Crack the Code: How to Talk to Web Developers about your Media Website (Re)design

min read

Working on a website for your business can be an equally exciting and daunting prospect. Exciting, because it allows you to utilise new technologies for further development of your media business. Daunting, because the process itself is complex, time-consuming, and involves multidisciplinary teams who are not always the best at finding the same language.

But, worry not! 

The goal of this article is to help you better understand your needs and the whole process of website development. This will allow you to communicate your needs clearly and know what to expect and ask from your development team.

Everything I am sharing comes from the experience of someone who often has to be the bridge between clients and web developers. Making sure the clients’ needs are being heard and interpreted correctly, on one hand, and that the clients’ expectations about the process itself have been correctly set, on the other. 

In fact, over the last 6 years, as part of Alicorn agency, I have been involved in more than 40 web design and development projects for audiences across the globe, from landing pages to complex multilingual websites and AI-based tools. Most importantly for you, 8 of those were with media organisations across Europe, which allowed me to get a deeper understanding how media newsrooms work, what their key challenges are, and how we can help. 

Key Aspects of a Modern Website Design

There are many different kinds of websites out there, ranging in design, size and overall complexity. However, modern websites have a few things in common, which make them perform well. Let’s see what they are.

1. Mobile-first Design

In an age when a large majority of Internet users will visit your news website from a mobile device, having a responsive website, one whose content adjusts to different screen sizes, is no longer enough. When designing a website, try going mobile-first. 

Designers work on computer screens, big surface is easier to design for, and it is easier to put all of your attention on how great the desktop version looks and feels, even though your readers are mostly on mobile. This is why most of them start by designing websites for desktops first. However, while there are projects with a user base that is mostly on computers, they are few and far between. 

The difference between a desktop-first and a mobile-first responsive website is best seen in the picture below. Desktop-first websites take a design approach that starts with designing a desktop computer version of the website. Only once we are done with the desktop version, we make sure to carefully adjust the content for smaller screen sizes - laptops, tablets, smartphones. This is not an easy process and you will probably have to cut some of the content from your smaller screen versions as they just won’t fit.

Source:  Stéphanie Walter, Creative Common Licence Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On the other hand, when you are designing your website mobile-first, you start with the screen most visitors will see and make sure that their experience of using your news website is as intuitive as possible. Then, once you are happy with how everything looks on mobile, you start adjusting it for larger screens, maybe even adding some features as you go. With this, you want to ensure that your website's core can always fit the smallest of screens, and it is only enhanced as we go bigger.

Ultimately, it is much easier to fit something small into a bigger screen, than it is to do the opposite. The difference between the two approaches is often reflected in the user-experience of your readers.

2. User-friendly and intuitive

In order to make sure your website audience gets what they are looking for in the least amount of time possible, your website needs to be well-structured, easy to navigate, and accessible. This all contributes to the overall user experience of your website.

A big thing in ensuring a great user experience is simplicity. If you have a news website, your visitors are not coming to your website to be impressed by your creativity or the variety of colours and technical solutions implemented. They are coming to find information, which means that each page needs to have just the amount of information it needs, navigation buttons need to be visible and the reading experience itself needs to be calm and with as little interruptions as possible (I am looking at you, pop-up ads!)

Moreover, the design of your website needs to be consistent - the font, colours, headings, button styles, margins, backgrounds - from one page to the next. You want your website visitors to feel like they are within the same space, no matter the page they are on. This will help build their sense of trust and safety with your brand.

Finally, caring about accessibility improves the experience for everyone, not just for those who cannot use your website without it. For example - fonts that are readable by dyslexic people make your content readable for everyone. 

3. Fast-loading

Did you know that the average time spent on a webpage across all industries is 52 seconds? The importance of a fast-loading website is crucial for better user experience, SEO and conversion rate. 

If your website loads slowly, now is the time to address the issue, because it will not go away,  and will only get worse as you grow in users and content available. Slow website for the end-user often means sluggish performance for editors and administrators. You want them to spend their time working on great content, not wrestling with the slow panel.

4. Built keeping SEO in mind

SEO (or Search Engine Optimization) refers to the process of improving the visibility of a website on different search engines. In other words, the better your SEO is, the easier it will be for people to find your new website and its articles on search engines like Google, when searching for information they need. You should know that there is on-page and off-page SEO. 

