Starting a full scale website redesign can be an exciting, if not challenging, undertaking. Our WDG team sat down with Kristin Culverwell, Director of Publishing and Digital Operations at the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), to discuss the top tips–and lessons learned–for the website redesign process.
Where do you start?
Starting a full scale redesign can be daunting. Identifying specific organizational needs is a great way to begin the process. Culverwell’s team originally started the redesign due to changes in content priorities. AAPA needed a more flexible CMS for a new, robust career center. There was also a shift in their digital content strategy, with AAPA closing the digital magazine in favor of boosting access to online resources.
Identifying these core needs led to a full scale site restructure. Culverwell notes it’s important to ask and answer key questions first: does content need to be repurposed or changed? Is performance or flexibility in the CMS an issue? Are there marketing initiatives that need to be incorporated into the site more seamlessly, or is general rebranding the key goal? Identifying core needs at the start will make the end process even smoother.
How do you decide on your goals?
AAPA prioritized a number of goals for the new site based on user feedback. Creating a more intuitive user experience meant improving navigation structures and the information architecture. Search needed to be fully fleshed out with improved taxonomies and the content reorganized with user experience in mind. It is important to not only identify the challenges facing users, but to tie measurable KPI’s to them. Being a membership-driven resource site, AAPA wanted to increase user engagement and retention while actively gaining new members. It was equally important to integrate sponsored content as a means of generating revenue.
How do you identify these user needs? Feedback from user studies, navigation exercises, and different AAPA business units were used to pinpoint these goals. Culverwell explains, “We interviewed stakeholders upfront to get an idea of KPIs and understanding of individual content area goals.” She adds, “Our main goals were to enhance the usability and findability of our content on the website, thereby increasing views, retention, membership, and so on. We hoped this would directly correlate to increased advertising revenue once targets were reached.”
Who should be involved?
Involving stakeholders from the start of a project is an ideal goal. Stakeholders from each of the AAPA business units were involved in the initial content audit. As the main content authors, Education, Membership, Advocacy, and other stakeholders sought to leverage new content structures to advance key initiatives. The Communications department wanted to better engage users with their News Central content. The LMS and Learning Central unit was the biggest traffic driver for AAPA in terms of member usage, so the hope was that Career Center could benefit from this traffic through more strategic alignment of goals.
AAPA conducted a thorough content audit before choosing an agency, something Culverwell highly recommends. She explains, “Since our timeline was so short, we focused our efforts on a content audit and shedding any unnecessary pages. We did not edit the content on pages we were moving over, however, making the decision to do that later due to time constraints.” By ensuring stakeholder involvement through the content audit, Culverwell’s team created buy-in across the board.
How do you choose the right digital agency?
Finding the right agency can be a challenge, but Culverwell says there are key elements you can look for. Her team began with a RFP to zero in on potential matches. “We went through the vetting process with three particular agencies” she explains. “Our decision was based on analyzing the need for an open source platform. We wanted help making the right decision with which platform we chose, so we were looking for a vendor who could provide expertise primarily in technical areas who had a wide range of experience on different platforms.” She adds that WDG gave much needed support in validating the CMS choice. WDG was able to leverage their experience in Drupal and WordPress development to offer solid, informed recommendations for an open source CMS. Establishing these open lines of communication from the start also helps create a transparent and beneficial process for all.
What are the key points in the redesign process?
The actual redesign is perhaps the most eye-opening part of the process. We asked Culverwell to break down the key points of engagement:
What are the steps involved?
Undoubtedly, the redesign process is different for each client. There are many moving parts which either the agency or the organization can handle, from user journeys to user testing, proto personas, information architecture, branding, style guides, wireframes, and more. Culverwell explains, “We came to the table with wireframes/mockups and WDG was able to turn that into a more fully fleshed out design.” WDG’s design team elaborated on the wires, fleshing out the blocked out shapes and annotations for content types with concrete text and curated placeholder images.
She adds, “We had already completed a content audit, then moved to development and needed to quicken the pace, so we added WDG resources in order to get us CMS access earlier. This let us begin building out pages. I’m glad we did this because it was essential to launching on time.” By using prepared materials, AAPA was able to move more quickly through the buildout. “I think the level of detailed work we had done on the front end (with the content audit, navigation, and taxonomy already established) helped tremendously,” Culverwell notes. By instituting a comprehensive workflow with key portions of the redesign process already in place, we were able to pivot as needed to meet AAPA’s advanced timeline while still providing top-shelf services.
