Posted: June 29, 2016
Kicking off a website redesign project is no small undertaking. You need budget, you need support from leadership, you need time, you need resources, you need content...
In our experience, it can take months, sometimes years to get an institution-wide redesign off the ground. I know this sounds overwhelming and it’s certainly a lot to take on, but there is good news! There are things that you can do right now to get ahead of the game, while also gaining support and buy-in from leadership and stakeholders by proving the need to invest in an updated website.
Prepare Your Teams and Advocates
In order to create and maintain a website that accomplishes your institution’s goals, you need a group of people who are dedicated to ensuring the website is meeting needs and achieving results across campus. We often call this group the “Web Advisory Committee” (WAC). The WAC’s job is to provide input on major website-related decisions and to oversee the strategic vision for your website long into the future. The WAC should include representatives from major units of your institution. Each member will serve as a website evangelist to help build support for your website goals throughout the internal community.
While the WAC will prove to be extremely valuable, this group might only meet once a month to discuss major issues or decisions. You’re also going to need a “Project Team” who will usher your website redesign forward on a daily basis. This team will mostly likely be a small group of representatives from marketing and communications (depending on the structure of your institution, you may have someone from IT on this team as well). If you decide to work with a partner outside of the institution, the Project Team typically handles coordinating with the partner and managing internal resources.
By identifying these groups in advance, you will have a long list of advocates for the website project. This also gives you plenty of time to ensure that everyone is clear on their role and responsibilities once the project begins.
Evaluate Your Content
Going into a website redesign with a very clear picture of the content that currently exists is hugely helpful. Typically, documenting the content that you already have will take the form of a content audit. There are two type of audits that you will want to consider:
- Quantitative - This type of audit will show how much content you have (how many pages), how that content is organized (your current information architecture) and what types of content exist (text, images, video, graphics, etc.)
- Qualitative - This type of audit will help you evaluate the narrative quality of the content that is currently on your website. It takes a bit more time and requires someone with knowledge of the goals of each section and the target audience. At many institutions, each department or program will have its own content creators. These are the people who should evaluate the content for accuracy, as they are the subject matter experts in their specific area. With guidance from the Project Team, this audit will inform what content needs to be deleted or rewritten.
These audits take a lot of effort and coordination. We recommend completing them internally if possible to save on external costs. Also, no one will be better suited to evaluate the accuracy of your website’s content than the people who are responsible for creating it. Another advantage to this approach is that it begins to create a feeling of ownership among content creators, something that will be essential to maintaining your website in the long run.
Test Your Website
Many agencies will include user testing as part of their scope of work for a website redesign. The insights gained from talking to real people as they navigate the website are invaluable for identifying problem areas and exploring solutions. Our recommendation is to go ahead and start testing on your own for several reasons:
- You can use the data you collect to identify problem areas and prove to leadership that they need to be fixed. For example, if you show the admissions office that prospective students can’t find financial aid information, they will be more likely to support your efforts to include clearer CTAs in a new design.
- You have more time and flexibility to leverage events on campus in order to bring in more participants. If there is a high school tour happening, offer to give parents a free t-shirt in exchange for a 10 minute user testing session. If there is an alumni luncheon, give away a Starbucks gift card to anyone who will work with you before they leave campus.
- You can save money by doing it yourself. Take a look at our blog, How to Conduct User Testing: A DIY Toolkit for Higher Ed Marketers.
Be sure to save all of the data you collect during user testing. It will be helpful in the future to revisit this information to be sure that all of the issues you identified in testing have been addressed as part of the redesign. Also, if you do decide to work with a partner, they’ll be able to leverage this user feedback to inform the IA and design of the new website.
Review Your Competition
Now that you know what your users are saying, you need to know what else is out there. You’ve probably got a list of regional competitors, competitors with similar offerings, competitors of similar size and aspirational competitors. Take a look at all of your different competitors’ websites and identify trends. Look for things that are working and things that aren’t. For example, some websites may do a great job of using images and video to create a sense of place, while others may have too much content that doesn’t communicate a consistent brand message. Having a clear picture of the competitive landscape will help you make informed decisions later in the process.
