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How to get a grip of your website (and then keep hold)

Yesterday at our monthly Web Publishers Community meeting, a gave a presentation titled “How to get a grip of your website (and then keep hold)”. It’s good do-it-yourself advice, and I also outline where the University Website Programme can step in and help. This post is a transcript of (roughly) what I said…

The slides

How to get a grip of your website (and then keep hold) from Neil Allison

Neil’s fundamentals of website management

Everything I’m going to talk about today is rooted in some fundamentals which I’ll run through first. You may not agree with all of these, or you may feel you have colleagues or bosses who don’t. But it’s these fundamentals that are at the root of what I believe website management to be about. If you don’t have a clear view of what your website is about, and share that with your colleagues, contributors, managers and stakeholders you’re likely to be in trouble right from the outset.

Which brings me to my first fundamental…

The most important element of a good website is people

People with a shared vision, pulling in the same direction. If you don’t have consensus, or you gain consensus by taking on everyone’s view of priorities, you’ll have too much to manage on a sprawling, unfocused site that is difficult for your visitors to use.

A good website is managed by people who know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and are empowered to take action to support what the organisation is trying to achieve.

The tech, the design, the content all contribute to a good website but over everything else, it’s people that matter.

The 80-20 rule is everywhere in web management

A small number of things are disproportionately important or popular:

  • The pages on your site that get read
  • The terms people search for while on your site or trying to access your site
  • Most importantly, the tasks people want to undertake on your site.

If you don’t know what these are, you’re wasting effort.

It’s about self service

The web is a self service medium. Why do we visit websites? To do things for ourselves. If you’re not facilitating self service, you’re dedicating resource to something that is making more work for you. Your website should save you organisation more time and money than it costs.

Process, not project

You won’t get it 100% right first time. Guaranteed. No one does. The only way to an effective web presence is to plan for ongoing, iterative improvement informed by evidence.

As Voltaire famously said:

The perfect is the enemy of the good

What matters is outcomes

We focus on outputs. We’re measured by them. Your website is an output. But measuring your performance by how many pages you publish, or whether you updated the homepage as directed on time is irrelevant.

What if your goal was recruiting high calibre students to your masters course? What if you were achieving this without a website? What then?

Maybe you receive a lot of unnecessary enquiries in the course of recruiting these high calibre students? Should this be the goal of the website? Should the desired outcome – the reason you’re creating the website be to support this?

Maybe you receive crazy amounts of applications. So as well as the tons of high calibre students you accept onto the programme, you receive the same number again from lower calibre students to whom you’d never be looking to offer a place. And yet you still have to process their application, which takes time and effort. For you and for them. Should the goal of the website be to reduce this number?

If you change your focus from outputs to outcomes, you focus on what’s really important. And you directly support your business. And most importantly, you see a return on the investment you put into the maintenance of your website.

Getting a grip

I’ve broken this down into 4 steps:

1.       What should we be doing?

2.       How well are we currently doing?

3.       Shaping the site to deliver outcomes

4.       Appraising effectiveness, ongoing improvements

1. What should we be doing?

If you invest in nothing else, it needs to be this. Without a common view of the purpose of the website, you’ll always have too much to do, you’ll feel disempowered or undermined, you won’t be able to clearly work out how well you’re doing.

Your managers and stakeholders might recognise there is a problem here and come to the table willingly.

Or they may not see there is a problem and need some encouragement or incentive.

Or they may have their own views about what the problems are and how to fix them.

There is often a desire to focus on the solution, before there is a commonly understood, coherent expression of the problem. The risk with diving into a solution is that it’s not a solution; or it’s a solution that isn’t the most cost-effective or user-focused.

Before solutions, before problems even, you need to know what the website is there for. You need some commonly agreed and commonly understood objectives.

These objectives:

  • Need to be collaborative
    • Top people provide the steer, the vision
    • More operational people provide the reality at the coalface
    • All views are valid and important – democratise the process
  • Need to be prioritised
    • Top tasks
  • Need to be owned
    • We recommend the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) model
    • Can’t be micromanaged by a senior person dipping in and out, or done by committee
  • Need to be measurable
    • So you report in on metrics that support outcomes
  • Need to be achievable
    • Right skills for jobs
    • Number of pages per FTE member of staff
    • If you can’t increase the resource, reduce the overhead

How many pages can one person manage?

