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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Sunday, 20th November, 2005

Site evolution

In this post I look at how a site can be enhanced over time rather than redesigned intermittently.

Digital Strategy:
The estimated time to read this article is 7 minutes

In a previous article I talked about changing the client/web designer relationship from a “per project relationship”, to a more dynamic continual association, allowing for site evolution rather than site redesign. In this entry, I want to unpack that concept a little further and look at how a site can be enhanced over time rather than redesigned intermittently.

Benefits of evolution

Before we look at how site evolution can be achieved, let’s take a moment to examine why it is worth doing in the first case.

Why throw money away?

As I indicated in my last article on the subject, there are significant cost savings to make by evolving rather than redesigning your website. Most organisations redesign their website every three years or so. The old site is thrown away, and a new better site is put in its place. This demands a significant investment each time as the entire site is rebuilt from scratch. By taking a more evolutionary approach, each financial investment into the website builds upon the previous work done. With evolution, it is about building on what has gone before not replacing it.

Something to shout about

From a marketing perspective, evolution offers some exciting opportunities. With periodic redesign, you get one decent chance to shout about your site every few years when it undergoes a major relaunch. However, evolution allows you to go back to your users continually, telling them about the latest developments on the site. Each time you make a usability enhancement or improve the sites accessibility you can inform your customers. Every time you add a new piece of functionality, you have something new to shout about. Evolution provides a continual stream of marketing opportunities even for the most unexciting site.

Keep them coming back for more

I have written before about the importance of generating repeat traffic and keeping users engaged. Traditionally this has been achieved through updates to the content. Things like regular news stories, constantly updating events and new product ranges are all great ways to keep users checking your site. However, site evolution now offering the opportunity to engage users through improvements in the functionality and appearance of the site. User return to the site to see how it has been enhanced as much as to see what content has changed. Small tweaks to the site are a good way of demonstrating that your site is constantly maintained and worth regular visits.

Laying the right foundation

The benefits of site evolution are obvious but how do you practically go about evolving your website over time? The key lies in laying the right foundation. Too many sites are built with redesign instead of evolution in mind. They are built with the expectation that not much will change on the site for two or three years and then it will be built again from scratch. Sites built with this mindset will be difficult to evolve because the fundamental building blocks of evolution will not be there.

If you are commissioning a website build, it is vital that you ensure your designers and developers build with evolution rather than redesign in mind. Only if they do this can be hope to move your site forward in incremental steps rather than periodic redesigns.

Building blocks of evolution

These “building blocks for evolution” can be summarised as follows:

Separation of content from design

I have talked about web standards many times before in this blog. Standards primarily revolve around separating the content of your site from its visual appearance.

This approach provides many benefits but the one that applies the most to site evolution is the ability to make global design changes simply and easily. Site evolution works on the assumption that you cannot guess how your site will change over time. It is therefore vital to make everything as easy to alter as possible. By separating design from content, you can adapt the look and feel of your site from a central location instead of editing each individual page. Without this separation, design changes become a painful process of find and replace across every page on your site.

Let’s say for example you change your corporate colours and your website needs to reflect this. With standards, you can edit your central design files (CSS) and these changes are shown instantly across your whole site. Without web standards, you would have to edit manually every page of your entire site in order to achieve the same result. The time involved in such an undertaking would almost be as significant as a complete site rebuild!

Separation of behaviour from content

In the same way, you separate content from design because you cannot predict what changes you may wish to make in the future, so you should also separate behaviour. For example, just because you currently want all links to external websites to open in a new window, doesn’t mean you will always want that to be the case. By putting this kind of behavioural functionality in a separate file, it is easy to edit them centrally rather than updating each page individually where the behaviour is used.

Well defined content

As important as it is to separate out the design and behaviour from the content, it is equally important to ensure the content is clearly “marked up”. “Mark up” refers to how the content on your site is defined. This definition is how your web browser knows what to do with it. For example, an important heading on your site would be “marked up” as follows:

<h1>This is an important heading</h1>

Without those tags, the browser would have no way of knowing that particular piece of text is a heading. However, more importantly without this clean, uncomplicated definition of content you cannot easily define how that content should look or behave. For example without the H1 tag you see above it would be impossible for you to change the appearance of all your major headings.

I know this is in danger of getting technical, something I try to avoid on this site. However, as a website owner you need to be aware that many web designers do not produce this kind of well “marked up” content. If they don’t do it on your site, then evolving the appearance or functionality is going to be that much more difficult.

Templates and content management

Most of the web pages on your site look the same. They have the same navigation, the same branding, and the same layout. Normally, it is only the content that changes. It is therefore sensible that these common areas in each page are built using a template. That way when you change the template you update all occurrences of these consistent elements across the whole site. Once again, this approach allows you to make site wide changes ease.

The only slight complication to this approach is that some special technology is required. In affect, each page needs to be built automatically from the template when the user goes to that page. In most cases, this process is handled by a content management system. If you are considering evolving your site overtime then a content management system is probably a good investment. Not only does it allow pages to use templates it also gives you (the site owner) a lot more control over the structure and content of your site. Typically, a content management system will allow you to edit pages, add new pages and reorganise the structure of your site. In short, a content management system allows you to evolve the content and structure of your site without the need for web designers.

Design flexibility

The final principle of site evolution is ensuring flexibility in the look and feel of your site. Although I have already outlined how separation of content from design enables you to make gl
obal changes to the look an
d feel of your site, you still want a design that is as flexible as possible. You do not want to be in a position where you are making major changes to a sites appearance just because you add a new top-level section or a new type of content. A design should be flexible enough to accommodate these kinds of additions without a major overhaul. This makes for a better user experience as dramatic changes in a sites layout and design can cause confusion and frustration. Far better that a sites look and feel evolves through a series of small changes that the user has time to assimilate.

Conclusions

There are obvious benefits to evolving a site over time rather than undertaking sporadic redesigns. However, it is important to remember that the foundations need to be in place before you can successfully follow this approach. It will be hard to evolve a site that has not been built with this approach in mind. Ensuring content, design, and functionality are all maintained separately is key to the success of a constantly evolving website. Without those the overheads of evolving your site will be too high.

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