Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Usability, part 2: What could go wrong?

So just plan for regular site-wide changes a couple of times a year. Sounds easy enough. Well, as with so many things in life, it is easier said than done. I do still think this is the way to go and the solution most likely to work, but there are some things to kind of keep in the back of your mind.

1. Keep everyone busy and focused

If you have an in-house staff, don't plan to do a bunch of design work or testing during this time without giving them something to do. With all due respect to software and hardware engineers, interface design generally isn't the thing you are best at. If you are going to focus on bug fixes, don't leave those design/content folks sitting around bored in their offices (I'm bunching editors and designers together as they have to work together to do site-wide changes). *sigh* It goes both ways. Bored design/content people and bored techs will get you into equal amounts of trouble.

Make sure everyone knows what they are supposed to do and by when. Keep a "scut list" of little tasks useful to the entire effort that someone can do when he or she hits a stopping point.

2. The stakeholders

This sort of depends on the culture of the place you work in. I've been in some places where everyone is just so busy that being left out of a furious two-week development effort will get you a wide grin, a kiss on each cheek and happy "see you in a couple of weeks!" This approach works beautifully in that environment. I've also worked in places where paranoia reigns and if you tell someone they can't participate in something -- anything -- like a six-hour, unanesthetized root canal -- they'll beat you about they head and shoulders until you vacate the dental chair because they are sure you are hiding something really cool.

If you are in that kind of place, this approach might not work. When I faced this, it didn't work. The paranoid stakeholders demanded a place at the table in a way that I couldn't stop and then proceeded to derail every conversation back into the day-to-day noise where they were most comfortable. *sigh* They weren't trying to be evil. They honestly wanted to learn more about web strategy and to participate in the effort... but two weeks is just not long enough to bring people who don't live this stuff up to speed.

Regardless of which culture you are dealing with, be sure to communicate to anyone who is interested:
  • what you are doing,
  • why you are doing it,
  • how what you are doing will affect their stuff,
  • what you hope to accomplish, and
  • when it will be over.
Even if no one asks, being able to answer these questions keeps you honest and focused.

3. Keep everyone in the loop

If you are pretty much a one-man- or one-woman-show, be sure that your tech vendor has a heads up that you are going to be messing with things site-wide. Be specific that this is A VERY BAD TIME to do "routine maintenance" since you'll start losing your changes randomly. Make sure that the vendor has done a good backup of the site before you start. If you have a team sitting with you, you can usually run screaming down the hallway and find someone to undo your mistake. If you are by yourself, the scenario will likely look like this:
  • You make a change. Shit breaks. Your heart stops and you start hitting the backspace button crying "no... no... no..." under your non-existent breath.
  • You call your tech vendor. The ONE PERSON who has the passwords to your site is sick/on vacation/at lunch/with another client or otherwise unavailable for some indefinite length of time.
  • You request that he or she contact you as soon as possible and slam down the phone.
  • You stare at the monitor for a few more minutes. The adrenaline spike starts to come down and you decide that since you broke it, you should be able to fix it.
  • You try a few things and nothing happens.
  • You try a few more things and bad things happen.
  • You get a phone call from your tech vendor. Your person with the passwords urgently requests that you STOP TRYING THINGS.
  • You sit at your desk, hitting Refresh every 15 seconds to see if the site is fixed while chewing your thumb down to a bloody stump.
Yeah. Been there. Done that. If you have a good site backup, you might be able to save your thumb.

4. Don't try to do too much

Two weeks sounds like a lot. It's not. If you are going to accomplish anything, you'll need to be organized and everyone will need to work together like a well-engineered watch. Even with all of this, you'll be working your butt off trying to get one or two solid site-wide improvements done.

Don't try doing this more than twice a year. This takes a lot of planning and you'll wind up feeling like you are on a treadmill... so will your staff. It affects the quality of both these special efforts and your day-to-day work.

Don't try to load up too many changes concurrently. Don't have the techs upgrade the servers at the same time you are redoing your templates or trying to purge every instance of the phrase "click here". Seriously. So much can go wrong that it's not funny. You are going to be doing this every six months. Just schedule your little nuggets out.

5. Measure and assess what worked and what didn't

This sounds like a no-brainer... and it is, but you'd be surprised how often "no brainers" get forgotten or put aside until there is more time. Engineer in measurement (or testing) to everything that you do, no matter how small. Schedule time ahead of these routine efforts to assess the changes from last time for what worked and what didn't and align the new changes to what you learned.

Document your assessment results and thinking... even if you are sure no one will ever read it. Just like the communications thing, this sort of documentation keeps you honest and focused.

There are still lots of things that can go wrong. It's really tough to keep this up as the daily noise keeps getting louder and louder. You have to force yourself to go through it sometimes, but you'll wind up with a much better web site and a lot of hard-won best practices to go with it.

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