Vol. 37, No. 2

Website redesign: A never-ending, but essential process

by Dan Kittay

With so much attention being paid to social media, mobile apps, and other newer technologies, bars can sometimes lose track of the importance of the association’s website, and the need to keep it current.

That was the underlying theme of one breakout session at the National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop in Denver this past October.

Three panelists whose bars had recently completed website redesigns, and one whose bar is about to start one, shared their experiences with the process, including triumphs and pitfalls.

Tennessee: No more cobbling

The Tennessee Bar Association’s website had gone 10 years without a major redesign, said Barry Kolar, the bar’s assistant executive director. As with many bar association websites, the TBA’s had added new features by “cobbling pieces in,” Kolar said. “It’s like building on a starter house.” Kolar realized that it was time to rebuild the site to better incorporate the added features, and to make the site ready for new features that were likely to pop up down the road.

The bar’s research showed that communications efforts such as the website were important to members, and influenced how members viewed the bar. “They want more stuff from us,” Kolar noted, “and they want it to be good.”

Kolar shared some of the problems that cropped up during the redesign process for the new site, which launched in February 2012. The TBA had issued an RFP for Web developers, but “We didn’t cast our net wide enough,” Kolar believes. “We wanted a local developer, and we missed some better prospects.” The developer that the bar hired had three different project managers, and contractors working in different states, which Kolar said sometimes hindered communications.

The website’s rollout itself also had some glitches, although the bar was able to get things working without too much disruption to members. The TBA and the developer didn’t do enough testing before the site went live, Kolar explained, urging those who are undertaking redesigns to be sure the site gets tested in the same conditions under which it will be functioning.

Georgia: From a sticky situation to sticky notes

For the State Bar of Georgia (www.gabar.org), the complications started before the development process began, when funding that had been promised for the project was withdrawn, said Sarah Coole, the bar’s director of communications.

Once funding was restored and the project began, the bar’s president wanted Coole to work with a technology committee of volunteers. That can sometimes present obstacles, but Coole found that the committee members were helpful to the overall process.

The bar prepared an RFP, conducted interviews, and then hired a firm from outside the area to complete the project. Communications with the firm went well, Coole said, noting that the bar’s internal Web team had a weekly conference call with the developers.

To organize the content of the new site, Coole and the team took a whiteboard and covered it with sticky notes, which they moved as needed to get everything in the proper category. They then copied the chart to InDesign so they could print and distribute it.

The bar added some features to the home page, such as a search bar, login form, and calendar of events, Coole said. Some of those items were on a list she had been keeping as she explored other websites. “Keep a wish list of what you like about other sites,” she advised attendees, “so you have it ready when it’s time to do the redesign.”

When it came time to unveil the site to the public, the bar had a long checklist of tasks to complete in order to transition from the current site to the new one. As with Tennessee, while some functions had been tested beforehand, they had never been tested live, and when the switch was thrown, they caused problems. Coole took the new site down until the problems were completely solved. “I’d rather be down for six hours than up, and then crash after six hours,” she explained.

Toledo: Smooth process, but no spike in visitors

The Toledo Bar Association redesigned its website about two years ago, said Jenna Grubb, director of communications. The process was relatively smooth, but the bar is now second-guessing some of the choices it made about the site’s content and design.

Grubb and relevant staff members went in person to meet with the developers who would be working on the site. Being out of the office and away from phone calls, meetings, and other distractions allowed the staff to focus solely on the website, which led to productive sessions, Grubb said.

When the site was ready to go live, staff went back to the developer’s office to learn how to work with the new content management system the site sported. As issues arose with the rollout and subsequent use by members, the developer responded quickly and fixed them, Grubb noted.

But as well as the process went, the TBA site has not experienced a big growth in visitor traffic, Grubb said. Bar staff is now considering other changes in the site’s structure and content to try to improve those figures.

Maryland: Breaking the process into steps

Panelist Pat Yevics was as much a listener to the other panelists as a presenter of her experiences. The Maryland State Bar Association’s director of law office management assistance, Yevics is heading up the MSBA’s upcoming website redesign and was hoping to learn from the other speakers how to do things the right way and what to avoid.

“The idea of it is overwhelming,” she said. “We are breaking it down into steps. We’re planning to bring someone in from the outside to help us establish the process for which steps to take.”

The current site (www.msba.org) is more than 10 years old and in need of a “major overhaul,” Yevics noted. When the previous website coordinator moved from the area and the MSBA had people look behind the scenes at the site, the bar “learned how bad it was”—largely because so many bits and pieces had been added here and there over the years, she said.

Approaching the new site will involve extensive member surveys to find out what’s important to them. Finding out what needs to be included in the redesign means answering the question, “Who wants to use the new site?” Yevics recommended that bars “make sure members tell you how important the site is to them.”

Even though she knows the task will be daunting, there’s no doubt that the MSBA has to update its site, she says. “Our site looks old,” she believes. “Why would a new member want to join an organization that has an old website?”

One thing that is making the task easier, and that Yevics considers to be essential, is weekly communication with the developer who will build the new site.

The takeaway

The overall message from the panel was that redesigning a website is more complicated than it used to be, with new technologies available, and with members’ increased expectations regarding what features websites can provide. But keeping current is crucial, which makes the result worth the process it takes to get there.

Coole had one other piece of advice: “Make sure you have the money allocated, and the president who’s going to help you do it the right way.”