Published: 4 February 2011

Redesign your website – with help from its users

Do get your supporters invoved early on if you are relaunching your website, says Margaret O'Donnell, head of digital media at the British Red Cross.

Ask a member of the public what the British Red Cross does, and you could get dozens of answers. From first aid training and short-term loans of medical equipment, to overseas disaster relief and long-term recovery, our volunteers and staff offer support in more ways than most people know about.

While this can be exciting for those of us in communications, it also presents huge challenges when setting up and maintaining a public-facing website.

The first step

When we decided to relaunch one of our first steps was to figure out who our visitors were and why they came to our site. Using web analytics we could examine what our website users did, but we also ran an online survey asking people for their demographic information and what they wanted from our website in the future.

Alongside all the actions we wanted people to take (donating, volunteering, signing up for an event, learning first aid etc), we discovered that people often want to request our services online. This was something they found difficult with our old site.

Public input

The next step was to invite groups of people who represented our main demographic groups to help us understand how they would organise the content on our website.

As part of this, external consultants conducted open and closed card sort exercises with two groups: the first was made up of our actual website users; the second, members of the public who had little or no previous connection to us. The second audience was especially important in helping us shape the site to meet the needs of people we wanted to attract.

This was an incredibly informative exercise that showed us the extent to which our information architecture was inward-looking. We updated the site navigation and labelling to better reflect how users looked for information and the language they used.

Keeping staff and volunteers in the loop

Throughout this process, we also kept our 30,000 volunteers and staff in mind. They often rely on our website to get information which they can use to help the public. We ran sessions asking representatives from key services and other public-facing departments what they’d like from the new site. From this we constructed key user journeys like requesting a service in a step-by-step process.

Clearly, because relaunching the site would affect the work of thousands of staff and volunteers, we knew we had to keep them informed of our progress – and get them excited about the new site. We did this by regularly emailing the people most affected, writing articles for our intranet and in our internal magazine, and running a booth at our annual National Assembly.

Naturally, the final step in consulting users is to ask them how they find the new site, so we repeated the customer satisfaction survey we ran earlier. I'm happy to say our users are pleased with the new site, but we'll keep asking them what they want and responding to those needs!

What we have learnt

  • When you ask for feedback, set expectations carefully. There’s no point in asking people what they think if you have no time or money to make changes.
  • Don’t just ask the people who use your site what they want. It’s equally important to ask those who aren’t connected to you already, especially if you’d like to increase the likelihood of them connecting.
  • Don’t keep asking the same people for their feedback because they’re convenient. The closer someone gets to the project the less fresh their input is.
  • Talk about the project benefits every time you communicate. We chose four benefits appealing to different stakeholder groups. Additionally, make sure the project team are on-message and talk about benefits and users, not obscure technical features.
  • Use all of your internal comms channels. In addition to the intranet, staff magazine and emails, we also used real life and video conferences, webinars and meetings to reach staff and volunteers.
  • Sometimes getting external advice pays dividends. We paid for external help to contact people who didn’t use our site already, to create navigation framework and to test accessibility/usability.
  • Take criticism on the chin. Asking people what they think guarantees you’ll get suggestions for change. The trick is being able to differentiate between a personal opinion and a view that indicates a trend. If you’re not sure which is which, ask more people and different kinds of people.

Margaret O’Donnell, head of digital media, British Red Cross

Senior digital manager with experience of creating and managing teams to implement websites. Specialist knowledge of making sites more accessible and usable, as well as driving growth and engaement in a multi-channel environement.