Monday, July 25, 2011

Is your organization's digital presence "house poor?"

Occasionally when I do content management assessments I run into what I call the "house poor syndrome." This is when an organization builds a website it does not have the resources to maintain.

Here is the metaphor.

Imagine you have been saving for years to build your dream house. You lived in a rundown house for longer than you would have liked in order to put together as much money as you can; and you collected quite a sum of cash given your income. With this pile of savings you bring in the best architect and contractor and the three of you get swept up in a vision of what an ideal house would be like.

The concept grows. The architect puts in all the latest features he has seen in his architectural magazines. The contractor says things like, "if you think you might want a heated three car garage, it would be cheaper to put it in when we pour the foundation." Pretty soon you have something worthy of your wildest dreams — at least on paper

Then construction starts and unexpected details start ballooning out the expected cost. Forgotten but really necessary items (like a drainage system) need to be put in. By the time you are done, you are way over budget but you can just swing it. You can't really go back out now anyway.

On move-in day you have this grand house and you are excited. Your old furniture looks a little shabby and awkward in the new rooms. Some "future use" rooms don't have any furniture at all but that's OK because you will get to them in due time.

Then a few years go by. You can't afford to heat those rooms let alone furnish them. The elegant landscaping is overgrown. You don't have time to weed those beds. You have made some home repairs yourself and the results are worthy of There I Fixed It. You don't have plumbing skills and you can't afford a plumber. The windows are dirty, every surface is dusty... well, you get the picture.

By this time you realize you are in over your head. The contractor and architect know this too — they don't bring their prospective customers to your home for site visits any more. There is a reason why only the ridiculously rich live in houses like these.

Now, lets think about how that experience parallels a website project.

  • You got wrapped up in a dreaming exercise with designers and engineers that want to build something beautiful (with your money) that is a monument to their talents.
  • You based your vision on the websites of companies with lots of money.
  • You didn't think about the content that you have (your furniture) and how it might fit. Paragraphs of "lorem ipsum" were replaced by one sentence on an otherwise empty page. You still have images with iStockPhoto watermarks in them.
  • You overestimated your available time to create content. After a year, the blog still has only one post; the "what's new" section hasn't changed in months.
  • You overestimated your skills to maintain the website — the outdated flash promotions, the broken HTML, the awkward looking label images with the slightly wrong color and font.
  • You paid for functionality that you can't afford to use or promote: the empty customer forum.

Like with houses, you see organizations "downsize" their websites by migrating to simple tools like Wordpress and keeping things simple. If your resources are constrained, a neat and tidy small site looks much better than a dilapidated mega-site. But, like with an underwater house, it does cost money to get out of an outsized website. More importantly, you have to make peace with your constraints and set your sites to more realistic goals.

But you can save yourself this expensive excursion beyond your limits by taking a practical view during the requirements and scoping phases and think ahead to how you are going to support that content and functionality. When you see whiz-bang Flash elements, ask how will you be able to modify them. When you see esoteric fonts in the style guide and a lot of image labels, ask who is going to produce them and how. In short, think of yourself living with and maintaining every feature you entertain in your fantasy. You could save yourself a nightmare.