Are you refining or rotting?

Paul Boag

(S01:E05) Too many websites are just left to rot. If you want your website to generate a return on investment you need to continually refine it.

In the Gifts of Sobriety, Barbara Cole wrote:

“We are locked into a cycle of repeating the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. This is commonly known as the definition of insanity.”

I have to confess this quote often springs to mind when talking to website owners who have commissioned yet another web designer to ‘redesign’ their site.

It is a pattern I see again and again. Websites are launched to much celebration but over time they are neglected to the point where the content is irrelevant, while the design and technology is out of date. Eventually, this leads to the organisation deciding that the website needs to be ‘dealt with’ so they hire a web design team to completely rebuild it. And so the cycle begins again.

Is it really a good idea simply repeating the same process over and over again, expecting different results?

Evolution not revolution

The desire to redesign is understandable. Many organisations become entirely disillusioned with their website and can no longer see any good in it. They just want it gone and something new and shiny put in its place. However, this is massively wasteful. Why throw away perfectly good work? Instead we should be building upon it to take our websites to new heights.

Amazon shopping basket over time

After all, continually evolving our websites over time brings with it considerable advantages.

The benefits of evolution

I believe there are five reasons to adopt an evolutionary approach to your website:

  • More financially prudent – You build on previous investments rather than throw them away and start again.
  • Creates more buzz – With each incremental change there is a new opportunity to publicise your site and encourage people to come back.
  • More engaging – Making changes to your website based on user feedback is a great way to demonstrate that you are listening.
  • Doesn’t frighten users – People don’t like change (just look at the various Facebook redesigns). By making small changes you don’t remove what users are used to.
  • Is easier to test – Because changes are small it is easy to identify what is working (or not working) on your website.

Original Google homepage

Laying the right foundation

“Hang on a minute” I hear you cry “are you saying you never work on site redesigns at Headscape?” No, I am not saying that at all. In fact, it is still the norm for us to work on complete site redesigns. However, whenever we do, we encourage clients to think of it as the last.

In order to evolve a website over time you need to have a firm foundation. Unfortunately this foundation is often lacking.

The problem is that the web is still relatively new. It has been evolving at such a rapid pace that it has been hard for any web designer to predict what building blocks need to be in place for the future. Now though, things are beginning to change. Best practice has emerged and although there are still incredible innovations emerging it is much easier to lay foundations that future development can be built upon.

In fact I would argue there are only two factors that need to be in place:

  • A separation of content, design and functionality – In other words the site needs to be built using web standards to allow universal updates across the site quickly and easily.
  • A flexible design – Can the design accommodate new types of content or changes to the information architecture.

Cartoon where a client is shocked at the cost of a simple change

However the right foundation doesn’t just need to exist on the website. It also needs to exist in the relationship between designer and website owner.

A different relationship

There is a problem in the way web designers and website owners work together. It is a problem that leads to less effective websites and website owners receiving less value for money from their web design teams.

The problem lies in the constant cycle of redesign I have already written about. In such a system the relationship between web designer and website owner is limited. The website owner decides what they want to build and the web designer builds to that specification.

This all sounds perfectly logical however it means that the website owner is missing out on one of the web designers primary strengths; his knowledge of the web, what others are doing and best practice.

Instead of you creating a detailed brief covering everything you want a web designer to build, why not get the web designer to do it for you?

Beginning by commissioning a web design agency to do a review of your website. Outline any problems you perceive with the site and give the web designer some guidance in terms of your business objectives. Don’t define what solutions you wants to these problems. Allow the web designer to review the site and make suggestions about how it could be improved to better meet your business objectives.

The deliverable for this first “micro” project would be a report outlining all of the things that the web design agency suggest you do to improve your website.

Traditionally, employing a web designer has been a huge risk. Because it cost so much to redesign a website it is important you get the right agency. Failure to do so can become costly. However with this new approach you have the opportunity to get to know the web design agency by using them on a very small self-contained project (the site review). This provides you with the opportunity to assess them and decide if you wish to continue with them for the main build. If for any reason you are unhappy there is nothing to stop you taking their report to another web designer to implement.

Even after this initial report has been delivered, I would still encourage you to use a “micro” project approach. In other words, instead of implementing all of the suggestions made by the web designer in his report, split the work into a series of smaller projects.

Again, this allows you to limit the risk associated with bigger projects and continue to build a relationship of trust with your web design agency. If at any stage you’re unhappy with the work being produced there is nothing to stop you moving to a different web designer for the next small project. These small projects are often referred to as “sprints”.

