Hello from the Other Side: Painful Lessons Learned from a Website Redesign

Self-described morning person Lisa Catto kicked off the first morning of HighEdWeb 2016 in the UAD track with a tale of what went wrong with a website redesign process (#UAD1) mired in silos, led by the Department of Unicorn Studies and working with Lord Vendormort.

The website redesign project at Lisa’s school took a wrong turn right from the start, with one department hijacking the process. Her pain is our gain, via lessons learned and helpful questions that she suggests we all ask during redesign projects of our own.

Lesson 1: Timing Is Everything.

Right from the start, make a timeline for the redesign process. Make sure that everyone involved in the project is on board with that timeline. Write it down and share it with everyone and meet regularly to review progress. And if possible, double the initial timeline.

Or, as a survey respondent said: “Take your expected launch date and add six months. No really. Because higher ed.”

Lesson 2: Know Your Audience

Lisa’s team defined their primary audience as prospective students — but didn’t share that well enough to other constituents. “Why isn’t there a big giving button on the home page?”

Make that audience decision early on and share it with everyone involved.

Lesson 3: Have a Transition Plan

Do a lot of planning ahead of time. What is the transition plan? In what order will you move old sites to the new design? Will you move everything at once or one department/office at a time?

Lesson 4: Identify Decisions to Be Made and Decision Makers

There are myriad decisions to be made during a redesign: look and feel, templates, CMS platform, editorial style — and so much more. Identifying not only those decision points, but equally as important, the decision makers, is key. Who has the authority to make decisions? Document the decisions you need to make, who can make them, and have your President sign that document. (A little top-down pressure can go a long way to build buy-in and support.)

Lesson 5: Establish Rules & Guidelines — and Consequences

Determine where you want to be rigid and where you want to allow flexibility for other departments and offices to do their own thing. Do certain things have to be in the site navigation? Do certain design elements have to remain unchanged?

Rules and guidelines won’t mean as much if there are not consequences. Decide ahead of time what consequences there will be for offices that don’t play ball — and who will do the enforcing.

Wrapping Up

The final few moments of the presentation were reserved for discussion with those around you with the question prompts: “What are you most worried about with your next redesign?” and “What’s the #1 improvement you want to make with your next redesign?”

Lisa’s story had a happily ever after: her once decentralized team has formally centralized, hired a full time writer / editor, and the long redesign process is complete.