A slight aside… The answer to this questions depends of course, but you probably want to do this little calculation…

How much time on average do I give up to website management? And my colleagues? Can I express this as FTE?

How many webpages do we have? Roughly what % should be updated weekly, monthly, annually?

Now, say I spent 6 minutes reviewing, editing and republishing a page… (a ludicrously low number, granted – I’ve used this to make the sums easy)

  • X pages updated weekly x 52 weeks x 0.1 hours = XX hours
  • Y pages updated monthly x 12 months x 0.1 hours = YY hours
  • Z pages updated annually x 0.1 hours = ZZ hours

So now we know (roughly) for curating existing content alone, how many hours we need.

And 1 FTE = 1540 hours per year.

And of course this doesn’t cover:

  • Creating new content
  • Image management
  • Tech tasks
  • Meetings
  • …and everything else that contributes to website management roles

Gerry McGovern’s thought-provoking article on how many pages one person can manage

So you find out that you have more content than you can feasibly manage – even with a  time per page estimate as 6 minutes – now what?

Option 1: Remain as is; run the risk to reputation, take the costs elsewhere from having a bloated, out-of-date website

Option 2: Recruit more staff. An unlikely scenario in the current climate.

Option 3: Cut your content.

How can the UWP help?

  • Website audit tools & reports: Using our audit tools and your local knowledge, we can help you generate some figures about the scale of the task you face, the resource you have available, and the risks and costs associated with this situation.
  • Top task analysis: With your knowledge of your audiences’ content and service needs, we can organise a top task survey for you and with your help to recruit participants, gather and analyse data that will confirm what you should be focusing on. And what you shouldn’t.
  • Website objectives development: We can interview your website management stakeholders to identify trends and differences in their perceptions of what you should be doing, and facilitate the development of a website objectives document to inform current performance analysis and future enhancements.
  • Digital strategy workshops: A quicker, cheaper, more collaborative and less painful way to develop website objectives. If you can get the right people in the same room at the same time for 2-3 hours. We recommend this approach over individual consultations, unsurprisingly.
  • Personas development: Dig a little deeper into your priority audience(s) and identify trends in their behaviours, needs and attitudes that will foster better quality analysis and website development. And bring greater clarity to and empathy with important subgroups of a particular audience.

Resources and case studies

2. How well are we currently doing it?

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It’s always worth reviewing your current provision, even if you think it’s awful. You will learn things.

If you don’t have a website at present, review your competitors. Check how easy it is to do your users’ top task on their websites to identify what are the best aspects you want to replicate, and what doesn’t work so well. Your competitors have essentially built you a prototype for free.

But you can’t do any of this without a clear understanding of what you’re meant to be prioritising. So completing the first task is essential:

  • What we want audience X to be doing
  • What we believe audience X wants to do

How can the UWP help?

  •  Analytics: Using tools like Google Analytics, Crazy Egg click analysis and SItebeam website audit, we can generate reports to tell you what is happening on your website and what this could mean in relationship to your objectives.
  • Enquiry analysis: We can help you set up your enquiry channels through the website to reduce unnecessary emails and phone calls, direct enquiries more efficiently and monitor trends in queries to inform website enhancements.
  • Usability testing:  We can recruit participants and run tests to find out the biggest problems your users encounter on your website, or compare your website with competitors. This could generate a report with recommendations, or be done as a collaborative observation and prioritisation session. The latter approach is cheaper, quicker and is more effective in fostering consensus among stakeholders.
  • Role playing with personas/scenarios: If you’re struggling to get access to a key audience then recruiting others to play a role can be almost as good. We can run usability testing sessions in this manner. We can also run collaborative workshops to get your stakeholders walking a mile in your users shoes, as a means to gather consensus and increase empathy.
  • Appraisal service: We can combine some of the above research approaches with a heuristic usability review to generate a report on how you’re doing against your objectives, with some recommendations for priority development.

