build a better website: use a bullet(point)

Intro: The “Build a Better Website” series  is a glimpse into my (almost) real-time attempt to build a better website in just 30 days. I anticipate it’s gonna get messy and it’s not gonna be perfect, but that’s OK. Because you’re not perfect either but I don’t hold that against you. In all fairness, this project is more like 35 or 40 days, but I like catchy and clichéd, and  I like 30 days. And really, it’s my blog. So deal with it.

failure to communicate

I always thought I communicated fairly well with others. I play nice. I share. And being fairly self-aware, I can articulate my feeling with a considerable degree of clarity. Furthermore, I spent all my years of higher education studying the theories and models of communication in the hopes that such an expertise would guarantee the me the $20,000 luxury of never being misunderstood. But after a ridiculous first week that included 12 unnecessary meetings, 4 stress-induced headaches, and nearly bankrupted my happiness quota, I’m not so sure that piece of vellum did me much good. But at least I don’t need a therapist’s couch to figure out where it all went wrong.

you say tomato, i say tomato

Print design and web design are two different things. Web design adheres to some of the fundamental elements of print design such as white space, use of color, and grids. But web design demands special attention and defies traditional print convention. When a web designer and a print agency are forced to work together, one must be careful this unnatural marriage doesn’t produce retarded results. Thus there is a need to clearly define deliverable and specify exactly who does what.  And this is where we went wrong.

If  the death of a project is ambiguity, over the last week, we had enough to kill a cat nine times over. As we tried to nail down responsibilities for the 30 day project, it quickly became clear this was no easy task. Going between the print agency, the web team, the contract developers, and IT,  responsibilities began to filter down in that were ambiguous and couched in sweeping terms:

“You do design, We’ll do look and feel.”

“We’ll handle the brand standard, you can do the style”

“Figure out the use of imagery, we’ll provide you with the graphics”

Round and round we went, and by the end of the week I felt like I needed to carry a dictionary to every meeting. Granted as a web designer, this prolonged ambiguity was in part my fault. Who can blame the content specialist guy who nods his head eagerly when big three syllable marketing words are being batted around like a tetherball. He’s more concerned with the guts of the page–the content–rather than the window dressing.

I couldn’t dismiss my nagging skepticism but  I could sense a fatigue as the week wore on as to “why are we discussing this again?” whenever the issue was raised.  I began to question my sanity.  There was obviously a breakdown here–even if it was just me. But for the health of the project it needed to be addressed. If I was in my right mind, I probably would of gotten all relevant people in a room together, locked the door and for five minutes amd gone old-school with a simple whiteboard and dry erase marker to ensure we are all on the same page. But I had lost sight of the rational solution. and Being so mired in the political churn, I felt victimized by a undefined power hierarchy and vulnerable to everyone’s differing interpretations. Nevermind that the authority to actually pull everyone in the same room is above my pay grade. But in hindsight, it would of been enormously beneficial.

But things continued to go from bad to worse. As a final straw, it was proposed we should take the existing design, re-size all the elements to fit the new layout and lipstick it to the functionality of the re-launched site. We could re-skin the whole site at a date TBD (another point for ambiguity). After that, I knew we were in over our heads and this was now beyond our control. It was time to go to the Mr. Corner Office.

reflecting on what went wrong

Clearly this was not turning  into the seemless web project I had initially envisioned. Right out of the gate, it suffered from misdirection, misguidance and misinterpretation. But what’s interesting is the breakdown of communication came not on the client-side but within our own project team. In my case, specifically, it became a web vs. print and answer the “who” and the “what” when it came to deliverables. Such confusion is especially toxic because oftentimes the client brings enough issues and ambiguity to the table. and this added internal pressure only make you  destruct from the inside out.

make your communication count

One of the reasons for this unnecessary communication churn was because I was bouncing between parties, taking direction from different people and meeting individually with those who in the end, really couldn’t make decisions. You shouldn’t always go straight to the top every time a conflict arises and oftentimes you aren’t even the one qualified to make the trek to the corner office, but when a problem consumes more than eight hours of your day, its time to seek out someone bigger than yourself. Because if you continue to fight it out alone the only thing you’re going to get is an ulcer and ill-will from the other parties involved.

