The Secret to a Successful Website? Stop the Periodic Rebuild

How to treat your website like the asset to perfect that it is–not a sporadic capital project.

Websites ain’t what they used to be. But the way we think about designing them hasn’t necessarily changed as tech has improved.

So many of us get stuck in periodically overhauling our organization’s websites, thinking that this build will finally, finally, solve all of our problems…only to wake up months or years later and realize things have gone awry and wishing we had a new website. Again.

The good news is that you can break free from this digital boom and bust cycle. You can instead create an exceptional website that meets your organizational needs, even as you change and grow.

How to Evolve Your Website and Digital Tools:

  1. Figure out if you’re stuck in a digital boom and bust cycle
  2. Why you should free yourself from boom and bust
  3. What to do instead: ongoing website evolution
  4. The keys to evolving your website over time
  5. The steps to continuous website improvement

Psst–this is a monster article, mainly because it’s an important mind shift.

Don’t have time to dive in now?
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ONE. The Digital Boom and Bust Cycle

We see it all the time across all industries, and we’ve been there, too: the periodic website overhaul. Or, as we prefer to call it, the cycle of digital boom and bust. Your organization might be on the website rebuild roller coaster if the following sounds familiar….

  • It all starts with someone deciding that the organization needs a new website because it either doesn’t have one or the one it does have isn’t meeting expectations.
  • Then everyone—or most everyone—rallies around the call for a new, modernized web solution that will solve all your problems, often with different ideas of what the website will solve at the end of the day.
  • Wish lists, budgets, and timelines are created. Web designers are called in or schedules are cleared for team members to dive in. And the project gets rolling.
  • The designers go off to create your beautiful new website, checking in periodically to show mock-ups and design ideas and get feedback from your team–after all, you know your customers best. Or maybe you do the redesign in house, playing with a web builder and plugging in numerous apps and plug-ins to add cool new functionality.
  • Then, before you know it, deadlines fast approach, budgets and enthusiasm begin to dry up, new projects take hold, and there are calls to launch.
  • If all goes well, the launch is scheduled, near-perfection is unveiled, champagne is uncorked, and everyone proudly shares the new online face of the organization before going back to their “real” work.
  • If there are hiccups in the website rebuild, the launch might be delayed before “good enough” is pushed out, perhaps with promises of future patches. Everyone sighs relief and is thankful that the new version is better than the old before going back to their “real” work.
  • For a while, the website might work like a dream. This is the golden time. You’re cashing in from all the hard work of the website rebuild after the acute pain of the capital cost has subsided.
  • There might even be sustaining momentum for ongoing content development or other promised additions. The website might perform better than ever before, though without a baseline to compare it to or performance tracking, it’s difficult to know for sure. Ad hoc additions are made as needs come up. Apps and plug-ins add up.
  • man in suit cryingBut before long, neglect takes hold. Web content remains stagnant. Apps and plug-ins that promised an easy solution start to run amok, often without leaving a trace. The design begins to look dated. The website, once a beacon for business and a solid tool for marketing, begins to damage your brand.
  • The technology selected starts to slip. It’s cumbersome to use, expensive, or lacks features to match the changing needs of the organization. Or maybe trained staff leaves. No data about performance or success are collected or, if they are, the data doesn’t drive decisions or actions to improve the website or the organization as a whole. You might check analytics religiously, but don’t act as metrics slide.
  • Then, disdain for the current website bubbles up and someone calls for a new website because this one just isn’t meeting expectations. And the process begins again. You might throw out the old entirely or migrate the legacy content over to a new website.
infographic of digital boom and bust cycle

TWO. Why Digital Boom and Bust Sucks

It’s easy to intuitively see what’s wrong with the digital boom and bust cycle when you’re in a trough, dealing with an unruly, outdated, or unattractive website. A neglected website gone feral damages your brand, is difficult to manage, and wrecks operational efficiency. Instead of an asset, it can become a shortcoming of your organization.

But there are drawbacks even when riding the boom part of the redesign cycle. It’s expensive to overhaul a website or fund a large capital project, particularly if you’re essentially starting over.

Plus, users hate change. When you launch your totally new, splashy website, there will be push back, even if it is a huge step up from the last website.

More than this, most website redesigns rarely begin with understanding the website user, organizational goals, and how to deliver better. The old website is cast aside and observations from within the organization are used exclusively to define the new website.

In particular, websites are often overhauled without a digital strategy in place. The discussion around the ultimate goals, priorities, and necessary scope may be limited or bound by a desired timeline and one-off budget.

Many website redesigns have only graphic design in mind and don’t deeply consider or integrate the tech solutions available to reach operational efficiency, financial, or marketing goals. If your website is only a beautiful calling card, you’re probably wasting your money.

Redesigning a website without a functional overhaul is like putting lipstick on a pig. muddy pig in a field

Redesigns are rarely based off concrete data (read: key performance indicators). No one asks the customer or tests how users actually use the new design. Few track what worked well or what was a waste of time from the last website. And even if these metrics were tracked, the new website is likely different enough that the content or design elements don’t always translate.

