The first thing you notice about your friend’s new house is the beautifully landscaped front yard. But walking up, you’re perplexed: how do you get in? The only door you see is on the front porch...but the porch has no steps. You hoist yourself onto the porch and hear your friend shouting, “Come in!” But the door is stuck.
Once you get inside, you can’t figure out where your friend’s voice is coming from. You sit down on stylish, but uncomfortable, furniture. A tray of snacks is nearby, but none of it looks appetizing—in fact, it looks stale and tasteless. And your friend’s choice of music is annoyingly bad. Ugh, you feel like leaving already.
Ever had a similar experience visiting a website?
It had a slick design but no real value—difficult to navigate and not providing the content you sought. Or, maybe it did, but you gave up looking and moved on.
If you’re going to invite people over to your online home, you need to think about their user experience before you construct that home. I’ve got some proven tips for a positive and productive user experience.
How to Make Your Association Website the Envy of Your Digital Neighborhood
1. Decide who’s involved in the website project—and how.
Nearly all your association’s departments have skin in the game when it comes to your website, but organizational goals, not departmental goals, must drive decisions. To manage a website redesign project, you must appropriately balance departmental interests while keeping your main focus on the big picture.
You need the input of all these stakeholders (departments) at appropriate times, like the requirements gathering phase. However, reserve decision-making powers to a smaller core group—colleagues who are guided by the organization’s perspective. If too many people are involved in decisions like vendor selection, the process will get overly complicated and bogged down.
Be inclusive—to a point. Besides the requirements phase, other opportunities to include more colleagues in the website redesign project are the discovery phase (when the website vendor conducts stakeholder interviews) and the testing phase. From a change management perspective, it helps to get users involved in the project in some way. The more they feel invested in the website project, the more likely they’ll become champions of change.
2. Identify your requirements for a new website.
Before you start calling vendors or requesting demos, take time to identify and document what you need—your system and technical requirements. For starters:
- Do you need a new content management system (CMS) or will you continue to use the one you have?
- Are you starting from scratch with your website or improving the one you have?
- What functionalities does the future site need that the current site doesn’t have?
- Have you done your user research? If you haven’t, consider putting together a focus group or send a member survey so you can hear directly from users what is or isn’t working for them.
You’ll end up with a lengthy checklist of website and CMS requirements. For CMS selection alone, you’ll have to decide whether content creators need something incredibly simple to use or whether a more advanced system will work. Identify the systems that need to integrate with the CMS, for example, your AMS, marketing automation, library, and/or online community software.
Do you want a system that can adapt to your future needs? Yes, you do. Think not only about the requirements you need in 2017 but the ones you might need in 2019, for example, personalized content.
Determine whether you have a good relationship with your existing vendor and whether they offer the systems/services you might need to accomplish your goals. If you’re not sure, decide what qualities you seek in your website vendor partner, for example, a firm that’s skilled in leading a discovery process.
3. Establish a realistic budget for the new website.
Your website budget is a critical piece of your requirements. Divide your requirements into “must haves” and “nice to haves.” Know where you will cut back if money becomes an issue. Make sure your budget covers selection, design, user testing, implementation, licensing, maintenance, and hosting. For example, you’ll need to know how many CMS administrative seats you’ll need to license. You don’t want to waste time looking at systems and web partners you can’t afford, which is why you need to have your requirements ironed out before you start researching vendors.
4. Develop a website timeline.
Most website projects take 9 to 12 months, but we’ve seen projects take anywhere from 5 months to 2 years—hence, the value of planning ahead. You have to allow time for many moving parts like CMS selection, discovery, design, user testing, content audit and archiving, and content migration to the new CMS.
Don't put an unrealistic or arbitrary deadline on a relaunch before you know what the project really involves. For example, some associations promise their board a launch date that coincides with the annual conference. To meet that deadline, they take ill-advised shortcuts and end up with another lousy website. Don't over-promise then under-deliver.
Don’t work backwards from a go-live date. Develop a timeline going forward. Your website vendor will let you know what’s possible on their end. Build buffers into that timeline. Because you’re adding to staff’s existing workload, you can expect to experience some hitches.
You don’t want to be pressed for time on a project like this, especially when other association projects and events could divert staff attention and time. Consult other departments to avoid major scheduling conflicts.
Share the timeline with everyone involved (and their supervisors) before the project starts. People need to know when they’re expected to be involved. Throughout the project, let other departments know about progress on major project milestones and any adjustments to the timeline.
5. Think about the website user experience (UX).
Staff and board members have a tendency to think about what they want to see on the site. Avoid that backwards perspective. Adopt the user’s perspective. You need to look at your website from the outside-in, not from the inside-out.
Focus on the user’s online experience. Understand your target audiences and their needs, interests, and online behavioral patterns. Find out what’s working for them on your site, what isn't, and how it could be better. Start by looking at your web analytics. Survey users. Host focus groups with members and non-members to truly understand their needs.
Don’t just convert or repurpose content (PDFs!) from elsewhere—create a purposeful digital experience for the user. Think about site search performance, mobile performance, site taxonomy, and navigation. These discussions will be part of the discovery process with your web partner.
6. Do a website content inventory and audit.
Content audits take longer than most people anticipate. I suggest starting on it even before you begin the selection process. Decide which content needs to be deleted, archived, updated, and developed.
Some web vendors have the expertise to help you with this part of the project, but others don’t. If you need help, include this in your requirements.
7. Make a plan for editorial workflow and content management.
Figure out how you will manage the editorial workflow.
- What will the workflow look like?
- What roles are involved?
- Who will review, approve, and publish content?
- What training is needed?
Try the new workflow so it’s fully tested and the kinks are worked out before launch.
Most importantly, you have to discuss website governance. Who is responsible for your overall web presence? What other positions and conversations need to exist to ensure that the website isn't a “one and done” project and receives continual support?
The most successful website redesign projects are the ones that never really end—and everyone knows that’s the way it should be. Never stop tweaking and advancing your website, even after launch. Regularly conduct user testing to find out how you can improve or personalize the user experience of your target audiences. Keep them coming back to your online home.