Image of two cyclists biking a safe distance apart through an empty landscape

Membership Organizations in the Time of COVID-19

The world has become a different place from what we knew a few weeks ago, and that place changes daily. We are all coping as best we can personally—and I hope that involves staying home as much as possible, for safety’s sake.

On the professional front, every type of organization is experiencing new challenges and threats. Membership organizations are in a special situation, facing business challenges coupled with a responsibility to serve members with changing needs. I’m seeing organizations in the healthcare field step up and advocate passionately for their members and constituents, demanding the supplies and working conditions they need to be safe and fulfill their mission.

What else can membership organizations do to help their constituents when so much is in flux? Here are some ideas.

Take nonessential things off their plates—and yours. At a time when we may be stretched to the limit and facing information overload, adaptation is easier when we can offload nonessential tasks and eliminate distractions. Let’s talk about email. If you and your members are anything like me, you’re getting emails from all directions—more …

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“ On the web, your messaging should be a key part of your overall content strategy; it should inform your decisions about what to publish, the way your content is written, your design, and the imagery you use.”

Content May Rule the Web, but Message Comes First

What would you say if someone walked up to you and asked, “Who are you?” and then, “What is important about your work?” These are questions your website must answer in a matter of seconds, or risk losing its visitors. Yet many organizations’ websites fall short of answering these questions. As many of my new clients say, “Our website doesn’t tell our story.”

The key to answering fundamental questions on your website is to define the unique value of your organization and your work in a way that people can readily understand. You have to know what you want to say (the message), before determining how you’ll communicate it (strategy and tactics).

Many organizations skip the messaging step and jump straight into strategy, figuring out how they will reach their target audiences before they define what they want to communicate. Without coherent messaging, their websites may emphasize the wrong things—for example, a low-impact aspect of their work. Or, their websites may try to emphasize too much, becoming a virtual brain-dump packed with information yet hard to understand. (Think of overly …

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“ Make it a habit to ask the tough questions about your content and let go of it if it doesn’t clearly serve your organization or your users.”

Who Needs Your Content?

Part of my job as a user experience consultant is to impress upon my clients the importance of content in creating an experience. Relevant, useful, and usable content is core to the user experience on any website—and a content strategy is the necessary plan for ensuring that content is produced, assessed, and maintained.

The Problem

Many organizations give lip service to the importance of content and content strategy but have no governing processes or standards for content. They haven’t trained content providers to write for the web. They haven’t assigned responsibility for producing and updating content. They haven’t established rules for who gets to make decisions about various areas and aspects of the website. They don’t have editorial standards or an editorial calendar. These organizations typically have problems with their content—it’s outdated, or inconsistent, or poorly written, or disorganized, or all of these things.

But even the organizations that have taken some steps to ensuring good content may fail at one very difficult but vital step: Asking, “Who needs this?” That’s the question that can keep you from producing content that …

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Guarding Your Web Project Against Disruptive Newcomers

I recently spoke to a group of staff at an association about to start a website redesign. They were concerned about how to insulate their project against eleventh-hour changes and “rethinks” by new leaders who may be elected or hired during the project.

This is not an uncommon problem–a new hire or new president coming on board in the midst of a large project, asking disruptive questions. The questions can be whimsical (“Why is there so much blue in the new design? I hate blue.”) or strategic in nature (“The new website should focus only on this subset of our members.”). What to do?

Do Your Homework, and Don’t Let the Dog Eat It. The first step in mitigating the “newcomer” risk is basing your website strategy on a firm understanding of your organization’s business goals and the things your target audiences need, want, think, and will act on. This requires research–interviews, surveys, analytics, usability testing–and the involvement of all major stakeholders, including the groups of stakeholders who could pose a risk later if they are not included and on …

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Get Rid of Your Junk Before You Move

The other day a Salvation Army truck pulled up to a house on my street where professional movers had just moved in a new owner. The driver and his colleague carried several large pieces of furniture and some smaller items into the truck to haul them away. I wondered why my new neighbor had paid to move all that stuff, if he was just going to get rid of it a week later.

This scenario reminds me of website redesigns and the importance of content inventories. Why would you want to move outdated or irrelevant content into your new website? It’s much more efficient to decide what to keep and what to get rid of well before you migrate content to a new website. By making these decisions early, you reap the following benefits:

make the process of organizing your site (information architecture) smoother help focus the scope and purpose of the site and reveal any content gaps that need to be filled get writers/editors started and finished well before you need to move content into the new site get …

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“Requires Internal Discussion”

I was reviewing the written feedback on an annotated site map I had produced for a website redesign. Throughout the document, my client–an international association–had written, “We need to discuss this internally.” This kind of feedback doesn’t help, I thought. I couldn’t update the site map and get it approved until the client team had their discussion. I felt a loss of momentum.

But then I realized that although my client’s comments didn’t constitute feedback on the site map, they were helpful to the project overall. The client team was signaling that they “got it.”

Some clients nod their heads in agreement when they look at a new site map or wireframe but balk later in the project, when it sinks in that this new way of organizing their content also entails new approaches to producing and managing content. This particular client realized the implications of the new site map. It wasn’t just a new navigation scheme. It represented a new way of working, and also a new way of thinking about their website and its role in the association’s …

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You’re Not Applezon

When we ask what they want from their new websites, many of our design clients say they want their sites to be like or But why? Most of these clients bear little resemblance to Apple or Amazon. Their websites are primarily meant to communicate and inform, not to sell products. They may have member or customer databases, but they haven’t invested in capturing the kind of customer data Amazon or Apple have.

So what are these clients really saying?

“What is it you like about Apple?” I ask. Usually, they say something along the lines of, “It’s so clean.” They are reacting against the busy-ness and excess of their current sites.

What do they want to emulate about “We want people to feel like the website knows them.” When we probe further, we find this can mean many things: personalization based on an individual log in, role-based access to content, targeting by interest area, topical navigation, or just plain usable navigation and search. But wanting the website to “know people” is usually a reaction to the fact …

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