When a website rebuild is done as a capital project, resources dry up with the new website launch, leaving no room for testing, intentional improvements, and optimizations. So who knows if it was worth it in the end besides anecdotes of awesome.

Digital boom and bust is like to “saving” money on your car by never changing the oil or doing other preventative maintenance.
You’re setting yourself up for an urgent, big repair down the road.

THREE. Ongoing Evolution: The Alternative to Periodic Website Rebuilds

Instead of riding the roller coaster of website boom and bust, organizations should plan for incremental improvements—an ongoing website evolution. Why?

butterfly pupas in different stagesWith ongoing evolution, your website will always be at its top performance. It can be responsive to changing user and organizational needs, lessons learned from your data and user testing, and stay afloat in search engine rankings when Google changes its algorithm every few months. 😐

There will likely be cost savings to choosing an operational budget for your website over a big capital project followed by neglect. Sure, if you only look at monthly results, the months of neglect are “cheap”—but they’re setting you up for a much larger capital expenditure than you would otherwise need if you made continuously improvements. You’re taking out credit from your website and will have to pay it back plus interest.

You can make data-driven decisions both about the website and your organization as a whole when you keep a pulse on your website’s key performance indicators. You can test to improve functionality and content, ensuring that the results support your goals. You can engage users and use user testing to refine your website to suit their needs better.

The process of developing new additions or improvements to your website will be faster and more agile, adaptable to changing needs. With a huge, periodic rebuild, it’s simply not feasible to identify and solve all potential needs.

A rebuild is sluggishly reactive.
With ongoing website evolution, you can be nimble and adaptive.

Plus, you can put your website users in the center of your website improvement efforts, where they belong. Your website users will keep coming back to your website for something new instead of being shocked by a huge change overnight. At the end of the day, all websites exist for their users, so you absolutely must incorporate them into the design and functioning of your website.

FOUR. The Keys to Evolving Your Website

Continuous website improvements rely on a base that is extensible and scalable. That is, your website must be able to add new functionality and grow with your organization and its needs. It cannot be one-size-fits-all and evolve.

Your website should separate its design, content, and technology.

Pieces of your website and online services need to be modular, whether design elements, software or apps, or databases. For design, it’s helpful to create a pattern library that can be reused across your website. For software and apps, make sure that a function can easily be swapped out with another service later on. For databases, the structure should be clear to understand and the content easily migrated. Why?

If your design is embedded in your content, your design can’t be changed site-wide without modifying each piece of content. Similarly, if the content stored in your existing technology service can’t easily be migrated to another technology solution in the future, you’re stuck with your existing solution.

person playing chess

This is where a deeper understanding of technical solutions and integration is key to a successful website. Developing a solid digital strategy requires a solid understanding of technical requirements, existing solutions, and how the pieces can talk to one another and change over time.

Without a digital strategy, you’re always shooting from the hip.

Effective continuous improvement for your website should follow a clearly defined digital strategy, while still being responsive to changes. Instead of running forward with hunches and internal observations, it’s worth it to take a step back and actually collect and look at data to drive your decisions.

FIVE. Get Started with Continuous Website Improvements

Here’s the process we recommend when evolving your website:

digital evolution process infographic
  1. Clearly define your desired outcomes and indicators of success.

    Generally, website goals typically fall into improving user engagement metrics, conversion rates, and/or usability. There are a number of easy tools to track and measure each of these categories.

    The point is that you need to know what success looks like, so you have direction for your ongoing efforts and a way to measure how well your efforts are doing.

  2. Define who your “customer” really is.

    Depending on your type of organization, your website can have many stakeholders or users: staff, contractors, donors, sponsors, members, participants, purchasers, sellers, students, potential clients, special segments, recipients, and others. Each stakeholder group requires consideration and prioritization.

    The “customer” is obvious for ecommerce. You’re building your website for buyers.

    But prioritizing “customers” is a common place where nonprofits get stuck when they rebuild their websites. Is the customer the recipients of the nonprofit’s work? The sponsors and donors sought for financial support? The community of volunteers? It could very well be all of these stakeholders, but some might take initial priority over others depending on the goals of your organization.

  3. Learn all about your customer/website user.

    We often take for granted that we know our website users. After all, we might work with them intimately and provide them with customer service, and we know our business inside and out.

    The reality is that while we might have valuable observations, they only capture a portion of the full user experience. To truly understand what your website users need, you need to do ongoing user research. User research is a field unto itself, but it’s essentially a set of techniques to understand how to identify and respond to user needs.

  4. Benchmark your existing site and your competition.

    Now that you know who your making your website for and what metrics indicate success, it’s important to create a baseline. For your key performance metrics, capture the current state of your website so you can later compare changes against them.

    If possible, it’s also helpful to know where the competition stands on your key metrics and how they change over time. This relative positioning is key to identifying successes as your website evolves.

