Working as a member of various Web teams for more than a decade now has taught me that the most effective approach is to work with other Web experts who sub-specialize in content strategy, visual design, information architecture and usability.

Multidisciplinary teams seem to be the solution to large and even mid-size Web projects. I was curious to hear how other experts manage the challenges of Web projects. I asked some colleagues who I think are exceptional for their outstanding talent and commitment to the digital strategy field. Their answers fascinated me, and I hope you will find them useful and practical.

The goal of this multi-part series is to produce some best practices around Web projects, specifically starting well, setting goals and deliverables, managing unforeseen roadblocks and ending projects so that both parties feel satisfied.

My panel includes:

  • Alice Coleman, Information Architect
  • Daniel Eizans, Content Strategist (@danieleizans)
  • Michael Hogenmiller, Visual Designer (@mhogenmiller)
  • Chris Moritz, Information Architect (@chrismoritz)
  • Jeffrey Rum, Visual Designer (@jsrum)
  • Randall Snare, Content Strategist (@randallsnare)

You’ll find my takeaways at the bottom of the panelists’ answers. Thank you to my talented and fantastic panelists.

Question One

I asked the panelists what two to three pieces of information they needed to know before they begin a Web project.

Randall Snare, Content Strategist

Randall starts every project with these questions: Who are you and how is information managed internally?

I begin with, “Who are you?” It’s my first and most important question. I hope to inject some nuance, but often I am blunt.

The reason that knowing all about your clients (their roles, their processes, their frustrations, their names) is that it puts your analysis into an essential context.

Here's an example:
Say you're doing some content/usability analysis of a site that sells lots of stuff. And, you notice that there's a page of pricing information that lives separate from product information. All of us would go,"Hey that's not smart! You need to integrate a price with a product, because users need to know about price, it's a key task," etc etc.

But, the reason the pricing and product info is separate could be because of their CMS. They may have too many products, and a fluctuating market means their prices change weekly, and it's too hard to find it in their system, so they make updates in one place (as opposed to 1,000 updates a week). Or, maybe it's because their teams don't talk to each other. And, there's one Pricing Chief Executive guy who's in charge of that, and the Marketing Brand Senior Managers only care about product information and couldn't be bothered with prices.

So, my content analysis is moot if I don't understand why it's happening. Many bad things you see on websites are residue from internal systems, from human beings. So if I don't know the humans, I don't know the context, and I make content/design recommendations that cannot be implemented.

Jeff Rum, Visual Designer

Jeff starts every project with a set of questions:

  1. First, I need to understand the business objectives of the company or organization. This will drive the design and organization of the site.
  2. Secondly, I would need to understand the core audiences -- not just something broad like donors or customers -- but who are these people? What are their interests? What are they reading? Buying?
  3. Finally, I need to know what the specific expectations are for the site. What is the client looking to accomplish? How will they measure the results of the site?

Michael Hogenmiller, Visual Designer

Michael begins each project wanting to know if the client understands the Web:

The first thing I usually try to gauge, especially if the client is new, is whether they've ever tackled a web project before. Whether they're a small business or a huge corporate account, often you can find yourself partnering on the client side with someone who's new or still somewhat unfamiliar with creating things online. That one piece of information -- whether or not they're new to this -- can drastically affect the process from start to finish and I try to cater to that right from the start.

Once I know how much experience my client/project-partner has at what we're about to attempt, then I'll dive into their business model and goals. If I don't understand exactly how they make money, and what tactic we're trying execute online to positively impact their business, then I don't have a leg to stand-on when it comes to justifying a design decision.

Daniel Eizans, Content Strategist

Daniel wants to understand business goals, user profiles and scope:

There are always more than three things I want to know before starting a Web project, and they will usually differ slightly based on whether that project is a redesign, development of a new section or feature or something entirely different. That said, things I want to know regardless of what it is:

  1. Business goals (read as: what The client wants to happen on the site or within the new section of the site)
    Having this information clearly articulated and agreed upon prior to a work start prevents a lot of hassle from the onset. If the site doesn’t have a business focus, we would need to agree on what we want the user to be able to do or accomplish.

    I tend to attach these statements to every artifact I deliver to a client to remind them of the objectives and remind them (and myself) why a specific recommendation or tactic was suggested.
  2. Consumer/User Insights
    Having user insights is crucial for any web project. If we don’t know (at least generally) who our potential users are, we can’t ever be sure we’re writing with the right tone, if we’re designing too technically or if our messages will even resonate with the target audience. Also, this data can be used to help determine the messaging mix (Do we need more/less video content? Should we have photo galleries, etc.)
  3. Sources/Scope:
    How the content will be created is absolutely crucial knowledge. Is the content coming from client or internal subject matter experts? Is there a communication team providing the content? Ad Agency, third party, etc.? Knowing that information radically influences the type of content brief that I will typically prepare. The level of detail might change if I’m handing it to a copywriter who works at an agency vs. a client team member.

Chris Moritz, Information Architect

Chris wants to know about the target audience, a-ha moments and frequently asked questions: Since “business objectives, target audience, and budget” are too obvious to count, here’s a few things that I like to know in order to begin crafting a strategy.

First, what are the barriers for the target audience? What stops them from doing what they want, or getting the most out of their transactions with the company? Knowing this lets me assign a method to a given strategy (increase sales of this product by increasing knowledge of its features on high-traffic digital platforms). Otherwise, you’re often left mapping a business goal to a channel, which makes for poor communications.

Second, what are the “a-ha!” moments your new customers have once they start using your product or service? I’m looking to find gaps in communications -- failure to properly convey benefits or attributes that are experienced only after the purchase.

Third, what are the top five questions that your customers and prospects actually ask on a frequent basis? This is my detective question, especially for new clients. If there are questions that a business gets all the time, but can’t or won’t respond, that represents messaging weaknesses that need to be addressed or overcome.

Alice Coleman, Information Architect

Alice has a set of concise questions, which require in-depth answers:

  1. The business requirements -- are there any?
  2. What is the client expecting?
  3. What are the top three things that will make this project a success?
  4. Do they know who their online audience is and if yes, do we have that information?
  5. Has any user/usability research been done?

Takeaways

From the very best in the industry -- these are some things you MUST know and understand to begin Web projects well:

  • Define and clarify the business goals of the organization as defined by the client (and attach them to each deliverable -- brilliant!)
  • Understand the internal information systems in place, as well as the Content Management System
  • What is the messaging and can the client clearly articulate it?
  • Set the target audience and understand the users’ goals and motivations
  • Understand your client’s level of education about the Web. Have they every worked on a Web project before? That will help you understand your approach moving forward.

I always start with “What will success look like to you?” Asking this question helps separate the doable from the impossible. For example, when a client tells me they want to be number one on Google, I know education is necessary.

Next week, we’ll talk with our panelists about how to go about gathering these pieces of information.