January 8, 2006
The New Year is the perfect time to bring a fresh perspective to your website. Whether you’re planning a major site redesign in the coming year, or you’ve just finished one in the old year, there are a number of things you can do to improve the quality of your site.
Give Your Content Some Attention
If you’re using a content management system (CMS) there’s always the temptation to assume that your content is fine. It’s being “managed” right? So what could possibly go wrong?
Use the New Year as an opportunity to review the quality of your content. While most CMS systems include some form of workflow, you might be surprised by some of the things that slip onto your website. Be on the lookout for content that is outdated, inaccurate, irrelevant, or just plain incoherent.
Validate Your Website’s Relevance
This is a different sort of validation than you’re probably used to, and one that definitely can’t be performed by an automated testing tool.
Website’s have a tendency to veer of course (some more rapidly than others). If it’s been a while since your organization launched its website now may be the time to verify that your site is still an accurate representation of your business.
If it’s been more than a year since you developed your current site you might be surprised to find out that many of the goals and assumptions that drove the initial development have changed.
Keep in mind that the following things have probably occurred since your website launched:
- Your understanding of the web has changed
- Your understanding of your customers has changed
- Your customers have changed
- The web has changed
Think About Your Customers
And by extension, stop thinking about your organization. Too many websites are still organization centric with an emphasis on departments and divisions. Most customers don’t have a clue what department they need to contact. Instead, they typically come to your website with a specific task in mind.
Have you identified the most common tasks that your customers have in mind when they come to your website? Does your website support your customers in completing these tasks?
If you’re not sure what your customers are trying to accomplish, and whether or not your website is actually helping them achieve their goals, there’s a pretty good chance that your website could use some improvement in this area. It might be time for a user survey.
Review Your Site Navigation
Site navigation is another area where a CMS can lull webmasters into a false sense of confidence. If your CMS allows multiple users to make modification to your global navigation and your site has been online for more than, say, a week, you probably have some review and cleanup to do in this area.
As sites grow navigation items has a tendency to sprawl. Without regular attention your site navigation will grow out of control and turn into an unusable mess of unrelated links.
Don’t assume that all of your site users immediately head for the search engine (although they might eventually end up there if they can’t easily navigate to what they’re looking for).
Take some time to review your navigation structure and ensure that it’s still coherent. Conduct ad hoc user testing to ensure that others can use your navigation as well. Just because something make sense to your web team doesn’t mean that it will make sense to your customers.
Be on the look out for:
- Navigation labels that use jargon.
- Sub-navigation items that may be misfiled.
- Navigation that leads to areas that have no content.
- Missing navigation items (hard to look for, but you’ll know them when you don’t see them).
- Misfiled content (the result of authors who quickly add content but aren’t sure where to put it).
Identify Accessibility Problems
Even if your site was developed to be WCAG or 508 compliant, accessibility issues can still creep into your site over time. Unless accessibility review is part of your ongoing workflow, chances are your site has at least a few accessibility issues that require your attention.
This is another area where CMS systems and distributed authoring can create problems. In a perfect world every contributor would be knowledgeable about accessibility and would work diligently to ensure that their content is fully accessible. Since we don’t live in a perfect world you’ll want to review your site for any issues that may exist.
While accessibility scanning tools are no replacement for manual review, they can be a good starting point for reviewing a large number of pages.
Be sure to document any accessibility issues you uncover for future reference. Also, make it a point to meet with any authors who are contributing non-accessible content. Use your accessibility review as an opportunity to educate your web contributors.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should be enough to keep you busy in the coming months. If you can think of similar suggestions that we’ve left out, please let us know in the comments. Also, if you’d like us to expand on any of these suggestions in more detail, please let us know.