  5. orderly colored garbage cansIdentify what can be kept from your current site.

    Consider what you have: content, functionality, technology, and design.

    It’s a big mistake to migrate all of your website content over wholesale or throw your entire website all away. Generally, there are worthwhile pieces of your current website that should be migrated. And there is a lot of content that should be removed. The same goes with the tech and design pieces you currently use.

    Using your indicators of success and usability testing, identify what should be kept, how, and for how long. What is semi-successful and could probably use a refresh? And what should you have ditched years ago?

  6. Define the (iterative) timeline. Create a digital strategy.

    When you continuously improve your website, you need to prioritize the different features, content, and design that you intend to add so you don’t go into boom and bust. Sure, priorities might change down the road, but you’ll be running circles if you don’t have a general path defined.

    Unlike a wholesale website rebuild, you’re not waiting to get everything perfect to launch. You’re building up an iteratively better website over time.

    old shack with guy linesThink of it like your building from a small shack to a swanky mansion over time. If you build your starter shack with two bedrooms but no bathroom…well, you probably prioritized wrong. And if every addition requires completely changing the existing structure…well, you probably didn’t design very strategically with the future in mind.

    There is a “best” way to strategically add website pieces and functionality. Know it from the start.

    Also keep in mind that users hate change. If you can seamlessly upgrade pieces of your website while keeping most of it consistent, users will generally be happier. (Just like finding your kitchen in our make-believe evolving house–or what your neighbors think of it.)

  7. Define content based on user needs—not your own agenda.

    If you’ve taken the time to learn about your website user, you likely know what questions, pain points, and dreams they have. Speak to those.

  8. sketches of design ideasCreate an intuitive site structure based on user testing and mental models.

    A mental model in website design generally refers to how users expect the website to be organized.

    Do they expect to find the search field in the top right? How would they organize the navigation categories? What would they call them? Where do they look to complete their most pressing tasks? How should links or buttons react when they hover? What terminology do users use?

    All of these questions relate to what users expect when they go to your website. You want to create a website that ideally maps perfectly onto your user’s mental model. That’s “intuitive”—and rarely intuitive to create in practice.

    The only way to get this right is to do user testing, make an iteration live, track how well users can navigate your site, adjust, and repeat.

    Don’t just guess at what you think works. Test and learn. Then organize your site for your users.

  9. Create an interactive prototype for feedback.

    Graphic designers will often use mood boards or other static examples of their design elements. That’s fine for static design. But a website is interactive.

    Any prototype should be clickable and start with functionality. Beautiful design can be layered on top of functionality, but it’s very hard to do the opposite.

    Create simple interactive prototypes to iteratively test user interface design, layering on components as you go.

  10. Create a design system.

    A design system is a set of resources to bring cohesion across your site and ensure proper maintenance and functionality. It often includes:

    – A pattern library of user interface components, so you can easily build out new components that blend in and don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time

    – A content guide for messaging tone and content consistency

    Design principles and brand guide to ensure new components match your site’s look and feel

    – A service manual of sorts to ensure maintenance and update schedules and tasks are clear.

    Does this take more time than just publishing each change and moving on? Absolutely.

    Will it make ongoing efforts quicker and easier, maintain consistency across the site, and ensure maintenance doesn’t take a back burner or get dropped with staff changes? Absolutely.

  11. Launch the minimum viable product.

    We love minimum viable products because Rome wasn’t built in a day. No one will ever get it perfectly right on the first try, so you might as well build iteration into the process. If you push off launching until near perfection, you’ll lose valuable insight that launching and testing will provide—and you’ll probably optimize the wrong things.

    We’re talking about creating the minimum that will meet the mission critical needs of the build. Give it a thorough, varsity try, and then….

  12. Test and monitor, refine, and iterate.

    One of the biggest problems with the digital boom and bust cycle is that you essentially have a single shot at making a product and you get little ongoing feedback on how well it did. But feedback is exactly how you make a website great.

    If you only get one shot at making your website, you’ll invariably miss crucial components that will eventually necessitate an overhaul.

    If you don’t measure and track your indicators of success, you’ll have no concrete idea for knowing what’s going right or what needs adjusting. If you care about your goals, you’ll need to iterate and measure to make sure you’re reaching them.

  13. Own it.

    Finally, you need a continuous website advocate. Someone needs to be responsible for your website’s ongoing success or website neglect will take hold and you’ll never get out of the boom and bust cycle.

    The person doesn’t have to be a technical guru, but they do need to understand and value the goals and process of continuous website evolution. And they need to have access to resources to fulfill the digital strategy your organization identified.

Make sure your next website redesign is your last.

Build it to be extensible, adaptable, and a dynamic piece of continuous improvement.

When done strategically, an evolving website is more successful, worthwhile, and cost-effective than slipping into a digital boom and bust cycle.

With the right team in place, your organization can build a digital strategy that will serve you into the sunset. If you’d like to add technical capacity or guidance to your team, let’s chat about how we can support your organization to get the most from your website.