By Mark McGrath, September 2015.
The following is a list of the 10 most common mistakes web clients make, drawn from my experience of managing over 100 website development projects over the last 16 years.
There is an emerging theme here with these findings. It's if you don't spend the time and money upfront to implement best-practice web development, then it will cost you more later in lost website traffic, reputation and extra effort to fix the problems you have created.
It's more than just usability and information architecture
There are lots of top 10 web design mistakes lists out there and some of these are really useful like Jakob Nielsen's list. But nearly all of these lists focus almost exclusively on the technical aspects of usability and information architecture and mostly ignore the wider issues around developing and building a web presence such as planning, research, testing, marketing and evaluation.
Client decisions are critical to the end product
These lists assume web developers have total control over the structure and presentation of web content. The reality is they don't.
Websites are the product of developers carrying out the requests of their clients. Sometimes, good developers can successfully advocate best-practice approaches to their clients and produce a website that is better than what it might have been had they delivered everything the client asked for. But at other times, clients over-rule the advice of their developers and make decisions that compromise the quality of the end web product.
This list is for clients, not developers
This list is not aimed at web developers. It's written for clients as an attempt to identify common mistakes so that they may be avoided in future web development projects.
This list is drawn from the experience of managing well over 100 website development projects, big and small, simple and complex, for clients over the last 16 years. Most of my clients over this time have been good to work with and we've produced websites that I'm really proud of. But even the best clients sometimes make decisions that compromise the quality of their websites and limit their potential.
1. Not setting and prioritising objectives
Building websites involves compromise
Building websites is quite often about compromise.
With multiple target audiences, stakeholders, devices, operating systems, browsers and finite screen real estate there is always going to be competing interests that cannot all be met.
Decisions need to be made and informed by objectives
So decisions need to be made. Naturally you would want these decisions to be made in the best interests of the website and the organisation that owns it. But if you haven't got the right criteria for making these decisions then you are at risk of making bad ones. The right criteria here are objectives, in priority order.
Unless you are clear on the specific objectives you want to achieve with your website and their order of importance, then it will be difficult to decide on issues where different stakeholders or target audiences are competing for precious screen real estate.
I have found some clients over the years assume that the website objectives are self-evident and universally understood and therefore, do not need to be written down. But it's only when you are forced to write them down and prioritise them that you discover it's not so clear-cut and some hard thinking and negotiation is required.
Sadly, some clients choose to avoid this process because they find it too hard and it potentially involves conflict with stakeholders.
Not defining objectives now will cost you more later
But my response to this is that if you don't make these decisions now, then the content issues you will be forced to resolve later will be a lot larger and harder to address.
Once you get through this process though, resolving web content and design issues becomes much easier because these objectives act as a set of guiding principles.
For example, you may have a particular zone on the homepage that you are undecided on what to use it for. But if you had set a prioritised list of objectives in the planning phase of your project such as:
1. Target audience X performing web activity Y.
2. Target audience A performing web activity B.
Then this decision would be much easier as you would have already decided to give web activity Y greater prominence for target audience X.
Objectives should be specific, measurable and well defined
These objectives should be specific, measurable and well defined in terms target audiences and website actions.
"1,000 Save our parks campaign supporters signing up to our e-newsletter" is a specific, measurable and well-defined objective.
"Informing the general public on the Save our parks campaign" is a poorly-defined and useless objective. It's not specific enough to be measurable.
A good way to test your objectives is to ask the question, how will we know if we are successful? If your objective can't answer this question by being measured, then it's not going to be useful and needs to be redefined.
Taking the relatively small amount of time to define your site objectives in priority order is not that hard to do and will save you a lot of time and effort in the future.
2. Not discovering user needs
Asking users what they want lowers risk
Your users are who you build your website for. How well you meet their needs will largely determine the success of your website. So rather than assume or guess what they want in your website wouldn't it be more sensible to ask them to make sure?