If you do choose to work with a partner, they will likely want to conduct a bit of competitive research on their own. If you’ve already compiled your own findings, you can share that information and point your partner to the competitors that you feel are the best representation of the landscape and what you want to achieve.
Assemble Your Stakeholders
We recommend getting a number of people across campus involved in the website redesign process beyond the WAC and the Project Team. This will ensure that you are meeting the needs of your various website users and gaining support and consensus across the institution. For example, you probably want to include key decision-makers, current and prospective students, faculty and staff. Here are a few examples of when you’ll need their participation:
- Stakeholder Interviews - You should to talk to representatives from across campus early in the project to understand their needs, as this will help set the strategy and direction for the remainder of the project.
- Information Architecture Review- Each unit should be familiar with how content is organized in their section of the website. While they won’t be experts in IA, their feedback is important. Equally as important is creating a sense of collaboration and inclusion throughout the process.
- Content Development - Higher ed websites are big. More often than than not, the content creation and editing needs of a website are too big for the marketing and communications team to handle on their own. Consider representatives from each unit to be the Subject Matter Experts for their department. When possible, leverage these representatives for the creation and maintenance of content that can then be edited for web writing best practices.
- Visual Design Review - Similar to the Information Architecture Review, you’ll definitely want to ask for feedback during design. You may not agree with all of the responses you get, but it’s critical for the success of the website that your stakeholders know they are being heard.
- Content Migration - Moving from one site to another is a massive project on its own. If possible, involve content contributors in moving the content for their section of the website. This will give them experience in using the new system and it will make the process much more manageable for the Project Team.
- Ongoing Maintenance - Once the website is launched, you may need your content contributors to be accountable for keeping their content up to date. Setting these expectations early helps them plan for any revisions that need to be made in the future.
As you can see, a big part of a website redesign is simply managing people. Knowing who you need, when you will need them and when they are available will take a lot of the headache out of planning down the road.
List Your Requirements
Few things are more frustrating than getting halfway through the development of a website and realizing that you forgot to include an important piece of functionality. For example, how do you plan to integrate your news and calendar feeds? Planning ahead will ensure that you’ve thought of everything (or close to everything) and that you will be able to make more informed decisions along the way. Here are a few of the different requirements you need to consider:
- Content Management System (CMS) Requirements
- If you are moving to a new CMS, then you will certainly need to think through what you need it to do. Consider the challenges you are currently facing (both from a content entry standpoint and a technical standpoint) and how those could be resolved with a new technology platform. If you’re curious as to what’s out there in terms of CMS solutions, request demos from a few different vendors and compare their offerings.
- Functional Requirements
- This list will include things like third-party integrations, calendars, news listings, social feeds, blogs and more. It could also include preferences based on your internal team. For example, different developers prefer to operate in different frameworks. Knowing what will be the most efficient and effective for your institution will save time and money down the road.
- Accessibility Requirements
- Federal laws require that public institutions meet a minimum set of website accessibility criteria. Private institutions often have similar standards that are set by leadership. Familiarizing yourself with the required level of accessibility for your site early in the process will allow you to spot problems more easily along the way.
Map Out Your Timeline
Setting a goal for when your site will launch allows you to plan accordingly and work efficiently to meet that goal. However, it’s easy to be overly optimistic when setting the launch date. We’ve seen too many websites fall short of expectations because the timeline was rushed. In most cases, it’s better to spend a little extra time to produce an outstanding product.
Set yourself up for success by setting a realistic launch date and specific goals for key project milestones. When creating a rough timeline, think about major events happening on campus, other big projects that you have in the works, holiday breaks and be prepared for those unforeseen setbacks.
If you’re working with a vendor, be prepared to adjust your timeline based on their estimates. When both teams are honest about their capabilities and flexible with their time, the end result is a timeline that is achievable and works for everyone involved.
In our experience, most institution-wide redesigns can can take anywhere from six to twelve months. We’ve also worked with institutions that chose to use a phased approach that focuses on specific sections of the website in priority order. Every institution is unique and there certainly is no one-size-fits-all solution.