pick up the phone

I really despise email as a conflict resolution tool. For things that require a detailed explanation or warrant additional discussion, a volley of emails is drain on everyone’s time and resources. Obviously you need an answer, but an typing out an email isn’t necessarily the right way to go about it. In the time it takes you to write an email, edit it for clarity, and wait for a response, you wasted time and issue remain unsolved. Pick up the phone and call and save yourself  a future case of carpal tunnel.

put it in writing

On the flipside, its hard to deny something when its presented in writing. Going between the multiple parties, I kept hearing differing expectations and descriptions of who was to do what. As the week wore on, it quickly morphed into became a maddening game of “he-said-she-said” that made me re-think how this went wrong. Had I had people statements in writing as unofficial as it may have seen, it would of served as a great reference point and others might not have been so quick to dismiss my concerns.

so what happened?

The week was winding down and I nothing had really been accomplished. Reverting to a classic web writing technique of writing for clarity, I sat down with the developers (its a sad day when a designer and a developer can hold a better conversation than two designers) and we came up with a bulleted point email that was sent to all parties simultaneously that explicitly defined what I perceived were and were NOT the deliverable from the print agency. And the  replies in my inbox come morning were enlightening. It turned out, that just as I suspected, we were all not on the same page. The print agency was doing much more than just a logo and a color palette  instead they were also delivering an example “piece” (i.e. a postcard) and build the website around this item. It was akin to constructing a whole house around a single vase, Perhaps most enlightening of all was that the agency couldn’t deliver these items until “sometime” in December (another point for ambiguity). This impared my ability to deliver and would negatively impact the entire project. And while the miscommunication was finally resolved it became clear anther solution was needed.

exercising the “no” because you know

So that’s when the second issue of lipsticking the pig was raised.

I’m all about collaboration, but this idea wasn’t even good in theory. If you are going to reskin a new website using old website elements. why even call it a redesign? It’s more like a migration.  But if you’ve already determined that the original is broken, outdated, or inconsistent, etc., but you end up reapplying the old paint, why even bother?  But perhaps the most compelling argument against this idea was that the  source files to the original were lost years ago so essentially recreating an old design would be a new work effort. Talk about building a bridge to nowhere…

When something ridiculous like this gets mentioned, and discussed for more than five seconds, a million thoughts go through your head–some nicer than others.  But as a web professional you pop another aspirin to curb the oncoming headache, smile, take a deep breath and remember this article. And you respectfully put it into practice.

a semi-happy ending

In the end, it took an entire week of lost productivity, a “no,” a little education, and a few bullet points to  stop the merry go round of miscommunication.

Oh, and it took cake. Mr. Corner Office and ultimately has the final say in all things strategic (now wouldn’t that be the idealist’s ultimate job…) and he to be summoned to make a final call. But it had be done the right way– thus a neutral messenger was dispatched with a cupcake peace offering in hand.  Because as we’ve seen, icing opens doors. The theory came through once again and Mr. Corner Office put his foot down and effectively ended all internal discussion. He accomplished in five seconds what I had spent five days trying to figure out. God bless that man. And it serves as yet another example that we need to rethink our processes moving forward– because  if it continues this way, in a few years, my stomach will have more holes than a piece of swiss cheese.

So week 1 of the 30 day web project was essentially wiped out due to poor planning and a lack of concise language. No one likes to waste productivity or squander opportunity. With such a tight timeframe, these  slips are magnified even more so and they threaten our ability to deliver on time.

Unfortunately, ambiguity bred miscommunication which resulted in bad ideas which ultimately could of derailed the project or resulted in a costly rework. So next time you’re unclear on a project’s deliverables and ambiguity is unchecked, make sure your really “communicating” specifics and if necessary, use a bullet (point).

Coming up: build a better website (week 2):  discovery

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