Want a Painless Website? Get Planning

The devil, they say, is in the details. Anyone who’s planned a considerable undertaking–be it a new kitchen or strategy for your organization–knows that the beast can rear its ugly head when you haven’t thought the project through well enough.

[Image: Flickr user opensourceway]

 

Before you begin to think about selecting a technology partner for your new website redesign, you should do a little preliminary planning so you know what to look for when it comes time to choose. Now would also be a good time to do an internal needs assessment, so get your team involved to help.

Start with having the answers to these questions handy, and you’ll be glad you did when it comes time to start shopping for a web designer or put together an RFP (request for proposal).

  1. When do you want to launch?
  2. Do you already have a budget established? If your funds don’t meet your aspirations, can you break the project into phases?
  3. What is the main goal for the new website or redesign (update the design, provide a better user experience, target a different audience, etc.)?
  4. What’s the site’s concept? In other words, why does it exist?
  5. Who is a typical person who might use the website? There might be more than one.
  6. What’s the main thing people need to do on your website (search for information, sign up for something, make donations)?
  7. What’s your functionality wish list for the new site (calendar, RSS, Twitter feed, Facebook Like button, etc.)?
  8. What are some other sites you like, and why?

If you’ve got the answers to these questions, then you’ll be able to answer questions from your web development partner, and you’ll be in a better position to make a decision. Also check A Comprehensive Website Planning Guide from Smashing Magazine for an even more in-depth look into planning successful websites.

Converting to a CMS Website Free Guide

Need a little nudge when it comes to transferring your old website to a new CMS-based website like Drupal? Request a free copy of our website redesigning handbook that offers more tips, as well as templates and examples to take the pain out of planning.

Request your copy now.

 

4 Essential Tests Before Beginning a New Website

Thinking of embarking on a website redesign? The smartest place to start is by asking the people who use the site what they want. Now is a perfect time to embark on a new project, while you’ve got spring cleaning on the brain. Check out our series on how to spring clean your website for a fresh start.

Here are four tests and surveys you should conduct before you launch new project.

User Needs Survey

Set up a questionnaire survey to find out what your audience thinks is most important about your website. Take their comments into consideration for your needs assessment process. What those survey questions will be largely depend on your own organization’s directives. But a question like this might help you get started.

Please rate the value of each of these features, with 1 being extremely important and 4 being extremely unimportant.

  • Ability to log on to access premium material
  • A blog
  • Video clips that demonstrate how we work

You can request a free quick and easy survey template if you don’t feel like writing your own. Make sure to leave a comments space so people can add features they think might be valuable. This is also a good time to evaluate some of your current processes, like asking people how long it took them to receive feedback or how easy it is to make a donation or pay for an item.

Web Content Test

Having an appealing design is one thing, but having readable copy is another. (Be honest: how much jargon are you using?). The web design industry magazine A List Apart puts it this way:

Whether the purpose of your site is to convince people to do something, to buy something, or simply to inform, testing only whether they can find information or complete transactions is a missed opportunity: Is the content appropriate for the audience? Can they read and understand what you’ve written?

ALA gives helpful instructions on how to test the effectiveness of your content. Examples: try some readability software like Added Bytes, Juicy Studio, and Edit Central (or even Microsoft Word’s built-in Flesch Reading Ease check), or host a moderated reading test.

Accessibility Review

A website is only useful if everyone can use it. Paying attention to accessibility is good practice for all organizations–especially since good accessibility equals good SEO–and it’s a must if you’re a government agency. You can start with these Essential Tips for Making Websites Accessible, and then you might begin a “preliminary review.”

The W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative provides instructions for conducting a preliminary review of your website’s accessibility. In short, they recommend selecting a representative sampling of high profile pages (e.g., the welcome page) and those with different layouts and functionality, and testing just a few of those to see how well you’re measuring up.

SEO Audit

Making your website more friendly to search engines is a large but critical undertaking. The good news is any improvement you make is a good one. Schedule a search engine optimization (SEO) audit of your website with a few key goals in mind:

  • Are you using heading tags correctly?
  • Do you have a sitemap?
  • Is your content skimpy?

Check out the 9-Point SEO Checklist for more tips.

Is your training program bleeding you dry?

Time is money, especially when it comes to educating a group of people. Time is even more money when that group meets in person vs. online. Consider how e-learning can save your budget.

It’s easy to overlook all of the hidden costs of in-person instructor-led training. There’s real time and cost involved in putting actual bums on actual seats. Just start to jot down the costs of getting people into a room together, and it’s easy to see how the prices quickly shoot up.

