Open and inclusive web design

The most difficult challenge posed by any web project is that of getting the web team and clients to work really well together. Often, all those involved – clients, project managers, designers and developers – have different ideas and expectations. With so many opinions about what the end product should look like and deliver, websites can suffer from “too many cooks”, with a resulting confusion of content and ideas.

Frustration can ensue for both web team and client when neither has a clear understanding of the other’s aspirations and expectations. Each party can feel as though the other is not listening to them and, when the resulting website is assembled through compromises, neither side is completely satisfied with the outcome. This is not what I want web design to be like. The process shouldn’t be about them and us. So what can we do to avoid it?

For a recent project, we decided to throw open the doors of the web design process and see if we could make a better website by making everything open and public. Our client, Derby Museums, already work on projects using Human-Centred Design, so they were really keen to work this way. From the get-go, we decided to document the process online. We set up a Tumblr page and uploaded user research, meeting agendas and outcomes, updates, sitemap, wireframes and visual design. We shared the link on social media and encouraged visitors to get involved and follow the development of the redesigned site.

Our method of open and inclusive design featured a lot of research, both with the public and members of staff. We spent a day at an event at a museum site speaking to visitors about their needs for the website and charting and sharing the results.

We also spent a day speaking to staff at one of the museum sites. We felt it was important to be at their place of work so they could easily come and talk to us about their ideas. We recorded every suggestion and worked out which ones were going to be included in the redesign.

Focusing on listening to our client’s visitors and employees was an essential part of this project. Our web team worked closely with our client and made decisions based on all suggestions and research feedback. We avoided compromises forced by late suggestions and lack of research, ideas were agreed and decided by the core team.

Being inclusive doesn’t mean that you end up with a website designed by committee. Dangers arise when people outside of the team feel left out of the process so that, if they are in a position to make changes, they often will. If they can’t make their opinions known, then they might resent the redesigned website. Just letting people know that we genuinely wanted to make the best website for everyone meant that they wanted to help.

There have been some really positive outcomes of working openly and inclusively. Our design team had really honest conversations with visitors and staff who could speak to us anonymously, letting us know their problems with the current website and ideas for improvement.

We also had great suggestions from front-line staff. They are the ones who talk to visitors, know what they like and have to deal with complaints. In other sectors, it might be a call centre, sales team or reception staff, but it is worth talking to the people working here as they often receive different feedback from customers than your commissioning client.

One problem we were told about from front-line staff was that visitors were struggling to find the entrances to the museums. A simple solution to this was to add ‘find the door’ to the website, a short description and photo of the entrance so that visitors get this information in advance. It might not seem as though signage to the museums’ locations is the responsibility of the website, but if we can improve a visit to the physical site by giving the right information on the website, then we’re improving experience overall.  

In order to make truly effective websites, we need great communication. How can we design something without knowing what the needs of the users and potential users are, as well as the needs of the client organisation across the board, not just the person or team commissioning the project? It might be a little harder and take a little longer, but I feel that designing openly and inclusively is what we need to do to make the best websites for our clients and their users. (And it’s a lot more fun too!)

First published in Net magazine issue 284, September 2016