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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Friday, 29th March, 2013

10 harsh truths about corporate websites

We all make mistakes running our websites. However the nature of those mistakes varies. As your site and organisation grow, the mistakes begin to change. This post addresses common mistakes in larger organisations.

Digital Strategy:
The estimated time to read this article is 10 minutes

Most of the clients I work with at Headscape are larger organisations – Universities, large charities, public sector institutions and large companies.

Over the last 7 years I have noticed certain reassuring misconceptions within these organisations. The idea of this post is to dispel these illusions and encourage people to face the harsh reality.

The problem is that if you are reading this post you are probably already aware of these things. However, hopefully this article will be a useful tool for convincing others within your organisation.

Anyway, here are my 10 harsh truths about larger websites.

1. You need a separate web division

In most organisations I work with the website is managed by either the marketing or IT department. However, this inevitably leads to a turf war and the site becoming the victim of internal politics.

In reality running a web strategy is not particularly suited to either group. IT maybe excellent at rolling out complex systems but they are not suited to developing a friendly users experience or establishing an online brand.

Marketing on the other hand is little better. As Jeffrey Zeldman puts it in his article ‘Let there be web divisions‘:

The web is a conversation. Marketing, by contrast, is a monologue… And then there’s all that messy business with semantic markup, CSS, unobtrusive scripting, card-sorting exercises, HTML run-throughs, involving users in accessibility, and the rest of the skills and experience that don’t fall under Marketing’s purview.

Instead the website should be managed by a single unified team. Again Zeldman sums it up when he writes:

Put them in a division that recognizes that your site is not a bastard of your brochures, nor a natural outgrowth of your group calendar. Let there be web divisions.

Screenshot of Zeldman's website

2. Managing your website is a full time job

Not only is the website often split between marketing and IT, it is also normally under resourced. Instead of having a dedicated web team, those responsible for the website are often expected to run it alongside their ‘day job’.

Where a web team is in place they are often over stretched. The vast majority of their time is spent on day to day maintenance rather than longer term strategic thinking.

This situation is further exaggerated because the people hired to ‘maintain’ the website are junior members of staff. They do not have the experience or authority to push the website forward.

It is time for organisations to seriously investing in their websites by hiring full time senior web managers to move their web strategies forward.

3. Periodic redesign is not enough

Because corporate websites are under resourced they are often neglected for long periods of time. They slowly become out of date both in terms of content, design and technology.

Eventually the site becomes such an embarrassment that management step in and demand it is sorted. This inevitably leads to a complete redesign at considerable expense.

As I point out in the website owners manual this a flawed approach. It is a waste of money because when the old site is replaced the investment put into it is lost. It is also tough on cash flow with a large expenditure happening every few years.

A better way is continual investment in your site, so allowing it to evolve over time. Not only is this less wasteful it is also better for the users as is pointed out in Cameron Moll’s post ‘Good Designers Redesign, Great Designers Realign‘.

Screenshot of Cameron Molls Article

4. Your site cannot appeal to everyone

One of the first questions I ask our clients is ‘who is your target audience?’ I am regularly shocked at the length of the reply. Too often it includes a long and detailed list of diverse people.

Inevitably my next question is which of those many demographic groups are most important. Depressingly the answer is that they are all equally important.

The harsh truth is that if you build a site for everybody it will appeal to nobody. It is important to be extremely focused in your audience and cater your design and content around them.

Does this mean you have to ignore your other users? Not at all. Your site should be accessible by all and should not offend or exclude anybody. However, it does need to have a clearly defined audience that the site is primarily aimed at.

5. Your site is not all about you

Where some website managers want their websites to appeal to everybody, others want it to appeal to themselves and their colleagues.

A surprising number of organisations choose to ignore their users entirely and build their websites entirely around an organisational perspective. This typically manifests itself in inappropriate design that caters to the managing directors personal preferences and content full of internal terminology and jargon.

A website should not be about pandering to the preferences of staff but about meeting the needs of users. Too many designs are rejected because the boss doesn’t like green. Equally too much website copy uses acronyms and terms that are only used internally within an organisation.

6. Design by committee brings death

Illustration showing why design by committee fails

The ultimate expression of a larger organisations approach to website management is the committee. A committee is formed to tackle the website because internal politics demand everybody has their say and all considerations are taken into account.

To say that all committees are a bad idea is naive and to suggest that a large corporate website could be developed without consultation is fanciful. However when it comes to design, committees are often the kiss of death.

Design is subjective. The way we respond to a design can be influenced by culture, gender, age, childhood experience or even physical conditions (such as colour blindness). What one person considers great design another could hate. This is why it is so important that design decisions are informed by user testing rather than personal experience. Unfortunately this approach is rarely followed when a committee is involved in design decisions.

