I'm in charge of our website. Now what?
December 10, 2007 6:01 AM   Subscribe

I'm in charge of our website. Now what?

I'm the director of (printed) publications for a small Florida college. In a recent reorganization, I was given oversight of our website. I'm not a particularly technical guy, but I've got the site's developer available to me on a freelance basis. Additionally, we have a full-time content manager, responsible for site maintenance, and a newly-hired writer/photographer as content coordinator.

My role is to serve as gatekeeper for these three individuals, making sure that competing interests don't turn the site into a free-for-all. Also, it's now my responsibility to make sure the website bears more than a passing resemblance to our printed materials.

I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of this. I just don't understand websites from a technical standpoint. How do I learn to talk to my developer and content manager, in particular?

I learn best in a classroom or conference type setting, so I'd really like some of that type of training, but it needs to be basic. Are there conferences for people in my situation? I've been Googling, but I'm turning up a lot of advanced, technical seminars. Something specific to higher education would be great, but those I've uncovered have already taken place. I need something in the next couple of months.

What else will be helpful? Anyone else found themselves in this situation?

Please help this admittedly over-his-head boss not look the fool in front of his employees!
posted by unclejeffy to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure others will give you good advice on how to get up to speed on the technical stuff, but it might be in everyone's best interests if you just put it out on the table that you don't have much technical experience with websites.

Its definitely possible to manage a technical team without much technical knowledge, you just need to trust your team on the technical side of things and focus on making the higher level management decisions.

It might be a good idea for you to have a meeting with each member of the team to try to get an overview of their day-to-day activities and what they hope to accomplish with the website.
posted by burnmp3s at 6:15 AM on December 10, 2007

Unless there's some kind of large interpersonal problem, you've got almost everything you need already.

1. Get or borrow Don't Make Me Think. At least glance through it. Accept that no matter how much you learn in the next two months, you're not going to be at their level, but that's not a bad thing. That's why you've hired these specialists. Your role is keeping in mind what your company wants to accomplish through the site, finding out from the specialists how to get there, and keeping the goal in sight.

2. Ask them what they do, and tell them you're really listening and would like to understand, although you don't have the technical background and need it in plain English. Set up individual meetings for this purpose (to begin with). Ask them to spell out anything that sounds unfamiliar. Take notes. Contrary to foolishness, this is the savvy thing to do. This is vital information, and they often don't get a chance to explain properly because the people in charge usually make too many assumptions, which only leads to frustration.

3. Ask them what they'd like to see happen with the site, considering the company's mission, and what they think the best way to achieve it would be. Ask how they see their role in relation to each of the other web-related people. If they have any experience, they may know how they like to work and what's efficient for them.

A web site IS technical, but you don't need to know everything about that. You need to be asking, "why is that important?" and "what does that do?" And actually listening to the answers, fitting things into the big picture. Web professionals usually love the web and understand its possibilities much better than people who only use the web. Use that to everyone's advantage.
posted by zennie at 7:24 AM on December 10, 2007

Web professionals usually love the web and understand its possibilities much better than people who only use the web. Use that to everyone's advantage.

While I agree with the meat of zennie's point there, free reign is about the worst thing you could give someone with a narrow focus, no matter how talented they are in that space. The best advice I could give is to remember to pass EVERYTHING through a cost:benefit filter, and encourage others to do so. Even if you're not on a tight dollar-budget, you probably want to expend time and effort where it will do the most good, and all be pulling in the same direction.

The best-intentioned creative or technical professionals will still burn countless resources on things "because they're cool", "because I saw it on another website", "because I just learned how to do this", or most often, an intangible "just because", unless you maintain focus for them. I have seen this from 19 year old interns, yes, but also from 40 year old PhDs.

Asking "Why?" (nicely), along with some "What were the other options and why did you reject them?" will help show you respect the specialist's judgment but also want to understand it.

I have also gotten good results with "I like that solution. Just to be sure it's right, though, let's try to think of all the possible side effects or downsides..."
posted by rokusan at 10:57 AM on December 10, 2007

It will help enormously if you are capable of micro management or at least appreciation of it - your initial ideas might, to use a poor analogy that is a favourite of mine, be akin to saying "Well, can't we just toast the bread?" ; the appreciation of how the bread is made, transported to the shop, then someone puts their shoes on and drives to the shop and buys it before taking it home and placing it in the right place to subsequently pull it out of the cupboard and toasting it might be very beneficial.

Long but relevant.

Having said that, the beauty of your position is that you can ask for the bread to be where you want it when; it's their role to facilitate that or explain better options and so forth - but I have often found that frustration results from individuals who actually can't micro think or rather process map / appreciate the need for middle-steps and that their irritation at this can subsequently be counter productive, especially in group meetings.

Just remember to have fun, and all will work out, I'm sure :)
posted by DrtyBlvd at 11:26 AM on December 10, 2007

Without knowing what's in place already there's only so much I can offer, but basically you want to stay small. Very small. Pick a few things like a basic introductory pages, a page with good directions to your campus(es), a list of departments and programs and maybe a staff directory. Get your designer and content manager together and emphasize that your focus is on getting the easy things Just So. Resist the urge to add features. Resist the urge to get clever. Resist the urge to estimate a timeline. Focus on getting it done, rolled out, and right.

