"From the trenches" advice from web managers
Managing a website relaunch is not straightforward, there are so many issues to consider from marketing strategy, customer experience to content strategy to the technical challenges of selecting and integrating different technology platforms and web services.
We recently saw just how many challenges there are when Larry Peterson asked this question on the Web Managers Group on LinkedIn:
“What are the top five things a web manager should take into consideration when redesigning and launching a new website?”
There was such a great response from the group that we thought it would be a good idea to summarise the common advice from the discussion here. Altogether, there were 20 key points, so let's get straight to them.
1. Define Vision, strategy, goals
This is “the concrete vision of where you want the site to go,” according to website transformation consultant David Hobbs. “This doesn't mean some impressive strategy that's impossible to implement, but an achievable and focused vision.”
Nengi Koko, technical consultant at Precedent, agrees maintaining focus is key. “Don't try to piggyback other activities onto a redesign project just because someone thinks it's a good idea. I've seen this happen a lot and it only drags an otherwise well planned project into the ground.”
“Develop an Online Strategy first,” recommends Chris Knowles, former project manager at Heinz. “That's where you do your business-wide consultation.”
Arthur Smith, digital media producer at WGBH Educational Foundation, says it’s about:
“Really making an effort at getting to the core of what is driving the need for site design, making that explicit, and building it into the spec and strategy.”
2. Consider audience and users’ needs
“Who are your users and how are they using your services? This will help you understand the extent to which you need to make changes,” says Nengi Koko.
Caroline Duncan, content manager at Sainsbury's, says: “If you're redesigning your website you'll hopefully have lots of information on what doesn't work. Don't forget to use it in the redesign. All too often I've seen valuable analytics and research discarded or duplicated in redesign projects.”
Anne Greaves, website manager at the Geographical Association, says: “We took a lot of inspiration from visitor comments and statistical evidence when redesigning our website. For instance, we knew that people found the text too small on our previous website so we increased that on the redesign, and that visitors struggled with the login process so we made that more obvious and easier to do.”
3. Schedule planning, phasing, piloting and testing
“Instil in the business that the relaunch of the online presence is not the end of the project - it's just the beginning,” urges Chris Knowles. “Phase the project and be permanently in beta - don't try to deliver everything in one hit or you'll never make your deadline. Put in a foundation and then create a regular schedule - say every 3 months - for adding additional functionality. The business can decide the priority.”
David Hobbs echoes this: “Usually it's better to get something out the door sooner rather than later, and phasing can help with this. By figuring out what's most important to launch first, you can have more focused results and then you are setting yourself up for the ongoing quality of your site. You don't want to get into the relaunch-forget-relaunch cycle.”
David also emphasises the role of piloting. “By piloting a site first, you can get concrete feedback on how to proceed.” But adds: “If you pilot, it's important to have time to fix the issues you find!”
“From the earliest possible opportunity get user feedback on the new designs and get them involved in testing the new site,” advises Anne Greaves. “It’s really easy to go down the wrong track without realising it. Make sure the new site works for users – set a few tests, get them to find things on the website and perform certain actions. The sooner you can get feedback the better as it can be difficult and expensive to reverse decisions once they’ve been put into place.”
Arthur Smith says you need to “think about the maintenance and sustainability of the site in all relevant ways - financial resources, staffing, design, technical upgrades, etc. One way to do this is to imagine that you are one year after the redesigned site has been launched: what is needed to keep it up? What resources are available? Do they align?”
4. Plan your content strategy
Planning around content is key. Anne Greaves says: “I’ve had some bad experiences with restrictive website designs where the site has looked good with sample content but in reality when you’ve got double the amount of words to fit in the space or the wrong size image, it becomes a nightmare to maintain. Of course a website needs a design that looks good but make sure you give the designers real examples of content to work with and think about the kind of content you’ll be adding to the site in the future.”
“Don't let your project become simply a CMS implementation,” warns Chris Knowles. “It happens far too often that too much time and attention is spent on the application rather than the content and user experience. The best CMS cannot compensate for poor visual design or lacklustre content."
Chris suggests you “include a content plan that covers the first 12 months of the new presence's lifespan."
5. Review changes in landscape and technology
Nengi Koko says: “This is anything from business model, regulations and laws, your knowledge base, to new opportunities and innovation.”
6. Get the budget and resourcing estimates right
“As early as possible, take an honest attempt at estimating the effort it will take,” advises David Hobbs. “There are many elements of this, but one is the effort to migrate content."
