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12th December 2017 Verity Sanderson

What running a successful software platform taught me about rebuilding our corporate website

Kristin Darrow is Senior Vice President of Digital at Tessitura Network, one of the leading CRM and technology providers to the arts and cultural sector. Her team builds a platform to host, build and maintain on-brand and personalised ecommerce experiences for hundreds of organisations worldwide.           

Tessitura Network were Networking Sponsor at Digital Marketing Day 2017 — Getting to Know You.

I have been part of a lot of website projects in my career. Hundreds.

In fact, it’s not too reductive to say that building websites for arts and cultural organisations has been my entire career. So when my boss and our CEO asked me to run a little side project to redesign and relaunch our corporate website, I smiled and said “sure!”. Actually, I think I even said something MORE like, “riiiiiight!”. (Ah, that protracted vowel. It can mean so many things—genuine downhome enthusiasm… or a way to expel excess air from one’s lungs before large inhale.)

But why would I be nervous? Well. For starters, every website launch is a big deal. No matter how many projects you’ve been a part of, no two projects run the same way but they all require the right alchemy of resources and political tightrope walking to be successful. Second, mortise and tenon. An effective website is built with the mortise of clear company identity and the tenon of clear internal corporate process and operations. Where confusion lies in either of those directions, the website project is sure to find it. Third, this relaunch of the Tessitura Network website was personal. I love the company I work for and to do justice to the Tessitura community we serve and properly convey the Tessitura story, this project needed to be a complete overhaul of the existing site – a refresh of corporate brand and identity… a complete technical and design rebuild… a completely new taxonomy and search approach…  a whole new marketing and content strategy… plus a whole way to better connect the Tessitura user community to the thousands of pages of learning resources assets and product documentation.

This was going to be a giant project. (Riiiight.)

Most of my time these days is spent leading a product team who builds website-building tools and software components. So working on a bespoke, built-to-spec website was a little like me being a manager of a large factory that builds semi-custom housing and deciding to build a traditional house on the weekend. Some knowledge would readily transfer… and some things might need a refresher. Like what a hammer does.

As it turns out, what did serve me incredibly well was an early decision I made to think about this website project like I was running a product.  In fact, that’s exactly what websites are… products. And much of the product management/product ownership methodology in software building applies.

Here are a few product-building tenets I found valuable in running the website rebuild project for Tessitura.

A ‘think like a product’ approach to building a website:

1. Launch is just a release date. (There will be many more.)
A big mindset shift between product-thinking and website-thinking is that launch is a major milestone. Sure, celebrate that your new site went up. But be careful of “launch mentality” as it can lead to resting on one’s URLs. A product has hundreds (or thousands) of releases and the work is never done. So, too, the website. Launch day is just a day. And tomorrow should have new bug fixes and functionality to add.

2. Make one unified team (web vendors are people too).
Website builds often have a “client-vendor” flavor to them. “We are the client and we want you to do XYZ.”  On this rebuild project, we had two outside firms (one to do design, one to do build) plus a few Tessitura full time staff working on this (and a whole other internal “working group” team). That is a lot of people working across different time zones and speaker phones to make important daily decisions. This is often the case with building a product too – it’s not uncommon to loop in outside contractors at points in time. But the difference between website-thinking and product-thinking here is again, based in the idea that the project is never done. The veteran product team quickly folds in the outside contractor and does their best to make NO distinction between the “outsider” and the core team. They do this because on a long-running project the best way to get the most out of anyone on a project (vendor or not) is to incorporate them fully. So let go of the “us” vs. “them” thinking with your vendor (or even the other department you are collaborating with to build your website if internal) and set up a Slack channel.  Develop an open door philosophy across the entire working team. Do everything possible to make it feel like you check your titles and departments and company addresses at the door. Get to know everyone, even if just by voice through the phone. Ask how their weekend was. Tell them about your new dog. This is not just being nice, this has a direct impact on the outcome and quality of the site because building good rapport with outside engineers and designers helps them become first-hand advocates for your company. Not just temporary help.

3. Small steps with course-corrections are less costly than large steps.
Building a website is obviously time-intensive and can be expensive. There’s a concept in product development that is called MVP (Minimally Viable Product) which is essentially building the product/feature out just as far as it will be useful and then observing how it is used in the wild before investing in further changes or additions. This does two things. It allows the product (your website) to be user-guided in its design based on real usage feedback and also allows the website user to see the site continually improving over time. Added benefit: if you “improve” things but it gets a bad reaction, you can always roll it back because you are releasing in small, incremental slices rather than one monolithic chunk.

4. Where’s the data backing that?
Following on from #3, customer input is important but nothing beats data for telling you where things are working on your website and where things are not. This one is rather obvious but just because it is obvious doesn’t mean it is easy to do. The secret here is finding an internal website data advocate (they can be in any department – remember, a website crosses all departmental boundaries!) who is interested in data crunching and task them with setting up the standard web usage reports your company needs to see regularly. Hopefully, this same person can also be a point person for answering and researching any specific questions that will inevitably come up from the data. Getting good, ongoing insight from your website analytics should be part of your build and staffing strategy and (post-launch) should be core to any discussion that asks “what should we do next on the website?”. For the Tessitura website project, we did this exact thing. We set up a small working group (led by one very knowledgeable person) to develop a regularly distributed report of website numbers across the company and that person will also track down answers to questions as they come up.

5. There will be bugs.
We all know bugs and defects are inevitable in any piece of technology. Don’t get me started on iOS11! Product-thinking means that bugs and defects don’t throw off your budget and timeline. They are planned for and factored in (in advance) when planning budget and time for future releases. If you don’t have a separate line item in your budget for “break-fix” and “site improvements” this should tell you something.

6. Post a “recent website updates” page to your new website and keep it updated.
You know how mobile apps tell you in 3 bullets what was recently added/fixed? That builds trust and transparency with the person using it and reassures them (and your boss) that the technology is being well-tended. As websites increasingly serve as the primary channel for your patrons and customers to your entire organisation, it makes sense to have a place to post news and information about new features and resolved issues for your website. Trust-building equals loyalty-building with your customer and it can take many forms. Maybe not all people will be interested in this page but you can count on it scoring big points to some in your community.

7. Effort at launch day should be the same effort a year later.
It sounds obvious but still seems a huge mindset shift, even for me. What if we were to take the money it takes to rebuild a website every 3-4 years and distribute much of that over time to provide better upkeep and evolution of the site we have now? Would it keep us from having to do big-bang projects as often? Would it provide a better customer experience day-to-day?  Likely. With the new Tessitura website, we intentionally built it to have a long shelf life and to be adaptable in a few key ways. First, we limited customisation to underlying technology platforms (using native components as often as we could and lightly styling them) which we hope will keep upgrades to those technology platforms easier. Second, we designed the site to allow the aesthetic design to be easily adapted (use of big header images which can be swapped out, easy change of site colours when we wish, etc).  That way, we hope to adapt the design over time without having to do a whole new design/rebuild project. We tried to build it like a big black and white box which we could flexibly add content and adorn as needed. These, along with trying to budget more evenly year over year will allow us to issue more frequent updates and improvements to the site and will hopefully get us a long way toward an evergreen and flexible website as our company and business continues to evolve.