How to build a community website that does almost everything?
May 29, 2013 10:51 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend a feature-rich web app for online communities. Must be able to manage documents, permissions, events etc. Hosted or self-hosted will do. Full details inside.

I've been asked to create an extremely feature-rich bespoke web app for a Resident's Association. The feature requirements are extremely high and their budget is predictably relatively low, around £800 ($1000), which entirely prevents bespoke development of this app. Are there any solutions that might tick all their boxes?

A summarised list of the requirements:
  • Four distinct user levels - Superadmin, Property admin, property user, and temporary user. All users have a whole barrel of data associated with them.
  • 22 Properties, each with per-property admin, set by superadmin.
  • Property admins can set up property users and temporary users for their specific property.
  • Superadmin can set up all users, and temporary users for the entire association.
  • Each user level has different arrangements of notifications.
  • Full document management, with different documents available to members of different levels and properties.
  • Event management, with notifications, reminders, user level support and attendance support.
  • Online polls, with optionally anonymous results, and user level support. Email prompts for votes missing.
  • Online summaries of lots of the data of these various systems.
Now, I'm aware that I could hack together some kind of hodge-podge of plugins on Wordpress, but I'd be very surprised if that didn't cause way more headaches than solutions. I've suggested setting up forums and wikis, and both have been rejected. I've suggested various online groups solutions, like Google Groups and Facebook Groups, but they're not happy with the feature set of those.

Are there any pre-built web apps around which cover these bases? As mentioned, I'm happy with either hosted or self-hosted.

If there are no suggestions, I'm going to suggest a combination of Dropbox/Google Drive, a Google Calendar, and an email mailing list.
posted by Magnakai to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
posted by jbickers at 11:13 AM on May 29, 2013

If you do look into the WordPress hodge-podge, check out There are some major drawbacks (theming), but it appears to have a decent track record. I wouldn't say the same for the standard BuddyPress package from which it's drawn.
There are obviously Drupal solutions.
Huddle is fairly robust, with a lot of mobile development.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 11:14 AM on May 29, 2013

Maybe Ning?

But, I'd also recommend that, with a $1000 budget for all of this, that you cut down the feature list hard, and push them to agree to it, because a customer who rejects solutions within budget, and is unwilling to spend more, is an impossible customer.

Never mind that this level of features requires training and ongoing maintenance that the customer won't be willing to pay for.

tl;dr – if the customer cannot be flexible on requirements or budget, fire them.
posted by zippy at 11:39 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

In my experience, when I'm handed an extremely overspecified set of requirements and no budget, it means the client literally cannot be pleased.

It usually also means that 90% of the required features will never be used even if implemented, because they were generated not from identifiable user needs but from the Person In Charge sitting around thinking to themselves "gee it'd be nice if it could also do this and that and this and....

The only solution here is to punt. If you can fire this client, do so. If you can't do that for whatever reason, don't try setting up any kind of custom site, hodge-podge or not: no matter what you build it will be found unsatisfactory and you'll be in an endless black hole of support and randomly-conflicting change requests.

Instead set them up with a google domain, which will let them get their superuser jollies assigning and revoking one anothers' permissions; Google Calendar for events; Google Docs for document management and for polls; Google analytics for reporting... etcetera, you get the idea.

Frame this as "an interim system to take care of our immediate needs while we plan towards (and accumulate an appropriate budget for) a more complete bespoke solution." That complete solution will never be built, of course, but during that "planning" period you'll be able to find out which of the requested features will actually be used and which ones there is no real need for.
posted by ook at 11:44 AM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Can you do this in 40 hours? That's a low rate of pay at the extreme low end of anyone who can use a computer to do more than check personal email. The gent who cuts my grass charges that rate.... slightly more, actually.

If you can't be at 100% in 40 hours, it will be the most expensive 800 pounds you ever earned and unless you are literally starting out and pretty worthless, everything you need to know is in the budget and feature list. If you aren't starving, I'm with everyone else here... no go. Spend the 40 hours finding a better client.

(I don't do this kind of work, but I do quotes and estimates a lot as a self employed engineer. Not all customers deserve your services. Everyone wants everything for nothing now. And they usually never know what they want until they see what they get and then, it's not what they got. )
posted by FauxScot at 11:59 AM on May 29, 2013

Ning is, in my experience abysmal for any use-case bordering on intranet. That's actually the main problem with a lot of these "solutions" - they conflate social with intranet.
A hosted Open Atrium install might be interesting, though if you require respond via email functionality, that's mostly still a bear outside of SaaS solutions, or dedicated list software.

But my first response is along the lines of FauxScot and ook - $1,000 would not be unreasonable for due diligence and discovery alone, IMHO.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 12:04 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd look into BigTent. It ticks most of your boxes.
posted by zsazsa at 12:36 PM on May 29, 2013

$1000? Tell them they're dreaming.

Have you looked at Alfresco? It's open source and there are hosted solutions by hundreds (if not thousands) of providers. You should pay someone to customise it for you though because it's, er, enterprisey (read: unnecessarily complex and lots of java).

It does document management, arbitrary ACLs, workflows, polls and the only thing it doesn't do on your list is event management.
posted by holloway at 2:26 PM on May 29, 2013

For an alternative to Wordpress as CMS, check out Drupal. It's designed to be a CMS that you can customize with lots of plugins, instead of a blogging system that can be manipulated into working as a CMS. Drupal has access control options, polls, calendar plugins, etc.
posted by dreamyshade at 2:43 PM on May 29, 2013

Thanks so much for the great advice guys, and there are some interesting projects linked there that I wasn't aware of before. I don't like to leave anyone in the lurch without doing my best, but Ook and Fauxscot have confirmed my first reaction: even with a turnkey solution, I'd very quickly end up spending the budget on support and testing, and without guaranteeing them a good user experience.

I normally hate to turn down quite a bit of money, but I just called them and told them exactly how much a custom solution would cost to build (I approxiquoted* £10-15k), which was of course far beyond their wildest dreams. After talking to them further, it sounded like they just wanted a website to handle some secretarial duties, so I pointed them towards Google Drive, Google Calendar, and the Google Docs suite. I'm sure it'll do everything that they actually need.

Thanks again!

*Isn't that a horrible word :D
posted by Magnakai at 2:30 AM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

*Isn't that a horrible word :D

It is a very useful word which I intend to steal from you at the very next opportunity

posted by ook at 8:05 AM on May 30, 2013

Just to add info for people later looking for CRM solutions... CiviCRM was just mentioned on Mefi the other day (in the Wordpress thread) and looks almost right, they have a case study with renters.
posted by yoHighness at 4:06 PM on May 30, 2013

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