July 25, 2013

Surviving the Unknown Unknowns of Your Website Redesign

The start of your organization’s web redesign project is always an exciting time. The paperwork is finished, and your web team is buzzing excitedly about new possibilities. If you’re really ahead of the game, you’ve identified some goals and concrete ways to measure success. Your project manager has laid out a schedule, and your team is ready to jump in and start designing the site section by section.

But a website isn’t just a collection of content organized by audience segments; it’s a tool for communicating with your audiences and spreading your organization’s ideas. The trick is not just to assemble the right content and present it in a compelling way (though that’s quite a trick in itself), but to think through how you will be using the site, and what design choices might make it easier to do your job day-in and day-out. Thinking through the following areas up front can ensure that your site is both a compelling user experience, and a tool that works for your team and helps your organization affect lasting change.

Branding & Positioning

What is the story your organization is trying to tell? A lot of nonprofit communicators think that “marketing” and “branding” are dirty words, or somehow limited in application to the commercial sector, but it’s essential to consider how people perceive and react to your message. Whether your goal is selling widgets or advocating for clean air, your website is one of an infinite number of things people can choose to pay attention to – or not – and it won’t break through the noise without a compelling story.

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If you don’t already have a strong narrative to work with, brainstorm with your team, and conduct test campaigns on social media to see what resonates with your audiences. You will never find the magic formula that gets you on the right platform with the right message at the right time, every time, but focus on telling a compelling story through your messaging. Your audiences will get in tune with your messaging no matter where they are.

Content

A website lives and grows with content, yet it’s so easy to put content off in favor of discussing sexy new site features. While new bells and whistles are important, your site will live or die on the quality of your core content, which for most websites consists of text and images. Once your redesign project is rolling along, start identifying your content authors and get them involved right away.

You want the people that understand the organization’s story (and the stories-within-the-story), and can communicate that story in a compelling way. While visual content is critical, the web is still fundamentally based on the written word, so the writers of your organization will probably provide the bulk of the content. No matter the media, effective content marketing requires training your staff to be reporters for your organization and your mission.

Workflow

Once you’ve found writers, set expectations early: who is writing content for launch, and who will help support the site with post-launch content? Having these discussions early avoids any potential misunderstandings with staff regarding their responsibilities on the project. It also helps the web design team understand how many people will be using the site, and what their roles and permissions might be. A good designer will build you a site that is scaled to your team; they will not give you a two-seat Cessna for an eight-person crew or make you try to fly the space shuttle by yourself.

Here’s a secret: website developers rarely use the sites they build, so as a general rule issues like workflow and documentation will not always be the first thing on their minds. Your website can reflect and enforce your web publishing workflow, but you’ve got to plan for it upfront. Open-source platforms like Drupal and WordPress both have some excellent workflow add-ons that can make a multi-author site a lot easier to manage.

Documentation

Nobody loves writing the manual, but whether you do it yourself or farm it out, someone needs to write down how this Rube Goldberg machine works. If your website is being designed in-house you’ll have some living breathing reference guides, but they have a tendency to get sick and change jobs at inconvenient times. If your site is being built by contractors, you may be able to save money by writing the documentation yourself. Your contractor should be able to provide you with a template to save time, and the task will force you to learn the ins and outs of your new site.

Hosting & Maintenance

Once you know the platform and expected traffic for your new site, you should identify and assess your hosting options right away. Expecting a lot of international traffic? Need a secure connection for donations or transactions? If your platform is open-source, how will you be handling security patches, bug fixes, and updates? If a certain feature or function is going to be difficult to maintain or require expensive, specialized hosting, maybe it’s worth reconsidering. You do not want to be worrying about this kind of stuff at the tail end of the project when you’re up against a looming hard launch deadline.

Testing

Identify your testing protocol early in the design process. Developing thoughtful user stories and acceptance criteria can help programmers understand how the features they’re designing will be tested, and will save money and time. Thinking about testing early on also helps you identify and prioritize the functionality that is most important within each website feature. The dirty secret to testing is that it always takes longer than you think, and you always find more to fix than you have time and budget for. Building the most important functions early and testing them against real use cases can help ensure that you don’t have to hold your launch or extend your budget to fix a must-have site feature.

Crafting through the Unknowns

It’s easy to spend a lot of website redesign project time tinkering with the homepage or designing a better blog. Those things are important, but remember that while websites can feel like a print publication they are actually a communications tool that you’ll use every day. A redesign is a chance to actively craft your website to effectively deliver your message to audiences and provide a great user experience for your staff. Tackling the unknowns early means more resources later on to polish and help your website shine.

Michael Rader