Seven Lessons From Website Redesign Projects

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Website redesigns offer great potential to improve your business and meet marketing goals. But these projects also have many moving parts. In a recent panel, leaders from several Chicago organizations shared expertise on how to navigate a site overhaul with ease.

The Panelists

The panel for this website redesign discussion was comprised of leaders from local Chicago-based organizations:

  1. Jennie Crichlow, Digital Media Manager at NACSA, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers
  2. Marilou Jones, Director of Communications at Forefront (formerly Donors Forum)
  3. Kathleen Murphy, Development Manager at EPIC

Each organization recently redesigned their website. Insights shared were from that process.

Website Redesign Insights

For this panel discussion, we covered the entire process of a website redesign, from assessing the need, creating an RFP and finding an appropriate vendor all the way through to maintaining success over time. Here were some key points culled from that conversation.

1. Finding a Firm

Marilou Jones is a big advocate for referrals and suggests starting with your network. “Word of mouth is often the best way to find a resource,” she says. Others also used good, old-fashioned Google to narrow down their search. Since SEO was an important component of NACSA’s site overhaul, Jennie Chrichlow’s team wanted to be sure the resource they chose also ranked well in search engines. Smart. Kathleen Murphy’s approach is a little different, since EPIC hand selects volunteers from the advertising and design industries to pair with Chicago-based nonprofits that need site redesigns. All agreed that it was also important to interview potential candidates and, if possible, call references.

2. Creating an RFP

After not being happy with the first round of proposals received based on their original RFP, NACSA created a rubric by asking what each department wanted to get out of their redesign. They used the document to drive their second attempt at an RFP, which yielded much more fruitful results.

3. On Clarity

Clear communication is key to the success of any project, especially a site redesign. Getting clarity from stakeholders on their wants and needs for the redesign is critical. “‘I want it to be better’ has to be translated into actionable information through focus groups, user testing, and research,” Marilou says.

Forefront ran a focus group exercise in which they asked site visitors “what are the three reasons you come to this website?” They found that users wanted to register for events, join the organization, and read news. That session guided the site’s architecture, and frames all site priorities moving forward. This approach helps Forefront keep its website focused.

4. Managing Expectations

“A collaboration is not a democracy,” says Marilou. “You get input from all staff, but that doesn’t mean that all staff has decision making power. It’s critical to give people insight but to be clear that they are being consulted, not deciding.” Forefront also emphasized with their teams that this is a PROCESS. Needs must be prioritized, and getting to everything will take time. Kathleen agreed: “Clearly understanding your goals, who you’re speaking to, and what your budget is will help things move along more smoothly.”

5. Let Designers Design

The panel all agreed on how helpful it is to work with third party designers, who know very little about your organization and can be more objective in decision-making. “Provide your design team with the key information: colors, tone, assets, and desired outcomes,” says Marilou. “From there, let them run with it. I’m a big believer in letting designers do their thing. We hired experts in web design, so we’re going to take their advice.”

6. Data-Driven Decisions

The panelists also agreed that it is important to be ruthless. “We had a spreadsheet of our 100 most viewed pages, and unless it was our annual report, if it wasn’t on that list it was trashed,” Marilou says. People do want to hang on to tradition: “this is on our website because it’s always been on our website.” Forefront was able to cull so much content because they used data from Google Analytics to drive decisions during their content audit. “If someone asked why a page was no longer on the site, we were able to tell them our research showed that people didn’t visit that page.”

7. Success Over Time

A successful site launch is one thing, but all panelists noted the importance of maintaining or growing success over time. As Marilou said, “A web redesign project is not finite. We need to keep thinking and measuring: what’s working for us and not working, what’s working for our visitors and not working? That becomes the basis of our next RFP.” Sound advice.

Tim Frick founded Mightybytes in 1998 to help mission-driven organizations solve problems, amplify their impact, and meet business and marketing goals. He is the author of four books, including Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services from O'Reilly Media. Connect with Tim on LinkedIn.