Web development

The benefits of a product approach for website design

At last, your association’s new website is launched and getting rave reviews. The problem is, the CEO and others around the building think, “That’s it, the website is finished.” Unfortunately, that’s not how you see it. Sure, the site looks great, but you only had the time and budget to tackle the most critical requirements. As for the user experience, you still have much more to do but everyone’s talking about revisiting the need for a redesign in five years. Five years?

You wouldn’t find yourself in this predicament if your organization had taken a different approach to your website. You took a project approach to website design, so that’s it, the project’s over. Get used to what you have because you’ll be living with it for a while.

However, a product approach acknowledges that a website is never really finished—and this is the approach we recommend to our clients. Before planning your next technology project, learn about the benefits of a product approach for website design.

Project vs. product approach for website design

A website project has a defined lifecycle with a documented timeline and goals. When those goals are achieved, the project is complete and the project team disbands. If improvements are needed, they are noted and set aside until a budget for another redesign is approved by the board—and that might take a few years.

The product approach is, at its core, a mindset shift for most organizations. It treats a technology initiative, such as a website redesign, as a living, evolving effort with periodic releases and improvements. A product approach can include a traditional project, like launching a website. But, within that website project and thereafter, a more collaborative, iterative process aims for continuous improvement.

Product teams work together in cycles called “sprints.” During these sprints, the team develops and tests features and functions, incorporating feedback as they go.  Sprints may be 2 or 3 weeks, or longer, depending on the product and the organization’s capacity.

In a website redesign, a product approach might include discovery/research sprints, prototyping sprints, design and development sprints, and testing sprints. Each sprint aims to deliver something tangible at its conclusion, such as a working piece of functionality.

Ongoing product releases and enhancements, such as post-launch improvements to a website, aim to continuously deliver value in manageable increments. You can keep an internal backlog of requests that you periodically prioritize, work on, and release on a recurring schedule.

Using the product approach to design a user-centric website

A product approach for a website design is ideal for continuous testing with actual users during development and thereafter, further refining the product based on their feedback. You can align your website with user needs more quickly and efficiently than a project approach would make possible. Once you launch the website, continuous investment and feedback loops result in new features, new versions, and ongoing improvements.

The product approach can be challenging for some organizations because it requires living with more ambiguity up front. In the earliest phases of a product approach, user research guides development, not predetermined perceptions of user needs. Any assumptions about user needs are quickly challenged when initial ideas are tested with actual users.

However, any discomfort from ambiguity is offset by the benefit of the product approach. Your relationships with members and supporters will be strengthened, as a key tenet of the product approach is to listen to users and incorporate their feedback into subsequent iterations of the product.

Why the product approach for website design isn’t business as usual

The project approach has a long history in associations and nonprofits. It’s the “way it’s always been done.” Many organizations aren’t yet aware of the benefits of the more iterative product approach. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know.

It’s challenging enough for many organizations to diagnose their own needs, understand what solutions are available, and what those solutions should reasonably cost. If staff haven’t been exposed to the product approach, they’re unlikely to be aware of the benefits of continuous technology investment and improvement.

Staffing for the product approach

With the product approach, a website is not just a project, it’s a product. A key component of a successful product team is the product owner/manager—the permanent champion of the product. Unlike a project manager, the product owner has decision-making authority over the product. They don’t have to run day-to-day decisions “up the flagpole” to senior management.

Senior stakeholders must be comfortable delegating authority to the product owner, and replacing traditional sign-offs with “looks good, keep going” check-ins.

The product team is composed of a cross-functional group of staff from across the organization, or a group of staff who are wholly dedicated to the product. Product team members, especially staff doing the heavy lifting, must be willing and able to embrace a faster pace of work and a more fluid style of working than they may be used to.

You must understand your staff’s capacity to undertake this new responsibility because, unlike a project team, the product team never disbands. They stay together to work on periodic release cycles of the product and to support the continuous rhythm of these cycles. They’re responsible for analytics data, customer/user support, maintenance, administration, development, and testing/QA. However, some of these tasks can be outsourced to a technology partner.  

Budgeting for the product approach

You need to build a product approach into budgets. Traditionally, raising and allocating money for a major technology initiative can be difficult, or even completely nonstandard—for example, if capacity grants are required. Some organizations believe that technology investment is something they can only afford once every five years or so.

Financial stakeholders with this traditional mindset may be the ones most challenged by the product approach. They must become comfortable investing with a higher level of ambiguity, and forgoing the checkbox-style “knowing what you’re buying” mentality.

You could lower the cost of initial pre-launch efforts by defining a minimum viable product (MVP). This approach gets a working product in front of users more quickly and allows the improvement cycles to begin earlier, versus getting “everything perfect.”

Continuous technology investment is critical. Regular product-style maintenance and improvements to key assets, like websites and association management systems, can save money in the long term, help avoid future costly re-platformings, and keep members and supporters happy.

A product approach for a website design offers a more holistic, sustainable process and outcome. Best of all, your organization’s website always stays aligned with user needs and behaviors.

Intrigued? Contact us for more information about transitioning from a project approach to a product approach.