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Websites: What to Do Before You Redesign - 7/23/2013 -

Proper preparation for your website redesign project makes sure your effort stays focused on member needs, not staff structure.

By Ed Rutkowski (@AIHA)

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen once said that visitors to a website decide to stay or go in about 10 seconds. But that was in the early days of the Internet — before responsive design, before social media, before, even, Web 2.0 (remember that?). As websites have become more sophisticated, users’ expectations have risen accordingly, and they have even less patience for a cluttered home page or content that’s hard to read on their device of choice.

According to Ray van Hilst, director of client strategy and marketing at Vanguard Technology Corp., a consulting firm that specializes in web development for associations, today’s website visitors decide to stay or go in one or two seconds. What can associations do to make sure their website captures visitors’ attention in those fleeting moments?

This question was thoroughly explored at "Association Website Redesign and CMS Migration: Best Practices (and Horror Stories),” an hour-long session held June 11 at the Association Media & Publishing 2013 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. van Hilst’s co-presenters, Amanda Charney of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, and Ben Forstag of the American Telemedicine Association, shared their experiences leading their associations — with the help of van Hilst and Vanguard — through the challenges of migrating and redesigning their web content.

IAAPA and ATA had similar reasons for a redesign. According to Charney, IAAPA hadn’t redesigned its site in about five years, and the association wanted a cosmetic and strategic change. "Our website was designed like our internal structure — it wasn’t meeting members’ needs,” Charney said. "Connecting with members was key to our strategy.”

Similarly, Forstag said, ATA’s site had been optimized for an internal staff audience, not for the public or ATA members. Staff initially thought of the redesign as an opportunity to make it "prettier,” but user analysis showed that ATA needed to make more fundamental changes to content and information architecture.

The key difference between IAAPA’s redesign project and ATA’s was staff size. On ATA’s 10-person staff, Forstag was a one-man team, in charge of communications and IT, both the front end and the back end of the site. At IAAPA, a much larger association, Charney led a website committee with representatives from every department, and spent about a year marshaling support and input from staff and members for the redesign strategy. By the time staff presented the plan to IAAPA’s board of directors, she said, "we had done so much research that everyone was basically fine with it.”

van Hilst endorsed IAAPA’s methodical approach. Selling internal stakeholders on the need for the redesign, identifying key goals, holding upfront meetings before any work begins, and managing expectations throughout the project are crucial for success. That process should include a thorough content audit. "Go through and identify everything on your site,” van Hilst said. "Is the content good or not? Do you have gaps? Is it members-only or open to the public? If you do [a content audit] before you call a web partner, you’re saving yourself a lot of effort.”

Another important consideration is the project’s timeline. While the average website redesign takes approximately nine months, van Hilst cautioned the audience that a requirement for responsive design will add at least another month. Other time pressures often crop up over the course of the project; the desire to get everything done before an annual conference, for example, is common among associations.

"Another thing to be aware of is that something is going to go wrong, and you have to prepare for that,” van Hilst said. Timeline-busting problems include changing requirements in the middle of the project and suddenly discovering 500 pages of content that need to be migrated.

Both Charney and Forstag experienced turbulent moments during the project, but they’re happy with the results. "We’ve seen a large increase in ad revenue for our site,” Forstag said, and although he can’t credit the redesign for all the additional ads, he’s confident that the new website helps visitors find what they’re looking for. Charney also cited increased revenue among several benefits of IAAPA’s new site, including a navigation driven by member needs, not staff structure, and more content placed behind the member wall.

In van Hilst’s estimation, Charney and Forstag were excellent project managers for their associations, adept at navigating internal politics and communicating honestly with their vendor. But they wouldn’t have been as successful if they’d been expected to manage the redesign on top all their other responsibilities. van Hilst recommended that association PMs "turn off” as much other work as possible and prepare to spend 50 percent of their time on the redesign. "When you PM a project with no work reduction,” he said, "it makes for a very stressful experience.”

To view the redesigned websites discussed in this article, visit www.iaapa.org and www.americantelemed.org. The presentation slides are available at www.vtcus.com/amp.

Ed Rutkowski is managing editor, periodicals, at the American Industrial Hygiene Association, and editor in chief of The Synergist, AIHA’s magazine. Association Media & Publishing sincerely thanks him for covering this annual meeting session for members who were unable to attend.


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