6 things to do before you start a website redesign project

By Posted in - Content Strategy & Website Redesign on August 9th, 2017 0 Comments

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. As the veteran of two site-wide website redesigns in my former role at Imperial College London as well as countless smaller web development projects, I’ve seen my fair share of scope creep, reality checks and tricky conversations.

At Pickle Jar, we work with schools, colleges and universities as they tackle digital transformation. It’s been refreshing to use all those previous experiences to help others shape successful projects that place audience needs and content-first approach at their heart.

So, in the first of a series of posts focused on how to ensure that content strategy is at the core of website redesign projects, here are 6 things to consider before you start approaching CMS providers, design agencies, or even consider colour palettes and mega menus.

1. Draw project objectives from your institutional strategy

All too often, digital projects originate solely from a position of narrow focus within a single directorate. Maybe you want to refocus your website to meet student recruitment targets or you are driven to revamp research content in preparation for REF. While it’s clearly important to have core business reasons for undertaking any project of scale, starting from this point can make it difficult to secure senior buy in and budgets.

Decision-makers need to be convinced that what you are planning really aligns with the goals and visions of the entire institution. Spending time up front aligning project goals with institutional strategy helps focus work and ensure relevance – and can also reveal new opportunities and connections that can help your project achieve even more.

2. Be honest about what you really know about your audiences

Marketing and communications teams are used to focusing their efforts around their audiences – but how well do you really know them, their needs and their motivations? What really makes them tick?

We often kick off client projects with discovery workshops, during which we brainstorm key audiences and then probe whether our knowledge of them is based on facts, assumptions or myths. Inevitably, as we discuss the audience insights that staff think they know for sure, we soon realise that most are built on assumptions.

This process of defining audiences and being really honest about what you actually know helps you form the basis of a truly useful audience research plan for your overall project.

3. Identify and engage your stakeholders

Stakeholder consultation is a critical component of project success. Finding out the needs, priorities, challenges and expectations of senior stakeholders across the institution can give you a new perspective on your own objectives, and understanding the audience insights they hold can give you a head start as you develop an audience research plan.

So find out who the key decision makers are, who holds the purse strings, who represents an area of the institution you aren’t familiar with and – importantly – who could be a blocker for your project, and have a conversation. This can be a helpful point to bring in external support as stakeholders tend to be more open and honest with individuals they perceive to be more neutral.

And keep them engaged! Don’t just meet them once at the project kick-off for a courtesy chat so you can tick them off your list. Commit to keeping them informed of progress. Share research insights and enable them to feed back as you develop the project brief. Not only will you benefit from their guidance and insight, but if they feel engaged you will have senior project champions at the ready when you need to persuade colleagues to get involved later in the project.

4. Know what you already have

It can be tempting at the beginning of a big transformation project to assume everything about your current situation is terrible and needs changing. And you can be so focused on fixing a particular problem, you may not realise the full scale of the site and the challenge ahead. Performing a content audit will give you a true picture of where you are. It can help you understand existing content types in use on your site, current information needs, technology integrations, major risks as well as good practice.

A content audit can be a major exercise on an institutional website, but it is worth making time for it, even if it is only feasible to thoroughly review a sample of content from across the site. Creating a full site map will show you how much content you are dealing with, and a quantitative review will give you data about site performance like when the content was published, who owns it, how readable it is and what the content format is.

Supplementing this with a qualitative review, considering editorial quality, tone of voice, clarity of call to action and target audience, will offer a full picture of your starting point and help set a benchmark you can measure against as the project progresses. Even better if you can conduct parts of your content audit through the eyes of your audience, informed by robust audience research and user testing.

5. Set your benchmarks

Reviewing the performance of your existing website will give you an early view of who is currently using your site, their content preferences and journeys. As well as delving into your analytics data, add session recording or heat-mapping technology to see where users go, how they navigate and any problems they encounter. And try live user testing to observe real users interacting with the site while completing common tasks.

Consider also undertaking some external benchmarking early in the project – but throw the net wide. Most teams are regularly keeping an eye on their core competitors to see what they are doing in the digital space. But you can get more creative inspiration looking at approaches in less obviously comparable institutions so if you are a selective university, look at how recruiting universities present study information.

Don’t forget to look outside the sector. If you want to encourage public engagement online, look at museums and galleries online. If you are focused on news and research communications, see how media publishers inspire onward journeys from news articles and features.

6. Find out about your technology situation

Do you already have a good relationship with your IT team? Can you direct digital developments to enable new website functionality? Who makes decisions about the CMS?

You may be lucky enough to have full control of this, but in many institutions technology decisions are made by a very different team. It’s vital to be sure before you get started what the technology scope is and who can make decisions on functionality implementation.

I’ve had many experiences of expectations being set really high during the design phase through exciting agency ideas for new functionality, only to find likely implementation timescales literally years away. And on my last major website redesign, the decision to change CMS was taken halfway through the project causing major delay as the procurement exercise ran. Have technology conversations up front – and make sure you are part of them.


I’ve outlined a number of steps – and several are pretty significant pieces of work – but if you lay the groundwork, your redesign project will launch with really solid foundations. These project components will enable you to write a much more informed redesign brief. You will be able to approach audience research, content strategy and information architecture development, technology choice, design needs and implementation considerations with real confidence.

Need help now?

We’ll be exploring each of these steps in more depth through a series of follow up posts over the summer. But if you’re about to get started with a big web project, or even are part way along the journey, don’t worry. We can support you wherever you are along the process. Find out more about our digital project planning and content strategy services, or get in touch to start a conversation.

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