5 Lessons from the Website Design Trenches

I have been part of 3 major company website designs. Two went very well; one did not. I learned a lot about how to choose a designer and work with them effectively, how to negotiate the complex process of taking a website live, and how to get your internal team prepared for the effort involved. Here are some of the top tips I picked up along the way.

  1. Don’t be seduced by slick looks or low prices. Hold out for the right design partner.
    Sure, he's slick and beautiful. But can he code?

    Sure, he’s slick and beautiful. But can he code?

    You might love the sleek look of their designs, but what is that site designer’s track record on execution? Do they understand who you are and respond with a design that matches, or are they imposing a well-worn template on you? Can they create a custom CMS that’s easy to use, or suggest one out of the box that works for your organization?  Sure, that one designer gave you a low price—but does it cover training your team on the new CMS? How many design iterations does that include? And do they have the staff and capacity to get your site up when you need it to be? I could tell you stories. I’ve learned from experience that flashy and/or cheap can be big red flags in the world of web design. Much more important: adequate capacity for the job, and a crystal clear development process and timeline.

  2. Know who you are. Website redesigns can often provoke a reexamination of an organization’s mission, branding and priorities. It’s a great opportunity to redefine yourself. Just make sure the soul-searching comes to an end before you’ve gone too far down the website design road. Again, I could tell you stories. Scrapping a design that’s half done because your organizational priorities have totally changed is an expensive proposition, it turns out!
  3. Don’t think the process will be easy—or cheap. Think childbirth.
    Congratulations, it's a website!

    Congratulations, it’s a website!

    A great site is an investment that’s worth making. Don’t go the economy route—you won’t be happy with the results. Talk to your designer about setting down a realistic, completely mapped out timeline that ends with plenty of time for bug testing before going live. Internally, create a staff plan and mirror timeline for getting the designer the assets they need when they need them, writing copy, editing it, and getting designs and copy approved. Designate one person in your organization to be the designer’s point of contact, so they don’t receive multiple versions or conflicting directives. Make sure that those in charge of key responsibilities for the website are dedicated to getting it done, and won’t be poached by other teams or distracted by other giant projects. And remember it’s all going to take longer than you suspect. In many ways, the process is long and arduous and marked by certain milestones—not unlike pregnancy and giving birth.

  4. The most important person in the design process is not you (or the organization’s leaders.) It’s the site user. Don’t make the mistake of insisting upon certain design or structural features that don’t cater to the people visiting your site. Having a vision is important, but if your trusted designer tells you that your vision is seriously compromising user experience, take a step back and consider whether it’s worth it to have a particular feature you’ve always dreamed of at the cost of users fleeing your website.
  5. Websites are never “done.”
    Like this, but more uphill.

    Like this, but more uphill.

    When you’re planning your site with the designer you’ve chosen, remember you’re creating a site for the organization you’re going to be months from now, not who you are now. Leave room in the structure and functionality for what you’ll need in the future. For example, maybe you don’t have the staff to write a regular blog and get it up on your site, but you hope to add capacity in the next 18 months. That means you’ll want to pre-plan where the blog feature will display, and what it will link to when you’re ready to take it live.

    Also, come up with a detailed plan for how to handle the regular updates to your website. Does your organization have the capacity to take that on? Or will you outsource it? Who’s responsible for providing content, and how often? Websites need to be fresh to be an asset to your organization.

    Once your site is up, congratulations! You need to start over with #1. Websites should be redesigned every 2 to 3 years.

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