Once you've got that experience under your belt you'll have a better idea of the kinds of things that can go wrong.

gmail in profile if you want to chat in further detail.

P.S. Scrap anything that would require you to change the technical equipment that's in place. New software, new hardware, hell firewall rules are very likely to run afoul of whoever does your network and descend into months of bureaucratic hell.
posted by Skorgu at 11:36 AM on December 10, 2007

Funny, my experience has been just the opposite of rokusans, in that I've seen many managers take charge of a website and begin demanding useless time-consuming widgits and whatzits "because our competitor has one" or "because it looks cool."

I think your first step is to clearly define the goals for your website, and make sure that any changes or development is going to facilitate those goals. For a college website, you're going to have different goals for students, faculty, alumni and prospective students -- and you'll have to balance the needs of one group against the needs of another. So your primary goal might be, "Our home page should make it easy for students, faculty, alumni and prospective students to find/do what they need, while maintaining our University's unique brand identity."

I don't have anyone in particular to recommend, but a web usability conference or workshop would be a place for you to start without getting overwhelmed with technical stuff. I also like Web Pages That Suck; they have a review of the Brown University site and what they've done wrong. There's a ton of web usability info on the interweb, including stuff here at Metafilter. Good luck!
posted by junkbox at 11:36 AM on December 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

That's not the opposite, junkbox, it's just complementary. Yes, managers, especially those who don't communicate or ask for input can be just as guilty of the short-view. But more often I've seen domain experts (whether technical or artistic) bully their way past management by just blowing their favorite smoke. Managers who are too timid to admit they have no clue what it all means end up being easy to manipulate. Always best to ask big-picture questions, I think.

What Junkbox and Skorgu offered is also great advice. Pick one small improvement, hopefully something that you're close to understanding, and work through it. You'll learn, and your staff will probably appreciate the getting-to-know-you approach of a small first step instead of the "Okay I know nothing but I'm here to change everything!" tyranny.
posted by rokusan at 11:48 AM on December 10, 2007

Speaking as a web developer...

In my opinion, if you have a good (and trustworthy) developer, you shouldn't personally need a lot of technical knowledge. It sounds like in your situation, you will be acting as the designer and overall content manager. If I'm right about that, you should be able to create designs or graphics for the site and pass them on to your developer to code, and the developer should be able to tell you if something isn't possible or will be particularly difficult. I would be up front with the developer by telling them that most of your experience is in print design, and that you will need guidance from him/her on what is and is not technically possible on the web. Don't be afraid to ask for or listen to their advice. The way my workplace is staffed, I'm the developer and we have one graphic designer (who started with only print experience). The designer has no technical knowledge - he doesn't know CSS, HTML, or any other language acronym. I am familiar with design concepts, but am by no means a designer myself. What I described above is how we work together.

If you're not confident in your ability to design for the web, there are lots of articles out there about web design for print designers. I don't have any bookmarked, but you could Google for them. If I come across a good one, I'll come back to post it. One book you may find useful is Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug. It's a great book on making user friendly and usable websites that's not overly technical. Our designer found it very helpful.

Good Luck!
posted by geeky at 11:54 AM on December 10, 2007

I'm currently developing our website and well, feel lucky you have access to trained staff and don't have to foot it yourself (like me, haha). :)

I'm not sure what your previous knowledge is, but I'm going to start with "Basic understanding of business computers, and that's it."

If your system is anything like ours (which is pretty standard fare), it should be just a normal computer that most likely runs one of the popular OSs (Windows, MacOS, Linux), Apache (handles queries from the internets), MySQL (for databasing), and PHP (which is a programming script widely used in webpage work.) You'll probably have another program that is a Content Management System (or CMS). Most likely your content manager is responsible for keeping this stuff shiny.

Your developer is responsible for the HTML, PHP, and CSS coding in addition to generating all necessary graphics and processing the stuff that your photographer sends his way. He's probably very familiar with Adobe Photoshop and probably can do Flash animations (gives you interactivity and special effects on the scale of movie websites), if that's what you want.

As far as design is concerned, you only need to talk to your writer/photographer and your site developer, although you'll want to include your content manager just so he'll have some idea of what's going on. You'll want to state for them (as mentioned upstream) clear goals about who the target audience is, how much information you want on each page, and what kind of information you want on each page, in addition to what kind of feel you want your webpage to have (serious, business-like, or playful, fun, or cool and high-tech, etc.) It would help if you had a rudimentary idea of how you want to divvy up the space or a vague color scheme.

Lay out everything you can possibly think of about what you want before getting started, because webdesigners, like all artisans, can be pretty emotionally attached to their work and no one wants to hear, "This isn't right. Do it again." It'll be a poor use of resources, anyhow.

But leave the details about how mouseovers will look and font choices up to the developer. Just like you're going to tell the photographer what to photograph and write but let him decide on his own shot angle and aperture/shutter speed and his own word choice. That kind of micromanagement will only give you a headache, anyhow.
posted by reebear at 2:15 PM on December 10, 2007

free reign is about the worst thing you could give someone with a narrow focus, no matter how talented they are in that space

Agreed. I definitely wasn't implying a hands-off approach would be productive, but only to use your resources well.
posted by zennie at 2:40 PM on December 10, 2007

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