correspond to different areas of the cathedral, and the latter to different kinds of information you might want to know about each one. For example, there’s an “Accessibility” topic, which is used across all places, and an “Interesting things to look for here” topic which is used only in places that are open to the general public.

This means visitors can easily slice up content according to their needs and interests. If they want to see where they can go in a wheelchair, they can simply tick the accessibility box. On the other hand, if they want to find out everything about the Galilee Chapel, that’s one click away, too.

Thinking about the website as a functional product, rather than just a flat source of information, made it easy to conceive of an efficient solution to meet all these competing needs

Building for the roadmap

All this slicing and dicing in content management might seem to be straying from an interactive, self-guided tour. But the product thinking behind the Places and Place Topics channels was integral to building out the self-guided tour features quickly and efficiently. That’s because those organising principles would offer us maximum future flexibility for layering new features on top of what already existed.

For example, since we were building in the concept of discrete physical locations, it would be easy to add coordinates to each one, in order to power an interactive map. It would also be easy to link specific locations in the cathedral to specific audio files if Durham wanted to implement an audio-tour.

Equally important to this flexibility was our choice of CMS for the website, Craft CMS. Out of the box you can make Craft “headless”, meaning you can use it to supply content to a third-party system instead of (or in addition to) using it to directly power a specific website. Craft also lets you add our own custom modules to expose content in whatever format you like — so we knew that if Durham wanted to use a third-party solution or build their own custom app, the Places channel could power those, too.

In other words, although the initial launch was “just” a website, product-thinking meant it could also power an interactive visitor tool one day, whatever that tool might be.

Discovery, research, and planning (product phase)

The website launched in October 2022, and after a few months bedding in, we returned to the interactive tour question in early 2023.

By this point we had a much clearer brief for the self-guided tour, including four key requirements:

  • It should be accessed on visitors' own devices while in the cathedral.
  • It should build on the existing Places content.
  • It should guide visitors along a preset tour route.
  • It should be accessed by scanning a QR code at the entrance of the cathedral — but also, because the cathedral is so large, visitors should be able to join the route partway through.

Based on these requirements, it became clear that the right solution was a bespoke web-based tool on Durham’s own website, because it wouldn’t require visitors to download any new app, and it wouldn’t tie the cathedral to any third-party subscription costs.

Only one significant question remained: should we simply update the existing Places pages to support a guided tour, or build out a whole new microsite with a bespoke interface, specifically designed for in-person visitors accessing the tour?

Prototyping and developing new features

As a result of some quick wireframing and testing, we realised that the benefits of a totally bespoke interface would be outweighed by their development costs. There wasn’t a lot on the “normal” webpages that Durham wanted to hide, and because we’d designed the website mobile-first anyway, it already worked well on all devices. Adding tour content and features to the existing Places pages would cover all scenarios without requiring much extra work.

Wireframe welcome screen
Wireframe floorplan
Wireframe page for "Rose windows" content


Three wireframe concept pages for the self-guided tour

In fact, we only needed to make two key changes: a new “Follow the guided tour” block, which gives users visual and written directions for navigating to the next stop on the tour; and a new concept, “Interests”, to highlight specific things within each Place. The Nave, for example, is 150 metres from end to end, so it contains lots of smaller areas worth seeing in their own right, too.

In the CMS, any number of Interests can now be nested under any Place in the Places channel, meaning it’s easy to deepen the tour in specific areas as much or as little as necessary. Similarly, if staff ever want to rearrange the tour, temporarily take out stops, or add new ones, it’s as simple as dragging and dropping, or enabling/disabling these entries in the CMS — whether individual Interests or whole Places. This was only possible because of how we architected the Places channel to begin with.

Rudimentary sketch of a man scanning a QR code at an ornate tomb


Storyboarding the user experience — the sketch shows our visitor at Bede’s Tomb, scanning a QR code for more information.

Adding to this flexibility, each Place (and Interest) has a unique URL. This means the cathedral can add QR codes around the building, for as many or as few starting points as they like. If they want to add a starting point in the Galilee Chapel, they just need to print a QR code with the URL for the Galilee Chapel. Better yet, the first time you arrive from a QR code, the website displays a special welcome message about how to follow the tour.

Thanks to the extensive groundwork we laid in 2022, all of these features were designed and developed in under two weeks.

Hand holding an iphone in a cathedral


Composite mock-up of the self-guided tour in action

Testing and launch

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the feedback, even from the cathedral’s most experienced volunteers, is that the self-guided tour of Durham Cathedral – soft launched late in 2023 – will add real value for visitors to the cathedral, unlocking rich experiences and discoveries.

As we write this article, Durham’s staff are continuing to fine-tune the route, improve content, and test how the tour works with volunteers in the cathedral. They’re also recording new video content to further enrich the experience ahead of a full launch this year. The flexibility, to refine, test and refine again, is, of course, built into the system at a fundamental level.

What’s the first step in product-thinking?

We often start a new website project by telling our clients that we can’t build what we don’t know about. That’s the reason we always start with research!

But Durham is a great example of just how important it is to develop and maintain a roadmap from the off, and share it with the whole team. If Durham hadn’t done that, we might not have developed “Places” in such a modular way, which might have made “Place topics” even harder to conceive, let alone “Interests”. In short, without sight of the roadmap we never would have been able to build their self-guided tour so efficiently.

So if you want to build your own something in two weeks, start by talking to your new web agency, and telling them about your biggest ambitions, however vague they might be. A conversation today could save you tens of thousands of pounds in the long term.

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