Website Audits

Conducting Audits is part of a Web Designer's job.

Taking Stock means Audits

If you want to create value from your website, then you need to treat it like any other business asset. A company which does not take regular inventory will quickly go out of business. Good businesses know to avoid stocking up on too much at one time, and keep reliable, comparable records to check their positions.

A Website is a Warehouse

It’s critical to be able to say at periodic intervals how it’s doing, and to know what kind of reports you should be reading. Yes, web design is creative, but as I’ve argued time and again, without a critical component, it is more than likely a waste of money. We need to apply the kinds of rigor we use for other business disciplines to design or risk irrelevance.

In accounting, the basic reports are a balance sheet and income statement. For a website, the basic reports would be an Interface Inventory, a Content Inventory, and an Analytics Statement.

How To:

Interfaces

An interface inventory is about recording the elements of a design.

Start by taking screenshots of every design element you can identify. Then, organize them in a Keynote or power point. The goal is to be able to systematize your interface styles so that every decision has a clear rationale.

Content

A content inventory is your balance sheet. For Content inventories you’ll want to make a spreadsheet. You want to clearly note for each piece of content as much of the following data as it applies to your site:

  • URL
  • Content Type (e.g. Archive, Post, Profile, Product, Navigation, etc)
  • Meta Snippet
  • Meta Keyword
  • Who handles that piece of content
  • Last Updated
  • Status (in the content lifecycle)
  • Promotion
  • Comparative Ranking on the site – do visitors use this content?
Analytics

An analytics statement is your income statement. If you do them right, you can clearly see which actions caused which effect for your website. I suggest only tracking 2-5 metrics, and that you are absolutely sure you understand how those metrics are tabulated. A good metric is not only easily measured but easily controlled. Be wary of the quality of the metrics you choose to measure and even more wary of tying compensation to these metrics.

Auditing for Heuristics

A heuristic evaluation is applying a checklist of established best practices to a site.  An auto inspection is an heuristic evaluation.  These are analogous to internal controls in accounting. We want to detect or prevent errors in our work and heuristics help. The four dimensions on which I’m evaluating sites are:

  • Semantics – this is both a code and a copy evaluation. Is content structured to be reasonably understood? Is the grammar, syntax, diction, voice and tone of copy and code correct?
  • Style –  Code wise I’m looking for styles that are
    • separated from structure and interaction
    • organized within stylesheets
    • made as simply and readably as possible.
    • Visually I’m looking for
      • clear hierarchy
      • emphasis
      • use of negative space
      • proper treatment of images and
      • a logical type system.
  • Accessibility –  there are semantic, style, and interaction concerns that feed into this.  I’m looking for:
    • correct HTML tags
    • Correct usage of ARIA roles
    • easily distinguished links
    • browser compatibility,
    • progressive enhancement,
    • Treatments of color, text, and images meet established standards,
    • and website performance all factor in accessibility.
  • Interaction –  I’m looking for interactions that are
    • clearly marked,
    • do what they say they are going to do,
    • do them securely and reliably,
    • and have reasonable enhancement.

If a site meets the least acceptable standards along these four dimensions, it’s a good site. Notice that this does not prescribe how a site looks or feels.

An Audit is not a Critique

Audits are objective, repeatable, verifiable tools to evaluate a website or app; they are not design critiques. Design critiques after the fact are not useful in making better sites!

A mile in their shoes

A design critique is often an invitation to rip a fellow designer.  That’s completely classless and something I refuse to do. I know that there are simply too many factors that go in to a web design that I can’t judge objectively what a designer was thinking. Without being in the room with those designers, you just don’t know and it’s presumptuous to guess.

Art is not design

You can measure many things about a site, but aesthetics are completely subjective. We must remember that design is not art and art is not design. So long as the aesthetics support the message that the site intends to communicate, the site’s visual design is good!

Website Audits Early, Website Audits Often

Keeping accurate books and controlling inventory are part and parcel of a well run business, and your website is no different. I offer website audits because they are key to designing and developing websites that not only work, but create new value for you.

Don’t Neglect the Pony: Why Website Support Contracts are important.

My Little Pony

There’s one thing that I won’t build with anymore, and from the title you may have guessed what it is. I won’t take on a new client without a website support contract. Let me show you why it’s in everyone’s best interest to do so.

Today’s best practices are to have

  • a central git repository with at least a master branch of the project. This allows multiple developers (or a different developer, later) to work on the project at the same time from the same starting point.
  • A development site on which to present enhancements and test updates
  • A central project management system (i.e. not an email inbox) for reporting issues, discussing solutions, assigning tasks, and tracking to completion.

These all cost money if you want to keep them secure, private, and stable. More than that, updating on a monthly basis (which is another best practice on Drupal, Backdrop, and WordPress) takes billable time. If you have an internal team, like the projects I’ve worked on with Washington University, it’s still a good idea and one which I’ll still require. If one of the nation’s leading universities, with a dedicated IT and web staff thinks it’s a good idea to enter into website support contracts, you might want to consider one as well.

