Attack of the 50-Foot Website

Vintage claymation Godzilla attacking a city
Photo by Willrow Hood on Shutterstock.com

Have you ever started rebuilding a website and noticed that the existing site is an overgrown tangle of disjointed pathways, 404 errors, useless landing pages, and pointless interactions? Clients, partners, and fellow UXers alike can get buried under a mountain of disorganized content. Some even start a project with confidence that their templates, design system, or publication process had prevented this problem, only to be crushed when the reality sets in.

How the website had gotten so bad? Why couldn’t we just stick to the templates? What can we do so this doesn’t happen again with the next release?

It’s Alive!

As new business cases and needs arise, the templates get tweaked. Over time, these changes stack on top of each other until the templates are unrecognizable, or forgotten all together. Just as scope creep affects project timelines and feature creep warps the purpose of a product, template creep can distort a content strategy until meaningful content was no longer accessible.

How do we avoid being buried by the template creep monster? There are several things to keep in mind during a build, as well as when the website is being maintained.

During a Build

  • Acknowledge the problem Start by acknowledging the issue yourself, then (gently) educate your stakeholders on the pitfalls of site maintenance.
  • Assess content needs Although nothing will completely prevent template creep, you still need to research as much as possible. Be upfront and thorough when collecting business needs and content use cases.
  • Test templates with real content When you have settled on the layout, remove the lorem ipsum and plug in as many different variations as time allows. This will test the limits of the templates and help you create usage parameters.
  • Document and annotate Although reminding UXers to document is a lot like reminding dental patients to floss, our only real hope to stop rampant content is to write it down. Documentation helps us recall each page type’s intent, capabilities, and limitations. For small sites, this might be rolled in with development annotation, but larger rebuilds may require separate documentation for using the new site.

During Maintenance

  • Educate stakeholders on templates You will need backup to help maintain freshly organized content. Make sure the content publishers, the design team, and even the development team are familiar with the templates and what their purpose is. For designers and authors, having a framework can help spark the creative process.
  • Be intentional about deviations Sticking to your content strategy or design system doesn’t mean you can never do anything out of the box. But if someone says this page absolutely has to have an accordion instead of tabs or a testimonial video, make sure there is a clear and deliberate reason for this approach.
  • Don’t mess with important page types Every website has a core group of pages that are key for wayfinding, like category pages for an eCommerce site. Loading these pages with trendy designs and content is tempting because of their heavy traffic, but use caution. You don’t want your key pathways so cluttered that no one will use them. As your mother would say, keep your toys out of the hallway!

Preventing your content from turning into a monster is an active ongoing process. But if you can practice and put in the work, the next time your site is redesigned, your audit will reveal pristine content ready for the next iteration.

UX Architect in eCommerce. I love all things content strategy, IA, and accessibility. MS UXD and CPACC.

UX Architect in eCommerce. I love all things content strategy, IA, and accessibility. MS UXD and CPACC.