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.
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.
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:
- 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)
- Comparative Ranking on the site – do visitors use this content?
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
- 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.