Why I give away the secret sauce

Shape 161“Why are you telling everyone how to do your job!? Won’t that mean they won’t hire you?

That’s possible. But the folks that I know and work with are, for the most part, scientists, nature centers, and people working to broaden inclusion in STEM. So, I want them to succeed. I want them to succeed even if they don’t give me money.

The purpose of my Unsolicited Advice Column is to help you assess if you need someone external to help with your website re-design, or if you can do it yourself. And it also makes the process of what I do more transparent, so you know what to expect if you hire me.

What’s a Content Analysis?

Shape 12Getting ready to launch a new website is a great time to sit down and think about how your content is organized.  I can do this for you, or you can do it yourself! Here’s how.

Start with a content inventory—what’s there, and where is it?  Using a site map, or site map generating tools, will give you a detailed spreadsheet showing all your web pages, file names, and links.

Once you have your content inventoried, it’s time to step back and think about content analysis.  In other words, how is your content organized? It’s not just the words, it’s how your ideas and themes are organized, that makes a website compelling and useful.

Here’s some items you’ll want to think about as you look at your existing website:

  1. Currency—What information is out of date and needs to be removed, or marked as archival?
  2. Co-location and Consistency–Are items with similar content or items about the same topic grouped together? Whenever possible, content structures in similar content areas should be consistent.
  3. Differentiation–Are dissimilar items or items about different subject areas in different content areas?
  4. Completeness–All content mentioned or linked to should exist. (No broken links or “under construction” labels.)
  5. Information scent–Are labels appropriately descriptive of content? Will visitors to your site know they are on the proper path to finding the information they are looking for? Each page needs a meaningful title that can stand-alone and tell the reader about the page.
  6. Multiple access paths–Because users think about content in different ways, they should be able to take multiple paths to get to specific content. Users should be able to access the content they want through the browsing hierarchy, by using search, and sometimes via links in the content.
  7. Audience-relevance–Do you need to organize some content to allow different audience segments to easily find what’s relevant to them?

That’s a lot of prep work, but there’s a reason for it. Once you know what exists, you can use that analysis to develop a content strategy. This will define:

  • Key themes and messages (big ideas and themes)
  • Content purpose (why is your content on the web?)
  • Content gap analysis (what content is missing?)
  • Metadata and Keywords for search engine optimization

By making sure that all your content reflects your key theme, and determining what keywords should go on each of your pages, you can make your pages cleaner, more useful to users, and drive more traffic to the site.

This info modified in part from:

A website is not a pizza

PizzaSome folks have a mental model of a website as a pizza. You make your order, pick your toppings, and voila! New website delivered to your server! Not so much, especially if you are a non-profit or small business.

I ask a million questions when I start working with new clients. Almost none of them are about code and servers. They focus around these two themes:

What is your story?

What do you want people to know about you?

When organizations start building a website without clear answers to these questions, I end up being as much of a group therapist as I am a designer. I actually really enjoy that — it’s one of my favorite parts of the process. But it also slows things down, and time is money when it comes to building websites.

Why are you shopping for a new website, anyway?

Your goal should not be “build a new website.”  Focus on what will happen after you get the new website. What do you think will change? How will you measure that? How will you know if the new website is successful?

The answer to those questions should be driven by what you want people to know about you, or what you want them to be able to do with your new site.

Who is your audience?

“Everyone with a computer” is not a realistic audience to target.  Depending on the size of your organization, there may be very different ideas about who your primary audience is. Researchers may want to highlight their NSF funded work, while their colleagues in outreach may want to focus on K-12 and families. You’re all part of the same organization, so somehow you have to reach consensus about how to present yourselves.

I can’t put everything on the home page.

When sub-groups argue about which audience should take precedence, designs can get derailed. Some decisions about what has priority for the organization have to be made. At least one person, probably more, will have their feelings bruised.  I love doing the work to talk people through this process, but beginning your website build with your primary and secondary audiences already identified, and priorities set, will save lots of time.  (I’m happy to have those billable hours if you want me to be the one to facilitate that process, of course!)

Once you’ve figured out your audiences and  your priorities, then you’re ready to refine that with a content inventory of your existing website:

  • What content do you already have?
  • What content do you need to write that is missing?
  • What content do you already have that doesn’t really serve any purpose, or is out of date?
  • What motivates people to come to your website? What do people do when they are there?
  • What gap exists between what motivates people to visit your website, and what you WANT them to be doing on your site?

Lastly, think about who on your staff will be involved in creating content for the site. What will the workflow be? How many people need to be involved? Who has the authority to speak for your organization?  Will someone need to approve all official content?

Starting to work on all these questions before choosing a web designer/developer will save you lots of time and money. More importantly, it will help make sure that you end up with a website that does what you want. Not just one that looks new and shiny.