UX fan and well-travelled digital architect. Helping people create much better things online. It's not that hard.
My website is old and out-of-date – how do I improve it?
Everyone knows when their website needs to be upgraded. Normally it starts when they feel that they need to add some sort of explainer (or in the worst cases an apology) as they send someone a link to a page on the site.
From there it grows into a general dissatisfaction with the capabilities or look of the website and, if they don't do anything about it, finally turns into a persistent gnawing of dislike and embarrassment. OK, I may be painting a harsh picture, but for some people, this will resonate only too well.
There are many reasons for upgrading a website, but by far the most popular are an out-of-date look and style, followed by the inability of visitors to find what they want or stick around long enough to make their visit worthwhile (i.e. they don't connect in some way to the business or organisation).
Unfortunately, trying to create a 'how to...' guide which would give clear instructions on upgrading any website would be pretty much impossible. So, we've attempted to put together a post that will try to shed some light on the topic in a broad way, exploring those topics that should be applicable in a wide variety of circumstances.
When looking at a website upgrade project the primary concepts to consider and bottom out are:
- Resourcing - unbelievably, we are often approached by organisations who have not considered (or at least badly underestimated) the money and time they would need to invest in a new website. We're not sure why this happens as it seems like a pretty basic thing to do - maybe there isn't a general understanding of the value of website development, or any awareness of how complicated their requests really are. It is best to ask 'How much do we have available for a new website' at the outset of the project, as it's something that probably isn't going to change.
- Experience - if your organisation lacks any experience in digital development projects you should find some. Imagine you were going to build a large extension on your home - there's no way you would try to book, resource and QC a whole range of contractors by yourself - you would secure the services of an experienced project manager. Similarly, you need someone who has digital experience and will advise and deliver the best software/hosting/UX/CMS/content strategy to meet your needs.
- Goals - be incredibly clear what you want the website to do. This can be something high-level such as "get more clients" or "sell more stuff" or "make us look awesome" (or a combination) - whatever it is it needs to be clear and defined. In general, avoid vagueness and negatives ("it doesn't work well", "we're not getting quality conversions", "the website is out of date"), as these are reasons to start a project but aren't goals. The goals will then form the backbone of the rest of the project, from selecting the right tools to contracting an agency with the right skills.
So, these are the very basic things to consider and quantify before you even think about embarking on an upgrade project.
Things to do (or not) when upgrading a website.
Let’s take a look at some of the activities or choices you’ll meet along the way when you’re carrying out a project. This won’t be an action checklist (I think that would be a bit inflexible and somewhat boring); instead, it’s a handful of themes based on the experiences we’ve had over the years.
Building a website is not an IT project
I’m always surprised when IT departments take the lead on a website development project, as it’s at the polar opposite of what they normally do. Whereas IT involves mostly binary decisions on security, applications, networks etc., a website is the beating heart of an organisation’s communications strategy.
To ensure a website is designed for, and used by, customers and clients it really needs to have awareness of their needs threaded through its core. Much as the IT team are great with code, they aren’t normally the best at ‘getting’ the customers.
Action: Use IT for tech and marketing for communications.
As part of our development process, we’ve been wireframing (creating simple sketches of) our websites for the best part of ten years. But in the last two, we’ve also started prototyping them. This involves creating a working model of a website, complete with animated navigation and page transitions, clickable links and interactive modules, to end up with something that looks just like the real thing.
Crucially, these prototypes don’t have any real content or processing ability, which means they are quick to build (compared to a real site). But their value is enormous! Being able to visualise and change a product before development begins works well for both the client and the developer.
Action: get a prototype built as part of the project.
I think that the biggest influence over whether a project will succeed (or not) is effective scheduling. The professionalism of any digital team has, to my mind, always been evidenced by an understanding of how long things take, what order activities need to be carried out in, what amount of contingency needs to be factored, and other variables.
As an agency, we are often asked to become involved in a project when time is running out and the pressure is on – hey, that’s what we’re here for. But it then becomes our responsibility to convert the “we need it yesterday” into a series of well-timed actions that will deliver a rock-solid product without cutting corners.
Action: don’t override professional timings with deadlines from other stakeholders (hint – you may need to compromise).
Content management system (CMS)
In general, there are three ways a CMS is selected for a new website: an existing licence for a system needs to be used, the person commissioning the website has previous experience using a system, the agency building the website prefers a system. Rarely does a development project scope and budget for a systems evaluation process.
