On corporate web design

American Airlines and its corporate website aa.com have been on the spotlight recently. The saga unravels as follows:

  1. A 22-year old designer, Dustin Curtis, got angry at aa.com, spent a "couple hours" shuffling pixels in Photoshop to do a home page mockup and called it a "redesign", suggesting that AA needs to fire their internal and incapable design team to get external help and a "totally competent design team".
  2. A UX designer at AA (aka "Mr. X") responded to Dustin Curtis.
  3. An hour after Dustin Curtis posted his response, Mr. X. got fired by AA.

The key points I retain from this are:

  • Dustin Curtis shows, in no less than three articles, that he has no clue how to redesign a corporate website.
  • On the contrary, Mr. X. shows a remarkable understanding on how things work in a corporation (albeit how sensitive they can be in terms of PR). I hope he finds a better place than AA to express himself.
  • Controversy or anger-fueled critique for their own sake are totally useless.

I can share a few things on corporate web design, as I have some background and acquired a few years of experience in that matter during my tenure at Capgemini [1].

The key success factors lie in why, what, who and how.

Why?

This should go without saying, but the first vital question is why are you redesigning your site? Certainly not because an unknown guy is yelling at you on his blog (there will always be someone to do that, you cannot please everybody anyway[2]). If it's just because of its look, you're heading for trouble. Dustin is wrong in saying that this is a matter of taste. Taste has very little to do with the success of a site[3]. This is all about why people would want to come to this site and do business with your company.

Sort that question out and you should be able to tackle what to do.

What?

Most of the time, you already have an established web presence. It used to be a time where a redesign meant scrapping the entire site and replacing it with a brand new one. A very lucrative method for your agency, not necessarily a very effective one for your company. Contrary to many physical media, the web allows for incremental changes and quite precise metrics. E-commerce sites use this advantage a lot, for example in doing A/B testing and fine-tuning their site on an ongoing basis. Rarely will they embark on a full-blown new design.

But whatever the scale, a redesign involves a minimum of work, with a significant part of it being internal work that no web agency can do for you. Once you are clear on why you need a new design, you need to have the most complete picture of what purpose the site is serving and to whom. The ultimate goal of your corporation is to make money. The goals of the site visitors can be varied, but it is a safe bet to assume that your primary target are clients and prospects who want to buy something (not necessarily online). You can also have different target audiences with completely different needs, e.g. journalists, analysts, investors, recruits. What is important to keep in mind is that they willingly come to your site, with their own expectations, and that it is your job to find the best fit between their needs and what your company is actually capable of delivering.

Only then, you can have fuel for the next things to do: information architecture, graphical design, coding, integration, writing content, wiring features, running the site etc. — the whole design/build/run shebang. Clearly, that's another mistake of Dustin when he calls that a "redesign", shuffling pixels in Photoshop is not one of the hardest and longest tasks in a redesign, and it never comes at the beginning of a project.

I've been amazed at how often people underestimate the internal work which is needed to ensure that their web site is effectively binding its visitors with the company, and not yet another online brochure with some vague SEO tactics.
One good example is the contact form. In terms of pure web design, this is not brain surgery and you can get one online in an hour. But in a huge corporation spanning tens or a hundred of countries, selling products as well as services to consumers or other businesses, this can unravel into weeks of work and real budgets to put the right team in place to handle the leads that come from this simple online form.
Another good (and classical) example is web writing. Not only this can rarely be done by an external agency (apart from rewriting), but good writing for the web takes a lot of time, often much more than the technical design and coding.

The next step is finding who can manage such a project.

Who?

There are people who are responsible of certain things (they have mandates), people who are accountable (they have targets), people who are in charge (they run or produce things) and people who need to be informed (their own operations are dependent or influenced by those of others). Not everyone needs to be involved, especially not in a decisive position.

You will have a hard and long time working on who should participate (it means those who decide and those who actually do the work) and who should be handled "politically". This is often overlooked because it is damn hard to manage people but it is by far the first key success factor in my experience. Then with those who are actually capable of handling such a task, you can work on what needs to be done.

In my experience: the more the messier. You should keep the core team as small as possible. My ideal organization is this one:

  • One project leader (call it the project director if you will) who is fully involved in the project and can act as the chef d'orchestre for all the other participants.
  • A necessity in projects of a significant size, a project manager will greatly help with the many, many steps from the idea to finish.
  • A core team of doers who—collectively—have an extensive knowledge and practice of both the web and what is needed (remember: it is the fit between the needs of your visitors and what the company actually delivers to them).
  • The bare minimum, but strong, executive backing. If you've got more than two voices higher up or hear the word "executive committee", you're screwed.
  • The list of the stakeholders who can 1) express their business needs and delivering capabilities, 2) interfere and derail things. The former are key in gathering what can be done and prioritizing what needs to be done. The latter need political management so you can safely work without too much negative interference (one key part of the leader's role is to isolate the core team of doers from the time-wasting babblers and politics).