Training material costs

  • Space rental and overhead
  • Day rates
  • Instructor travel (airfare, taxis, hotel, tips)
  • Learner travel (airfare, taxis, hotel, tips)
  • Printing
  • Collating
  • Binding
  • Storage
  • Food (breakfast, snacks, lunch, drinks)
  • Presentation equipment

I can keep going, but you get the point, right? The instant you start gathering people into a room together, it costs a lot of money.

One of the strongest business cases for e-learning is for lowering training costs. That’s why so many companies turn to e-learning, especially when they have ongoing programs, a large number of people to train or have a geographically dispersed workforce. That was the rationale behind a government-led project Talance completed for a division of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. It’s cheaper to bring people from across the state together online.

Time involved in training

It’s easy to see how the kinds of things you can buy at your local Staples drain the coffers. One item that’s often neglected from “should we move to e-learning” calculations is the cost of time. Instructor-led training simply takes longer than e-learning.

“My company has found that on-ground courses that move to eLearning take about half the ‘seat time’ in their eLearning format,” Judy Unrein says in her article Overcoming Objections to eLearning in Learning Solutions magazine.

Unrein, who is an instructional designer for Nike and who has an M.Ed. in Instructional Design from the University of Massachusetts in Boston, goes on to say that one cause is because an online course is more streamlined. All of the “nice to know” filler information that instructors share in classrooms has been removed by the time it goes online.

Minimizing financial risk

Live trainings are also critically scheduled, and the margin of error is much narrower. For example, one of our clients, a department of a New York-based college, recently had an in-person event where the instructor didn’t show up. He simply forgot, and there was a room of people clearing their throats waiting for the star to show. They rescheduled for the following week, duplicating all the costs of the lost event.

Problems can happen online too, but when mistakes of this magnitude happen in person, the financial drain is much higher.

While every program is different, the savings of an e-learning program vs. instructor-led training can be significant. Every program considering moving training online should carefully research hidden costs of bringing a room of people together.

Spotlight: How One Organization’s Planning Lead To a Traffic Boost

Ever wonder how other organizations run their web projects so successfully? Learn through Talance Client Spotlights, where you can connect with peers to pick up inspiration and proven tips you can apply to your website or online course.

Caitlyn Slowe

Caitlyn Slowe

Caitlyn Slowe is a master juggler. She’s the go-to person to manage what’s published and when on the Health Imperatives website, a health agency in Brockton, Mass. As her organization has discovered, the items that appear on the site receive a huge boost in traffic, so hers is a key position. Here’s how she manages the homepage and about 20 smaller sites on top of her other job duties. Hint: organization really matters.

What’s your title, and how does that fit in with managing the website?

I’m the Manager of Special Projects for Health Imperatives, and one of the “projects” that my title refers to is our new website. Health Imperatives has about 40 different program sites ranging from family planning programs to a domestic violence shelter to GLBT youth services and so on.

My title was created last year when we were preparing for the launch of the new website. In addition to managing the website, I still continue to do my previous responsibilities like grant writing, event coordination, budget tracking, report writing, etc., for several Health Imperatives programs.

What areas of the site are you primarily responsible for?

I manage all of the main page content for www.healthimperatives.org and about half of the program sub-sites (some programs manage their own). On the main page, I find and post content for “In the News,” create the Slides for the slideshow (and usually the pages that they link to) and post program updates under “Announcements.”

I also manage all of the main Health Imperatives social media sites, which currently include Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

How do you keep up on learning website manager skills?

I love NTEN’s (Nonprofit Technology Network) blogs and webinars on web design and management, and Mashable also has some excellent articles and tips on managing websites and social media. The Nonprofit Facebook Guy has great info geared specifically toward nonprofits. I’m fairly new to web management, so I basically try to read anything I can find relating to nonprofit web design or social media!

What does your day-to-day strategy look like for keeping the site updated?

One of the challenges I have with managing the website is that it is not my only job responsibility, so to make it more manageable for myself, I create a calendar for each month and map out how/when I’ll update the three sections of the main page (News, Slides, and Announcements).

February Website Calendar

A snapshot of Slowe’s planning calendar

I seek out and write the News blurbs and design the Slides in advance so that I can spend a minimal amount of time dropping them onto the site when their day comes up on the calendar. It’s worked well so far!

I try to update at least two different main page sections per week to keep the info fresh, and I leave each item up for at least one-two weeks (unless it is time-sensitive) so frequent site visitors will see as much new content as possible.

