How to Prepare for A Higher Ed Website Redesign Project
Follow these steps when tackling your next website redesign project to guarantee success.
Website redesign projects are challenging in any industry—they are often complex and involve a lot of moving parts and uncertainty. Add to those challenges the circumstances of trying to make large-scale change happen in a college or university setting, and it’s no wonder website redesign projects often have a hard time getting off the ground.
At Palantir, our experience has shown us that there are 9 critical steps in navigating a successful higher ed website redesign:
- Set clear goals.
- Know your stakeholders.
- Define the purpose of your website.
- Assemble a functional team.
- Build buy-in across campus.
- Keep track of your content.
- Know who your competitors are.
- Choose the right strategy, design, and development partners.
- Create a website management plan.
Set clear goals
Like any project, it’s good to have a firm grasp on what you are trying to accomplish when you are beginning, and to keep this goal in clear sight throughout the process. This holds especially true for a college or university website redesign project because there are usually many stakeholders with strong opinions about what the website should entail. Chances are you don’t have an opportunity to redesign your site very frequently, so when the time comes, everyone at your institution will want to have their say.
Begin by asking yourself, what are the most important problems that need to be solved by this project? This may be a long list and the truth is, you probably can’t solve all of them. Prioritize your list and place the most critical problems at the top, addressing those first. Having clearly stated and reasonably achievable goals makes it easy for your team and the campus community to know where the project is headed and what to expect.
Know your stakeholders
Understanding your stakeholder landscape is essential to the success of a higher ed website redesign project. Unlike other industries, decisions are often made based on the consensus and recommendations of broad committees rather than a direct line of command. While this can make establishing clear goals and priorities a challenge, here are some things you can do to help lay the ground rules:
- Understand where the funding is coming from: Most often, the funding comes from an administrative department’s budget and like most things in life, the person footing the bill always has a say about what is purchased. Whatever your relationship to the funding person or department is, make sure you have a solid understanding of what they want to achieve with a new website.
- Get to know other key stakeholders: It’s likely that your group of stakeholders consists of a diverse set of leaders across campus who represent major interests at your college or university. It’s important to meet with and regularly communicate with as many stakeholders as possible so you can have a clear understanding of what each person believes to be important with the redesign.
- Establish key areas of alignment and disagreement: Gather your group of stakeholders to go over the areas of agreement. For the areas that can’t be agreed upon, discuss with the group if there is room for compromise. If a point of agreement can’t be reached, it’s important to communicate with each stakeholder the landscape of competing interests and the inability to reach everyone’s individual needs.
Define the purpose of your website
The key to reaching goal alignment will require the defined purpose of your website. Is your website a marketing platform to attract interest from potential students, faculty, staff, and donors? Or is it primarily a tool to distribute information to internal audiences?
If there is one thing you want all stakeholders to agree on, it’s the purpose of your website. Even a narrowed down list of possible purposes will provide the project with better direction and a good lens through which you can evaluate important decisions.
Assemble a functional team
The reality of working with high-level stakeholders is that while they hold a good deal of authority to make decisions, they often don’t have the time to lend to a project of this scale. It’s important to get their high-level decisions (like the purpose of your website), but to then have them assign the project to someone who can be more hands-on, available for meetings, and is better-versed in the pain points surrounding the website.
You’ll want to put together a team of people who have the delegated authority of each key stakeholder. This probably includes representatives from departments like:
- Student Life
- Alumni Affairs Faculty
- Provost’s Office
- Communications and Marketing
The most effective team will be the smallest one you can assemble that still accurately represents the greatest set of interests of your school. In short, you want this team to inspire confidence in the community that they will make wise choices. This team should be empowered to make decisions in the project, or at least make strong recommendations to a defined stakeholder group who can make decisions. The power and value of this group will become evident when people ask, “Who made this decision? How did we come to this conclusion?” and you will be able to name the group who did and why they did.
Build buy-in across campus
Having a strong, representative team in place will go a long way in establishing confidence in the project and the decisions being made. However, it’s still important to meet with other people across your institution. Make sure you communicate with people like:
- Heads of departments (both academic and administrative): They can be a great set of allies when it comes to managing frontline concerns before they become growing problems
- Website specialists: These people are the ones that edit different parts of the website and understand its pain points and are usually administrative assistants and coordinators/managers in academic departments.
- Faculty, staff, and students: It’s important to keep the immediate campus community informed of the project’s progress and key decisions. These decisions may include things like the CMS choice, evaluation and selection of a vendor, and early testing versions of the site. Keeping a blog that documents your site’s progress is a simple and effective way to keep your community in the loop.
Keep track of your content
Do a content audit to assess all the existing content you have on your website. The key purpose of the audit is to find out what content will remain, what needs to be edited, what needs to be cut entirely, and where there are gaps for new content. Understanding what content you have (and what new content you need) will help you to understand how it should be organized. This can be a considerable challenge in higher ed because most college and university websites have large amounts of website content. It’s also helpful to have this documented (most audits use a spreadsheet), so you have information to review with content owners, rather than trying to rely on people’s memories.
Know who your competitors are
Higher education universities within and outside of the United States experience an increasing amount of competition each year. However, not all colleges and universities are direct competitors with each other when it comes to attracting students, faculty, staff, and funding. It helps to have a clear idea of who you are trying to reach. From there, you can determine other institutions who might be trying to reach the same audience. Try to keep your list of competitors succinct so you can stay focused on the topics and issues that matter most.
While mapping out your competitive landscape, consider the following questions:
- Who do you compete with for prospective students?
- Who do you compete with for faculty?
- Who do you compete with for donations?
- Who do you compete with for recognition?
A competitive analysis can be very in-depth or remain high-level. Regardless of the amount of effort you put into it, knowing who your competitors are can help you evaluate where you need to spend time and resources on your website project.
Choose the right strategy, design and development partners.
No two partners are the same, and the questions you ask and the answers you receive have a lot to do with how the relationship (and the project) will unfold. Consider the following when evaluating possible partners:
- Look for best practices, standards, and security: Ask potential vendors about their standards and check references to validate their claims. How do they ensure the reliability, sustainability, accessibility, and security of the site? It’s critically important that any vendor you select follows industry best practices and standards to ensure code quality and reliability.
- Be wary of the ‘bait and switch’: It is not uncommon to receive bids for projects that grossly underestimate the costs of a project just to win the work. Check references and don’t be afraid to ask questions. And always, always, always ask vendors how they derived the estimate provided and the work it includes.
- Evaluate proposals in hours, not dollars: When comparing proposals from different vendors, it may seem impossible to discern the differences between them. You may wonder whether the different vendors are bidding on the same project, given how varied the pricing is. The differences in proposals can then be reduced to three possible variables: estimated scope, estimated hours, and billable rate.
Create a website management plan
A website management plan is a set of rules that guide the administration and maintenance of a website. At its heart, it documents ownership of and responsibility for the content of a website.
A website management plan also defines the roles and permissions of the website’s administrators and contributors, along with the standards and protocols they will follow in their daily work on the website. This plan may also define rules for the overall structure, organization, and hierarchy of a website, along with the processes and procedures to follow in creating new parts of the websites, or even creating an entirely new one (far) down the road. For inspiration on where to start with this final step, check out our Guide to Digital Governance.