Lessons learned from a redesigned news website and new CMS

It’s been three months since we launched the redesigned elkharttruth.com and transitioned into a new content management system. The new website is a tremendous upgrade. Among other improvements, the site is more visual, easier to navigate and works on every device.

But the launch didn’t go as smoothly as I had anticipated. This blog post contains some lessons for other folks and similar companies who intend to go through this process. We learned some lessons the hard way. Hopefully you won’t have to too.

Lesson 1: Build a diverse team.

The redesign team consisted of me and one designer, two colleagues from the advertising department and a handful of other journalists. We worked as a team from the start, knowing that we needed to make the journalism as accessible as possible while somehow creating a positive user experience and building room for advertisers. It was no easy feat, but we came to agreements fairly quickly at every major point. As a smaller, family-owned newspaper company, we don’t have a large IT department or a team of web developers. We kinda-sorta didn’t know what we were doing, but we knew what we wanted and we figured it out. While lessons 2 and 3 were painful for us, I’m very happy with our website and how things turned out. The takeaway? Start with a strong team. Any one of us could have attempted to redesign elkharttruth.com solo, but the strength of the team helped accomplish much more.

Lesson 2: Don’t (mess) up the content.

The second lesson seems simple enough. I actually learned this lesson the hard way during my time at Patch.com—when we transitioned to a new CMS, we lost all multimedia content—but I apparently didn’t learn enough. When we flipped the switch on the new elkharttruth.com, several story pages broke. No one could access those pages because old links didn’t redirect to new ones correctly. It took several weeks for us to resolve this issue fully simply because we didn’t plan ahead for it. Some of the consequences are obvious, like the inability to click to older stories while navigating the site, but an even bigger problem is worth remembering here: Google results were useless. Someone would click on a search result that led to elkharttruth.com but were met with a 404. When Google accounts for 40 percent of referral traffic on most news sites, you can imagine how painful it is to serve up so many dead pages via search. The takeaway? Make sure your old links map to new ones correctly before launching the new site.

Lesson 3: Check load times (and leave yourself plenty of testing time). 

Prior to my arrival at The Elkhart Truth in Sept. 2013, the company was in the midst of a redesign process. The last redesign had occurred in 2004, back before news websites needed to consider social media, tablets and mobile audiences. The current redesign wasn’t going as planned, however, which meant my redesign team was behind deadline out of the gate. We ended up launching the site before giving ourselves plenty of room to test load times. After launch, many pages didn’t load correctly. Some pages would take 10 or more seconds to load. The cause of the problem remained illusive for a couple weeks—during which we saw our traffic numbers plummet—but then we discovered it was a few JavaScript and database errors. Once those problems were fixed, our traffic numbers surged back to normal levels. The takeaway? If only we had given ourselves a couple weeks to test on a stage site, we wouldn’t have had to experience and fix these problems on the fly.

Lesson 4: Be helpful to your readers and ask for suggestions. 

Some readers didn’t like the new design. Others were understandably frustrated at the site’s initial performance. Most just needed help understanding what was different and why. It was important to us that we spend as much time as necessary to help readers transition into the new site. After all, elkharttruth.com isn’t our website — it’s our community’s. I took a lot of emails and phone calls for the first few weeks. And by asking for suggestions and feedback during every conversation, I learned very quickly what improvements we should focus on next. The takeaway? Remember to give yourself (and your team) plenty of time after launch talking with your audience. Nothing is perfect out of the gate.

Lesson 5: Look ahead.

This is the most important lesson of them all. We knew we wouldn’t be going through another major redesign for many, many years, so we worked hard to create a strong foundation that could be adjusted as necessary in the coming months and years. We didn’t add any design gimmicks that are flashy right now but will become outdated within months, and we purposely kept the design simple and clean because we know our audience here in northern Indiana. As a result, our website works on any screen size on any device. Now as the needs of our company and community change, so too can our website. Is it the best designed website? Not at all, but I hope it will be eventually (by the way, if you have any suggestions for our new website, I’d love to hear from you!).

I hope this is helpful for those of you who intend to redesign your company’s website. I’m definitely not an expert, but I’m here to help if you have any questions. Hit me up on Twitter or via email.

Ryan Martin is The Indianapolis Star's editor of breaking news and public safety. He previously worked as managing editor of The Elkhart Truth in northern Indiana and associate regional editor of Patch.com in St. Louis.

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