The project started smoothly enough. We were hired to create a variety of marketing materials for a new client, but the crown jewel of the work scope was a brand-new website for the organization. Based on our discovery process, we presented several design comps for the new site. The ED and the board loved, endorsed and green-lighted one of the concepts, and off we went to build out the site.

Happy ending? Uh…no. Here’s the mercifully short version of the sad and sordid saga… The ED came across a “Best-Of” list of nonprofit websites, glommed onto one he loved the look of, and despite our being well into the build-out, he suddenly wanted to go in a completely different creative direction.

Issues of usability and relevance to their audiences ended up taking a backseat to the “cool factor” surrounding an award-winner. In the end, our additional price to deliver the newly envisioned site was rejected, and we parted ways, leaving poorer of purse (we walked away from money owed), but richer in painful life lessons.

Fact is, there are many reasons for wanting to overhaul a website:

  • Desire for a newer, fresher “look”
  • Creating an updated framework to house newly ongoing content
  • Upgrading your site’s technology to make it more mobile- and search-engine-friendly
  • To reflect an evolving overall web strategy

All are good reasons, but regardless of the “why,” make sure the revamp, first and foremost, meets the needs of your audiences. With that in mind, ask yourself these four questions before undertaking the project:

#1: Why are we doing this?

We all know the saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” (More on that here.) Well, not knowing why you’re going there to begin with, is, arguably, worse. For any project, always start with why. Without clarity and agreement on the problem you’re trying to solve and what you’re trying to achieve, how can you hope to make sensible decisions?

#2: Who’s coming to our site (or who do we want to come to our site) and what do they need?

Having a solid understanding of who your audiences are and why they’re coming to your website is critical. If what’s driving your website project is your (or your board chair’s) personal preferences or design aesthetics, beware of potential frustration and rework, because—as we learned the hard way—those whims can change, and often several times before you’ve even launched the site.

Some nonprofits design a new website to mimic popular sites, sites they personally like, or sites of other well-known organizations. This can work, but as often happens, if the site isn’t designed with your audiences in mind, and doesn’t talk to the things those audiences care about most, the site will end up frustrating and driving away visitors. If you build a website without considering the audience, even the best-laid plans and beautifully-designed sites can fail.

#3: Will the proposed site serve our audiences’ needs?

Many organizations have a website design that serves their needs or tastes but doesn’t effectively serve their constituents. A well-intentioned vision for a website that isn’t based on usability data or insight (i.e., who’s coming to the site, why they’re coming, and does the site make it easy for the visitor to find what they need) is likely to miss the mark.

Once you’ve determined which audiences are most important to your mission, identify key metrics to measure the effectiveness of your site at serving those audiences. These may include overall visits, time on site, bounce rate, conversions, etc. If you don’t have any baseline analytics, don’t sweat it; just use your best judgment and make decisions based on your current knowledge of your audiences.

Track your data over time to monitor how your website is performing, and make adjustments to your site’s content and/or user experience in order to address any issues you identify. This will be a continual, ongoing process. Websites aren’t launched and then considered done.  The best websites are updated regularly with new, fresh content and tweaked as often as needed to address any issues or to better serve audiences.

#4: What do we want users to do on our site, and is it easy to do?

Site architecture matters. A lot. Well-planned site architecture informs search engines, but it’s also important to the user experience—addressing questions like:

  • Is it easy for visitors to find information?
  • What do you want visitors to do (i.e., what’s the ideal outcome for every page?)
  • Does the architecture support those goals?

Whatever the content is, have a goal for every page, and make it easy for the visitor to navigate. Providing visitors with clear and easy next steps will make them stay on the site longer and ultimately take action, such as donate, apply for a grant, or attend an event. Understand the purpose of each page and make sure the content of each page is relevant to that goal. Narrow down your site’s goals to only the most important ones: Having too many goals or calls-to-action on a single page will, a) clutter the design, and b) lead to the Paradox of Choice: Having too many choices can lead to making no choice at all.

While the homepage is clearly a key part of a website, interior pages are just as important. Since they are typically focused on a particular program or aspect of your mission, they may actually show up in search engine results more. Why? Well, assuming you’re updating your site regularly with fresh and useful content throughout the site, some first-time visitors could be entering the site from interior pages rather than the homepage. As such, the user experience is just as important on interior pages.

Overhauling your nonprofit’s website may be exactly what the doctor ordered to move your organization and mission forward. And thinking it out beforehand can ensure the outcome is exactly what you want it to be.

Have you revamped your organization’s website? If so, what went well and what didn’t? Did you encounter some of the issues discussed here?