10 ways to battle site bureaucracy

Paul Boag

Running a large institutional website is frustrating. Your site is often held back by internal politics and bureaucracy. Let me show you 10 ways to cut through the crap and get results.

My recent post ‘10 harsh truths about corporate websites‘ generated a huge number of comments both on my own blog and on Smashing Magazine. I seemed to tap into an undercurrent of frustration that exists within the industry.

However, although there was a lot of agreement about the points I raised, there was also resignation. There was a feeling that little could be done to overcome these problems because institutional websites are too entrenched in bureaucracy and politics.

Although I can sympathise with this position and have myself suffered from the problem, I am not one to give up! Over the last decade of working on these sites, I have developed a number of techniques which (sometimes) help to smooth their evolution. Hopefully they will help you too.

1. Educate and inform

At the heart of any technique for dealing with politics and bureaucracy has to be education.

Although there are occasions when people are just ‘trying to be difficult’, in most cases their objections are based on ignorance.

You cannot expect people to be as knowledgeable as you about the web. If you want people to make informed, sensible decisions you must educate them.

Education is also not just about giving them the background to a specific decision so they understand ‘why you are right’. It is about increasing your organisations general understanding of the web.

Run workshops, publish email newsletters, do anything that informs people about the latest web innovations. Increasingly I am invited into organisations to run short seminars on everything from accessibility to facebook! This kind of ongoing education means people are better informed when tough decisions need to be made.

2. Hold stakeholder interviews

One technique that we find very effective at Headscape are stakeholder interviews.

Stakeholder interviews involves meeting individually with anybody who has a ‘stake’ (interest) in the website. This is typically members of the marketing and IT teams, as well as departmental heads and senior management. However it should also include suppliers, customers and users of your website.

These one-to-one meetings provide two opportunities…

  • Requirements gathering – It is easy for website owners to live in isolated bubbles, separate from the rest of the organisation. These meetings provide an opportunity to understand the real needs and objectives of others within the business. It will highlight ways that your website can help, which you might not have previously considered.
  • To be inclusive – Stakeholder interviews offer a ‘political benefit’ as well. By meeting with people individually they feel included in the process. They feel their opinions are valued and listened to (which they should be!). People are much less likely to object if they have been consulted before a decision is reached.

People often complain about the website in stakeholder interviews. Allow them to do this and avoid becoming defensive. They will feel more favourably towards you and your website, if you listen to their concerns. We all like to be heard.

3. Avoid group committee meetings

The key to stakeholder interviews is their one-to-one nature. Group meetings can be very destructive. This is for a number of reasons…

  • The need to defend – In large organisations that have internal politics, everybody feels the need to defend their own ‘turf’. If somebody criticise the website, you are forced to defend it to ‘save face’ in front of others. Equally others feel the need to defend their own positions for the same reason.
  • A tendency to compromise – When two individuals in a group reach an impasse, the others try to find a compromise. This kind of ‘design on the fly’ inevitably leads to a bland solution. It will neither offend or inspire anybody. Unfortunately, to create a successful website you need to make tough choices that some will not like. A group approach does not lend itself to this.
  • A loss of control – It is easy for you to loss control in a group meeting. One-to-one meetings work better because you can divide and conquer. Only you know what the other stakeholders said. This puts you in charge and allows you to ‘cheery pick’ the feedback you receive. In a group meeting things can easily get out of hand and decisions are made without your buy-in.
  • The dominant individual – Every group has one or two dominant individuals. These are the people who bounce the rest of the group into agreeing with them, forcing their agenda through. A dominant individual drowns out quieter members, who become resentful later that nobody listened to them. Meeting with people individually prevents this because the dominant individuals cannot force their point of view on others or overwhelm quieter ones.

One cannot expect a larger organisation to run its website without some form of committee. However, there is no reason why that committee needs to meet as a group.

4. Target your influencers

Talking of dominant individuals, another successful tactic is to target influencers.

An influencer is somebody that others respect and follow. Their opinion is incredibly valuable and if you can sway them to your cause, others will fall into line. However, be careful not to confuse dominant people with influencers. A dominant person will ‘bully’ others into publicly agreeing with them. An influencer will fundamentally alter somebody’s attitude.

Identify who influences your decision makers and speak to them personally. This person might not even be a decision maker themselves, but they carry enough clout to make them worth your time.

When you meet with your influencers, really listen to what they have to say. They often have valuable insights which may change your strategy significantly. Do not go into a meeting with an influencer simply intent on pushing your own agenda. Instead try and shape your approach around their perspective.

If you get an influencer enthusiastic about your project it can make a huge difference.