The sprints

By now you’ve probably gathered I’m not a fan of large website redesign projects. They are expensive, risky, and prone to slippage. They also fail to properly engage the web designer in the process.

Instead, I believe that the most successful websites come about because the website owner and web designer work on small clearly defined projects. Each project is completed in a short period of time (called a sprint) that ranges between a week and month long.

What is a sprint?

To give you an idea of what a sprint might consist of, I have provided a few examples below. Notice that each sprint focuses on one key element and at no stage involves redesigning large areas of the website, let alone the whole thing! Some possible sprints include:

  • Testing a number of different calls to action to find out which one is most effective.
  • Implementing a new piece of functionality such as a contact look up application.
  • Making adjustments to the look and feel of the site to improve accessibility.
  • Changing the sites information architecture to be more focused on user needs.
  • Rewriting and reorganising key pages to better reflect the evolving priorities of the company.

Obviously this list is just the tip of the iceberg but it should give you an idea of what I mean when I talk about a sprint or a small “micro” project.

Running an effective sprint

Between yourself and the web designer you should have a pretty good idea of how your website can be improved. The next step is to plan a schedule of development to address the various problems you have identified. As I have already suggested the best approaches to break it down into a series of small sprints.

Although the length of the sprints can vary, I believe a good place to begin is with month-long sprints. This ties in well with the monthly cycle of usability testing we have already discussed.
As I’ve said before I recommend holding monthly conference calls with your web designer to establish what work will be undertaken each month. This should include a mixture of new features that you wish to develop your website, solutions to problems you have identified and issues that have come out of your usability testing.

Each call should also discuss progress made since the last meeting and whose responsibility it is to do what work. For example, if budgets are tight then you may choose to do more of the work in-house rather than outsourcing to your web designer.

However, whether you are doing development in house or have chosen to outsource it, I still recommend including your web designer in your monthly review process. This call only needs to be 30 minutes long and so won’t prove expensive. The reason I make this recommendation is because I believe it is extremely important to have an outside perspective on your website.

An outside perspective

So far I have focused on website owners’ relationship with external web designers. Increasingly many organisations have internal web teams with whom there is already a collaborative relationship.

The principles I have outlined so far apply whether you are using an internal or external web designer. However, I would argue that even if you have an in-house web team it is still worth including an external viewpoint in your monthly sessions.

Admittedly, as a part of an agency myself you will imagine there is a certain amount of bias on my behalf and you might be right. However, I confidently believe that getting an outside agency involved will dramatically improve your website even if they do not do any of the implementation work and merely consult. Why?

There are several problems with relying solely on your internal web team:

  • Because they are so entrenched in your organisational structure it is hard to remain objective about what users will easily understand. What is obvious to them may not be to the user.
  • Being so involved in the day to day development of the website often makes it hard for internal web teams to see the broader perspective. They become overwhelmed by details and lose the bigger picture.
  • In my experience internal web teams are almost always overworked. The ongoing maintenance and development of the website leaves little time for considering broader issues like the future roadmap of the site. They often become reactionary instead of developing strategically.
  • Because your internal web team is working on a single set of websites they lack the broader perspective that an outside web designer has. These individuals work on a huge variety of sites and can bring that experience to bear when looking at your site. I am often taking what I learnt on one website and applying it to another.
  • Finally by their nature most internal web teams have to be made up of generalists. From time to time therefore issues arise that are more specialised than the internal team can handle. In such cases having access to an external team of specialists is useful.

I am not suggesting that having an internal team is a bad idea or that external web designers are better. I am just saying an outside point of view will bring a new perspective to your site.

This doesn’t need to prove expensive either. I am not suggesting all work identified in the monthly review needs to be outsourced. If you already have an internal team everything except the most specialist of work may well be done in-house (workload allowing). The outside web designer may do nothing more than attend your monthly review meetings.

Editors Note: This article is covered in considerably more depth in Paul’s latest book ‘Building websites for return on investment‘. Buy two copies today… actually make it three ;)

What next?

In this post I have focused on the need to evolve your website rather than redesigning every few years. I’ve explained that to achieve this website owners need a different kind of relationship with their designer. A relationship where both parties work together in a series of ongoing sprints.

In order to achieve this I suggest the following actions:

Action 1: Establish the right relationship

Establish a new working relationship with your web team both in terms of contractual arrangement and ensuring you work as a partnership. Look for a web designer who can be your long-term partner rather than simply a short-term supplier.

Action 2: Schedule monthly meetings

Make sure you are discussing the future of your website at least once a month with your design team. Plan what work you are going to complete over the coming month and spend at least some time considering the long-term strategy of your website.

Visit the Season 1 homepage