On-page SEO is impacted by your website's content (pages, articles…) but also by the technical aspects (technical SEO) of how your website was built, which is something your developers will have to keep in mind. When you are working on your on-page SEO, you are thinking about ways to make it easier for search engines to crawl and index your site, so they can serve them to the right people at the same time. There are many things that impact your on-page SEO, such as the proper use of keywords, proper use of H1 tags, meta descriptions, internal links and other technical aspects. Not to mention, all the things we mentioned above - your website being mobile-first, quick to load, intuitive and easy to navigate - contribute to it as well. 

Off-page SEO is a bit less in your control as it refers to actions taken outside of your website, mostly taken by other people, that can impact your SEO ranking. Building inbound links, links coming from one website or online destination to your website, is the core of off-page SEO. Search engines such as Google look at inbound links as signals that other internet users view your website as a reputable and relevant source of information.

In a sense, the amount of inbound links your news website gets is a good signal for you as well, as it refers to how many people covered your stories on their sites, referred to them in articles of their own etc.

Before Your First Meeting with the Web Development Team

In the next few months, you will be working with a new team of professionals dedicated to helping you in the digital transformation of your business. You want to make sure to make the best of that cooperation. The best way to do it? Know where you want this cooperation to take you. 

Absolutely, you should rely on your development team to guide you in your thinking. To advise you on which ideas for your website would work well and which would not. To let you know when you are stepping outside of your designated budget and recommend alternatives. To warn you when the system you are thinking about will create just more work for you and your team down the line. But the team will be able to guide you much more effectively if you are upfront about your thinking, views, and expectations.

Before you have your first meeting with your team of web designers and developers, take some time to go over the questions I selected below. The answers you prepare will present great input and talking points with the development team and help set you on the right course and align your expectations.

How would you describe your media’s brand? 

To set the stage, share the story of your media - how and when did it start, what is your mission, what is the value you are trying to provide to your audience, what are you known for?

The goal here is for the development team to get an insight into how you want your newsroom to be portrayed - from the key website sections, to the colours used and the overall website feel. For example, take a look at the Radio Titograd’s website and then at the Boka News website. Both have a distinct brand feel - the images and overall impression they leave you with, and they are very different from one another.

If you had any recent brand changes, or are planning to undergo rebranding, this is a good time to share the information. It is also useful to share your brand style guide (also known as  a brand book) if you have it, or at least your logo and its colour variations in vector format. This will inform graphic design work later on.

What do you want to achieve with your media website?

A good web design and development team understands that they are creating more than a website - they are helping you build (or rebuild) your online home. And, as befits your online home, your website needs to accommodate all the different formats (text, photo, video, audio) of content you want to feature on your website, different revenue streams (display ads, subscription service, crowdfunding), and be able to grow with your media business. That is why it is crucial you share with your development team the main challenges you wish to solve with this website and how it fits into your overall media strategy.

For example, if your goal is to introduce a paid subscription service to your audience, even if this is a few months down the road, it is good to share it with the web development team right away. That way, they can build the features that support gated content and the subscription system from the start. Likewise, if you plan to introduce two new media formats and expect an increase in visitors, your web development team can advise you on the best hosting options that will allow you to upgrade your subscription as the number of your website visits increase.

Who is your audience? What is the key value you provide to them?

Now that you know what you are trying to achieve, you need to be very clear about who your audience is and what kind of experience you want to create for them. As a first step, you need to understand the demographics, interest and online habits of your audience. If you already have a website you want to redesign, you can rely on Google Analytics data, as it can show you your current website demographics, devices they are using to visit your website, most visited website sections and pages… If your media presence was focused solely on print media, radio or social media, you can rely on your previous experience in interacting with your audience. 

More often than not, you will have more than one audience and they will be searching for different things. For example, your audience may consist of your regular visitors, a new audience you wish to attract in terms of readership/viewership or perhaps potential business partners and donors. Each of those will come to your website expecting to see content that suits their interest. Your job is, of course, to make sure they find the information they need quickly and efficiently. 

