The secrets of successful ongoing development

Paul Boag

Persuading management that your website needs ongoing investment is only half the battle. Now you need to make sure it generates a return.

I passionately believe websites should be constantly evolved, rather than entirely redesigned every few years. Unfortunately, persuading clients or bosses of that can be challenging. Worse still, when they do finally agree the pressure is on to show them that this approach works.

In order to help you prove the effectiveness of continual development, I will share seven techniques. These will ensure that things run smoothly and you do not get too bogged down in trivial tasks and ridiculous suggestions from other stakeholders.

Let’s begin by really focusing on the user.

Focus relentlessly on the user’s tasks

Once your colleagues realise that there are resources and time available for ongoing development, you will find yourself bombarded with suggestions of how the website could be improved. In such situations it is easy to spend your whole life pleasing internal stakeholders at the cost of providing a good user experience.

One way to avoid this problem is insisting all suggestions about the website are phrased in terms of what users wish to achieve. Instead of a stakeholder coming to you wanting to add an about us page, they would have to come with the task that a real user might wish to complete.

I recommend phrasing these tasks as user stories, including both the task they wish to complete and their ultimate goal. For example a user story might read:

I am a teenager on a gap year looking for volunteering opportunities. I want to see what opportunities are available on your website.

Not only will this ensure that everybody is focused on user requirements, it will also put the internal web team in charge of how best to deliver on that user story.

Understand the business challenges

Meeting the needs of users is important, but ultimately the website exists to meet the needs of your organisation. It is important that you have a clear idea of exactly what those needs are. It is easy to be working flat out on a website and yet failing to help achieve organisational objectives.

I find it helpful to think of these objectives in terms of problems you are solving. Every organisation has certain challenges that it is facing and digital should exist to help overcome those challenges.

Make sure you have a list of the challenges that the website tries to address. Although this list will have to change over time it will help focus the work you undertake. For example, when a stakeholder has a suggestion for the website, if it fails to address one of your challenges then you should seriously consider whether it is implemented.

Monitor everything

There’re two reasons why you should become obsessional about tracking every aspect of your website.

First, continual monitoring is the only way that you can show senior management that ongoing investment in the website is worthwhile. If you can demonstrate an incremental increase in conversion then management will be more than happy to continue and even increase the amount they spend on the website.

Second, monitoring is the way that you ensure conversion rates increase. Not all of the changes you make to the website should come from suggestions made by colleagues. Most of the work should be born out of observations you’ve made when looking at the analytics.

multivariate testing is crucial to the success of any website and Optimizely makes it a breeze to setup.

It is also worth emphasising at this point just how important multivariate testing is to the success of any website. If you are not running multivariate testing on your website then it is time to start.

Have some guiding principles

I’ve already suggested that you should measure stakeholder requests against the challenges you were trying to solve. However, you should also be measuring them against a set of guiding principles.

These principles outline the way you work. For example you may have a guiding principle that says customer satisfaction is more important than short-term monetary gain. This would certainly shape the kind of work you do on the site.

Don’t work in isolation

It is easy for a web team to work in relative isolation. This is a major mistake! It is vital that your team is actively engaging colleagues across the entire organisation. There’re two reasons for this.

First, for you to deliver an outstanding user experience you will need the help of colleagues from across the organisation. Digital does not exist in a vacuum and users who come to your website will interact with your company through various channels. To create a unified experience for the user you will need to liaise with the owners of these other channels.

Second, the number one goal of any web team should be to increase the entire organisations understanding of digital. It is your job to educate colleagues about how digital can help them better do their jobs. If you’re not regularly interacting with them this will never happen.

I recommend that you learn from the agile methodology and include relevant stakeholders in your team when working on a specific project. It is important that you do not see stakeholders as ‘internal clients’ but rather as members of your team.

Allow time to consolidate

When working as part of an in-house team your attention can be consumed by the immediate task in front of you. Worse still, some teams become purely reactionary, simply responding to the most urgent task or the stakeholder who shouts the loudest.

For ongoing development of a website to be effective it is important that you have to space to occasionally step back and look at the bigger picture. Whether you use this time to adjust your roadmap, update the site design or set a new strategy, it is crucial that you can occasionally look at the bigger picture.

A related point here is that you also need space to learn and experiment with emerging technologies. The web moves at such a pace that if you’re not careful your skill set will atrophy and your website will become out of date.

Get an outside perspective

Even if you decide to bring all but the most specialist of work in house, it is still wise to have an external agency on your books.

Working on a single site for any length of time can lead to an isolated view of the world. Very quickly you will lose perspective and become unable to see the wood for the trees.

Having an outside agency that you can call upon occasionally to review your work and make recommendations will prove absolutely invaluable. It doesn’t need to be that expensive either. Headscape reviews typically only take a couple of days to complete.

Expert review section of Headscape website
Many organisations come to Headscape for an outside perspective because they realise that they are too close to their site to be objective.

Failing that, consider getting an outside consultant to do a conference call with you every few months to look through the site and discuss what you have been doing. You will find the experience amazingly beneficial.

To be honest, this blog post could go on forever. Getting your internal processes working is the subject of a book, not a mere blog post. However, the ideas I have shared with you are an excellent starting point. The rest we can discuss in the comments.

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