I recently had the opportunity to speak at Museums and the Web on a panel alongside Ford’s Theatre, FastSpot, and the Andy Warhol Museum to share our experience working on the new website for Eastern State Penitentiary and Terror Behind the Walls. The session, Website Redesign Mistakes: How to Avoid Them, How to Work Through Them, and How to Design Something Sustainable, focused on our unique experiences and shared lessons learned.

Michael Tedeschi at the #MW17 Museums and the Web Panel

User-centered design is a project-long mentality

Good user experience is the key to a successful project, but staying focused on users’ needs and objectives can be challenging as the project develops—individual and team preferences or exciting new feature ideas can take priority. Begin your redesign by looking at website analytics to make data-driven decisions and by conducting interviews or facilitating usability testing on your existing site. Personas are a useful tool for reviewing features, feedback, or deliverables, and also serve as a way to settle disagreement on your team, allowing you to focus on what will satisfy user goals over individual preference.

Validate designs and prototypes with your users regularly through testing sessions. We gathered valuable user feedback while testing on site with visitors during Terror Behind the Walls, hearing directly from users how they used the new website’s various features. We created interactive prototypes for phones and tablets, and asked visitors to work through several tasks. During testing, we found that users responded more favorably to “Purchase/Buy Tickets” than “Buy Now & Save”, and we are continuing to evaluate the success of this phrasing over time.

Successful projects are built by teams

Create a small core project team to lead the initiative day-to-day. We met with representatives from each department at Eastern State Penitentiary—including marketing, development, research, education, and events—to learn about their objectives, to understand the range of website visitors, and then to prioritize together which users the website should cater to. For the rest of your organization, use regular emails or in-person meetings to share updates on your progress, listen for feedback at critical milestones, and explain expectations often.

Conducting collaborative design sketching with Eastern State Penitentiary

If you’re working with an outside vendor, make sure that you’re able to collaborate and communicate honestly with their team. Review culture and communication style as part of your agency selection process. And, remember to build in times during the project to have fun and be social together—whether that’s scheduling cross-team happy hours or going out to lunch before or after a meeting like we did with Eastern State’s core team.

Consider website sustainability from the beginning

The goal of every redesign is a website that can live on long after launch. Consider who will be responsible for updating, editing, and managing the site. How often will they need to make these adjustments, and how much of their day-to-day is caring for the site? Take into account the capacity that individuals have in your organization now—will they need to spend more time managing the new site? Or will you need to train other individuals or hire new staff to keep it updated and running smoothly? It’s also important to consider the budget (for web hosting, upgrades, ongoing evaluation, and maintenance) you’ll need to set aside annually to do this. We typically recommend 10% of the total project budget per year.

You can also make your web project more sustainable through documentation, training, and onboarding for new staff. Write out your editorial or content workflows, and streamline these processes in your content management system through editor roles and permissions to make them more efficient. In addition to providing documentation and on-site training for site administrators, we included a content workflow system in Drupal to help managers approve review and approve edits before going live.

The full session paper is available to read online. You can also check out our free online resources about persona development, website maintenance, and user testing.