Think of it like buying a pony. You might get a pony for a good price, occasionally even free!  But you still have to feed and groom the pony, house it in a stable, give it exercise and attention, fit and replace shoes, teach it how to be a riding horse, and of course, muck the stables.  Now, if you want to do all of that by your lonesome, and know how to, great. Otherwise you’re better off keeping a trusted stable hand or two on retainer.  In this extended analogy, that’d be me.

It’s not only that I want a continued working relationship with the few clients I want to service really well – It is also a genuine on going concern for the success of your company. One of the worst assumptions clients have about a site is that it’s only a brochure; an on going support contract can open the door to better ways of helping your customers and more efficient ways of servicing them for your business. Support Contracts open the door to analysis of customer behavior and sales opportunities you’d never see before. And support contracts make your organization’s digital platform more capable and easier to iterate and build upon.

Bottom line: Just because you can hire a vendor to come in and do a one-off job, doesn’t mean that’s the right model. In fact, after years of doing exactly that, I’m convinced that it’s a disservice to the client and their customer to do one-off engagements. Any web property isn’t just a one-time thing.  They all fit in an organization’s broader competitive and strategic plans and that means planning and relationships for the long haul.

One caveat – I’m not interested or able to support sites I didn’t build. That’s simply too much hassle and overhead.  What I’m selling is a model where I nurture the digital aspect of your company on an on-going basis, not a place for you to outsource support.

That said,  you might want to re-think your web strategies any way, and then we’re cooking!

Pro tip – telling me that you’ve even considered how you’ll maintain and eventually retire a site tells me you are serious about the project.

Make better design decisions

A Four Step Decision Making Process

  1. Identify the problem (highest value; critical and creative)

    1. Often this is the most difficult step. It’s very very easy to mistake what looks like a problem for something that is not a problem. Most of the time clients think they have one problem when the reality is they have a completely different problem. The best way to identify problems is to ask questions! Unfortunately, most organizations have an inherent bias to doing things a particular way (often for good but opaque reasons), and this usually takes some convincing. But it’s like anything else: if you’re solving for the wrong thing, don’t be shocked when you get the wrong results!
    2. How do we know we have the “right” problem?  Well, simply, we don’t. We need evidence first. That might be: “We aren’t getting as many sales as we forecast”.  And that leads us to the question of why. It may be explained away by bad forecasting – really really common in startups that haven’t made enough demand yet.  It may be that there’s a hole in the funnel. It may be both or neither and something completely unrelated (like bad PR), but the point is that gathering evidence of what’s actually going on is important. Again, companies usually have really solid accounting controls and can see where every penny went, but other data collection and control methods aren’t as good.  This is why it helps to have a design consultant who’s worked in research before (ahem, like me).
    3. This is both a critical skill in understanding why something is problematic, and a creative skill in understanding what may be a problem in the future.  This is why visionary leaders are so prized. Their creative and critical faculties border on prophetic and are capable of delivering extreme value.
  2. Generate Ideas (very high value, high creative component)

    1. Here’s the “fun.”  But this is where most companies royally mess up.  This is where they assume design comes in.  (Or digital, for that matter, or culture, or… maybe I should make that it’s own post).  In my post about being creative,  this is where that matters.  Being creative allows you to generate more ideas and allows you to generate better ideas by making novel connections.
    2. This is important however: Generating more ideas (even really high fidelity materials) is not the end all be all.  It’s part of it, sure; but it’s far more important that the only qualifying criteria is relevance, which goes back step 1.  Imagine trying to put together a jigzaw puzzle.  The first thing you do is sort the pieces, right?  That’s what step 1 is all about.  You need to have the borders of the puzzle in place before getting to step 2.
    3. Everyone should be participating in these steps. Directing, analyzing, and facilitating workshops or research study does require specialized training but the key tasks of asking questions and generating ideas only takes a brain, and everyone in your company has one.
    4. This is obviously the part people associate with designers, writers, etc. But the creative aspect only describes the activity not the personality.  The best designers I’ve met are stone cold professionals who look like they are book keepers or HR people.  There’s no formal qualification here and more importantly diverse inputs drive diverse results.
  3. Evaluate top alternatives (high value, high critical component)

    1. This is a critical task because you’re evaluating options.
    2. Methods include pro-con lists, Cost-Benefit Analysis, ethical and environmental impact – the list goes on and on.
      1. The point isn’t necessarily to use every single method every single project.  Actually, the goal is to use the fewest methods necessary.
      2. And the point is more about using a method with intentionality, not simply going with your gut.
    3. I typically try to get to 3 options before making a choice.
    4. There’s never only one choice to make, which means there are at least 2.
    5. The third option is probably the scariest, but most powerful one available:  do nothing.
    6. Part of the reason that’s always included is because it is a choice, whether we recognize it or not. And often, it may be the right choice!
      1. Here’s an example: Question – “How are we going to migrate all of this content to the new CMS?”
      2. let’s skip coming up with lots of ideas for a second and go to the top options: “A) I could write a script that converts it to xml and uses the new CMS’ import tool,  B) we could farm it out to the interns or C) we could do nothing”.
      3. What happens if they choose C?
      4. Then they have to critically evaluate what content actually ends up on the new site, instead of just lugging it all over, which is an improvement in the question being asked in the first place.
      5. Choosing to do nothing is often a reframing of the original question. It’s perfectly ok to do this.  It should be encouraged!  As I’ve said before, avoiding stupid choices is a lot easier to do, and frequently a better idea than trying to out smart everyone else.  That’s the power of doing nothing.
  4. Choose one: (least value, but most activity).

