The questions you need to ask before building a new website

It’s the time of year where plans are being made, strategy refreshed and bids for budget brushed off and one of the most common projects is a website refresh.

Rightly so – as user expectations, technology and behaviour change the site you lovingly put together even a couple of years ago can probably be better for your users and you. And if you’re currently managing a behemoth with organisation-centric content then the time is definitely right for you to rebuild.

But before you do…what questions should you be asking to help shape your plan? On all the rebuild projects I’ve led on we’ve started by identifying user need and obsessively understanding and measuring against this as we go, but beyond that core task we’ve asked some specific questions to help shape our design and build requirements.

Questions you need to ask when building or procuring a new website

What’s the user need? What’s the user wants?

If you only one question then do make sure it’s this one. By all means as your subject matter expert in the service, by all means use data available to you – but don’t take this as the whole answer. Ever.

You need to be answering this question through talking to users or potential users, and making sure you really understand what they’ve told you and compared it to an observation of what they currently do or how they use a prototype when you get to that point (Surprise! Say and do are usually very different).

This means making sure you’ve differentiated between the user need and the user want – by this I mean the first is understanding what is essential to using the service in the most efficient and pleasant way, the second is more about understanding what users have seen and liked elsewhere or what they think would make something they have a choice in desirable. You will probably find a lot of this research leads to service design rather than web design but hopefully this leads to you opening that conversation internally (because putting lipstick on a pig isn’t as great a choice as considering whether the pig needs to go) rather than being frustrated it’s not neatly contained to the task in hand.

Understanding user need will also help you prioritise your build alongside your data – remember the general rule that improving your top 5% of content and journeys will make things better for around 25% of your users.

Do I need a new website?

When we think about website re-design projects this often means considering a change of platform (CMS), a change of visual design, and a change of content.

It doesn’t always include understanding how people are finding your content and whether your information is being pulled in to the Google Search Engine Results Page directly meaning people are no longer clicking through and visiting you. Or considering whether information can be presented on social media, or is duplicating what is available elsewhere.

All of this should be questioned as part of understanding needs, before you decide for sure you need a new website.

Have I got passive or active internal support?

Are the decision-makers for the project passive or active stakeholders? Are they expecting to have final sign-off based on their subjective view, or to be guided toward decisions through the results of your research and testing? Do they understand what might limit the potential success (a sucky back office system or an out of date process within a service will do it)?

Conversations about this aren’t always easy – especially if you’re being offered budget or resource to just get on and do it – but if you’re really into making your digital experience better for users please do take the time to have these chats and ‘educate your F’ing client’ before you start actively working on a website build.

Ok, it’s a website. What’s the experience on mobile, tablet, and desktop?

And which is the device most likely to be used to access your website? It’s no good making your website work brilliantly on a 60″ projector screen – although this is wonderful for internal show and tell sessions – if most of your users are visiting on a smaller Smartphone screen. It’s also no good having heavy load times – for lots of reasons – but again, if you know your users are mainly on slower connections.

Even if your current site has a responsive design it’s worth checking your data, and refreshing your design break points accordingly.

Level up question: how relevant are other devices, like wearables or digital assistants, to my users and how do I present content and journeys to them? A web page may no longer be enough.

How are you meeting and going beyond ‘duty’ with accessibility?

Accessibility should be important to everyone but particularly for the public sector – where people may not have a choice but to use your website or digital service – there are some standards which need to be met.

Understanding the standards and what you need to do to comply is one thing, but understanding specific needs of your users and services can be beyond this. Not only thing – but are you holding your suppliers to account too? Are you researching and testing with users with accessibility needs?

How are you designing, creating, migrating and managing content?

You may not want to hear this but it’s true for the majority of public sector websites that you shouldn’t migrate existing content into a new site, but you should be rebuilding based on user and organisational need. Moving bad content is a massive time consuming task, which pretty much comes with a guarantee your new site will be as bad as your old one even if it looks a bit prettier and more modern.

Audit what you’ve got as a map, review against user and organisational needs, identify gaps, and create a style guide based on solid content design principles. Make your subject matter experts in services a decision-making stakeholder but not the ‘owner’ of the content, and unable to make decisions based in opposition to user research and data.

And whatever you do – don’t launch a piece of content without a schedule for how it will be managed in the future including review dates and retirement plans. Managing content successfully is a much bigger and harder task than building and launching, but is the bit which often falls outside of the project spotlight.

How does this integrate and help create better experiences with back-office systems?

If you build and launch a new website without reviewing and updating back office systems, are you really making a better website at all?

Customer journeys often live or die by the back office system someone has to make their way through. Your landing page may be in your control and perfectly put together but if the person is then pinged into a looping, unclear, hell hole of a form or application system your user satisfaction and conversion rate may well not rise as you intended.

Contracts and procurement mean this can slow down your overall project, or make things too complicated – by all means split it off into a different stream of work on its own timeline and with differing stakeholders if needed and move ahead with what you can control – but don’t forget it all together. Your success – and your users – are depending on this bit being done.

What flexibility is there for meeting changing needs?

The way people access and use the internet, how they seek and consume content is always changing and that change impacts fast. Already we’re seeing more zero-click searches than ever with people being given the info they need directly on the results page, video has taken over text as the preferred content on social media.

Beyond these big trends once people start using your new site and services you’ll get lots of data and be able to learn from them what is working and not. Sometimes the change of a single word or the position of a call to action within a page can change your success rate massively – will you be able to iterate and continuously improve your site like this or will your organisation need to go through another big rebuild project down the line? What about changes to bits of the journey in back office systems? Do you have a contract which means changes are difficult or charged-for?

How are you measuring success?

Did you benchmark your current / old website before you started rebuilding? Did you get info from your services and contact points about usage and costs? As part of understanding your user need to you observe anyone using your current site and systems?

If you didn’t, how will you know you’re making anything more than cosmetic improvements and quantify the savings or increase in satisfaction?

How are you promoting the new website?

Straight talk: for large organisations no-one cares you have a new website except for you, the service, and your director. Your users are interested in particular services you have to offer and promotion plans should focus on reaching the right audience for each of these.

At Nottinghamshire County Council this meant taking a ‘by service’ and ‘by customer journey’ approach to campaigns around our relaunch while only talking about the overall programme of work to our peers, to award judges, and in trade publications.

Look at GOV.UK – you’ll see Ads for renewing your passport, or paying your car tax online, or doing your tax self-assessment but you’re unlikely to see much promotion about the whole mass of digital government.

Need a hand?

I’ve led on award-winning major website and digital service design projects for large complex organisations in the public sector through to small creative businesses. 

So, if you need some help with planning a website project, benchmarking where you’re currently at with a review, content design or migration, journey mapping and user research or experience design – get in touch and see how I can help.