The role of the website owner

There is a lot written about the role of web designers but very little written about what part website owners play in the evolution of their sites. It is an area I have been thinking a lot about recently and I wanted to share a few thoughts with you.

Many web designers view the client as almost an inconvenience in the web development process but in reality they are absolutely fundamental to a websites success. However unlike the role of designer or developer, the part web site owners play is much harder to define.

In fact I would argue that the role of web site owner is one of the most multi-facitated jobs within web development and we as designers and developers need to recognise and encourage that role.

Of course to a large extent it is our responsibility as web agencies to lift some of the responsibility from the shoulders of website owners. However I would still suggest that there are a number of areas where the client has to take the lead.

Visionary

A good web design agency should be able to help their clients shape a vision for their organisations website, however it is down to the website owner to “own” that vision and develop it over the long term. The person responsible for a website needs to have a clear picture of what role the site plays within their business and how that role could be expanded over time.

In my mind vision falls into two categories. There is the core vision for the site. In other words, what is the unshakable objective of the site, which doesn’t really change over time. However there is also the site roadmap. This is a vision of how the site is going to develop over the coming months and even in some cases, years. What kind of new functionality maybe added and how is the user base expected to change. Without the website owner having a good handle on these two areas, a site can easily wander off track and loose its sense of purpose and focus.

Advocate

As well as having a clear vision for a site the website owner also needs to be the sites advocate. By that I mean he needs to defend the site against others within the organisation that would seek to undermine its focus. This is especially a problem within larger organisations where people think more on a departmental rather than corporate level. This typically leads to individual departments pushing their agendas on the website and the site becoming the victim of internal politics. It is not unusual to find departments fighting over home page real estate or top level sections in the information architecture.

It is the role of the website owner to make sure the integrity of his or her site is defended and that it does not sink under the weight of internal dispute.

Evangelist

But the job of the website owner is not just defensive. A good website owner should be offensive too, actively promoting the website within his or her organisation. They should enthuse about the potential of the web and actively engage with departments and people within the company, looking for ways that the website can better serve their needs. A website owner needs to be passionate about their site and encouraging others to share that passion.

Content guardian

Probably the most time consuming and demanding of the responsibilities held by the website owner is to oversee the content of the site. Not only is it his or her responsibility to dictate what content appears on the site, but that the content added communicates a consistent message and tone. The website owner needs to encourage and nurture content contributors ensuring that they keep their content up to date and relevant. However the largest workload is in the initial development of a site, when it is down to the client to plan what needs to be communicated on the site and draw together that content from various contributors across the organisation. Time and again I see clients significantly underestimate the amount of work involved here and it is vital that the agency and client agree on content delivery milestones upfront in order to avoid slippage.

Project coordinator

Developing a website involves a lot of people. Designers, developers, usability experts, content contributors, hosting companies… the list goes on. Although in many cases a website owner turns to a web design agency to handle the management of many of these roles it is still inevitable that some management will be required by the client. Website owners often have to get internal sign off on designs, content, budget and many other aspects of the project. As I have already said they also have to manage content contributors and in some cases may have to manage multiple suppliers (design agency, development house, hosting company). In short, even if they outsource the project to an agency it is still going to require some management by the client.

Referee!

The unfortunate truth is that the final role a website owner often has to fulfill is unofficial referee. Web development projects are a series of compromises. Accessibility needs to be traded off against design, design against marketing, marketing against usability and so on. The different contributors to a website have very different perspectives on what is important, so it is down to the website owner to break stalemates and find a middle ground. Ultimately they have to be the decision maker.

The web agencies role

So there you have it, the role of the client. The trouble is that as web designers we often fail to communicate to the client our expectations of what it is we believe they should do. Instead we assume the client will just fulfill their obligations. Because we have worked on so many web design projects we assume the division of responsibilities is obvious. The reality is that they are not and it is down to us to educate the client.

  • http://www.brenclosures.com.au Simon Griffiths

    I totally agree with this post, and as a website owner I know that this is a lot tougher than it would seem. In particular it can be hard to drive interest in what the site can do. We collect information on who visits our site for example and pass on this to our sales team, along with a ranking of interest level based on the number of visits and page views. This would seem like great information to drive for new business, but in reality it is not often used.
    The situation seems to be that our sales team want names, obviously impossible from web visits unless we bug people with forms, and that’s not going to happen. What we are having to do is persaud them that this is useful information, and go some of the way to providing them with additional information that may help them.
    The reality is that we have to sell our site internally as hard as we do externally! Thankfully slowly but surely we are pulling people round, but it does take a great deal of patience and persistance. For all you site owners out there, don’t give up, it’ll be work it in the end.

  • Graeme

    I’m glad you’re covering this as I think it’s important for website owners to know what their responsibilites are. I’ve worked in publishing for ten years and launched countless websites in that time. From a website owner’s point of view, I’ve always found it better to give as detailed a design brief as possible at the outset.I’ve worked with a lot of people don’t like to be prescriptive at the design stage fearing that it will limit the designer’s creativity but I don’t think this approach works, for one reason. If the website owner doesn’t know what they expect to achieve from a website, they will always be disappointed with the results. I think it’s lazy to give the agency ‘freedom’ by giving a woolly, vague brief and sitting back, expecting to be dazzled by the results. By thinking through the detail in advance, and being clear about it, you can cut down on a whole lot of hassle. I’ve worked on projects where I could see problems with the concept of the site, but they were dismissed as ‘design problems’ for the agency to solve. I don’t think this works for any party and it’s part of the website owner’s responsibility to have thought through what they would like to do.
    What do the designers think? Would you prefer a tight, prescriptive brief or a vague one that is open to interpretation?

  • http://www.messageforce.net Website Design Professional

    What a well written article.
    I’d like to steal some of the thoughts to share with others in my team.
    The hard part is to get clients to see that their input is the most important of all. And that if they take a far more active role, they’ll get more results that needed.

    THE PROBLEM:

    Website Designers are perceived as money hungry ex-car sales people. There has been too many cowboys in the past, promising the world and delivering nothing. So as a result, we no longer have any credibility.
    We’re looked at the necessary evil that a client needs to “put up with” in order to get a website. So when that happens, unfortunately anything you tell them comes out as BS. Its even more dissapointing when you hear comments like “I don’t believe you, I’ve been told this and that by my 17 yr old son so I think your’re just trying to milk me”.
    So when the discussion turns to:
    “Well, look you need to give us your input here” is often retorted by the client with “no mate, I’ve paid you to do this, you sort it out”
    or “Hey, I know what you want here, but the page is going to load very slowly and the fact is that you’re not going to get the result you want.” is often retorted with “Listen, I paid you guys good money for this website, so do as I say.”
    or “Thats going to be a major change to your website, and will cost lots, are you sure?” is met by a sharp “Look I know that this is easy to do, you just want to bill me for as much as you can”.
    If anyone has a great idea on how to get your customers on your side before you start… I’d love to hear it.

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