A Higher Ed Web Redesign and a Space Shuttle

This is the first post in a series about lessons learned from the 
latest higher ed web redesign that I survived. What worked, what didn't and what I'll do differently next time.

Three! Two! One! Launch! Holy Crap! Hold your breath! Breathe! Celebrate! Hold on for the ride!

I’ve seen one space shuttle launch. The summer of 1994, the space shuttle Columbia launched from Kennedy Space Center, it was one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed. When I hear the word “launch” it’s the first thing I think of, every. single. time.

How does that July day have anything to do with websites? I’m the kind of geek that ponders these types of things, so hang with me.

It takes the perfect team of astronauts for a successful mission. After years of college education, if someone is chosen to be an astronaut, they go through 2 years of intense training and then months of specialized training for a specific mission. A team that is completely in sync for a mission is critical for success.

Please, college admin people, do not put the responsibility of the most important piece in marketing your college on the shoulders of one poor soul! I am blessed to have a great team and support. I’ve been the lone wolf, make the investment in a team!

This was the first redesign that my young (and awesome) team had the pleasure of being a part of, and I learned a lot about myself – especially improvements I need to make in my style of work (remember, I’m used to being the wolf), leadership, project management, stress management, and communication. You name it, I learned I needed to adapt and continue to improve myself. I’m working on it!

Fabrication of the Columbia space shuttle started in 1975 and it did not launch with humans aboard until 6 years later. Thank God, it doesn’t take this long to create a website, but my point is that NASA never flung a spacecraft into orbit as quickly as possible and that should never be the case with an extensive redesign of a large website. No, there will be no lives lost if a website sucks, but it WILL crash or never get off the ground without a plan. Time wasted, money wasted, potential students lost. Patience, Jedi friends. Do or do not, there is no try.

The planning of a web redesign is the most important (and longest) phase. No, we aren’t talking rocket science, but you have to have a strategy and goals.

  • What do you want your web visitors to ultimately do?
  • Who the heck ARE these people visiting your website?
  • What do they want to do?
  • What are they having trouble doing?
  • What roadblocks stop them from completing their goal and yours?
  • Is the technology you are using helping you? Do you have the right CMS?
  • What content works, what content is useless?

Yes, many times this phase is the hardest to explain to people who aren’t doing the actual work. Get ready:

“What does it LOOK like?” (Answer: A bunch of spreadsheets, some flowcharts, some documents, scribbles, maybe a box?)

“What have ya’ll been DOING?” (Answer: Stuff no one wants to do, hear about at this point, or attempt to understand. The important stuff- getting ducks in a row so that we can explain the plan and execute it. Who, what, where, why, how, when….)

The best thing we did this go-round: We had analytics, concrete proof and answers to the who, what, where, why, how and when.

Google Analytics – I personally prefer 2 years of analytics (GA or whatever) from the retiring site to work with, but many times you won’t have this luxury. If you aren’t actively using and understanding your web analytics, start NOW. Don’t know where to start, or are completely overwhelmed or lost? – Hire a consultant to help. We hired a consultant to audit said retiring site, help us tie analytics to dollar signs, and help communicate why our site sucked and what we needed to do about it.

Another thing we did right: We used our inbound marketing platform to ask our users questions and to create personas of our visitors to map the journey they take when they come to our site. We also used heatmaps and session recordings to try to understand how we could simplify the road map to the visitors destination. A year or so of this kind of thing produces HUGE AMOUNTS of useful data that takes a lot of time to tie together and make sense of. It’s worth it, don’t fling a shuttle into space before it’s ready!

Prep for launch day and the following week is something we should all start thinking of faaaar before it happens. Yes, a strategy for issues is great, but ya know that saying about the best laid plans….yeah. There will be surprises and people will freak about change.

Lesson learned: Astronauts go through intense training and mental preparation for the confined area that they will be in, dealing with motion sickness and feeling horrible because our blood apparently does weird things when there’s zero gravity, and countless other things that will challenge their minds & bodies. I’m pretty sure all the prep in the world doesn’t feel like it’s done much good at certain moments to the brave men and women who have been and are high above the earth.
I can’t count how many launch days I have survived, you get MAYBE 15 minutes of celebration and pride, and then the motion sickness starts. I will never get used to launch week and it’s hard to prepare teams who haven’t been through it before. When you have a huge site that gets millions of visits and you change it…hold on to your seats!

5076525237_83a53e29fa_zThe pressure of handling emails, office visits, the people who are difficult on perfect days come out of the woodwork because you’ve given them something to be difficult about…it’s not fun. Criticism by people who truly believe there was a magic wand that changed the site overnight are tough, and they’ll never understand the work it took, the time put in, or anything else…they want their button back where it was and they want it NOW! Eventually it settles, it’s really ok if the button is in a different place, you fix the surprises (it sort of feels like you have a gun to your head while you do it), and the change becomes normal.

Soooo much preparation! If you’ve seen a shuttle launch, even on tv, have you thought about what the team behind that launch had been doing up until that moment? The plans, the tests, the problem solving, the changes, the failures…all before the launch and the actual mission…crazy. We aren’t astronauts, but I want to hug one. If you work in higher education and your college has recently launched a new website, hug your favorite web person the next time you see them.