On Wednesday, a client told us they wanted their new website to last “forever.” Once we were able to agree that in “web time” forever is probably all of about 5 years, we started talking about the steps we take to avoid creating disposable websites. Here’s how to build a site that lasts.
1. Focus on content.
Nothing makes a website look stale more surely than outdated content. Forget 5 years – your site can look dusty in 5 months if you don’t have high-value information for your audience, and yesterday’s news isn’t high value for anyone. Use a CMS (content management system) so you update quickly and easily without the expense and delay that going back to your developer can entail.
2. Organize that content.
Invest in good information architecture so your readers can find the great content you’re generating. Organize content from their perspective, not yours. (Creating personas during discovery can help this process.)
3. Ignore fads in design and technology.
Design and technology have to take a back seat to the content. If your content is relevant to your audience, and provides them value – particularly if it’s value they can’t easily get somewhere else – your site can last a long, long, time even if it’s “boring” in the eyes of your tech team and designers.
Don’t let your designers get all worked into a lather about the latest cool tricks. If they become more mainstream – or if your audience expects cutting edge design – using them may make sense. Otherwise, stick with the classics that you know work.
Technology fads come and go just like design fads. Orange is the new black. Flash is the new animated GIF … If your site is still sporting the design equivalent of a skinny tie or beehive hairdo, even great content won’t save you from bad first impressions. You’re irrelevant even before you’ve had a chance to prove you’re not.
4. Embrace the connected world.
Long gone are the days when you control how your audience finds you and what their first impression is. Today, you can’t be sure that your home page will be their introduction to your site and your organization.
So, as important as it is to have a home page that orients your visitors and introduces them to your site, you have to plan for folks’ first impression to be of a deeply linked page. (A blog covers a news announcement you’ve made or a news article links to a product page.)
That means solid navigation on all interior pages, even third or fourth level pages. It means thinking carefully about using popups and overlays that can be hard or impossible for other sites to link to.
5. Invest in usability testing.
Yes, it’s easy to spend a boatload on usability testing, but it’s also easy to do less formal testing in ways that fit your budget. Either way, the effort almost always pays for itself in improvements you would have overlooked otherwise.
6. Do the research
Chances are, whatever you’re doing, someone has done it before. Probably a lot of someones. So don’t re-invent the wheel. Seek out examples of what has worked. Strive to exceed expectations for the value you’re providing, but don’t toy with expectations for navigation and other basics. (Don’t make me think, as Steve Krug says. Calling your contact page “reach out” may seem like a way to make yourself more friendly, but it’s really just an annoyance. Create personality other ways.)
7. Plan for growth.
A bonus tip. You can’t possibly foresee exactly how you’ll want to be connecting with your audience in 5 years, so plan for as much flexibility as you can. Don’t design yourself into a corner visually. Use established open source tools that will continue to grow as the online world changes. And review your work regularly to be sure it still feels current.