How to write a transformative website review

Sooner or later many of us as digital professionals end up having to write a website review. When we do, we need to do more than focus on the surface and instead delve a little deeper.

A big part of my job is reviewing other people’s websites. For a long time, I hated the job. I hated the idea of picking apart other people’s hard work. That my reviews would inevitably lead to somebody in senior management asking why the issues I have pointed out were allowed to happen.

But then one day I realised that, like most of my peers, I was approaching website reviews in entirely the wrong way.

Is your approach to site reviews flawed?

Most website reviews list the problems with a site. Issues with performance, findability, usability, aesthetics, content and countless other problems. They systematically identify problems and then suggest solutions to each of these challenges.

A website review that only focuses on the problems of the website, will not address underlying issues.

On the face of it, this seems useful. But in reality, it is rarely. It might fix some things in the short term that benefit the site. However, it probably won’t make that big a difference over time. The reason is, this treats the symptoms, not the underlying condition.

Are you focusing on symptoms and ignoring the illness?

It is like a doctor treating the symptoms of lung cancer without ever discussing with the patient the fact that they smoke forty a day. In other words, most website reviews focus on putting a sticking plaster over a more fundamental problem. Rarely does a site audit ask; how did things end up the way they have?

This failure to tackle root causes was why I used to hate website reviews. I knew the blame would inevitably fall at the feet of the digital team who built it. However, in my experience, this was rarely where the problem came from.

Take for example a site’s information architecture. Most sites I review have a terrible information architecture, one that does not reflect how users see the world.

But, if all I do is point out the problem and suggest a fix, I am providing no value. That is because I have yet to encounter a web team who doesn’t know to structure a site around user needs. I just end up telling them what they already know and giving management the impression the team is stupid for not fixing it.

If all you do is point out problems such as a poor site architecture, management will inevitably blame the web designer when it is rarely their fault.

The same is true with almost all areas. Most web teams know a website should be fast, accessible, usable, etc. What is more, they spend every hour of their working day looking over their site, so the chances are they will have spotted all the same problems you point out. They will probably know the solutions too.

What value should a site review provide?

If the web team already has the answers, this leaves us with two questions. First, if they know this stuff already what value does a site review provide? To answer we need to ask the second question; why haven’t they fixed these issues already?

I am yet to meet a web team who was too lazy or ignorant to fix the problems with their website. The reason for issues on their site always come down to some external constraint placed upon them which they are not able to overcome.

When I look at a website, I don’t just see design, code and content. I perceive constraints in the DNA of an organisation. I see how little the company values and understands digital. I see how inward looking and how oblivious to user needs they are. A website is a window into the heart of a business. It exposes all their flaws and shortcomings to the world.

Focus on the failure of the business, not the web team

A good website review should concentrate on these deficiencies and flaws. Not only the cosmetic issues of the site. It should focus on the failures of the business, not the web team.

A good website review will still point out the problem with the information architecture. But, it should go on to say this is often a symptom of a company who is inward looking or working in departmental silos. It should say that if the business wishes to make the site easier to use it will need to address these issues.

When talking about performance, you might need to point out that poor performance is often because internal teams are not given the time to properly optimise a site, because management moves them on to the next project.

When faced with poor usability, don’t just point out the issues and how to fix them. Instead, explain they need to establish a culture of regular usability testing. Take time to highlight the barriers that often exist which prevent this.

In other words, don’t just focus on the problem and the obvious fix. Instead, shine a light on the underlying issues that caused it.

How to identify the underlying problem

You might not always be sure what the underlying problem is. If this is the case, then ask. I can guarantee the web designers can tell you why the problem exists. Sure, they might just be making excuses. But most of the time they will not be. Most of the time they will be identifying a significant constraint that needs addressing.

In time you will predict the answers without even asking. I have seen the same symptoms caused by the same underlying problems so many times now that they are blindingly obvious from just looking at a site. From a bad user interface created by print designers, to content written by somebody with no experience of writing for the web. Time and again, I see issues of under-investment, insufficient leadership, cross-departmental feuds and more. These are the issues we should be identifying and calling out.

The real role of website reviews

Site reviews have somewhat fallen out of favour, and I can understand why. After all, if I had the choice between getting a review or testing with users, I would choose the latter every time. But I do believe that if done right they have their place.

Usability testing will help you identify problems and even fix superficial issues. But rarely will it reveal what caused the problem in the first place. There is value in getting an external perspective, but only if the reviewer will delve a little deeper than the surface of the website.

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