That sounds like the logical and low-risk approach but you would be surprised how many clients choose not to do this.
Fear of getting the "wrong" answers, treating the exercise as an expendable luxury item or being convinced that they already know what their users want are the most common excuses I've heard from clients over the years for not doing this.
Yes, discovering user needs through surveys and focus groups can be costly (although you can learn to do this yourself). And you can save money in a web development project by not doing this and making some best guesses.
Not doing this costs more
But the point is that not discovering user needs will most probably cost you more in the long run, with lower site traffic, lost business, greater user dissatisfaction and further redevelopment to address the issues you could have avoided in the first place.
3. Overcrowding the homepage
This is an outcome of not setting and prioritising your website objectives.
In absence of these objectives and with weak project leadership, some clients cave-in to numerous and competing demands from various stakeholders and try to satisfy everyone by giving everyone coverage on the homepage.
The end-result? An overcrowded homepage that disadvantages everyone; stakeholders and target audience members alike.
Objectives should govern content decisions
Your objectives and their priority should govern your decisions on what content to display on your homepage.
For example, if there are 3 primary objectives for your website such as:
- Recruiting X new members in 12 months
- Signing up Y campaign supporters.
- Getting X page views per month on our For media page.
Then content that meet those objectives should dominate your homepage layout and not be compromised by any other subsidiary content.
Less content will be read more
Remember, with web content it's a case of less is more and more is less. The less content you publish the more it will be read and the more content you publish the less it will be read.
4. Not conducting usability testing
This is closely related to not discovering user needs and tends to follow if that hasn't been done.
You rarely get it right first time
It's highly unlikely you will get the design, layout and content structure of a website right first go. Especially if you don't test your website prototypes with your users. You might be able to guess what some of the issues are but you won't correctly guess them all and are even more unlikely to guess what the solutions are to those issues.
This is risk that needs to be mitigated.
Usability testing minimises risk
The only way to achieve this is with usability testing; to discover and resolve the issues your users have with your website before it becomes a problem. Anyone that's conducted usability testing will appreciate this.
But unfortunately, some clients, who are convinced they know their target audience members better than anyone, will not accept this and deem usability testing as a waste of time and money. This tends to be the case with member-based organisations and less so with organisations who are in the business selling products and services online.
Usability testing is your insurance policy to minimise the risk of your users becoming dissatisfied and not returning to your website. Money invested in usability testing during a web development project will return more site traffic and user satisfaction later on. Conversely, not making this investment now will cost you more later.
5. Not writing for the web
Text is harder to read online
The problem of text being harder to read online than in print is well established.
So you need to rewrite to make it easier
The solution of reducing your online text to 50% of your print version and writing for scannability (eg subheadings, bulleted lists, highlighted keywords and short paragraphs) is also well established.
Clients see this as too hard
But getting clients to do this is another matter. Many put this in the too hard basket, citing simply not having the time to rewrite the content, instead copying and pasting content from a pile of internal Word documents (sigh).
It's crazy to spend a significant amount of money developing a website but then not bother making the content as good as it can be. It's like building a beautiful house and then fitting it out with crappy furniture and an ugly paint job.
Not rewriting content will cost you more later
My response to this is, either make the time or spend some money getting a professional to do this work. It will be time or money well spent.
Websites with poorly written text cost organisations money and loss of reputation. Not rewriting your content for the web will cost you more later than what you would save earlier.
6. Using the organisational chart as a sitemap
User activity usually spans departments
The structure of an organisation rarely matches the user's content preferences. Users tend to be task-oriented; they come to a website to do specific tasks; ask questions, find answers, buy products or use a service. These tasks quite commonly span (rather than match) departmental units of an organisation.
Websites organised by department forces users to do more work
So simply replicating the organisational chart for the content structure of your site will likely force your users to do unnecessarily more work to achieve their desired tasks. Users would have to visit several different content areas of your website to achieve these tasks.