And lastly, besides what to deliver, all these people need a strong agreement on how to work together.

How?

Finding the key persons to work on such a project is the first success factor. How to make them work together is the second one. I place those "people" factors on top of the equation, because they are the hardest ones (again, playing with pixels on screen is a piece of cake in comparison). Here, I don't have a universal method, because there isn't one and each company is different in terms of market, culture and resources. However, there are a few things that can help or impair every project. It boils down to how people understand: 1) what the redesign is about and 2) what is expected from them.

The big elephant in the room is that everybody thinks to be a designer. This is because many people confuse the graphical mockup they're seeing at some point with the "web redesign" project (even some designers are obviously confused :p). And of course, everybody has an opinion on the "design", because this is all about the "look & feel", right? Wrong! By now you should know that the whole design cycle is much, much bigger than just the look & feel of the web site. Every actor on such a project needs to understand that and know, from the moment they are involved, what they will contribute to exactly, as well as when they are stepping on others' toes.

In a web redesign effort it is hard, but vital, to force stakeholders to stop thinking in terms of "likes" and "dislikes" and rather make them express facts, business needs, why something doesn't suit those needs (always with the visitors in mind). Take Dustin Curtis' rant for an example of precisely how not to do it. Yelling at someone "this sucks" or "I hate that" is just expressing frustration and personal taste, in bad form and without any substance in that particular case. There are no actionable items in Dustin's articles, i.e. explanations of why, exactly, such or such part of the site needs to be designed this way rather than another, or completely dumped. A web designer making this error tells how easy it is to fall in this trap.

In summary:

  • Find one project leader who has the business acumen, the power to say no and enough web sensibility to handle the major decisions and politics to nurture and shield the core team into a productive environment. Give her/him one or two close aids for project management, and one executive sponsor for support higher up. Do not dilute decision making in a bigger setting than those.
  • Identify the stakeholders who can say in details what can be delivered, how and to who. Make sure they understand that they are here to talk about content and services, not look & feel. Also make sure they are committed to deliver on that.
  • Gather a competent team of professionals to interview the stakeholders, synthesize needs, do information architecture, wireframes, mockups. In all those steps, sense who can give valuable input and can help iterate if necessary, and who is toxic and needs to be distanced from the core team. Getting external help can be necessary or valuable even in the case you have all the internal competencies[4] (which is rare).
  • Work hard to make everybody deliver what they have to deliver. Especially the internal stakeholders in terms of content and services.
  • Make sure some of those folks are here to run the site on the long term. A redesign should not be treated as a "one shot" project, but as the beginning or the continuation of a constantly running web site that has to be measured and refined over time. You will save a lot of money if you do this well on an ongoing basis rather than redoing everything once in a while.

One last word on taste. If there is one step where taste matters, it's in picking your graphical designer. If you can cherry-pick someone who is the right match for your company image and market, you will be in good hands (your job will then be keeping your boss' and CEO's own taste at bay). This is where it's almost impossible to do it right with big agencies, as you will be forced to work with whoever they have available at the time of your project, and you will have to deal with the additional filtering layer of "art directors". But if you can find the perfect freelancer who can work with your team on that job, then go for it... providing you have enough good taste to choose the right one!

Shameless plug: if you like this approach and need someone to help on your corporate redesign, I am available for hire.

Notes:

1. Background: Capgemini is an IT consulting and services group of 90,000 people in more than 30 countries. I led their web presence for 8 and a half year, and played the role of the "leader" I mention in this article. My colleagues described my role as "herding cats". The last design I led there, using the method outlined here and a dream team of wonderful people, was born in my mind in 2002, delivered in 2004 and lasted online for five years. They've redesigned since and the new one is being pushed online just as I'm writing this article (just a funny coincidence).

2. Give me unlimited time and resources and I can do that. There's even a market for this dream: many religions sell it under the name "heaven". Bonus for my readers: for half the price, I'll pull a miracle (and a poney).

3. Double shocker: people without taste are legions, including in the corporate executive ranks, but they have wallets too.

4. I find that having an external and fresh eye is extremely valuable, especially for corporations which have a tendency to project their internal complexity outside.

1 TrackBack

Du design web institutionnel from François Nonnenmacher (FR) on November 9, 2009 5:50 PM

Coïncidence amusante, au moment même où j'écrivais sur le design web institutionnel (j'ai du mal à traduire "corporate" en français), mon ancien "bébé" capgemini.com a fait peau neuve. Je l'avais dans la tête en 2002 et il aura quand même... Read More

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