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Painting With a Fine Brush - The Delight of the Revisit

It’s always great to have a client return when they’re ready for a change in their web site. It shows trust in your abilities, appreciation of your work. Even better, it gives the designer a chance to flex a slightly different set of muscles. Branding has already been established, the broad strokes of audience assessment, analytic benchmark goals and organizational structure have been laid down and the site has been subjected to the harsh world of the internet audience. Now comes the time for finesse and fiddling. Two case studies make the point.

The first case was a planned revisit to a page that had been in sorry shape when I took it over. The organization had massive information delivery needs but the page had been poorly designed originally, and badly neglected for nearly a year. Both the internal and external audiences had lost faith in the site, information pipelines had broken down or were non-existent, and the whole thing showed the tell-tale signs of decay (broken links, dated or even missing graphics, old and cranky code). Because this organization has a strong information need cycle there was an immovable timeline to get everything up and working again. It was clear that a two-phased approach would be necessary.

The first phase was quick and dirty. We analyzed what should be kept (nothing), bashed out a list of needs (extensive), and went to work. The philosophy was that establishing trust and credibility was the most important thing. Everything was kept as simple as possible and the graphics, while not breaking any exciting new PhotoShop ground, were clean and clear. The idea was to make the whole thing as unbreakable and idiot-proof as possible. The last thing we needed was to roll out a beautiful design that only worked in IE and fell apart as soon as someone tried to use a form or perform a search.

For a whole year, two information cycles for this organization, the web site. was kept visually the same while frantic behind-the-scenes work went on to check and re-check the data delivery, analyze user behavior, and refine information procurement systems. It was gratifying over the year to see users return and organization members begin to recognize that the web site. was actually going to respond to their needs.

THE REDESIGN

There was a pretty bright light shone on this web site. because of its history. By the time we were ready to revisit the design there was an enormous amount of raw analytic metric data, direct customer input and organizational response. With a clear idea of what was working and what could be improved, it was easy to put together a plan.

1. Re-invigorate the graphic design. The first go around had by necessity been fairly basic. There were good bones on which to work, so the changes that were made kept the site familiar. The palette had proven popular across the board, so the basic, stock graphics were replaced with custom art work more in keeping with the organization brand.
2. Improve data processing. The organization information needs were significant, and the infrastructure was old, slow, and inefficient. With the new site in place it became clear just what the database needs were, and a new database and interface were constructed that significantly improved efficiency and usability.
3. Streamlining organization. Here’s where the real fine-tuning took place. While the overall navigation worked well there were still places where users weren't finding the information they wanted as efficiently as they could. Links were logically grouped to take advantage of user behavior, and we made shortcuts that let frequent users drop directly into their target page.

RESULT

Another year after the redesign the site continues to be carefully watched. We increased traffic nearly 2,000% from the original page, and have seen a steady rise in user retention since the redesign. No design is static, and this one will continue to evolve, but for the foreseeable future changes will be minor adjustments to user needs.

Case two involved a chance to rework some structural issues based on client needs. The original brief was to create a site that was as standards compliant as possible. The project manager was excited by CSS as we talked about accessibility issues and was eager to put as much into practice as possible. I wanted the challenge of coding as close to CSS ideal standards as possible. It was a lot of work, and a certain amount of frustration dealing with the personality quirks of Mac IE 5, but the end result was a simple, elegant CSS site with good access ability.

THE REDESIGN

The site needed to be revisited not because it wasn't serving the needs of the client, but because the client infrastructure had changed. Support for the web site was now going to mostly lie with the PR department who had limited web experience. The site needed to be adjusted to their needs while still serving the clients customers.

1. Evaluating needs. The web support team were reasonably comfortable with Dreamweaver, but were not willing to take on a completely CSS based site. However, it was important not to lose much of the accessibility the current site gave. We decided to pull back a bit from the CSS and put in a skeletal table structure. This allowed the support team to feel comfortable working in the page, but kept the majority of the content easy to parse for a screen reader. The design was locked into Dreamweaver templates to avoid accidental changes.
2. Training. The new web support team needed to understand the philosophy behind CSS, and feel comfortable making basic changes to the style sheet as the site evolved if necessary. After talking with the people involved, a library of short demonstrations were created in Flash.

RESULT

The PR team involved with the site were interviewed six months after they took over support. The site was not only being well supported, the team was confident with their skills, and happy with the ease they found in doing the maintenance. The training library was particularly mentioned as being useful, and the group is planning on commissioning several other libraries for key skill sets.

Building from the ground up is exciting work, but there is something satisfying in taking what already exists and making it better reflect the needs of the client and the wants of the public.