The Tale of a Typical Website – Netlife – Medium

Let me tell you the story of most of the website and intranet redesign projects I have been a part of for the past 20 years.

The sitemap of a typical website. Somewhere, buried deep inside here, is the actual page that the user wants.

1: Start with the front page

Most website or intranet projects start out by discussing the content, buttons, colours and pictures on the front page.

As soon as the fancy digital agency has shown their first design sketch, just about everyone in the organization has an opinion about what should go on the front page:

  • Marketing wants to display all their major marketing messages, preferably at once.
  • Communications come dragging with their news article archive, annual reports and cut-and-paste feature stories from the paper magazine.
  • Fundraising argues desperately to increase the size of the "Donate now!" button.
  • IT needs to have a prominent display of their annual security campaign (that nobody reads anyway) to all the intranet users.
  • The lawyers in legal sharpen their pencils to make sure the cookie and privacy warnings gets a prominent display.
  • And senior management weighs in with their laymen's opinions about the color palette, the amount of air in the design grid and — of course — the size of the logo. The company strategy doesn't seem so relevant to discuss.

Oftentimes these discussions end up with the foolish carousel on top, where the organisation's inability to prioritize really comes to the fore.

And the discussions tend to go on for the entire lifespan of the project.

2: Create a huge structure

In parallell, and under the radar, the information architect creates a huge site map and a grand navigation design.

The graphic designer produce template sketches of the front page, category pages and the generic one-size-fits-all "article template", filled with lorem ipsum and dummy text.

And the CMS developer has already created the entire information structure with empty categories, filled with either "Content goes here" or his own ramblings about what he had for dinner. (Sometimes these texts even find their way to the finished website, and can stay there for years without anyone noticing it).

3: Fill in the content as an afterthought

As an afterthought, usually around two weeks before launching the new site, someone remembers that we forgot to write most of the content.

Of course we migrated most of the crappy content and press releases from the old site, but we need lots of new pages too.

And then content producers of all kinds are summoned to write product descriptions and filler content for the section pages in the information structure. Everything else goes in the generic article template.

The content producers work late nights and are beginning to hate their jobs. Despite their efforts, the night before the planned launch date only half of the content is in place.

But finally, after two days (and nights) of overtime, the content producers can breathe a huge sigh of relief. Hopefully it will be years until next time.

4: Launch and leave

And so the site is finally launched..

A bit overtime of course (because of the slow content production in the end) and way over budget (because the designer had to make three major revisions to the design, after development had started).

But we're live! Let there be champagne! And press releases!

And now, for heaven's sake, let's close this project and get back to work.

The fancy agency submits their work to design competitions, and after a few months we might even win prizes for "most innovative graphic design" (that mostly confuses the users) or "interactive annual report of the year" (even if no one ever reads it).

Let there be champagne! And press releases! Again!

And now let's get back to our real work.

5: Let the user sort it out

And so in the end, it is up to the users to find out where on the website they can have their questions answered.

If they make it to the front page, they have to circumnavigate the rotating carousel, the totally irrelevant news articles and the cryptic banners and links to different departments and silos in the organisation.

If they try to navigate, they might have to deal with the dreaded mega menu, packed with three levels of information architecture.

And if they in their desperation, God forbid, reach for the internal site search, they are immediately drowned in the same old news articles and outdated content that was migrated from the previous site.

This is why almost all the users on the entire Internet have found out that it's much easier to just google their own keywords, and get straight to the content they want. Hopefully without drowning in irrelevant menus and links.

That is unless of course the snake oil salesmen of the SEO industry, the gurus of content marketing, and the highest bidding competitors in Adwords have filled the google search results with links to misleading and irrelevant content.

6: Let your content rot over time

As soon as the site is launched, all kinds of arbitrary new content needs emerge:

  • The minister just has to communicate that he will make an exception to his busy program and travel to talk to farmers in his home village on the west coast tomorrow.
  • Marketing and the advertising agency have suddenly created a campaign site for a product, complete with duplicate product descriptions from the main site.
  • Local content producers on the intranet go mad with pictures from the christmas party.
  • Communications have decided to discontinue the print magazine, so all old and new feature articles and reader letters needs to live somewhere in the website.
  • Management has ordered that the company's new Sustainability Report needs to be placed prominently "somewhere above the fold" on the front page.

And the poor web editors, who have no real mandate to decide anything, have to go along with just about everything.

They sometimes tries to make a stand and say no, but if a senior in command has ordered something to be "released immediately" they have to dance to his tune.

7: Rinse and repeat

Fast forward 4–5 years, and the complaints about the website from everyone in the organisation are starting to become unbearable.

Users can't find their way around the website. Customer service is bogged down with questions from angry customers. Product managers are frustrated with users who don't understand their products.

Then finally, someone in management decides that something has to be done.

Our old website is "outdated"!

Call in a fancy digital agency, and let them redesign it to make it more usable!

And so the process starts all over again.

But first we need to discuss the front page…

This little rant is an excerpt from my upcoming book "The Core Model: A Common Sense Approach to Digital Strategy and Design". I'm writing the book as an open process. If you'd like to, you can add comments and suggestions at http://bit.ly/coremodelbook



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