7. Put in place measurement, analytics, KPIs
Working out how you will measure performance and success on an ongoing basis is essential.
8. Define a Leadership / project governance structure
Chris Knowles says: “Appoint a single person to implement the online strategy and give them the authority to make decisions.”
Web consultant Tonya Price thinks committees also have a vital role to play: “I believe committees are the key to an organisation’s acceptance of a site redesign.” You can read more from Tonya on how she managed a web redesign process at a university.
9. Get stakeholder engagement and “buy in”
“This is one of the key things that determines the success or failure of a lot of projects,” states Nengi Koko. “There must be constant and relevant communication. Do this right and the launch will simply be a formality.”
“Define the engagement process,” urges David Hobbs. “This is so important. I wouldn't say it's about committees or not, but having focused engagement.”
10. Establish which platforms you're serving
Arthur Smith says: “Consider the platforms on which the site will be used: does it need to work adaptively for mobile devices now and in the future. Will it need regular upgrades after launch to allow for new features and functionality? If so, how will these upgrades be made (and paid for)? How will it deal with the inexorable march of browser specs?”
11. How does the website fit into the wider online and offline world?
As social business and intranet strategist Mark Tilbury puts it: “The relationship with virtual, physical and social spaces.”
12. Enable sharing
“Make sure it’s really easy to share, like, tweet etc. every page of your website,” says Anne Greaves.
13. Branding and visual design
Clearly this is a major consideration – and often the most apparent change externally – but it comes with warnings from some group members: “Everybody's a designer,” says Arthur Smith. “I think it's how our brains work, so when you are showing materials for review to site stakeholders (and user testers for that matter) be prepared for a lot of discussion on the visual design, rather than on some of the equally (or more) important things like functionality. Don't under or overvalue visual design, just because it's what everybody talks about.”
14. Plan for SEO from the beginning
Business analyst John Bixby says: “Far too often I've seen companies design great sites, have a copywriter write brilliant copy, and then after everything is done and launched, try to pull in an SEO consultant and tell them ‘now help us rank well. It doesn't work that way. SEO considerations need to be an integral part of the site design process."
15. Get the requirements right for the content management systems
“Don't forget to consult the web managers who have to use the CMS,” says Caroline Duncan. “They've probably got a huge wish list of things they'd like to do to make their jobs easier and improve the site for users.”
16. Plan launch marketing and messaging
"If you build it they will come. No they won't.” says Bill Murray, solution architect at EPiServer. “Social marketing/strategy is important but don't overlook the need for a) good old fashioned marketing, b) your ‘attitude’ - websites that don't engage users do not get traffic, c) your approach - take a look at your message. If it takes you half a page to describe what you want your reader to know - then you need to go back and redo it.”
17. Make sure your site performance is sufficient
Bill Murray warns: “Google will penalise you for slow-loading pages (we have the data to prove it) - but this opens up a whole can of worms - because to accomplish speed you sometimes need to compromise on the dynamic and the beautiful.”
18. Get the technology delivery capacity right
"One thing I see over and over is that our customers underestimate their delivery capacity," says Bill Murray. "Spending too much is a waste of money. Spending too little will literally cost you money.”
19. Don’t start with the homepage
“One little tip I'll never forget, as I really think it works, is to design the homepage at the end of the process – or as near as you can,” says Caroline Duncan. “This can be tricky as people outside the project often want to see a sparkly new homepage as soon as the redesign starts, which will make them happy. But designing a homepage before you have confirmed the information architecture, defined the key needs of the users, etc, will mean numerous changes and making those that were once happy not so happy anymore.”
20. Stay fit and well
We’ll leave the last word to Fred Schecker, web manager at Stateline.org, who observes:
"These are all excellent comments, but as someone who will be launching a new website within the next week - Lord willin' and the creek don't rise - there are some practical considerations you have missed":
1. Sleep. Get a lot of it before the process begins. You won't have time later.
2. Eat. Eat often. Eat healthy. Build up your reserves. You won't be eating healthy and you won't be eating often unless you count M&Ms.
3. Exercise. Build up your stamina. Practise sleeping with your eyes open (for unnecessary meetings) and while sitting in your office chair.
4. Meditate. Practice your deep breathing. As you approach launch date there is a tendency to panic. Never let the staff see you sweat.
5. Practice. Being humble, I mean. It's going to be great.
This post was first published on the Web Managers Group website - see the blog for many other articles relevant for web managers.