As you start working on your news website design, you will notice that space on a homepage is rather limited and you will have to prioritise certain information over others. When doing that, it is very important to keep your audience and their goals and needs in mind, and prioritise your content accordingly.

(In case you have one) What are the current pain points of your existing media website?

Not only does your news website need to help your audience find the information they are looking for quickly and easily, it also needs to support your newsroom in content creation and publishing. The content management system (CMS) on which your website is built on needs to be intuitive and allow your team to publish stories with ease and with the frequency required. The last thing you need is for your team to be lost between a myriad of options and settings when they have only minutes to publish their story. 

So, if there are any glitches with the current website, in terms of style or functionality, it’s important for you to share them. 

(In case you have one) What is it that you love about your current media website?

Of course, there must be many things you love about your current news website as well!

Just as it’s important to share features of your media website that lead to frustration, it’s important to share all those features and solutions that make your work easier or that your audience appreciates. 

By sharing all the things you love, again whether they are a question of design or functionality, you will ensure they don’t get lost or overlooked during the redesign process. Hopefully, your web development team will help you make these moments of joy an even bigger part of your new website.

What are some good media website examples you like? What do you like about them?

C’mon, I know you have them! Just think about those times when you would visit a media website or any other website, and think to yourself - “oh, what a great idea, it would be great to have something like this on our news website!” Well, now is your chance!

Share examples of news websites you like with your web development team. Just make sure to make a note of what it is that you like and, if applicable, how it would fit into your existing processes. Maybe it’s the homepage layout, a clever way of inviting readers to sign-up for a newsletter or an enticing colour scheme. Try not to look for “I want to have this” things, but “I like how they solved the problem my users and I have” ones. You want to create solutions, not mix and match features you like. 

At the same time, please be open to compromise. Even after being involved on so many projects, considering that I am not a web designer or developer, sometimes it can be difficult for me to understand how certain features can be implemented in just a few days, while others require weeks of additional development, or introduce recurring costs that make them not worth it.

You might fall in love with certain elements of another media’s website not knowing just how large of a budget or how much time went into its development. But even if those resources are not available to your project, that does not mean you can not get to a pretty good solution, one that serves the same or similar purpose, in communication with your development team.

Where is your news website currently hosted? Do you have access to your website domain and hosting account?

In case you have a website already, and there is some content that will need to be migrated to a new one, it will be very helpful to your web development team to get access to your web hosting service and the server it is using. That way, they will be able to evaluate the state and capacities of your current hosting package and advise you if they think that your new website will require something different. 

Also, make sure you have access to your media business’ domain name. Too often, I have encountered a situation where a business owner has no access to its website’s domain name. Considering that a domain name is the online address of your business (in the case of Journalift this is Journalift.org), having access to it is crucial. This situation happens for many reasons, but the most common one is that the business owner worked with a web developer in the past, one who registered their domain and never transferred it to the owner’s account. In cases when this happened years ago, it can get pretty difficult to get to those people now. 

So, if this is your first time working on a website for your media business, make sure your domain names are either connected to your own registrar account (registrar companies, such as GoDaddy, are where you go to register domain names), or that you have a service contract with the development team protecting your interests.

This step is painful, as it means contacting people about highly technical things that may interrupt the operation of the website. Try not to rush it. Think about the maintenance. Are you going to have your team of developers continue to maintain, backup and care about the security of your website? If the answer is no, talk to them about finding a managed hosting that will, for a small charge, make backups and do basic routine maintenance to keep the website secure and running.

What Can You Expect from the Media Website Development Process?

As you might expect, every project is a story in itself. However, there are some stages of web development that remain the same for everyone. Here is what each one entails and what level of involvement it requires from you.

1. Needfinding

This marks the very beginning of your project, when you are getting to know the team that is going to be working on your website and, most importantly, when the team is trying to uncover your needs. It is likely you will organise a series of meetings or even workshops, all with the goal of getting a clear image of what this cooperation will entail for both you and your development team. 

And the good news? You already know some of the questions that you will be going through together! 

2. Wireframes

Humans are extremely visual beings. Once you start talking about colours, fonts, images, shapes and animations - there is no going back to talking about the importance of every piece of information, their relation and distribution. Do not talk about nice and fancy stuff yet! 

