Lessons from Pavlov’s Pet Treats
I bake and sell dog treats. I’ve been doing it since last spring and even have my own website. While I’m not getting rich at it, I’ve learned a lot about selling dog treats during that time. And I’ve learned a lot about selling the University at the same time.
You see, I have a crummy little website at pavlovspettreats.com (any free advice would be appreciated). And I can look at my site and see how it pales in comparison to others and especially to those built by the Web Group at Notre Dame.
I know my site stinks; I just need three things to make it right so that it will actually sell treats: time, money, and an outsider’s view.
Requirement No. 1. Time
Between working at the University all week and baking nearly every night, I’ve not been able to find the time to think out a logical plan for my website. But I’m not alone in that.
Too often our clients come to us when they need a website “by the first of the semester” or “ASAP” or “right now, ’cause we’re sending out brochures and need to provide a website for people to go to.” Thus, they have not given themselves (or us) the time to think out what the website can truly do for them. It takes time and effort to determine
- The goals of the site
- The audience(s) of the site
- How the audience wants to interact with the site
- How the site’s success will be measured
- How the site will be maintained
And speaking of maintenance of the site, too often clients leave that to an overworked, disinterested, under-trained employee to “stick this photo on the site” and don’t have a plan for regularly scheduled maintenance. (My dad would be so proud of me for using that term, which he insisted was the only responsible way to keep a car, a house, a furnace, or anything of value.)
Requirement No. 2. Money
My personal financial situation at the moment is not one to envy. My husband retired in spring; we lost a bundle on a business venture we closed; and Pavlov’s Pet Treats is eating away at any spare cash. I simply have no money for marketing and website design and building.
Again, I’m not alone. Although the University of Notre Dame is not as hard-hit as most higher ed institutions, we have a fiscally conservative administration (for which we still-employed staff are grateful). Thus, we have tight budgets. Our clients are often trying to squeeze the last penny out of their budgets, and they come to us with very little in the way of funds to pay for work.
Our Web Group has to bill for everything we do. Even though the money is “funny money” that goes from one pocket into another, if it’s not there, it’s simply not there.
So clients ask for the impossible. How much website can I get for $X?
In our case, we have DIY sites for a few hundred dollars. With the purchase of one of these, our clients can set up a site with varying degrees of functionality, often solving their problem quite reasonably. The Web Group has designed templates based on University brand standards (recently adopted), and these sites work quite well. With a little bit of training, clients can be off and running in no time. Is it the same as a custom design? No. Not by a long shot. But a DIY site can take care of a great number of needs our clients have.
Likewise, a template such as my current Shopify site could probably take care of Pavlov’s business—if I had the other two components.
Requirement No. 3. Outsider’s View
I am no designer. I am also not a developer. I am, however, in the field of information architecture and usability. But can I put together a site (even a templated one) that works as well as it should? Not without outside eyes.
You see, just as an author should never edit her own work, rarely can a site owner depend solely on his own opinion, review, and expertise to make a site as good as it should be. In most cases, the site owner is so closely entwined with the subject matter that he can’t see his site as a user would.
That’s where it helps to have outside eyes and expert review of such things as
- How the Site is Organized—Is your site organized along the lines of your org chart for your department or program? If so, that probably makes no sense whatsoever to your audience. Consider, for instance, Notre Dame’s organization. Would you look under Food Services or Admissions for ID cards? (Faculty and staff get theirs through Human Resources; students get theirs from Food Services.)
- Amount of Information—Is it best to include several pages worth of information on one page? Or should it be divided into several?
- Redundancy—Are there redundant pages? Should there be?
- Colors—Are the colors Web-safe? Can those with color blindness properly read all aspects of the site? Do the colors reflect the personality of the program or department? Are the colors consistent with a larger branding effort?
- Backgrounds—Is the background consistent with the site’s personality? Does it interfere with the readability of the site?
- Links, Images, and Videos—Are they appropriate in number, size, and location? Or is there a better way to place them so that they are found and more likely to be clicked on or read?
- Calls to Action—Are there too many on a page? Do the links all work? After a user clicks on action items, what happens next? Does it make sense?
- Analytics—Can you track the analytics for your site? Will you be able to set up filters, goals, and other tracking to help you determine your site’s success/failure?
- Accessibility—Does the site function well for those with disabilities?
- Usability Testing
- User Expectations—Do users read the terms the way you do? Do they use the site in the way you intended? Or do they get lost because they don’t understand your terminology or come to the site expecting it to behave in a way you hadn’t planned?
- Writing—Is your site too heavy on the long paragraphs and jargon? Do they lose interest because they can’t easily find something in which they’re interested and want to delve deeper?
- Distractions—Are there too many calls to action, and do they confuse or distract your audience? Is the background too busy and does it pull attention away from the text or make the text hard to read? Does the page appear too cluttered? Is everything on each page really necessary? Or can some of it be removed or moved to other pages?
- Navigation—Does the navigation make sense? Is it logical, or is it too complex? Does the navigation scent lead the audience down the right paths?
- Design—Is the page attractive? Is it compelling? Or does it simply drive away your audience (or worse yet, bore them)? Is the design appropriate to the topic?
- Images—Do the images help your audience? Or do they simply pull attention away from the text? On academic sites, it’s tempting to put the standard “students on the grass” image up, but will that really help move the audience to take the intended action? Or will they see the image as yet another students on the grass, just like every other college has. (One has to wonder if students ever study anywhere else!)
Okay, so I know I need those three things in order to fix my site. And now you know some of the challenges our clients face in building or reworking their sites. Time to roll up the sleeves.
While we’re at it, what else would you include in the requirements for good website needs?