Yet many clients reflexively reach for the organisational chart when putting together a draft sitemap for their new website.
Better to organise content by audience interests
Instead, it's much better to bundle your content as tasks and/or for specific target audiences. If you are practicing a user-centred design approach then this will become obvious as you will learn that your users interests rarely match the way your organisation is divided into business units. See mistake #8 below.
7. Not marketing the website
Build it and they will come.
If you don't market you'll get lost
Not with another website added to the 994,734,916 websites that were out there at last count they won't. Even narrowing it down to Australian non-profit organisations by searching ".org.au" on Google still returns about 12 million pages.
The web is awash with sites and if you don't market yourself you'll get lost in the wash.
Build it and market it well and some will come to your website over time.
Non profits and government orgs need to market as well
Unfortunately, too many non-profit and government clients think that marketing is only for commercial organisations and therefore not for them. NFP and government organisations have just as much need to promote their brand, messages, products and services as commercial organisations.
Not marketing your website is effectively wasting the money you have spent developing the website.
Online marketing can be low-cost, easy to do and effective. There really is no excuse no to do it.
8. Not creating dedicated content for different target audiences
This follows from not using the organisational chart as the basis for your sitemap.
Different target audiences need different content
Most non-profit or government organisations will have more than one target audience type. Each of these user groups will have their own particular set of motivations for visiting your website. That being the case, then it makes sense to create dedicated content for these target audiences.
Many non-profit and government websites are getting this by displaying task-oriented content in blocks with titles such as "I want to..." or providing dedicated content areas with primary navigation items using the formula, "For [USER X]" like "For students". But a browse around these sectors online shows there are still many who aren't providing this sort of dedicated content.
Not doing this forces users to work harder
Not doing this makes your users work harder to find the content they want, breaking Steve Krug's "Don't make me think" rule of web usability, putting more clicks between the user and the content, with the end result being an inevitable loss of website traffic.
9. Not having an evaluation strategy
Another victim of the "we've finished the website so there's no more work to do" mentality of clients is an evaluation strategy.
Evaluation is essential for redevelopment
If you acknowledge that you will need to redevelop your website sometime in the future and would like this redevelopment to be an improvement on your current website, principally by addressing any issues or shortcomings of the current website, then you need a strategy to evaluate your website so that you can identify what these issues or shortcomings actually are.
This sounds logical and sensible. But you would be surprised how many clients don't bother with this sort of planning and take the attitude that they'll get around to it sometime later down the track.
Not doing it now costs more later
The critical flaw in this approach though is that if you don't implement an evaluation strategy to collect data on your website usage upon site launch and leave to later, then you have pretty much missed the boat.
Running a retrospective survey of website users asking them to remember their experience of using your website over the last 2 years is not going to produce data anywhere near as useful as tracking user behaviour on designated goal pages in Google Analytics or an ongoing website satisfaction survey based on usability heuristics.
10. Not listening to professional advice
I was reluctant to include this entry as I didn't want this to be seen as a case of "sour grapes".
But if I'm going to be honest it needs to be in this list, albeit at number 10, because most of my clients over the years have taken on board the advice I have given them most of the time.
But there have been some clients, sometimes, that have ignored the advice given to them, which has then resulted in problems (that they were warned about) arising later. Ironically (or not surprisingly), I've found that these clients tend to be those that know the least about best practices in web development and publishing.
Consultants can usually forsee problems
Good web consultants can usually foresee problems with ideas suggested by clients that may be less than ideal. This is usually because of their experience of seeing it happen before. So it makes sense to listen to them.
Accept advice unless you have sound reasons not to
If you are a client that has engaged a web consultant, project manager or developer that has demonstrable expertise in their field, then my advice is to consider very carefully what they advocate and only reject their advice if you have sound reasons not to. If you are in doubt and are not a web expert, then my advice would be to seek an expert second opinion outside of your organisation.
Mark McGrath is a Web Consultant and Director of Social Change Media.
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