The Rocks

Tourism

Client: Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (working alongside Sputnik, a leading creative communications agency).

Location: Sydney, Australia

One of our favourite places in Sydney is the Rocks - a historic area steeped in culture and charm, and located right on the waterfront. So we were thrilled to work with Sputnik and the Sydney Foreshore Authority last year to develop the new website for the precinct.

Work completed by Cognitive Ink included the interaction design and information architecture of the new website. We also conducted domain research to best understand the history and aesthetics of the area and the reactions and emotions of its visitors.

 

Project background

The Rocks area has a distinctive and quirky sense of charm - some of its treasures include historic warehouse buildings, cute cafes, waterfront views, buskers and markets. The Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority wanted to capture and reflect this in the web experience.

How can the web give someone the experience of a place? Let’s face it. Digital in general and the web in specific can be a thin experience. By thin we mean stripped of all the immersive sights, sounds and most importantly smells of a location. 

As much as we’ve occasionally had to resist the impulse to go the full Blumenthal on a digital experience, budget and practically usually outweighs it (see Heston Blumenthal for how you bring the sensations of the sea to a small restaurant in the middle of the UK). For the moment, the web is a primarily a visual experience. 

 

History of the Rocks precinct

Granted, it usually isn’t important to smell the head office of a large corporation (what would a head office smell like?). But what if the client represents one of the most iconic tourist and entertainment quarters in the largest capital city in Australia? 

This was the case with the Sydney Harbour Foreshore and their management of The Rocks. 

If you don’t know the story, The Rocks is a small area of the Sydney Foreshore that preserves a significant portion of the buildings, history and most importantly the spirit of energetic creativity from the 1800s and the foundation of the Sydney colony. 

Source: Cognitive Ink, Copyright Cognitive Ink 2013

Source: Cognitive Ink, Copyright Cognitive Ink 2013

The Rocks is one of several fundamental cultural, tourist and heritage sites in Sydney. It has a long and storied history.

In the 1970s, under the pressure from both the NSW State government and development interests, a significant portion of The Rocks was to be demolished to make way for an entire district of large monolithic housing complexes rich with the brutalist, concrete cinder block style of the 1970s. Battle lines were drawn and the underprivileged working class people of The Rocks banded together with unlikely allies in the form of construction union supporters to demonstrate. 

Source: http://www.therocks.com/history-and-heritage.aspx

Source: http://www.therocks.com/history-and-heritage.aspx

Through speeches, resistance (not always peaceable) and perseverance, the developments were compromised and The Rocks retained it’s unique heritage as a place for creativity, artisanal work, food and street fairs. 

 

The brief

Until 2013, the digital experience of The Rocks was sadly lagging behind in communicating both the history and the modern richness of the precinct. 

Working with Sputnik, we responded to a brief to radically re-think the digital experience of www.therocks.com its sister precinct around the corner at Darling Harbour (www.darlingharbour.com). 

Previous website for the Rocks precinct (pre-2013)

Previous website for the Rocks precinct (pre-2013)

 

Information architecture

In project inception, we took to the streets of The Rocks; talking with both locals and tourists. Though relatively small, The Rocks is wonderful rabbit warren of twisting streets, cobblestones, old buildings and the waterfront. It became clear early on that the backbone of the digital experience should be centred on the rich and varied offerings, including: 

  • What to do
  • Where to stay, eat and drink. 
  • Where to shop. 
  • Things to explore. 
  • The Rocks Markets

Fusing on-the-ground feedback with user surveys, we developed a simple and scalable information architecture that placed Events, Food and Shopping at the forefront. 

Information architecture for The Rocks website (Cognitive Ink)

Information architecture for The Rocks website (Cognitive Ink)

Exploring ideas for the site's navigation

We explored a number of options where the navigation itself was an experience that mimicked (metaphorically or literally) the winding experience of moving through the physical spaces of the precinct. 

Ideas for the site's navigation

Ideas for the site's navigation

Although many of the ideas felt exciting and fresh, based on internal testing, they appeared to actually impeded interaction with the content and were abandoned in favour of a more straightforward horizontal navigational model. 

Main menu in wireframe deign

Main menu in wireframe deign

Main menu on final site

Main menu on final site

An emphasis on imagery

It was clear from user feedback and our own experiences in the precinct that large and expressive imagery was a crucial link between the digital experience and the real-world emotion.  We created full wireframes and an interactive prototype of the proposed site, gathering feedback from the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority as we went.

Our layout and design reflected this both at site wide and page-level, with an emphasis on imagery:

Wireframe for the Rocks home page (Cognitive Ink)

Wireframe for the Rocks home page (Cognitive Ink)

 
Wireframe for the Rocks event pages (Cognitive Ink)

Wireframe for the Rocks event pages (Cognitive Ink)

To make the best use of the developing solution, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority committed significant resources to commissioning rich photography assets from every one of the businesses within the precinct. 

The result was stunning. 

The Rocks home page against wireframes designed by Cognitive Ink.

The Rocks home page against wireframes designed by Cognitive Ink.

Cognitive Ink has designed solutions with Sputnik/BWM Group for key client Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. They were able to quickly make sense of requirements and sprawling content and distil into a clear structure and user flow. The sophisticated Axure wireframes/prototypes for desktop & mobile have been an invaluable tool in bringing sites to life and enabling testing, validation and adjustment of the design before the build. Christopher is a pleasure to work with and his insight, skill and experience adds value to every project.
— Digital Producer at Sputnik/BWM, March 2015