Untangling The Web
By Matthew Smith
In February 2016, I helped launch our new website for Longacre Leadership Camp in Pennsylvania. After much analysis of the design and development process, we came up with something of which we’re proud. For those of you looking to tackle a similar project, here are the steps we took and the logic behind them. We hope this helps you navigate the process.
We took note of the stuff we liked. Pretty much, this started the day after we launched the old website in 2014. During normal e-routines, we noted websites we really liked and the features we wish we had.
We monitored trends in design and development. Here’s an example: Did you know that mobile is a big deal? Yes, you did. But how big of a deal is it? In 2008, Americans spent 11 percent of their online time on a mobile device. In 2015, that number was 50 percent.* That’s a lot. Our old website had responsive design, but didn’t look good enough to accommodate 50 percent of our traffic. As it turns out, there’s a lot that goes into the design and development of a site to make sure it looks great on mobile. Responsive design without intent is not good enough for half your traffic. So, because of this trend toward mobile, we made “looking/working great on mobile” a priority.
We asked other people. Advice came from some surprising corners. For example, my Uncle Jeff owns a business in Boston that connects vacationers with home rentals on Cape Cod—nothing in common with summer camp, but he knows a ton about web development, and he and my Aunt Joan were a great resource. We also asked the Summer Camp Professionals group on Facebook, and they had some great ideas.
Here’s the most valuable thing we learned about website development: you can’t have it all. Building a website is about trade-offs. You have to set priorities and then make decisions according to those priorities. This really changed our perspective and made the decision-making process easier. Here were the three priorities we established for the new site:
- Appearance/works great on mobile.
We chose simple in part because of Steve Krug and his wonderful book, Don’t Make Me Think! It was easier to follow Krug’s advice with a simple design. Also, we learned about the paradox of choice. Intuitively, giving people more options (i.e., links) seems smart because people prefer options to no options. But, interestingly, the science shows that having more choices tends to overwhelm people. And this certainly holds true for website usability.
We chose fast because of the science around load times and conversion rates. Higher load times = lower conversion rates. In plain English, people have no patience for slow sites.
Choosing A Designer/Developer
This part was relatively easy. There’s a startup we’ve been following called Crew. If you need to build a website or an app, Crew connects you with capable designers and developers. The company understands how scary it is to trust people you’ve never met with something as big as your website. So Crew handpicks designers and developers (a few hundred is my guess, but I don’t know) and then connects you to that pool. For this service—the matchmaking—the charge is 15 percent. Seems stiff, but for us it was worth it.
So we went to Crew, signed up, paid the $100 yes-we’re-serious deposit, and submitted a brief. Six applicants responded to our brief. We interviewed three of them over Skype.
Originally, we told Crew we had a $5,000 budget. But we ended up spending $8,000 to get the team we wanted—about one third of the amount I wish I had (budgets!). We went with our first choice, Series 8, a small shop in London.
When the contract is signed, you wire Crew the entire amount, and the company holds it in escrow. The designer/developer then divides the project into phases (two in our case) and requests funds upon completion of the phases. Crew doesn’t release the funds until you give approval. It seemed smart, and it worked great.
If I think about the nine-month process in terms of excitement level, it definitely peaked during the design phase.
Mario, the guy at Series 8, worked with us using software in which he put up wireframes (of page templates), and then we would go back and forth until the pages looked the way we wanted them. Mario and his colleagues were very good, and it was thrilling to get glimpses of what our new site would look like.
As soon as the design phase was finished, the excitement level plummeted and, honestly, it stayed there until we launched. Development was boring. Basically, we just watched the developers build our site. It took much longer than the design phase, and my role felt a lot like nagging: “Move that here, please” or “Make this look like that” or “No, that’s not quite right.” To Mario’s credit, he was patient and gracious.
Content creation was also boring. There was plenty of writing, revising, editing, finding images, sizing and compressing them (the worst!), uploading them, etc.
The exception (the only not-boring part) was the homepage. The challenge there was to make the ultimate case for Longacre Camp, and I loved it.
Feedback And Beta Testing
Feedback and beta testing are an essential part of launching a website. Having noted that, they’re not much fun.
After putting hundreds of hours into this project, it was tough to hear criticism, even tough criticism, of the site, especially after I expressly solicited it. Still, all the feedback and testing helped us:
a) Work out a lot of the kinks
b) Say things in a better way.
So it was worth it.
There were three parts to feedback and beta testing:
Part 1: We put up the new site at beta.longacre.com (so new visitors to longacre.com wouldn’t be bothered). Then we blasted out that URL to our email list and asked for help. You never know who likes beta testing and, right on cue, we received a bunch of responses from people who love us, but still have that all-important outsiders’ perspective. Their comments were superb. Some of the best responses were from people who had never beta tested before—didn’t even know what the word beta meant—but loved the idea and jumped in.
Part 2: User testing. UserTesting.com has a freemium feature called Peek. Peek gives three, free user tests per month, and we used those.
Part 3: We used Feedback Army. We told the company what we were looking for, and then a bunch of “randoms” provided feedback. It was worth the $40.
I have three of them:
- The whole process took nine months. I projected six months. I generally feel confident about my projections. I got this one wrong and felt naïve about it.
- I was surprised that the second half of the process—from the completion of the design phase through to the launch—was such a chore. I guess I expected the creative process to be more rewarding.
- There’s still a lot to do. Series 8, thankfully, has agreed to stay on at an hourly rate. My guess is we’ll continue to make modifications until we decide to build our next site.
*Source: eMarketer 4/15
Matthew Smith co-owns Longacre Leadership Camp, in Pennsylvania, and he is co-leader of Raise the Bar, a community of practice for camps measuring outcomes. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.