If yours is like many, if not most, businesses these days, you are confronting a nasty little problem right about now: your website is a trash fire. Whether due to technical reasons, an obsolete design, or because it was built to do one thing but now needs to do another, it is time for the inevitable redo. Oh joy.

In our case, it was for pretty much every reason imaginable. In fact, our situation was so bad it took me a whole year to scrape up the courage to take it on. Besides, we had bigger problems--like launching another new product. And staying in business.

Eventually there was no more pushing it off, though, so I did what I do best: I put on my propeller beanie and went to work. As a coder, I'm naturally analytical and process oriented, so the first thing I did was take a broad look at both my direct competitors. Then my team and I went through a sort of reverse-engineering exercise, comparing about ten product-oriented websites across a whole range of styles, visual treatments, and various levels of customer engagement. Pretty soon I started to realize that they were all built from basically the same components. But after several weeks of iterating with my team, the point of our site still seemed vague; the design seemed to get in the way. And as a group we couldn't agree on the story we were trying to tell.

Then, over the Christmas break, our COO read Donald Miller's Building a StoryBrand, a book-length framework for understanding the ways humans are hardwired to receive information in the form of stories, and how that fact should govern all our attempts to sell stuff to them. "All great stories are about survival--either physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual," Miller writes. "[I]f we position our products and services as anything but an aid in helping people survive, thrive, be accepted, find love, achieve an aspirational identity, or bond with a tribe that will defend them physically and socially, good luck selling anything to anybody."

He goes on to note that "the second mistake brands make is they cause their customers to burn too many calories in an effort to understand their offer." Another issue with which we were all too familiar.

The first insight was huge for us (and in the end helped us solve the second problem as well). Here's how we used StoryBrand and other tools to reimagine our story--and our site:

Get aligned

I had every member of our team read StoryBrand. That shared framework made it possible for all of us to agree on the overarching message of the story we were telling and begin exploring ways to tell it.

Break it up

Drawing on our competitive analysis, I sketched our site as a series of divs (developer speak for the individual conceptual units or "divisions" that make up a site), noting how each div functioned to introduce (and, implicitly, sell) the product in question: beauty shot, testimonial, technical specs, price list, and so on. This allowed me to visualize how the sales pitch unfolded as a user experienced the site.

Strip it down

We then pared our story down to the bare bones, using dull grey boxes to represent each div. That made it much easier to assess how the language and function of each moved our story forward. Once we all agreed on the narrative, we could evaluate which visuals moved that story forward and which got in its way.

Check your tech

Partway through the process, we realized that WordPress, which we'd been happily using for years, no longer fit our needs. While WP required a consistent dedication of engineering labor to keep it updated and on track, SquareSpace allowed us to keep that talent focused where we needed it.

Stand back

With the arc of the story clear and concise, I got the hell out of the way and let the designers do their thing.

Mobile first (and last)

Chances are, your user is going to be looking at your website on a phone. Test drive your site in all sorts of conditions and solve any issues that arise asap. If users have a bad mobile experience, all your efforts were pointless. Speed wins.

Turn on

Simple as it sounds, enabling customer web chat has been a game changer for us. Not only has it been an incredible tool for troubleshooting, debugging, and rapid iteration, but it has also led to many sales leads.  

The blink test

Someone should be able to see your website above the fold and have a rough understanding of what you do. If they do not, you have a problem.

Published on: Jun 6, 2018