Suppose you’ve been tasked with overhauling your company website. This has been the source of dread and panic for creative and engineering teams the world over.
Some people, in the panic and shuffle, opt for the fast-and-loose approach. They start throwing anything they can at the site, hoping something will stick. Anything means ANYTHING. All marketing ideas go in the bucket, then the executive mandates, the creative odds and ends, some engineering goodness and all of that. This almost always results in a disaster.
Others look to collect everything that people want and need, do a ton of marketing research and then follow that up with user testing. Though this may lead to a usable site, this method probably won’t generate a site that actually solves user needs.
There are various other permutations on these ideas, including the design by committee, the hire a specialist and the design by marketing requirements approaches.
After suffering through most of these approaches, I devised a plan that is reasonable, easy to execute, offers answers to common questions. If executed, this will provide a smart, well designed, user-oriented site which also fulfills business needs.
I call my plan the Website Overhaul 12-Step Program. Let’s dive in.
Step 1: Install analytics and do nothing for three months.
This doesn’t mean don’t do standard updates to information and common, day-to-day operations. I simply mean, don’t design. Don’t workflow. Don’t create nav structures and hierarchy and all of that. Just sit on your hands and wait. For. Three. Months.
Step 2: Review Analytics Data and Collect Client Needs.
Once you have let the analytics bake for three months, review your results. Sometimes they back up what your marketing team is pushing for. More often, there are little surprises and gems you’d never anticipate.
Look for commonly viewed pages. Review common search terms. Watch for people seeking names, phone numbers, account data or anything else that might seem odd in a search. All of these items can give you insight into your user.
While reviewing your analytics data, collect stakeholder ideas, information and requirements. Include this information in your concerns moving forward. Be sure to balance your findings and temper stakeholder information with your analytics findings.
Step 3: Create an Information Hierarchy.
I don’t care what you think your navigation should be, think about the information you have and create a hierarchy of relations. Which documents are gateways to information? Which information is subordinate to other information? This is all useful in developing an information hierarchy for your site.
Step 4: Develop Core Navigation.
Now that you have your information hierarchy and months worth of synthesized analytics data, you can start developing your core navigation. Think about what your users need and what your marketing team wants to accomplish. Apply everything you know here. Think about taxonomy and make sure you have navigation consistency, both in vocabulary and in behavior. This is your first move in actually creating a site.
During your core navigation development, you should start using tools like card sorts and thesauri to solve copy concerns and ensure clear language and categorization. If need be, you can reassess your information hierarchy at this step.
Step 5: Uncover Special Needs Navigation.
This does not mean you need to start thinking about accessibility right now (though accessibility is VERY IMPORTANT). This means, you need to consider items which don’t fit in your core navigation structure, but answer questions your users have. Assess user special, non-core, needs and address them here. Make a list and associate the special needs navigation with specific pages.
Step 6: Wireframes.
Now that you have your navigation structure laid out and your special needs listed, you are ready to start creating a visual guide for the layout of the site. Consider your user, what they look for most, what they look for least and consider Fitts’s Law. Think about scanning behaviors. Build something that begs to be clicked on, even when it’s printed and bound.
Standard (and not-so-standard) user testing should happen here. Be sure to develop your wireframes with the correct granularity for your audience to ensure they don’t get stuck in the mud of details that are unimportant at this stage.
Step 7: Design.
Once wireframes have been created and approved, pass the site along to the design team for their magic touch. Let them bump, nudge and finesse your wireframes into a compelling presentation. If you work carefully with your design team, they can take genius and bring it to life. Let them.
Step 8: Develop Templates.
Volumes could be written on the topic of templates and content management systems, including my notes on Object Oriented Content. For now, let’s simplify the idea and say, templates are good. You should use them. They will make your life easier in the short and long run. Now is the time to build them. Include all of the design goodies from step 7.
Step 9: Implement Site Structure.
Once your templates are built, using all of the designs produced from your previous work, you are ready to start implementing your site structure. If you created solid templates, this step should be fairly simple and straightforward. Take advantage of the separation between your templates and your content. All your content should drop in and you can make tweaks to your presentation. You’re getting close.
Step 10: Test and Bug-Fix.
Once you have implemented the site structure, begin testing the site. Send it through QA. Look for broken links. Look for bad content. Find items that will be a deal-breaker for your users and repair it now. Ultimately you don’t want your user to find the flaws that you already thought of. Be aware and move forward in a smart way. By now, you should have already gotten stakeholder buy-in so they should not still be in the mix unless they are core to user testing.
Step 11: Deploy.
Once you have the final seal of approval from your testers, you should feel confident your site is ready for the prime-time. Launch it and let your users have a crack at it. Give yourself a pat on the back, your site is live.
I’m sure you’re wondering why everything launched at step 11, since this is, after all, a 12-step program. Well…
Step 12: Watch Analytics for New Trends.
Now that your site is live, watch for new trends in your analytics data. Are your users getting their questions answered or are they still having difficulties? Are your users visiting new pages? Is everything still working or are you experiencing technical issues? All of this will appear in your analytics data, so keep an eye out.
There are many small steps that fall within the scope of this 12-step process, but it is up to you to ensure you implement your specific needs and tests. If your stakeholders need you to keep them in the loop, make sure you let them know your process so you can get their input when it is going to be most useful.
Make sure the people involved in the process feel confident about your moves and get buy-in at the right times to facilitate a swift, fluid move through the process. If you move forward with confidence, you will be a hero to your coworkers and a champion of your users. Take control, build confidence and make the web a better place.