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Just as in a hamburger, the middle layer is the most tasty and attracts the most attention, including much of my own work on web usability. I have come to realize that the outer two layers are more important in many ways: users only care about content (in other words, no, the medium is not the message; the message is the message) and the usability of a website is more a function of how it is managed than of how good its designers are.

 

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Content will be the topic of many other columns; here I address some classic mistakes in managing the design of a website.

1. Not Knowing Why

This is the number one problem, all right. I am amazed how many websites are built simply because some executive told somebody to do it without telling them what the site should achieve. And no, it is not an acceptable reason that "everybody else is doing it."

Granted, these days, you need a website simply to be considered a professionally run organization (not being on the web is like not having a fax machine: people think you are a fly-by-night). Thus, it is OK to make a "business-card site" with a small amount of corporate image building, directions to your various facilities, and the annual report and other investor information. However, doing so is not the most effective use of the web, and a site along these lines should only be built as a result of an explicit decision not to invest in active use of the web for business.

Most companies should start their web design project by finding out ways in which they can provide true customer value on their site. Give users benefits from spending time on your site, allow them to do business with you, and their money will follow.

2. Designing for Your Own VPs

Internally-focused sites cause companies to end up with homepages full of mission statements, photos of the CEO, and corporate history (all of which do fit on an "about this company" page; just not on the homepage). Remember that your company is not the center of the universe for your customers. The site should be designed with customers' needs in mind and not to promote grandiose ideas of self-importance.Do not build a site that your top executives will love: they are not the target audience.

3. Letting the Site Structure Mirror Your Org Chart

Users should not have to care how your company is organized, so they should not be able to deduce your organizational structure from the structure of your website. Admittedly, it is easiest to distribute responsibility for the site to divisions and departments according to already established chains of command and budget categories, but doing so results in an internally centered site rather than a customer-focused site.

The site structure should be determined by the tasks users want to perform on your site, even if that means having a single page for information from two very different departments. It is often necessary to distribute information from a single department across two or more parts of the site, and many subsites will have to be managed in collaboration between multiple departments.

A classic sign of a mismanaged website is when the homepage has a button for each of the senior vice presidents in the company. Remember, you don't design for your VPs, so it will be quite common that you can't tell them what "their" button is on the homepage.

4. Outsourcing to Multiple Agencies

If you outsource every new web project to a new agency, your site will end up looking like one of those quilts assembled from patches by each of the participants in a protest march. The problem with using multiple agencies is that each of them want to put their own stamp on the site: both because they have different design philosophies and because they will want to use you as a reference account. It is no fun to say "we designed such-and-such pages" if all the pages on the site look the same.

Users get very annoyed when they move between pages on a site and find drastically varying designs at every turn. Consistency is the key to usable interaction design: when all interface elements look and function the same, users feel more confident using the site because they can transfer their learning from one subsite to the next rather than having to learn everything over again for each new page.

The best way to ensure consistency is to have a single department that is responsible for the design of the entire site. If this cannot be done, at least have a central group that oversees all design work and that is chartered to enforce a single styleguide. Even if the central group does not actually design any pages themselves, considerable consistency can be achieved if the various departments can turn to a single source of design advice. Even better: have the central design group maintain the templates and deliver updated and revised graphics as needed.

5. Forgetting to Budget for Maintenance

As a rule of thumb, the annual maintenance budget for a website should be about the same as the initial cost of building the site, with 50% as an absolute minimum. Obviously, ongoing costs are even higher for news sites and other projects that depend on daily or real-time updates. If you simply spend the money to build a glamorous site but do not keep it up to date, your investment will very rapidly turn out to be wasted.

The web currently changes so rapidly that a major redesign is needed at least once per year simply to avoid a completely outdated look and to accommodate changing user expectations. Additional maintenance is needed throughout the year to bring fresh content online, reorganize and revise old pages, and avoid linkrot.

If you have established a design styleguide and a set of page templates in order to avoid the inconsistencies mentioned under Mistake 4, you also have to budget for maintenance of these design resources. If the styleguide and templates do not evolve with changing needs, you will rapidly see design entropy set in and the site will fall apart. The most common example is the need for new stock graphics, new headerbars, new navigation buttons, or new icons. If you don't have an art director on standby for this type of requests, then the page developer who needed the new graphic will outsource it and the site's look-and-feel will start to diverge.

6. Treating the Web as a Secondary Medium

One rarely gets a gourmet meal by repurposing yesterday's leftovers. Similarly, even if you repurpose veryvaluable non-web content, you will at best get a slightly valuable website. The web is a new medium. It's different from television, it's different from ed newspapers, and it's different from glossy brochures, so you cannot create a good website out of content optimized for any of these older media. The old analogy still holds: movies are not made by filming a play and putting the camera in the best seat of the theater.

The only way to get great web content is to have your staff develop the content for the web first. Then, if you still have a need for ed collateral, transfer the text and images to a desktop publishing application and massage it into a form that is suited for . Of course, your materials will suffer from this procedure, so if you want great web content and great brochures, you will have to have two teams develop two sets of content.

Content creators have been trained to develop linear content for traditional media: they have spent their entire careers doing so. They have to consciously push themselv