I've been working in this business since 1998. I started by learning simple web design. Then, I learned more complex areas, such as open-source web development. When I began, PHP3 was the flavor of choice and there wasn't much happening in the CMS space. Oh, how much has changed since then! But not only has technology changed over the years – our overall approach to custom web design has morphed with the times as well. Today, I want to look at two approaches to web design strategy. The first is the traditional approach, which we all focused on for many years. The second is a more modern approach, which looks at web design how it always has been, though many never admitted, which is an iterative process. Let's dig in!
Traditional Web Design
From the very beginning, marketers and business owners took an approach to website design that was much like any other physical asset their company may have. They considered a website to be something you can build, set, and forget. For a long time, this concept worked well, with companies undergoing a design cycle every few years, resulting in a completely new website each time.
How did these processes work? Well, the strategy was often set by business interests. And by the term "business interests," I mean in many cases a whim by one or two people at a particular company. Early web design projects were often guided by a level of entrepreneurial ego. Not always, but often. The strategy employed was somewhat based on vanity: to look better than the other guy (i.e., the competition) and produce an experience that showed the company's level of maturity or some other artistic "vibe" management wanted to express.
These projects were often large in scale – almost always, they were complete redesigns or total rebuilds. As such, they were expensive, long lifecycle efforts that frequently put a bad taste in the mouth of the people who were in charge of getting them off the ground.
Companies were notoriously bad at hiring agencies or designers/developers to work on these projects. Procurement was a disaster, and often it came down to a shoddy RFP process, resulting in the lowest bidder taking home a project rather than the client properly considering capabilities or the agency's creativity.
These factors led to the traditional "once and done" approach, where customers completed their project, pushed it live, and let it sit and age over time. We've all done it..! I was guilty of the same thing with our own website. It was comfortable to sit back, let it go, and do its thing.
Here's the problem…
The market is ever-evolving. And your web presence must as well. The traditional model excluded the idea of constant monitoring and constant improvements based on data. It led to companies arguing over their website design project because they saw it as a once-in-a-while opportunity to get it done right. And more often than not, other business challenges got in the way, which led to being distracted from either doing the project or completing it. Indeed, there must be a better way?
The Modern Approach
The modern approach could also be called a more common-sense approach. It makes sense from so many perspectives. It's a way to bite off less than they want to chew in terms of project scale for businesses. From a marketing perspective, it allows for consistent experimentation. There is no single technique or strategy defined as "modern web design," but a few concepts pieced together strategically define this modern approach. Some have tried to define this methodology into a single framework, such as growth-driven design, though there are some faults with how they try to pull it off. At the end of the day, this is a philosophy more than a single way of doing things.
Focus on Audience
In many ways, old fashioned web design projects were internally focused. A CEO wanted to redesign, or a marketer wanted to put up key product details. A business owner wanted to sell products, or any other number of more self-involved changes happened. However, no one ever really looked at the end-user. In the early days, clients didn't care about their own analytics when considering a design process. In many ways, we played to the clients' personal preferences more often than challenge them to think about the customer. So I guess, sure, agencies were part of the problem.
Today, it's totally different. Data rules and internal strategies follow the data. We're no longer in an economy of innovation but rather in an economy of incremental optimizations. And as such, website operators are more in tune with what clients are looking to do on their websites and are more inclined to listen to analytics to optimize those experiences.
In one way, it's sad that we are past that innovative era. We started this company before mobile devices even had web browsers, and long before websites had to respond to all of these different devices. At the risk of dating myself, this was before CSS was a centerpiece of our design processes. You'd be amazed at what I could do with nested tables!
Today's environment has changed dramatically, as well. Without going off into too much of a tangent, we're no longer interested in broadly advancing what experiences online can do. We've replaced Flash with HTML5, and we've improved our core libraries for building experiences mostly to make our lives easier. Of course, we have more sophisticated CMS platforms as well. But we haven't advanced the medium. This again is because of our optimization economy, which all goes back to focusing on the audience. So, while it's great that everyone is working hard to make things better, I miss the old days where every year, we had something new and groundbreaking to play with. However, for now, the focus on our audience, their goals, and objectives is something we will stay with until a new round of innovation comes our way.
