Tuesday, October 30, 2012

One entrepreneur's experience of building a new website.

About six months ago I embarked on a new project. We, at Vadacom, decided to redesign our website.

Have you ever built a new site for your business? Are you planning to build the site, or commission building of the new site? I felt sharing my experience - mistakes and all - could be useful for you. Please read on and let me know what you think. But first, please take a moment to have a look at my finished work:

Our old website looked like the image here.
It looked good and for seven years it served us well. However, we found some limitations:

The site was running in the old version of Plone. A great, open source content management system (CMS). Unfortunately it was a few versions behind and we couldn't upgrade it without re-creating all of the content inside the new version.

Because the version was old, it wasn't easy to add new forms to it. We had to pay for developers creating forms to capture marketing data.

I also couldn't add meta tags or other meta data so it was impossible to optimise it for search engines (SEO). We ended up paying lots of money for google ads in order to just be found on the web.

So we decided if we are going to change to a more modern version of an open source CMS. This is where I embarked on a project that I thought would take me a few weeks.

In our business, I am responsible for marketing, so the website content, look and feel falls under my portfolio of things to do. Once or twice a year when we have a new product, or a new marketing strategy, I spend a weekend or a few weeknights refreshing the website look and content. So in my mind, I thought - a few weeks and I will migrate all the site's content from the old site into the new one. This was the first mistake I made in this project.

Next, we thought that we might as well re-design the website. Even though it worked for us, the site looked dated. So we set aside some budget for a graphics designer only to refresh the look and feel. Setting the budget low was the second mistake in this project.

Next, we commissioned Swaytech to help us with the design of the website. Now, this was the best decision we made in the whole project and it had saved us!

Swaytech suggested to run a workshop to discuss what we wanted out of our site. Having designed websites before, I gathered our executive team and ran a pre-workshop workshop. This was extremely useful and helped me focus on exactly what I thought the team wanted out of the website. Having the workshop with Swaytech afterwards was invaluable. While the workshop was important for them to understand what we wanted out of the website, they also offered a wealth of experience and plenty of food for thought to challenge our original thinking: we completely missed out SEO part and also the biggest part of our business - our customers! So after this workshop with Swaytech we embarked on a very important exercise - asking our customers how they viewed our company and our product. This was extremely useful not only for the website, but also for our product development road map.

Being very clear about what the team wanted out of the website also helped the project for me, as it helped me to communicate clearly to the designers what the requirements are and make the right choices between different design ideas.

One great thing about getting the website templates back from Swaytech was that there were no usual "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet...." text in the templates - Mark from Swaytech went the extra mile and actually produced some fantastic content that we ended up using in the finished product. Mark also helped with more of the content later on and was extremely helpful. If I was to do this project again, I'd definitely get Mark to work on even more of our content. Swaytech also designed our website template such that it looks great on both the normal screens and smartphones small screens - the site design adopts dynamically towards the screen size.

Being a software development shop, we have some strict technical requirements so we had to implement and control our CMS in house. Vadacom development team implemented the website templates into our CMS. They did the excellent job of picking and implementing the site's content management system - I couldn't do this without having this great in-house expertise. We settled on Django Fiber - a simple, open-source, user-friendly CMS. Having easy drag-and-drop front-end CMS editing really helped.

Once the template and the content management were in, I started moving the content across. There I discovered another mistake - it wasn't all about copy and paste. I actually had to review content and re-create many of the images. This was starting to look like a bigger job than previously anticipated. However I felt I was up to the task.

Enthusiastically, I charged into the job and after a couple of weeks of having a go at it I decided to check on my progress. I calculated that I had over 50 pages of content to create, of which I managed so far ... a whooping 15! This was a shock to the system.

Clearly, it has taken a number of subsequent weeks, weekends and late nights to finish the project. Luckily, the team at Vadacom kept the business humming without me! (pays to have a great team). Having Django Fiber helped - I can't even imagine how many weeks it saved me.

So to my dear family, friends and work colleagues - if you felt like I disappeared off the face of the earth for a few months, this is why. And now I am back, and here is the result:

I had great feedback from our team so far. No wander they like it though - they helped me make all my decisions along the way. I'd like to get some feedback from people outside the business too.

So here are some key learnings for me from this experience:

  1. Don't underestimate the task. Get help if you can't afford the time away from the business.
  2. Do a workshop with the designers before setting your budgets!
  3. Get your team to help you focus on what is important to your business. At the end of the day the way your business is presented affects all of the people working in it.
  4. Make sure to pick a user-friendly content management system (let your web designers guide you if you don't have the in-house expertise)
  5. Talk to your customers about who they think you are - this is a most valuable experience!
  6. Get help with content from people who know how to create it
  7. Don't forget about SEO - (this is actually the bit of the site I haven't finished yet - so, work in progress)
I hope sharing my experience has been helpful. Let me know what you think.