    1. Whatever the decision is, this is the time for violent, quick execution.
    2. Spend as much time as you need to get everyone on board.
    3. Building sites and applications is difficult technical work, but it is far simpler when you know what it is you’re building.

 

How to be creative professionally

Premise: Professional Creativity is a skill just like accounting or management.  It can be taught, learned, developed, and honed.

If you don’t believe that premise you should never be given a budget to work with designers.

I spend a lot of time here talking about how to think more critically about your design projects.  I firmly believe that rigorous process results in consistently higher quality,  but that critical thinking only works because the creative insight is better as well.

When I was a political data director,  the way we put this was “Garbage In = Garbage Out.” It’s no different in writing, where the best writers are also the most voracious readers, and it’s no different in design. We need lots and lots of ideas to find the 2-3 best ones for any given project.

It’s also true that the more projects one is involved in the more finely tuned this sense of what can work is. That’s like any other craft.  A grandmaster in chess should beat a novice because their brain has learned at a seemingly preternatural speed what to expect. There are designers who are that skilled.  They are few and far between.

Now that I’ve convinced you that becoming more creative is a skill, how does one actually go about it?

Here are 10 tips that will improve your creative abilities.

  1. Give me 10 – every day, write down on paper 10 ideas in a bulleted list.  Over time, your idea generating muscles will build themselves up, and 10 ideas will come to you before you’ve put on your slippers.
  2. Get out of the office – block off time to get physically out of your office.  Here are a few really good places to go:  The library (especially the St. Louis city central branch – it’s gorgeous!), the zoo, the beach, the woods, a nearby park, or even a local attraction on the other side of town.  Routine speeds up our perception of time. Creativity depends on consciously breaking routine to expose how incredibly vast and interesting being a human on earth is.
  3. Observe – If the 10 ideas a day thing is too difficult to start, begin with this. Go to any public space and write down 10 observations. “Old lady wore brand new Jordans in line at the DMV.”  Eventually, your eye for detail will improve and connections between things will leap out to you.  Making connections between seemingly unrelated things is the quintessence of creativity. Everything is a remix!
  4. Mimic –  Ray Chandler used to practice writing the passages of writers he admired just to feel the how writing something that moving felt to do.  I learned how to code sites basically by mimicking others. Humans ability to ape is second to none, and it’s an important learning tool.  By mimicking you’re letting your body actually experience what it is like to do something you don’t know how to do.
  5. Exposure – While technically this is the same as number 2, it’s different. At a lot of companies,  it’s not uncommon that each different department is siloed off from the other, and the company is siloed off from it’s customers, users, or stakeholders.  The best way to remedy that isolation is to increase your hours of exposure to the people who use what you provide. This can help you generate better ideas on how to serve them.
  6. Learn to read –  Like I said above, the best writers are constantly reading and re-reading. One of the things that you might not see is how they have trained their brains to absorb what they read. In my own practice, I tend to read 3 times if it’s something I am studying. First, I just read and get a sense for it.  The second time I’m methodically going through and making notes, either in a notebook, index cards, or in the margins of the pages.  If I need a third round,  I make sure to read up on the material with secondary sources – criticism, review,  differing opinions, and try to synthesize everything.  You don’t have to go that hard core (I tend to only with about a book a year), but the act of it increases the ability to connect ideas.
  7. Play a game – so much of the “magic” of creativity is recall.  How quickly you make connections can be improved by playing trivia and using it to work on recall.  Cards against humanity is also stellar in this regard.
  8. Play a strategy game – for millennia, chess and go have been used to teach strategy, and they definitely have lessons for you. Challenge a friend and look for patterns.  Note the constraints of pieces and try to think through moves. Helps with both forward thinking “If Then” construction and working backward from a goal.
  9. Get Bored – John Cleese of Monty Python fame argues that getting bored is the best thing you can do to be more creative.  He’s right.  Our brains crave stimuli.  Being bored is when the stimuli aren’t sufficient to hold our attention. Our imagination starts to kick in to keep our brains stimulated.  The result is your imagination gets better and better – and your creative thinking improves.
  10. Learn to Draw – You definitely do not need to become an artist, but learning to draw does two very important things. First it strengthens both hand eye coordination and your confidence taking ideas out of your head and into the world. More importantly, drawing is the oldest visual form of human communication and therefore essential to how our brains understand our world. Whenever I get an assignment I like to sketch out a small diagram. Or, I’ll sketch out football plays. Or, I’ll draw in a sketch book. The point is that drawing helps you organize your world, which is exactly what design does too.

It should surprise no one that when your creative thinking is better, it makes evaluating options critically easier as well too. And you get to solve better problems, so, get creative and get a raise!