Luckily, the three methods above don’t usually prove disastrous, and at worse a website is built that needs a bit of plate spinning behind the scenes.
But there is one almighty pitfall that needs to be avoided – don’t use a proprietary system (not open sourced or freely licenced). This includes website building software that comes bundled with other services such as e-commerce or recruitment. You need to ask a very simple question – can I find alternative support for my CMS if something goes wrong with the current team? If the answer is “no”, steer clear.
Action: all systems have their plus and minus points, although you probably won’t get to evaluate them. Just don’t go down the proprietary route…
This one always seems to fox a lot of people, mostly due to the use of the word “cloud”. OK, I’m prepared to get flamed for this but most people I chat to in the digital world understand that cloud means the same functionality for more money. Ouch!
I’ll concede that if you start using platforms like Azure you get access to really cool toys like CDN and machine learning… but did you list those in your briefing document? For the vast majority of websites that are out there, a simple shared server (with backup – never forget the backup!) will be absolutely fine, and the cost will be more than fine.
Action: don’t just ask for cloud hosting because you’ve heard the name somewhere; it could be an expensive choice.
So, there are a few things to think about. Hopefully, there’ll be something new and worth considering for you.
7 great resources that we use to build new websites
We’ll share some of the tools and services we as an agency use to create great websites for our clients. These resources are available for anyone to use, and we would whole-heartedly recommend using some or all of them for your new website. Some of them are free to use, some have low- or zero-cost trial periods and some are premium products which are well worth the money. Hopefully, there’ll be something in this list that will help make your project a success.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the biggest reasons for organisations wanting to upgrade their website is to give it a modern look. One of the best places to get inspiration on what you want your new website to look like is the practically named SiteInspire.
Segmenting websites by styles, types and subjects, there are over 7,000 examples of fantastic design for you to spend the afternoon looking at. You can even sign up and create your own collection of sites, which you can then use to share with any designers you work with.
Images and photos can make a huge difference when it comes to producing a top-quality website; so often poor quality lets the whole thing down. Yet good pictures can frequently be difficult to find and expensive to use.
Unsplash is a site that almost defies belief when it comes down to what it offers; thousands of great pictures – totally free to use! The only problem is that there are so many to choose from…
This application has been a game changer for us. Before Axure came along we would produce black and white wireframe pages of what a site would look like with descriptions of what it would do. Most of the time this worked well, but ambiguities at this design stage would often percolate through the build process and sometimes end up causing bigger ripples towards the tail end of the project.
Axure lets us, and our clients, see exactly what a website will look like before we’ve even started to build it. It’s really easy to use and comes with a 30-day free trial.
For those who know there’s something wrong with their website, but don’t quite know what, there’s Nibbler. Simply enter your website URL and hit the ‘Test’ button and Nibbler will squirrel off and start to look at what’s going on under the hood.
Once it’s finished it will generate a report which gives plenty of insight into a range of topics from technical features to social media support to screen layout. Some feedback can be used to help upgrade a website (e.g. the ideal amount of content), whereas some will just help contextualise the website’s performance (e.g. how old the domain is).
Think with Google
Many website upgrades are driven by requirements from a marketing team, with the new site often being seen as the centre of a new, connected channel strategy. Think with Google is a fantastic resource that focusses on all things marketing, from design to organisational culture.
It makes perfect sense for a global tech giant to be offering marketing insights to website owners – after all, most websites use one or more of their services to perform well, so it benefits both sides if everyone understands how such use can be optimised to its full potential.
We’ll move on to a couple of really practical items now, the first of which is a top-notch web hosting provider. Anyone who has ever dealt with the practicalities of web hosting, particularly when things go wrong, knows that support is key to maintaining uninterrupted online services.
With Rackspace, we have found a fantastically reliable partner who has taken all the stress out of hosting our websites. It must be said they’re not cheap, but we’ve tried cheap and we always end up back with Rackspace, for a very good reason – we want to sleep well at night!
Our second practical resource is a great CMS. As we’ve discussed earlier, choosing a CMS is going to be based on several factors, some of which don’t really result in a ‘choice’ at all.
But if you can select your own CMS, Umbraco should be a hot contender. Not only is it licence free, but it is also built on rock-solid Microsoft technology (which makes it fast and scalable). And to top it all, it is known as “the friendly CMS” for a good reason – it’s incredibly easy to use.
That’s it for our list of resources for building websites. There are many more services and tools which can be used, but we think the seven listed here have given us the most value over the years and can be used (in one combination or another) for pretty much any website upgrade project.