Today, projects seem to start and then iterate at a higher velocity than they used to. Mostly because the new methodology is designed around iteration, it takes some of the focus away from making it perfect on the first go-around. I find that today, many projects are starting with migrations from old systems such as archaic CMS platforms to new ones, where they can then iterate quickly because the foundation is more robust and more flexible (more on that in a minute). We looked into this exact project scenario a few weeks ago in this blog.
If you feel you are proceeding through a project quickly, chances are you are working at a speed that is common today. Knowing that you can respond and make changes later changed the ballgame when it comes to website design projects. It allows you to tee it up and let it rip. I find that this speed to initial deployment is a real positive for almost everyone involved. Agencies love to produce quickly, and clients need to show wins to management. A quick migration or launchpad site designed, developed, and deployed need not be perfect to be a momentum builder and start steady improvements.
Iterate Early & Often
Assuming you have a solid foundation to work from, iteration literally starts on day one, if not even before. I firmly believe that today's client/agency relationship is not a one and done, set and forget it, model. Today, it's all about smaller up-front engagements and longer-term maintenance / continuous improvement models. Marketing teams must continue to respond to changes in the marketplace, new approaches by competitors, and the availability of new techniques and tools quickly.
We see this with our own site, where never a week goes by that we aren't tweaking some element of our content, site navigation, SEO, or marketing automation processes. And we're a small business… You can imagine what enterprise groups should be doing. If you are an enterprise marketer and are not engaging in these iterative changes, you will most definitely be left behind.
Making the Transition
If you are an organization that has traditionally focused on the old-style of conducting a web design project, you are most likely somewhere in the cycle of doing it again. Mostly because the process never changes. And each rotation of the cycle allows you to transition into this new methodology. However, to do so, you'll have to make some adjustments to your technology, corporate culture, and marketing strategy.
Step 1: Culturally Adapt
This is a significant consideration – before you can undertake a transition to the modern world of web design, you need to culturally adapt your organization to the concept. This means accepting a methodology of getting something done quickly, designing based on data points, iterating fast, and knowing that perfection is a moving target. For the most part, management is the slowest to adapt to this concept. Day-to-day technicians, designers, and marketers are already hard-wired to embrace it. Therefore, it's incumbent upon those that are interested in changing their company's methodology to inform and convince management that this is the pathway that leads to quicker success, faster learning, and above all else, is a smarter economic choice with a provable ROI. Easier said than done, I know. But it is achievable.
Step 2: Plan & Budget Accordingly
The old methodology was expensive, and it was also always a high up-front cost. The new world involves many more moving parts with ongoing expenses spread out over time. First, you have license fees. So many parts of the digital ecosystem today must be licensed. CMS, marketing automation, analytics, asset management, more analytics… These all add up, and they must be budgeted for.
But, since this approach is iterative, you also must plan in advance for the ongoing help and support you'll need. This happens via a variety of means. You can hire an internal team to support you, or you can hire an agency. Obviously, it's hard for us to be impartial in our opinions on what you should do… But in all seriousness, agencies do offer you the flexibility of a well-rounded team of experts in various disciplines who can aid and assist your ongoing requirements. Single hires tend to be a bit more limited in their skillsets, which can hinder progress.
But, no matter how you do it, you need to budget and plan for ongoing assistance to help you perform those fast, iterative changes that your new methodology will require.
Step 3: Build the Foundation
Finally – when transitioning to this new workflow, you need to ensure you have the right technology in place. You want a website powered by the right technology – something stable, supported, and flexible. You want to make sure you have proper tools in place, such as marketing automation, CRM, analytics, etc. A foundation is essential to success, so your initial project should solve fundamental issues with your tech stack while aimed at being quick to market. Doing this properly means everything gets more manageable later on.
I'm at the point where I have much nostalgia for how we used to do things. However, this new system of conducting website design and development tasks is a significantly better approach than the old system, which resulted in expensive projects, high levels of dissatisfaction with the project and the results, and the instant restarting of the cycle upon project completion.
It also leads to better client/agency relationships. Because the methodology has now changed, agencies need to make a broader commitment to their clients. They need to learn more, form consensus, and become an actual partner to their client's success. The agency positioned to win big projects and not maintain them will suffer in the long run.