Appendix B
Episode 037 -

Spooky Website Redesign Stories

Appendix B Episode 37, text is present that reads, "Spooky Website Redesign Stories."

Do you like scary stories about Higher Ed website redesigns gone WRONG?!? On this Halloween-themed episode, Joel and Kristin reveal projects that chilled them to their bones…
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Joel Goodman:
It’s Halloween. And so we wanna take a minute to talk about some scary web projects that we’ve both been on. And just thinking back over this one project that I’m going to talk about, I have chills, but let’s start with you, Kristin.

Kristin Van Dorn:
Oh my goodness, okay. Well, what I was thinking that I would talk about for the scariest website projects and the ones that still give me nightmares to this day are website projects done in toxic environments.

And every organization has some folks that are a part of it that are maybe not getting along with others. Every organization has conflict. Every organization works through change and dynamics between individuals in different ways. So I don’t want to say like every organization is like just full of toxic sludge, but I did work for one in particular that was like very high up on the toxic meter.

And we did do a website redesign project with them. And, you know, when I look back on the experience, it was really difficult because there wasn’t a lot of trust between stakeholders at all. People were angry and defensive before you’d even go into a meeting and they were withholding information in like kind of a gotcha way.

You would find out that like any kind of like self-advocacy that you did or advocacy you did for your team would either show up in other conversation talking points like here’s someone that’s stepping out of line or someone that thinks too highly of their work, or someone that may be thinking that they ought to leave because they deserve more money.

Like everything was sort of twisted and you couldn’t rely on anyone to take the information that you were saying at face value. And just trying to get basic web pages constructed in that environment was really a painful process. And it’s caused me a lot to reflect. So this was back when I was still working for a university.

Now, you know, working for Bravery Media, we work for all different clients. We work with varying schools, different sized projects, different types of projects. And what I would say is that one of the pitfalls of our industry is that we can work with toxic clients and not really know it until we’re deeply embedded in the project, because what we see is the best of people or we see a project manager, a client-side project manager, once a week.

And so, all of a sudden, we’ll start getting close to delivery. And we’re surprised by the response that we’re getting because suddenly there was a stakeholder that was left out, or there was an edit round that was missed and someone is very upset and we get thrown into the putting out fires mode.

And so I’ve just been pondering, how do we begin to start detecting what are the causes of this and how, as an agency, do we respond in a respectful and professional and generative way to keep these clients moving forward, even when things internally are full of strife and in some cases, some discomfort for a lot of different people?

Yeah, I think to your point, we do come into projects seeing the best in the institution. We come into projects wanting to partner and help and be supportive and fix things, but it isn’t until you really see the inner workings of that institution and the politics and you know, the working environments and the management styles and all of that, that you really get a sense for whether or not there is toxicity in the workplace and at what level.

And it does become really hard when you’re wanting to partner. Right? I mean, the whole point is us coming together and partnering is to get something done. And these website redesign projects are huge. I mean, it’s no wonder that they take a year plus for most agencies.

And I think most agencies, us included, would be lying if we said we didn’t want them to be faster. Because I do, like, I mean, we could do a website redesign in eight to ten months if everything was perfect and we didn’t have to deal with the political stuff.

And I mean, there have been instances where Bravery has been able to pull off a very fast website redesign project, but it was because everyone was on the same page and the folks that we had on the institutional side were running interference, were dedicated to getting that website over the line and launched, and very much focused on something that was going to start paying off immediately, not something that had to be perfect in the eyes of someone. You know, imperfection for a website, especially at a university, is always going to be a subjective thing anyway.

But going off of yours, I mean the scariest website redesign that I did was supposed to happen in 60 days ground up like totally like start to finish ground up 60 days and when I was working with my friend Seth Odell, who owns the Kanahoma agency now, he was elsewhere in the industry and he had called me up because every once in a while he’d call me up and say, hey, I’ve got this really kind of impossible project to do and I was wondering if you wanna do it. And I’d always be like, no, I don’t wanna do that.

He calls me up and says, hey, we have a client. They want to do a website redesign with sort of an e-commerce conversion rate optimization focus in 60 days. Can you do it? I said no. No, there’s no way I can do that. He said, oh, really? I thought maybe you could. Like, usually you’re really… I was like, okay, fine. Guilt me into it.

And it was a mistake, but I said, well, here’s the thing. It can be done in 60 days if the institution doesn’t have any say in it. Apart from brand standards, content, development, CMS, all those things just had to be done by us. No design reviews, no rounds of changes and things like that. And the institution accepted it.

But then we ran into similar things to what you were talking about. There were people on the inside that were afraid for their jobs for some reason. Like I’m not going to come in and work on your website for the rest of my life. Like you don’t have to be afraid for your job.

And you know, but it came down to that. Like they were working against us and kind of sabotaging the project all along the lines because they were withholding information or they were changing their minds throughout. And so it made it very hard for us, especially on a technical end, to deal with that. And then they had a new VP coming in and the VP wasn’t comfortable with this process of 60 days and had really no true input into design. And so then we had to extend extend the project out.

And then we, you know, we were planning to build all this stuff on WordPress and it turns out that they had Adobe Experience Manager that someone in the library had purchased or something like that. So they wanted to use that because they had a license. And we hadn’t really built anything on AEM before and it was a nightmare.

Like it was, it was, you had to build the same thing three times in different places in the CMS just to be able to have a user use it properly. But it all came down to the fact that no one was on the same page, I think basically. Like us on the vendor side, you know, like we were subcontracted by another company, but us on the vendor side, we were on the same page. We knew what we wanted to do. And it was lucky for me, I didn’t have to do a ton of client management because we had kind of that buffer.

But at the same time, I just wanted to get something done. It would have been a great case study to be like, hey, we got a higher ed website launched in 60 days and guess what, it’s performing really, really well. We don’t have that case study. We can’t actually say that because of course, there was no way that we were going to actually get that done on our own, you know, with actual client input. And that’s the hard part.

I think coming back around to what you were saying, like these big projects, they could go really well, but there are so many people involved in them and so many personalities and so many hidden, potentially toxic or at least hidden contrary dispositions to what is going on that, unless you’ve got someone on the institution side that’s just laser focused on what needs to happen, so many bad things can go wrong.

Timelines get dragged out, more things can enter in and kind of frustrate everything that’s going on. But in the end, you end up with something that may be finished, but it’s probably not as good as it was going to be.

Yeah, I think, you know, web environments, or web teams and universities, we’re all full of human beings, and human beings have flaws and foibles, and I think we have this image of what a project is going to be from the onset, and a lot of enthusiasm, and a lot of conceptual ideas, and then when it comes to putting those things into actual design into actual practice, into actual governance, we run into the reality of human beings.

And when that happens, some of our processes, some of our concepts break down, and how people respond to that breakdown is often what predicts whether or not a project is gonna be successful. If people are accepting of like, oh, well, it didn’t work, so we have to try again, and we have to move forward, that’s a good sign. If people are like, oh, you got it wrong, that must mean that you’re not good enough. That’s a problem.

So I think it’s about identifying what’s gonna make a strong response and what’s not.