Resources and case studies

3. Shaping the site to deliver outcomes

Your top tasks inform the content you need.

The content and services you develop inform the structure.

Deal with the homepage last.

The worst thing you can do – and I’ve seen this frequently – is outline a structure in something like excel, sketch a homepage, then hand over to colleagues to write content. It’s a sure-fire route to an unfocused, bloated, unsustainable website.

Your goal should be to do just enough to deliver on top tasks. Get something out there, measure and improve. With every page you add, every extra item in your navigation, every extra link on your homepage, think: am I helping my key audiences complete their top tasks or am I impeding them?

Usability expert David Travis talks about ‘Red Routes’ – drawing comparison with those major roads heading into London that have double red lines rather than double yellow. If these get clogged there are major problems. Think about users completing top tasks in the same way, and work ruthlessly to avoid clogging these key arteries.

Red route usability: The key user journeys with your web site – article by David Travis

So, how to do this?

  1. Start with your top tasks
  2. For each task begin writing content, focusing on:
    • Page title
    • Page summary
    •  Key subheadings
    • Calls to action (after interacting with this page, I want the reader to…)
  3. Begin to structure, based on these content outlines, focusing on helping your users to complete tasks
  4. Iterate between 2 & 3; as the content takes greater shape you’ll want to continue to tweak the structure
    • Use tools like Treejack to test your structure and labelling before you start building or reorganising
  5. Outline your homepage as the structure takes shape
    • Make sure you cover all areas of your site
    • Give emphasis to key task completion
    • Use 5 second tests to check the emphasis and priority you’re giving to your layout

Treejack is a great way to test your website structure before building – find out more

How to run a 5 second test – article on

How can the UWP help?

  • Copy editing: We can review content you provide against your objectives, and edit it to provide greater focus, while meeting accessibility and University style guidelines.
  • Website development in EdWeb: We can develop a website on your behalf using the University’s centrally supported CMS, EdWeb. As well as delivering a live website and dealing with any redirects from legacy websites, we will train you and colleagues so you can manage it independently and provide support via phone, email and in-person on an ongoing basis. You can be assured your site will be both business and user focused, and be sustainable with the resources you have available for ongoing management.

Resources and case studies

4. Appraising effectiveness, ongoing improvements

Appraisal is a bind if it isn’t planned in from the outset.

If ongoing appraisal is too hard, it won’t get done.

Beware of measuring stuff just because it’s easy to do.

Don’t exclusively tie your measurements in to the website – what are the outcomes you’re trying to contribute to? Common ones will relate to quantity/nature of enquiries and quantity/quality of applications.

Reporting regularly on how your website it performing for key audiences and tasks helps to keep the agreed website objectives in minds. New content will get added. The homepage will get compromised by whatever needs to be highlighted as it’s the latest thing or the biggest news or whatever. But if these additions and amendments adversely affect your metrics – and remember, this is what you agreed at the outset the website is fundamentally there for – then you can highlight this.

And of course sometimes, new things come up that change the business focus and objectives, and this will feed through to the website. So, new priorities, new top tasks and the process begins again.

Stop redesigning and start tuning your website instead – article by Lou Rosenfeld

How can the UWP help?

  • Management of a review cycle: We can undertake bespoke reviews using any of the techniques outlined here, on an regular cycle that suits your needs, so that you can better understand how your web presence is doing and take action ensure ongoing improvement.
  • Website management contracts: If you don’t have the time or the staff to maintain your website, we can undertake ongoing maintenance contracts to cover all or some of:
    • Basic editing tasks – making changes, adding news items etc
    • Site reorganisation tasks – more complex structuring and other site management activities
    • Tech maintenance tasks – setting up and managing integrations with other systems (proxied content), and web form management
  • Analytics dashboards: Regular reports on website performance as measured by Google Analytics, presented as a single side, easy-to-digest infographic.

Useful? Need more help?

I’d love to hear what you think of my advice here. Let me know if you have any questions, or if any of this works for you in the comments below.

And if you want help with any of this, get in touch!

Contact the University Website Programme

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