Which category does your organization’s Web presence fall into? Over- or under-managed? When it comes to the Web, few organizations have found the Goldilocks zone. Their online activities are either under-managed with minimal policies and procedures, or dogged by bureaucracy and internal politics.
Those that fall into the former category are vulnerable to legal threats, internal disputes and knee-jerk management where the website lurches from one crisis to the next. Those in the latter are crippled by indecision and fail to respond to the fast-changing nature of the Web.
How then can an organization’s Web presence receive the oversight it requires, while remaining flexible enough to allow rapid iteration and change? The answer lies in solid Web governance; in particular responsibilities and policies. For example, who is responsible for what?
Responsibilities for websites are often poorly defined. Either the issue hasn’t been considered, or it has been sidestepped by forming a committee or steering group. In either case, lines of reporting are blurred, responsibilities are ill-defined and priorities on the website are often dictated by who shouts the loudest.
If your website is to be a success, it needs strong leadership, clearly defined roles and people to take responsibility for its success. This can be at least partially achieved using a responsibility assignment matrix.
I know what you are thinking: a responsibility assignment matrix doesn’t sound sexy. I can’t argue with that. However, if you manage to get one signed off, it is going to make life a lot easier. A responsibility assignment matrix is a list of tasks, deliverables and responsibilities related to the running of your website, with individuals assigned to items in one of a number of roles.
Take, for example, design sign off. This task could be assigned to two people: one who is responsible for sign off, and another who is consulted before a decision is made. By assigning different roles, you clearly define responsibilities and minimize committee decision making. This is crucial for a number of reasons.
- Committees significantly slow down the decision-making process.
- Despite what people think, committees are not democratic. They are often dominated by one or two individuals.
- Committees inevitably lead to compromise as people try to reach a consensus. This results in insipid design that offends nobody but fails to excite anybody.
- Committee decision making is often more about internal politics than user needs or the success of the project.
Not only will role assignment reduce committee decision making, it will also identify who is responsible for decisions. This will reduce the likelihood of important tasks slipping between the gaps. There are various approaches to the responsibility assignment matrix, but most include at least four roles.
Those responsible for a task are those who do the work and make the task happen. For example, in the case of design sign off, this would be the designer. This person could be a part of an internal team or an outside contractor.
Every task should have a single person who is accountable for its successful completion. This is the person with whom the buck stops and who signs off the task as complete. In the case of design sign-off, this is typically the project manager or client.
You consult those whose opinion is required before a task can be signed off. These are typically the people with an expertise relating to the task or a stake in a successful outcome.
These are people who need to be kept informed about the task, but do not contribute to its completion. It may be that they are only informed when the task is completed, or they might be updated at various points throughout the process.
Minimize the number of people consulted, move them instead into the informed group. Those consulted should be limited to those with a real understanding of the task, or a valuable contribution to make. For example, if the task relates to technical infrastructure, only those with an understanding of technology should be consulted.
More controversially, the same should be true for design sign off. Only those who have a design background or who are responsible for corporate branding should be involved in this decision. After years of working with clients to implement technical projects and agree on design, I can testify that this approach will improve the quality of decision making.
It will also minimize the time required to make decisions, and reduce the staff hours wasted attending meetings where individuals have little to contribute. The challenge is dealing with people who wish to be consulted when they should only be informed. In my experience, the trick here is to agree upfront on the criteria involved in being a consultant before assigning specific people to the task.
For example, you could agree that all tasks should have no more than six people who are consulted. These people should be chosen based on experience relating to the task, or how greatly the outcome impacts them. Once this ‘policy’ is agreed on, the decision making about who should be consulted becomes much less contentious, because it is less personal.
If somebody isn’t included, it isn’t a personal slight, but an application of the policy. Obviously, this won’t keep everybody happy, and sometimes you may be forced to include individuals you would prefer not to. However, this is better than a large committee making decisions on everything.
Also it better defines people’s roles. Those who are consulted aren’t those making the final decision and they will know that going in. Equally those who have been assigned responsibility for a task will be under no illusions that the buck stops with them. Although defining responsibilities and roles will go a long way to improving the structure that supports your digital presence, there is still more that can be done. You can also establish policies.
A lot of decisions about digital strategy are knee-jerk reactions. One day, the CEO gets it into their head you need an iPhone app, and so that becomes the number one priority. Another day, a blind user complains that your website doesn’t work with screen readers, and accessibility jumps to the top of the agenda. This approach is ineffective, dangerous and can lead to bad decisions being made in the heat of the moment. It can also result in something being ignored entirely.
