This month at Jisc we re-launched our website. We hope you like it. ‘We’ are the web team. Between us, we’ve had a variety of experiences with website re-designs but we’ve all gained valuable insight in the process and we want to share our top tips with you for building a successful website.
Listen (no, really listen) to your users
While everyone involved in web design make the right noises about usability (in short, ensuring your website is as easy to use for your customers as possible), the fact is that users will organise and label sections of your website in ways you and others in your organisation don’t expect or like.
During our re-design I sat in on numerous user testing sessions, a must when designing a site. I found myself suppressing desires to scream ‘no, that’s wrong’ or ‘what? that’s a ridiculous label for that section’. It takes real effort to sit quietly and listen, with an open mind and intense curiosity, but you must - because they are right.
When it comes to your website the final result will always be a compromise – the structure and labels will have the most meaning for the highest number of people, even if they aren’t strictly accurate or always elegant.
Design by team, not committee
It is tempting to see website design and production as a series of distinct stages that you can farm out to different teams or contractors. I have certainly built websites like this in the past.
But, the stages of building a website are not rigid and design elements or user needs can get lost in translation as you move through the process. I really saw the benefits of our user experience experts talking to our designers, talking to our developers throughout. I think design is a team task where leading players wax and wane, not separate pieces of work.
Testing 1, 2, 3 (4, 5...)
The saying goes, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. That’s not enough when building a new website.
If it ain’t broke in Chrome on a Mac, you’ll still need to test it in Firefox on a PC, not forgetting Safari on an iPad, on Android, mobile devices, and everything in between. Every page and every piece of functionality should be thoroughly tried and tested on as many devices, browsers (and versions of browsers) as you can access. It takes time, but it’s the only way to get a complete picture of how your site will work.
This list is only going to grow, so it’s important to keep an eye on new technologies – and keep testing them - to ensure the site continues to behave beautifully and nobody’s experience is spoiled.
Face the right way
As a relative newcomer to Jisc, explaining who I worked for to friends and family was pretty tricky as we are an organisation that covers a variety of areas and audiences.
I’ve long understood the importance of an audience-facing site structure, and the Jisc re-design feels like the proof in the pudding. Dividing the work of this complex organisation into four clear areas really is an achievement. But, more than anything, it’s helpful to users both old and new.
You may well know your own organisation inside out, but when building a website you must remember to think about those on the outside trying to find a way in.
Take a principled stand
Developing a website can be a long process. You will likely need to make hundreds (thousands?) of decisions and manage input from many directions.
By taking time at the beginning to form a set of design principles you create a guiding document you can refer to when things get tricky.
It not only helped to keep us on course but it helped others understand what we were aiming for -
particularly useful when we had to say ‘no’.
This is an ambition for the new site that stems from a lesson learned from the old - a site whose design got very out of date. We’re aiming to do things differently this time.
We’ve made it clear we don’t want to launch and leave, but to keep developing, testing and refining the site.
Along with a planned release of new features we will be continuing user testing and keeping a close eye on our analytics. If features don’t work or if better ways emerge, then we will change them.
A great example is the work of the Government Digital Service (GDS) who we watch in awe - partly for the relaxed way in which they drop features or design elements that aren’t working.
You might like…
- Government Digital Service’s (GDS)blog
- cxpartners blog– the shared wisdom of the team we’ve worked with on the new site
Or try these inspirational blogs for web editors and developers:
This article originally featured in issue 37 of Jisc Inform (UK web archive).