Navigating the redesign hellscape

Something Patrick Thornton posted on Twitter got me thinking about the many painful design projects I've been through -- and the fact that the pain usually isn't about design as such, but rather some business basics that can plague projects of all sorts.

News media companies are particularly vulnerable to these sorts of problems because they usually are dominated by two types of people -- journalists and salespeople. Journalists are great at digging up information that wants to be hidden, and salespeople are specialists in overcoming objections and closing deals. Those just don't happen to be the optimal skills for creating products and services. 

Let's take a look at four big stumbling blocks:

  • Lack of clarity about goals. What are you trying to accomplish? As the great philosopher Yogi Berra said: "If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else."  Mission, strategy and goals should be documented and agreed upon. This is much harder than it sounds, but if you don't flush out the agenda conflict early in the process, it will come back to bite you. What are your journalistic goals? Your business goals? Don't assume.
  • Lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities. Who's on the project team? Are they all peers? Sponsor, decisionmaker, domain expert, stakeholder ... these are roles with power that needs to be defined and understood by all. Some people may just be passengers -- along for the ride, perhaps because it's important for them in their jobs. If these roles are unclear, you're going to have chaos. Is someone in charge? How are decisions to be made? Don't leave this to chance.
  • Lack of clarity about the brand. This is particularly a problem for print-legacy media, where "brand" is taken to mean "the name of the newspaper," which is, of course, the most powerful and amazing and compelling and dominant brand ever conceived and everyone is in awe of it. Consumer product companies know better than to engage in such nonsense. What do you know about your brand as it is perceived in the marketplace? Is it a unitary brand, or a family of brands, or a collection of disparate brands? Do you have written branding guidelines, a brand stylebook, color palette, typographical standards? Or perhaps you'd rather just glue your print logo onto a cookie-cutter website design?
  • Lack of resources. I don't mean lack of money (although that certainly is a common problem) but rather lack of the correct skill sets in the design process. Project manager. Process facilitator. Strategist. Information architect. Data analyst. Wireframe designer. Usability tester.  It's not just a matter of jumping into Photoshop or writing HTML or CSS. Executing a design that produces good user experiences requires expertise, and not all of it is technical.

Outsourcing is no panacea. If you think it's hard to manage an internal team working on redesign of a news site, it's no less difficult to properly equip an outside design studio with an understanding of the problem. This is especially true if the studio is short on experience with the realities of your news flow -- the volume, the frequency, length, availability of image assets, and so forth. Should stories on the homepage be visibly timestamped? Should the author's name be displayed? How should opinion and analysis be identified? These little details can make or break a site design. Outsourcing must be a forward-leaning, highly engaged process. It's not fire and forget. You get out of it what you put into it.