Wireframes can be best described as grayscale blueprints of your website pages, there to ensure you take into account all key sections and functionalities of the website, as well as their layout, without thinking about the design. As the next stage in the process, your development team, led by the user-experience (UX) designer working on the project, will send you wireframes of the key pages of your news website, starting with the homepage. 

Why is this important? 

If we show clients the suggestion for the website design right away, the entire conversation focuses on colours, fonts, icons and other design elements. That is great, but at this stage, we need to be talking first about the paths your audience takes to get to the information they need, the key sections of the website for featuring different types of content, and all the other ways information will be structured and organised.

Expect to have several back-and-forths with the team until you get clarity on all the key points. Many web development agencies allot for 2 rounds of revisions of submitted wireframes.

However, it happens that even after we explain this entire process to clients, they still get stumped. So my message here for you is - trust the process! Do not react to wireframes with “I don’t want my website to look like this”. It is easier to make big changes to your media website concept and structure at the wireframe stage than later once mockups are done. Not to mention once the website has been actually built.

3. Mockups

After deciding on key functionalities and technical aspects of the website, we come to the “fun” part! It’s time to talk - graphic design. 

This is where we talk about the colour scheme and define visual elements, fonts, transitions and animations. As part of this process, the UX designer will create mockups of the key pages of the website, again starting with the homepage. Mockups represent a static image of what your media website will look like after the development is done. In fact, once you approve mockups of your news homepage and other key website pages, they will be sent to web developers who will turn them into your media website.

Same as with wireframes, expect a couple of rounds of revisions with the team until you agree on the final design. Your responsiveness here is crucial as it will greatly determine how long this development phase will take. 

4. Production

Once you have approved the mockups, web developers will start working on the development of the website. This is the phase that lasts longest and, while it requires the least of your input, it requires patience.

It is very likely that your web development team will work on the website for several few weeks before completing a beta version that you can take a look at.

5. (If you already had a media website, the next step is) Content Migration

If you are redesigning a website, in order to ensure your media archive is available on the new website, your web development team will have to undertake a migration process parallel to the production. When you are migrating large quantities of content from one server to another, or sometimes even one CMS to another, it is very difficult to estimate how long this process will take, so again patience is crucial.

In some cases, the team will have to try migrating the content several times before they manage to get all the parameters right that will ensure all the content is transferred and that it retains its integrity in the process. This is a very complex process and it is best not to rush it.

6. Testing (and final fixes)

After many weeks, and even months of working on your website, it can be very tempting to want to launch your new media website as soon as it becomes ready for viewing. I know it’s tough, but hold your horses! 

Before sharing your media website with the world, it needs to undergo a serious testing process, on behalf of the web development team but also on the behalf of your team. This is the time when you test all the links making sure they lead where they are supposed to, ensure all the key pages are showing what you want them to, and that the website itself is opening correctly on different screen sizes and operating systems.

7. Onboarding

Most newsrooms have a pretty intense and strict posting schedule. This means that, as soon as your website is launched, you need to be able to hit the ground running. That is why it is very important to get the necessary onboarding and learn how to use your new website before its launch.

8. Launch

Finally, the moment we have all been waiting for - website launch!

In case you are replacing your existing website, work with your web development team to agree on the best time for a launch. This will most likely be late in the evening/early morning when your website is seeing the least amount of traffic. 

In any case, as a fail-safe measure, it is recommended to schedule website launches for Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. In that case, if you see some last minute changes that need to be made, or something goes wrong (and something often will) there is enough time to get to them before the weekend, so you can enjoy your well-earned rest!

If you remember just one thing…

This was long, I know. So If you remember just one thing from everything above, let it be this: Make your life, and the life of your development team, easier by being as specific and detailed as possible about what you need. Leave as little as possible to interpretation, ask for clarifications about the website development process, and work with your team to find the best solution for your media business. 

Sanja Gardasevic is the CEO of Alicorn, a digital marketing agency that provides clients with a full range of services related to strategic brand development and managing their online presence. Sanja has extensive experience in designing and conducting workshops and training on digital marketing, as well as providing mentorship support to media companies in developing their online businesses.

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