So where should you begin, what policies should you establish first? There are a huge variety of areas that can benefit from having policies in place. However, I recommend starting with three:
- Business objectives & key performance indicators (KPIs),
- Content management, and
- Development roadmap.
Let’s look at each in turn.
Business Objectives & KPIs
It shocks me how many organizations do not have clearly defined objectives for their website, and no way of measuring its success. Having an agreed-upon set of objectives and KPIs provides focus to your website. It also acts as a measure against which to resolve disagreements and judge the value of new features.
For example, if it has been agreed that your website’s primary business objective is to generate quality leads, it is easier to argue against suggestions that undermine this. For example, forcing users to hand over their email addresses before being able to access certain content (such as product demonstrations). Although this may generate more leads, it does not meet the quality criteria as most users will not be ready to buy.
So what should these business objectives look like? They don’t need to be complex or take a long time to write. Normally, half a dozen objectives is more than enough. For example Smashing Magazine’s business objectives might be:
- Generate quality content that encourages users to return regularly to the website;
- Display relevant advertising in a way that will attract users’ attention, without being annoying;
- Encourage users to subscribe to email or RSS updates;
- Generate revenue through the sale of quality books that meet users’ needs; and
- Encourage users to engage with Smashing Magazine through comments and social networks.
Having a list of objectives is not enough. You also need to prioritize them. If objectives are not prioritized, they will conflict. The result of this is that arguments will arise internally about what should be most prominent on the homepage or what should appear in the website’s navigation.
Finally, monitoring KPIs provides objective evidence about what is working on the website and what is not. This can be invaluable if you need justification for removing content.
Removing Content And Content Management
Content management systems have transformed the way we manage the content of our websites, but they do bring with them some drawbacks. They allow large numbers of people to add content, and this creates challenges around keeping content up-to-date, on-message and relevant. Many organizations suffer from content bloat, where content is constantly added to their website and never removed. Having a policy for managing content is important when more than one or two people are updating the website.
Your policy should answer questions such as these.
- Who is responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the website’s content?
- Who is responsible for maintaining the website’s tone of voice?
- How is content going to be checked for accuracy?
- Whose approval is required before content can be posted online?
- How is out-of-date or legacy content going to be managed?
One of the biggest challenges associated with content management is dealing with out-of-date content. This content clogs up websites, making it harder for users to find what is truly useful. Although the logical choice is to remove obsolete content, this can prove harder than it would appear. Many content owners become possessive about their content, arguing that somebody might find it useful. Suggestions of removing content can often be perceived as a personal attack on the content provider.
Having a predefined policy takes a lot of the contentiousness out of removing content. Instead of it being a personal attack, it is simply implementing policy. For example, you could have a policy that says if a page hasn’t be updated for a certain amount of time, it is automatically removed. Or you could specify that if a page falls below a certain threshold of visitors, it is removed from the website’s navigation or search. Whatever your policy, the key is to have something that can be implemented without endless discussion and debate.
The final policy that all organizations should definitely have is a development roadmap. This provides two benefits:
- It prevents knee-jerk decision making about the next thing to implement.
- It encourages management to think about ongoing development of their website, rather than occasional redesigns.
When talking about the fast moving world of digital development, it is not realistic to have a long-term, detailed roadmap. However, it should be possible to outline a list of ideas for future features, and prioritize those ideas based on your business objectives. Your roadmap should also outline a process for cyclic, ongoing improvements to the website. These aren’t necessarily new features, but rather usability enhancements based on monitoring of analytics and regular usability testing.
In his book “Rocket Surgery Made Easy,” Steve Krug recommends monthly lightweight usability testing to ensure that your website remains as usable as possible. This is very important, especially if your website is regularly having new content and features added. I understand that a post about roles, responsibilities and policies isn’t the most exciting topic. I get that most of us would prefer to play with the latest new jQuery plugin or responsive design technique.
The problem is that if we don’t start encouraging our clients and managers to think about these issues, the beautiful websites we create will quickly become bloated, neglected and ineffective. I am sure you do not consider this a part of your job, but if not you, then who? Personally, I am fed up with seeing websites I have created fall into disrepair and I will do whatever it takes to stop this from happening again. I hope you will join me.
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