Instead, design by committee becomes about compromise. Because different committee members have different opinions about the design, they looks for ways to find common ground. One person hates the blue colour palette while another loves it. This leads to design on the fly when the committee instructs the designer to ‘try a different blue’ in the hopes of finding a middle ground. Unfortunately this can only leads to bland design which neither appeals to, or excites, anybody.

7. You’re not getting value from your web team

Whether they have an in-house web team or use an external agency many organisations fail to get the most from their web designers.

Web designers are much more than pixel pushers. They have a wealth of knowledge about the web and how users interact with it. They also understand design techniques including grid systems, white space, colour theory and much more.

Post from Twitter complaining about being a pixel pusher

It is therefore wasteful to micro manage them by asking for ‘the logo to be made bigger’ or to ‘move that 3 pixels to the left’. By doing so you are reducing their role to that of software operator and wasting the wealth of experience they have.

If you want to get the maximum return from your web team present them with problems not solutions. For example, if you have a site aimed at teenage girls and the designer goes for corporate blue, suggest that the audience might not respond well to the colour. Do not tell them to change it to pink. That way the designer has the freedom to find a solution which might be even better than your choice of pink. You allow them to solve the problem you have presented.

8. A CMS is not a silver bullet

Many of the clients I work with have amazingly unrealistic expectations about content management systems. Those without one think it will solve all of their content woes, while those who do have one moan about it because it hasn’t!

It is certainly true that a content management system can bring a lot of benefits. They…

  • reduce the technical barriers of adding content,
  • all more people to edit and add content,
  • facilitate faster updates,
  • allow greater control.

However, many content management systems are less flexible than their owners wish. They fail to meet the changing demands of the websites they manage.

Website managers also complain that their CMS is hard to use. However, in many cases this is because those using them have not been given adequate training or are not using it regularly enough.

Finally, a content management system may allow for the easy updating of content, but that does not ensure it will be updated or even that the quality of copy will be maintained. Many content managed websites still have out of date content or are filled with poor quality copy. This is because the internal processes have not been put in place to support the content contributors.

If you are looking to a content management system to solve your site maintenance issues you will be disappointed.

9. You have too much content

Part of the problem with content maintenance on larger corporate websites is that there is too much content in the first place. Most of these sites have ‘evolved’ over years with more and more content being added. At no stage has anybody ever reviewed that content and asked what can be taken away.

Many website managers fill their sites with copy nobody will read. This happens because of:

  • A fear of missing something – By putting everything online they believe users will be able to find whatever they want. Unfortunately, with so much information being made available, it is hard to find anything.
  • A fear users will not understand – Whether it is a lack of confidence in their site or in their audience, many website managers feel the need to provide endless instructions to users. Unfortunately, users never read this copy.
  • A desperate desire to convince - Many website managers are desperate to sell their product or communicate their message. Text becomes bloated with sales copy which actually conveys little valuable information.

Steve Krug in his book ‘Don’t make me think’ encourages website managers to ‘Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left’. This will reduce the noise level of each page and make useful content more prominent.

10. You are wasting money on social networking

I have been encouraged that increasingly website managers are recognising that a web strategy is about more than running a website. They are using tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to increase their reach and engage with new audiences.

However, although they are using these tools, too often they are doing so ineffectively. Corporate twitter accounts and posting sales demonstrations to YouTube miss the essence of social networking.

Social networking is about people engaging with people. Individuals do not want to build relationships with brands or corporations. They want to talk with other people. Too many organisations are throwing millions into facebook apps and viral videos when could be spending that money on engaging with people in a transparent and open away.

Instead of having a corporate twitter account or indeed even a corporate blog, encourage your employees to start tweeting and blogging themselves. Provide guildelines on acceptable behaviour and the tools they need to start engaging directly with the community that surrounds your products and services. This not only demonstrates a commitment to your community but also a human side to your business.

Screenshot of Microsoft's Channel 9 website

Conclusions

Large organisations do a lot right in the running of their websites. However, they also face some unique challenges that can lead to painful mistakes. Resolving these problems will involve accepting mistakes have been made, overcoming internal politics, and changing the way you control your brand. However, doing so will give you a significant competitive advantage and allow your web strategy to become more effective over the long term.

For more information on how you can make your site more effective read the Website Owners Manual or discuss your site with Paul personally.

There is a followup to this post entitled ‘10 ways to battle site bureaucracy.’ Check it out!

“Hardcore Gasmask” image courtesy of Bigstock.com

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