Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Inside a Museum Website Redesign

When I started at The Museum of Art & History (MAH) in May, one of my priorities was redesigning our website. I didn't want to do anything fancy--just make the site more functional, lively, easy to update, and reflective of the new institutional vision of being a community hub. You can see the site circa February 2011 here, and the current site here

We got incredibly lucky with a fabulous volunteer web designer, Marty Spellerberg , who saw my request for help on this blog and enthusiastically jumped in. Marty is everything I could have wanted from a designer--he overdelivered on my vague directives and pushed me to think more rigorously about what we were trying to do. And he did it all from afar--I've never met Marty in person and have only corresponded with him by voice a couple of times. Thank you, Marty. I hope everyone who reads this hires you to redesign their websites.

OK, enough promotion. I want to use this post not to talk about the final result but the process--what we thought about as we did this and what we hope will come out of it.

We made two key decisions that I think are somewhat unusual in doing this work:
  1. We tried to create a single message that clearly defines what the museum is about and put that front and center.  
  2. We treated the whole redesign process, and the website work going forward, as wholly iterative and incremental.
Single Message Homepage

Marty and I looked at a lot of websites for inspiration as we started this process. We tried to focus on small organizations--nothing too fancy and unachievable for us given our budget of $0. We saw homepages of two main types: blocks (i.e. MCA Denver) or single rotating image (like JMKAC). 

While both types had strong examples, neither satisfied us. We wanted to be as focused as possible with the prime real estate on the homepage while offering navigation that would be consistent across the whole site. I wanted to be ruthless about homepage creep and avoid the "my program should be on the front!" battles that can lead to incoherence. We are rebranding our museum in the community--not with marketing dollars, but with a singular message about being a thriving gathering place around art and history. I wanted the website to be the front line for that message.

Marty pushed me to look at websites in a whole different sector--online services. Many of these websites, from MailChimp to Kaleidescope to Posterous, have a consistent format:
  • The main ("above the fold") area is one big value proposition. A big image, big headline, large copy.
  • This culminates in a strong call to action, usually with a button.
  • Four or six features are highlighted, with no more than a couple of lines each and an image/icon.
  • Optionally, other relevant information provided to strengthen the pitch (testimonials, blog).
  • At the bottom -- last chance! Repeat the call to action.
While we weren't able to be as laser beam-focused as many of the online services sites are, we did pursue this strategy in the eventual homepage. If you look at the MAH homepage now, you will see:
  • Clear, unchanging value proposition in the middle: "Your Place to Explore Art & History." This message is supported by a slideshow of images, all of which reinforce the message (we have rules like "all images must include people" that help us make sure we're doing this).
  • Two calls to action (and yes, these could look better) to check out upcoming events and join the email list.
  • Four supporting events or experiences in a series of unchanging categories: "Meet, chat, study, make, and dream," "Dive into the past with family and friends," "Be inspired and feed your curiosity," and "Support our community."
  • At the bottom, below the fold, a restatement of the main message and a repeat of the call to action to join the e-newsletter.
We're still working on interpreting statistics on use. We've made so many changes--not just to the website, but to our whole institutional positioning--that it's hard to glean specific insights about the homepage. But there's no question that people are repeating our main messages back to us and commenting on how well the website reflects what they've read, heard, or experienced about how we're trying to shift the museum.

Iterative Redesign

People always talk about iterative redesign, but the truth is that it's really pretty scary. It means launching things that aren't done, shifting your website slowly over several weeks or months, and potentially confusing people along the way. But Marty encouraged us to commit to an iterative process for two reasons:
  1. It allows us to incrementally experience the new changes and to openly discuss what  should shift based on the response to the intermediate steps. This was important both on the back end--i.e. we switch to Wordpress and notice a bunch of little issues that need to be cleaned up before going to the next design step--and the front--i.e. we learn that our users want a tab for exhibitions and are not satisfied by a "what's on" tab that includes all programmatic experiences. We learned that layman's terms like "events" were much more understandable for people than "programs." And so on. We could keep making these changes with our designer rather than Marty already being out the door.
  2. It supports a culture of a constantly improving website. Every shift makes the website better. No shift makes it perfect. Most everyone on our staff and several interns are empowered to edit the website, and we add things as we can--even if they're not complete. We add events before we have an image to go with them. We incrementally improve the information about volunteering and donating. We don't need things to be finished to put them on the public site--we just need to have enough to know we're offering the base of something worthwhile. I think this is a healthy process for us moving forward--especially as a team with no single staff member who is "responsible" for the website. It's not a 0-1 game. It's an evolving site--just as the museum is evolving.
Someday, when we have a non-zero budget, I expect that we'll do a more serious redesign of the website. But for now, we're incredibly happy with what we have--and even more so, with how the redesign made us think about our communication with the outside world and our work processes to support it.
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