Large scale websites require groups of specialists to design and develop a product that will be a commercial success. To develop a completely new site requires several teams to collaborate and this can be difficult. Particularly as different teams may be working with different methods.
This case study shows how the ComputerWeekly user experience team integrated with an agile development group. It’s important to note the methods we used do not guarantee getting the job done. People make or break any project. Finding and retaining good people is the most important ingredient for success.
In 2008, we were tasked with resurrecting a tired, old, and ineffective site. It was badly out of date, and the information architecture was decrepit to both users and search engines.
Our goals were:
- Make content visible and easy to find
- Create an enjoyable and valuable user experience so users would return
- Increase page impressions to bring in ad revenue
- Allow site staff to present more rich media content
- Give the site more personality and interactivity
The UX team created personas from ethnographic studies, online surveys, and in-depth interviews with users. The data gave us a clear idea of the user’s needs and wants. We also gleaned data from analytics that told us where users engaged and where the bounce rates were highest.
At this point the development team maintained the site with an agile process. They created features for the new site in parallel to ongoing site maintenance, but this work was outside the normal maintenance sprints. The new site was considered as an entirely new project with a separate budget and scheduled into longer term.
As the User Experience team gathered data key team members were recruited. The diagram below shows the key team members needed to produce this large scale site, their specific concerns, and their methodologies.
To bring these teams and disparate elements together requires a launch manager or ‘boundary spanner’. Rizal Sebastian wrote about boundary spanners in Design Issues in 20051. The boundary spanner needs to be aware of the individual issues the project faces. He need not know the detail but needs to know the cultural context of the collaborative environment.
Do people get on with each other? Are communication lines clear? Are there any personality clashes on the team. To throw developers, interface designers, business analysts, SEO experts, and usability guys together and expect them all to gel is optimistic but unlikely. It also requires those people devote all their time to just one project and that is unrealistic for a large operation where several projects are underway simultaneously.
They are more than a project manager because the user— and not the project—is at the heart of their concerns. He is responsible for delivering and continually developing a quality product. He is not just monitoring the features on a checklist. The user is at the center of all decisions on the design and development of the site. This is the only way you can ensure the user will be heard throughout product development – to employ somebody who listens to user voices and never forgets what they said. They must also ensure that SEO and business requirements are satisfied, and a well-defined strategy is in place. The boundary spanner owns and clearly communicates the vision until the whole team understands.
The boundary spanner’s strength is that they are core to the product and not a department or team known for their skillset (like a UX team for example). In many cases it is a product manager, but in this case it was the website editor who was responsible for synchronizing the teams.
Defining a process
To assist this user focused approach, the IAs produced set of deliverables that ensured the launch manager’s vision could be realized and developed.
Diagramming the process using a concept model engaged key stakeholders with the project by communicating the vision of what the UX team would achieve with the speed and clarity of an elevator pitch.
A content audit revealed broken links, redundant content, and poor usability plagued the site. It also revealed how much content became lost the second it moved from the home page. The high value research papers were impossible to find.
30 interviews, 20 ethnographic studies, and 950 responses to an online survey. created six personas. With the content audit, personas, and business objectives (what we wanted them to do on our site), we began creating the taxonomy.
During this project we were very fortunate to work alongside the web analytics manager who provided insight into user behavior, including high bounce rates from visitors arriving from search engines. He also provided a scorecard that showed where the site failed in terms of traffic and user engagement. We knew what users were searching for, and pretty quickly could tell why they were not finding content we knew we had.
By looking at web metrics we were understood usage patterns and popular and unpopular areas of the site. The depth of information enabled us to quickly formulate a plan.
Persona driven taxonomy
As we knew our user base were industry experts, we also knew their vocabulary was related to specific areas of their markets.
The taxonomy was created by gathering as many industry sources (websites, journals, white papers), breaking these down into unique elements, and clustering these elements together to form categories for our content.
The CW taxonomy formed the basis of the navigation, content categorization, and highlighted areas for future development. It also ensured our search results served up related content in context.
We defined four main areas by looking at the community of users.
News was an obvious requirement, defined by their particular area of interest within the sector. The need for knowledge was evident, and we created an in-depth research area where case studies and white papers could be easily accessed. Tools and services, RSS, email news alerts, and newsletters reflected user needs to be kept up to date and in tune with their specialization.
Finally, although the CW community was secretive and did not divulge information amongst their peers, they were very interested in expert opinions. This need gave rise to much more integrated blog postings.
The navigation scheme defined the elements of the page the users would use to move to other areas in the site. It clarified the naming of those items on the page.
We then considered the prioritization of information and content for each page, and this facilitated the production of wireframes that represented the culmination of all research, showed the interface and interactions for elements on the page, and were a working document that changed as we iterated the design.
Core and Paths
We used Are Halland’s method for ‘designing findability inside out.’2
- Prioritize and design the core – Satisfy user goals using prioritized content and functionality.
- Design inward paths to the core – Consider how users will arrive at the page from search engine results, facets, menus, search, RSS, aggregation, email, etc.
- Offer relevant outward paths from the core – Ensure that the site delivers both user and business goals through clear calls to action and completion of interaction tasks.
For CW.com, we focused on the cores for the home page, a channel level homepage, and a news article page and looked at key content such as lead news story and the editor’s picks or the best from the web aggregated from external sources. The key functionality and supporting content also had to be included and prioritized on the page.
Next we considered the inward paths, which are the channels that our users are likely to utilize to arrive at the page.
Inward paths included search engines, blogs, bookmarks, syndication, aggregators, RSS, and email subscriptions. Considering inward paths helped us focus on the marketing channels we needed to drive users to the relevant type of page. It also focused on the keywords and themes that users are likely to use and helped us optimize pages for search and online marketing campaigns.
Finally we designed the outward paths that helped users complete online tasks for our business objectives.
These outward paths include:
- Newsletter sign-up
- Inline links to related articles to drive page consumption
- Sharing, printing or emailing of news articles
- Related content types such as video or audio
- Stimulating community participation in forums or blogs
- Contextual navigation to aggregated content or the editors best bets
- Subscription to an RSS feed
- Prioritizing the content
Once the wireframes had been approved, the content was organized so the most commercially valuable and user focused content was pushed to the top of the page. As the design went through user testing, certain elements changed, as with any iterative process, but through team collaboration, the solution remained true to the initial vision from concept to design delivery.
The development cycle
The wireframes were handed over to creative, and they began designing the interface and graphic elements. The development group released some functional elements to the old website before the relaunch.
These agile methods allowed the old site to feel the benefits of the new widgets. However, as the site changed so radically in the new design, we still had to release the site in an old style ‘big-bang’ manner. This is perhaps where agile has its problems as a methodology for new launches. It’s focus on many small releases is a great tool to implement incremental changes but not for a completely new site.
As the html flat pages were passed to the team, the SEO requirements were defined and built into the site. By the time the site launched it, had been through four major pieces of testing.
A holistic solution
Providing user experience deliverables like the concept map and wireframes ensured more comprehensive requirements were delivered to the design and development team. This approach addressed marketing, editorial, sales, and business requirements next to the needs and wants of the user. The vision was aligned with an achievable delivery from the IT team that ensured we delivered the site we wanted to give the user.
The core IA work enabled the new site to be future-focused and versatile. The structure and design of good sites should be able to adapt to change.
User-centered design and agile can work alongside each other but what is more important is having people who can tie all the loose strands of a website design and development cycle together. The concept map, wireframes and the IA strategy document that listed the rationale behind the design decisions helped ensure the product vision was correctly communicated to the development team, so the product that was developed through their agile processes was in line with the overall product vision.