What tips or tricks can help move the process along?
There are many aspects of the redesign that can be tricky to navigate. For Culverwell and her team, facilitating the appropriate integrations were the most difficult part of the process. She notes that being aware of all available content will facilitate a timely and efficient buildout. By having a full picture of the content and understanding how to perform a content audit, you’ll have a better grasp of the timeline going in.
Culverwell explains that it’s vital to schedule enough time for design and to understand that what you see is a work in progress, not the finished product. Many aspects of a design are flexible, coming to life only when they are built out. “Things are in progress” she notes, “and won’t be automatically buttoned up. The reality is that you will go back and forth for weeks until it meets your vision. People are used to thinking the design will be immediately ready, but the reality of it is not magic, Photoshop-style.” The amount of back-and-forth QA that is needed to create the designers’ vision is one part of the process you don’t want to rush, so Culverwell stresses allocating extra time for the design phase if possible.
What tools can help make the process a success?
Having the right tools in place can make the redesign process easier for everyone involved. “We had our own project management tools to keep the project on track,” Culverwell explains. “We used WDG’s Basecamp for direct communication, and there were a lot of project management tools like Smartsheet, Trello, and Excel involved to keep track of the various pieces on our side. Be sure you have those tools in place.”
Successfully navigating the technical and more nuanced aspects of the redesign process means finding a trusted partner at the agency. “Communication was the key to our success,” says Culverwell. “It was critical for me as non-technical manager to be able to contact someone like WDG’s Project Manager, Curt, to escalate issues, prioritization, or red flags.” The amount of time and investment involved in communicating with a project manager can be a surprise for some, but having a solid PM ensures a smooth process. Culverwell warns, “Be prepared that this communication is constant and could be several times a day, especially the closer you get to launch. That’s why it’s vital to build a relationship from the start.”
What are some lessons learned?
Culverwell says a realistic understanding of the redesign process is something every team should be prepared for. She notes that “a fully developed project plan outlining all stakeholders and decision makers is imperative to running projects like this.“ You should also “be sure that your technical team understands that there will be back and forth – web products are not delivered as pristine works of art. They need a lot of QA to ensure that you are getting the product you intended. In my experience with WDG, they were extremely supportive of this and worked to make sure we got what we wanted in the end.”
“Getting our IT team to talk with the developers and the agency, and keeping everyone on the same page, was a challenge,” she adds. “Keeping track of the thousands of little pieces along the way through the QC process was also challenge. We’ve learned we need to have a buttoned up process for tracking status.”
From the agency side, transparency is key. With a background in Project Management, Culverwell offers some ideas to improve the process even further. She says that agencies can often try to keep the inner workings under wraps for the benefit of the client, but this can actually backfire. There is pressure on everyone from above as far as status updates, milestones, deliverables, and dependencies are concerned, so a solid PM and good tools are needed to keep everything in line. Culverwell says it’s important for agencies to be open and transparent, working together to improve key touchpoints.
What happens once the site has launched?
The work is not done once the site has launched. Ongoing maintenance and metrics are important to implement so the website does not stagnate. Culverwell explains, “Ongoing maintenance is a SOP that should be thought of before launch. What happens next to keep content managed? How often will you perform content audits? Who is responsible? These are questions you should be asking well before you deploy.” It’s important to keep an eye on the pulse of the website, using metrics to gauge success and make pivots as needed. AAPA uses a combination of analytics and customer feedback to measure increased engagement on the site.
Culverwell says it’s important to start planning for version 2.0 of the site as soon as you launch, if not before. “There will always be changes to the web,” she explains. “People will always have new and better ideas of what can happen next. We are already thinking about version 2.0 and can see opportunities for improvement based on the changes made by WDG.” Ongoing relationships are key since the web is a living process. “For us, we knew we needed to keep a close relationship with our agency since they now know our product, brand, and website as well as we do now,” she explains. “With WDG, we can grow and build on it together.”
Want to know how a trusted digital agency can help you from start to finish in your next web redesign project? Contact us here or email us at [email protected] to chat directly with Managing Director Ab Emam.