5. Use third party experts

A variation on the influencers technique is to back up your ideas with third party expert opinion. This can be done in two ways…

  • Reference the work of a third party expert – For example, if you wish to discourage internal stakeholders from overwhelming users with options on the homepage, you might refer them to Steve Krug or Jakob Nielsen who have both written on the subject.
  • Hire a third party expert – I often find myself brought into companies simply to confirm what in-house staff have already been saying. Unfortunately, decision makers often doubt the opinion of their web team because they either undervalue them or feel they are pushing a hidden agenda. An independent expert can add creditability to your opinions.

Of course, for this approach to work the stakeholders need to respect the expert. There is no point referencing Steve Krug or hiring Jakob Nielsen, if the decision makers have never heard of them. It is often necessary to sell the credibility of your expert first.

6. Rely on evidence, not opinion

Sometimes it is better to avoid personal opinion entirely (even if that is the opinion of an expert). In such cases statistics can be your friend.

Nothing is more powerful for driving home a point than referring decision makers to Google Analytics. However web stats are not the only evidence you can draw upon. Others include…

  • Surveys and polls are an excellent way of getting feedback from your users that can then be presented to decision makers.
  • Twitter search and Google Alerts can be used to gauge how people view your site and brand. These can be powerful testimonials to present decision makers.
  • Heat maps can be used to take some of the subjectivity out of design.

Of course one of the most powerful evidence you can present is the results of usability testing.

7. Focus on the user

As website owners we know that a successful website is user focused. However, not all our decision makers will understand this and even those who do may get ‘distracted’ sometimes.

It is therefore important to constantly move our decision makers away from their own personal preferences and back on the needs of users.

User testing is one way of doing this. Being able to show decision makers how real users interact with your website is incredibly powerful. It helps them empathise with the needs of users rather than thinking only about their own agenda. Play them video clips of users interacting with your site or at the very least quote them the feedback of users.

However, even if you involve decision makers in user testing, they can still get caught up in their own agendas. One gentle way of preventing this is to word your questions carefully. When you need a decision makers response to something don’t ask…

What do you think?

Instead ask them…

How do you think users will respond to this?

This will keep them focused on the needs of users.

8. Control the feedback

As well as wording questions carefully there is also a need to control the feedback you receive. This is important if you want the decision makers to make considered decisions.

Take for example design sign off – never ask a decision marker if they like a design. It is too broad a question that will lead to a plethora of uninformed and ill considered responses. Instead ask them more specific questions such as…

  • Does the design conform to the brand guidelines?
  • Does the design meet the needs of our users?
  • Does the design emphasis the right content?
  • Does the design have a clear call to action?
  • Does the design fulfil our business objectives?

This prevents the decision maker from falling back on their gut reaction (i like it / I dislike it). It forces them to focus on the issues that define whether the design is successful or not and ignore personal preference for specific colours or layout.

Of course, sometimes you will not like the answer to these specific questions. When that happens you need to ask why.

9. Ask why

This is probably the most powerful of all the techniques I have listed here and yet by far the simplest.

When you face opposition to your plans, always ask why. Too often we switch to defensive mode and focus on better communicating our own position rather than understanding the opinion of the person opposing us. This is a mistake.

The question why is powerful for three reasons…

  • It informs – Often the objection raised initially is not the true underlying issue. By asking why you get to the root of the problem and that allows you to offer alternative solutions. Asking why ensures you have all the information required to deal with the issue.
  • It can confound – Most of us make decisions based on an intuitive leap. We do not always think through our decisions and so find it hard to articulate the underlying reason. By asking why you force people to stop and consider their logic. When they struggle to express the underlying reasons, they weaken their position.
  • It shows interest – By asking why you allow them to have their say. You demonstrate an interest in their opinion and establish empathy with their point of view.
  • Ultimately asking why avoids the disagreement from turning into an argument with entrenched position.

    10. Avoid confrontation

    I avoid confrontation at all costs. Going head-to-head with somebody especially in front of their colleagues achieves nothing. You can rarely get somebody to shift their position through confrontation.

    Once a disagreement escalates into a confrontation, nobody can afford to ‘lose face’ by backing down. It becomes a matter of ego, where pride dictates the outcome. Your website will almost certainly be caught in the cross fire.

    A better approach is to agree. The word yes can be immensely powerful. Whenever somebody suggests something to me, no matter how stupid, I will do the following…

    • Acknowledge and thank them for their input.
    • Say yes we could do that.
    • Go on to explain the consequences if we did.
    • Offer an alternative which could achieve the same aims.

    In short I tend to go around problems rather than bashing my head against them. I always look to work with others rather than against them.


    So there you go, 10 techniques for battling site bureaucracy. I do not claim these techniques are foolproof. Neither do I suggest they are always appropriate. However, they are useful techniques in your arsenal which you may want to call upon from time to time.

    Finally, this is not a definitive list. I could have written more but then it wouldn’t have been a ‘top ten list!’ However, I would be interested to hear what works for you. Post your techniques in the comments.