For social media, I rely heavily on HootSuite to help me keep up to date. I aim to do at least one tweet per day, and I limit Facebook to three posts per week (usually Monday, Wednesday, Friday). HootSuite allows me to schedule a week or more worth of Twitter and Facebook updates in advance, which is a huge time-saver!

HootSuiteforTalance

Hootsuite is a huge timesaver for Twitter campaigns

It’s been half a year since the new site launched. What trends do you see in usage?

We have seen an exciting increase in traffic to our website since the new page launched, and it seems that people are enjoying the new format. Google Analytics is a great tool to show results in real numbers – for instance:

In 2011 between 1/29-2/28 we saw 1,580 (unique) visitors

In 2012 during that same time month-long period we’ve had 4,123 (unique) visitors (yay!)

We’re also seeing an increase in new users (vs. returning users), which tells us that our website is reaching a broader audience than it has in the past.

We’re finding that events/trainings that are advertised on our main page slideshow are receiving drastic increases in attendance. For example, a recent recurring training saw a 150% increase in registration after we advertised it on the main page slideshow. Very exciting to see these results, and we’ll definitely continue to advertise this way!

What’s the most useful part of the site?

I’d say that the slideshow has been the most useful part of the site, because it’s the first thing visitors see and can help us direct them to certain program sub-sites that otherwise may not have gotten as much exposure.

The Shopping Cart has also been a very useful tool, as it allows people to make donations to specific programs and also lets them register for trainings or events online, which is definitely the preferred method for our web-savvy visitors!

When Browsers Make Websites Look Bad

Thank you, Internet Explorer, for another gray hair. As if I needed that. But there you go, rolling out another version of your web browsing software and forcing all of our clients to upgrade from IE7 or IE8 to your new IE9. IE9 is the primary browser on 36.2% of Windows 7 machines, and it’ll keep growing.

Now all of our clients’ websites will look funky, and they’ll wonder why.

Then the phone will start ringing. I’ll have to explain that their websites were built before your new browser appeared. I’ll have to tell them that a website doesn’t automatically update to match new browsers. I’ll have to find a way to explain why IE9 is a web designer’s nightmare.

In other words, I’ll have to explain what cross-browser compatibility is, and why the same sites look different depending on which browser someone is using.

What is cross-browser compatibility?

For this, I rely on NetMechanic, who describes the way browsers interpret information with this analogy:

Your Web browser is a translation device. It takes a document written in the HTML language and translates it into a formatted Web page. The result of this translation is a little like giving two human translators a sentence written in French and asking them to translate it into English. Both will get the meaning across, but may not use the same words to do so.

When we roll out a new website, we’ve got it covered. We test all of our new sites in the most used browsers to make sure they display pretty much the same in each. We also build our sites to “degrade gracefully.” In other words, if some new and unidentified browser or device comes out that doesn’t support the way we’ve built the site, it still looks reasonably OK. We do all of this before we even launch.

Sometimes, though, a new Internet browser pops up, and all sites need to be tested against it. It’s always a good idea for anyone with a website to make sure their site is usable across all the most popular browsers (old and new), mobile devices (like iPads or iPhones), or any other web browsing devices.

The web browsers that matter

How does one find out what browsers are most important for testing a site? Start with looking at an analytics account, something like Google Analytics or Clicky. Another handy technique is to check usage share for most browsers. According to StatCounter, here’s how they’re breaking down for February 2012:

  • Internet Explorer – 35.75%
  • Chrome – 29.84%
  • Firefox – 24.89%
  • Safari – 6.76%
  • Opera – 2.03%
  • Other – 0.73%
  • Cross-browser testing tools

    Then it’s a matter of downloading all of those browsers and seeing how it looks. There are also a number of useful tools that make this job a little bit easier, especially because it’s time-consuming to install all of the major browsers.

    Here’s a brief run-down of cross-browser testing services from Noupe:

    Adobe Browser Lab
    Adobe Browserlab offers an awesome solution for viewing on demand screenshots of your site.

    Browsershots
    Makes screenshots of your web design in a lot of different browsers. After you submit your URL, it gives you a url where your screenshots will be loaded up.

    Browser Sandbox
    Runs an application to view your site in a variety of browsers.

    (More tips on what to check on the healthy website checklist.)

    My guess, IE, is that this nonsense isn’t going to end any time soon, especially since your share of the market is on such a sharp decline. So I’ll just keep an eye on the grays and do my best to keep on the treadmill.

    (While I’m at it, thanks to you too Firefox, for all of your upgrades, and a tip-o-the hat to Chrome and Safari for keeping up the guesswork.)

    [Image: Flickr user bottled_void]