Tell them about yourself

I’ve just read an interesting article that claimed that users do not care for links pointing to a “About us” type of section. I disagree with that. If you land on a site because you used a search engine, you may not know (hence trust) the source of the information provided on the site. This is especially true for e-commerce sites. Today, anyone can put up a professional-looking site that seems legitimate. One of the first thing I do when I get to a site I do not know, I check out how they describe themselves. Sometimes you will have customer feedback, list of affiliated companies, list of partners, etc. All information that you can use to ensure the site is legitimate. In fact, at my last company, our “About us” section was one of the most visited. So, even though you may not have too many people reading that part of the site (and they should), you should always have a predominately position link to such vital information.

The CEO wants a new site!

That is the scariest thing I hear in my business. Although the CEO may be right, it’s usually a bad sign if the CEO wants to be involved in the site re-design. The site is built for a company’s constituents, and that’s not the CEO. Too often, a CEO will see a competitor’s site, and uses that as a benchmark: “I want to have our site like xyz corporation!”. Unfortunately for the Web project manager (or the person assigned with the ungrateful task of managing a company’s Web presence) this is the kiss of death. Today, everyone is a Web expert, and the CEO always seems to be the most knowledgeable. A Web site is designed to provide information, data, service, etc. to a company’s constituents, all this taking into consideration the company’s brand. A competitor’s Web site, may or may not be the best guide for creating your site. It’s not a bad idea to look at other sites for design and organizational ideas, or to at least get a sense of direction, but this is done as part of a thorough analysis that starts with defining the Web strategy all the way to the publishing guidelines.

Know your audience

I was discussing recently with a prospective client why we couldn’t talk about their site re-design before we could clearly identify their user goals. Actually, my first question to them was:”Who is your audience? Who’s the site for.” Fortunately, the answer was not “the CEO” as this is a recipe for disaster. I’ll expand on that later.We then proceeded to draw up some scenarios that would allow us to define the scope of the site, and eventually, the new architecture and then the re-design.Frankly, without the anwer to the audience question, we wouldn’t have been able to continue much further.

Policies not policing

An interesting dilemma facing Web teams today is that on the one hand they need to encourage content creativity while ensuring that the site remains uniform. Best practices show that you need to have policies and guidelines in place to ensure that content is developed, vetted, approved and published in a matter that reflects positivily the corporation’s brand and image. However, a balance between enforcing policies and policing Web site development is sometimes difficult to achieve. Corporate culture will often dictate how much policing is necessary to control sufficiently the publishing process. A good rule of thumb is to monitor site publishing while educating content providers, and make them aware of the policies as part off their training. Today’s more advanced Web publishing can help in this matter.–

Does everything need to be on the home page?

A company’s home is where most Web visitors end-up. It’s normal to want to load the page with as much information as possible, to make sure we don’t miss anything important. However, this could backfire at you. Information overload is unfortunately a problem that plagues too many home pages. The trick is to achieve the right balance of information and white space. Often, Web managers are pressured to add links to too many resources, but they must resist doing that. And the best way to do that is to create a solid information architecture together with areas for news, “what’s new on the site”, highlights or announcements or any combination of these. So, no, not everything goes on the home page. Only content designed to provide visitors with the information they came for.

Why controlling organic sites?

In my early years as a Web manager I was getting a lot of resistence when I proposed we adopt standard look and feel. It seemed logical to me to spend our precious few resources on improving our Web content, not hiring Web designers every time a department wanted to have a Web site. Obviously, people that had aspirations as Web designers where the most vocal and would argue to their department heads that they needed to have the freedom to come up with a design the fits the department’s image. The problem with that argument is that it doesn;t take into consideration the corporate culture. In any case, I decided that I would let things grow a little bit organically at first. When we reached critical mass and the attention of senior managment, I went ahead and wrote the first paper arguing for a consistent Web look and feel and proposed that we adopt a Web Content Management System. Conclusion: Let things grow for a while to get the interest up, after a while you come up with standards to maintainthe site’s integrity. If done well, you should encounter few challengers to your arguments to improve Web team productivity as well as reducing Web production costs. You now have the attention of senior managers!

Web project management… beyond content management?

It seems to me that the focus recently has been a lot of emphasis on content management and very little on Web project management. After many years of managing a very large Web team composed of developers, administrators, content providers and editors, I have come to the realization that the key to success is to treat the Web site as a project. Because of the fast pace of Web publishing, people too often fall in the trap of not planning enough their Web site development. Unfortunately, there are not too many good project management tools to assist Web managers. What we did is use a few copies of Microsoft Project(tm), but this turned out to be an expensive proposition. We found MS Project to be overkill for some things, and not flexible enough for others. In the end we resorted to creating a spreadsheet with a list of projects, assigned name, date start, date finish and a comment field. Not enough, but a start. I recommend to all my clients that they treat their site just as the do other IT-related projects: with discipline and accountability.

Adopting collaboration tools

Collaboration has always been a mainstay in corporations, especially ones that value knowledge sharing and have a distributed workforce. To be able to work on the same documents while not being in the same office generally improves productivity. I say “generally” because it often requires a corporate culture change. Email is usually serving as the means to share documents: People create their documents, save them on their hard drives and send them via email for comments. However, it gets pretty tricky to gather all the comments into one document using this method. Alternatively, in a virtual workplace users post documents online and allow others to leave comments or even make changes to the documents directly. The problem is often that people do not feel they own the document unless they have it in their possession (e.g. hard drive, USB disk, etc.). It takes a change of mentality to adopt collaboration tools, so do not underestimate the costs associated with training users when planning to roll out online document sharing systems.

Org chart as navigation for a Web site

DO NOT assume that your internal department org chart is a way to organize the site content. In fact, this is rarely the case. Your site visitors don’t care how you’re organized, and may even find it confusing anyway. Every corporation organizes itself differently and usually reflects the corporate culture. As a Web manager, you will be often coerced into creating content navigation to satisfy department heads, but you must resist. Argue that visitors have goals and objectives when coming to your site (have those handy if they doubt you). By organizing your content along those goals you will improve visitor satisfaction, which will translate in repeat visits, and depending on your business model, increase sales (or donations, or inquiries, etc.).

How to get excited about information architecture

In this business, what gets clients excited is design. Unfortunately, that’s usually one of the least important part of a Web project. The difficulty is to convince the client that the more time and effort spent on strategy and information architecture, the better the Web site. Obviously, good design is important to entice the reader, but without a good navigation system, site visitors will click away from your site frustrated not to be able to the find what they came for.