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Should the discovery phase for your website be in-person or remote?

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Andrew Ladd

Project manager

Like most businesses, we've spent the past year figuring out how to do things online that we used to do in person. That includes conducting "discovery", the all-important first step in any good website project. In a typical discovery phase, we spend hours — or even days or weeks — doing research with a project's key stakeholders. This could be anything from interviews, to idea-generating exercises, to problem definition workshops, to user testing... There are almost limitless possibilities, but most of them include sitting in a small room with more than six people, and sharing a lot of pens and post-it notes.

In other words, prime virus-spreading conditions.

Obviously we couldn't just stop doing discovery phases when the pandemic hit, so we had to adapt. After trying out a few different alternatives, we eventually settled on a tool called Miro, which is... Hard to describe, really. It's like an online whiteboard, wall, presentation, and chat room all in one — and most importantly, it has all the virtual post-it notes we need.

We've now used Miro to great success on a number of fully remote discovery projects: we've collected good data, kept projects on schedule, and most importantly our clients have enjoyed using it. In some ways we've actually found it better than in-person workshops, because for example we can do truly anonymous polls there. No more sheepishly keeping your hand down even when you disagree with the rest of the room.

All that said, for one of our current projects, we were recently reminded of just how valuable some in-person research can be.

Making sure the website fits the organisation, and not the other way around

Ely Cathedral's current site (as of July 2021) is several years old and, especially after the pandemic forced them to pivot online, was struggling to keep up with their needs. They engaged us early in the year to completely overhaul the site and build it into something more: a genuinely useful digital tool for their visitors, parishioners, and supporters.

We had a great couple of Miro sessions with them in April and May, teasing out and specifying their requirements. (It's a testament to how well Miro works that even after a full afternoon of video calls, everyone was still in a good mood!) At the end of all that, we came away with a detailed plan that we felt good about, which they approved without any major amendments. It seemed like we had it in the bag.

But then, with social distancing requirements loosening in June, we decided to take a belated trip to meet the Ely team in person. Are we glad we did!

First, a little more background on the project. One of the major goals we identified in our initial discovery work was making it easier for the people who worship at the cathedral to find information about upcoming services: who's presiding, which choirs are performing, what they're singing, and so forth. While the current site has a services calendar, it contains little information other than timings; to get the president and music information, users have to download an A3 PDF showing the service schedule for the upcoming two weeks. The PDF is difficult to find, and for obvious reasons an A3 PDF is not a user-friendly format for the web, especially on smaller screens.

We designed a whole new structure for bringing Ely's services online, tying programme content to calendar listings and inter-relating them across different sections of the site. Now, for example, someone reading about one of Ely's resident choirs or canons can immediately see a list of when they'll next be taking part in a service, and click through for the full details of that service; likewise, someone reading about tonight's services can easily find more information about the different people involved. These new digital pages were such an improvement over the current site, we were confident those A3 PDFs were going to be a thing of the past.

As soon as we walked into the cathedral, however, the first thing we saw was a bulletin board with a number of notices tacked up on it. Some of these were the normal church vestibule sort of thing — more about the choirs, local community groups, etc. — but right there, bang in the middle of the board, was that A3 PDF. When we asked about it, someone casually mentioned that, oh yes, those get printed out and left on all the seats as well.

In short, that PDF wasn't going anywhere.

<p>The A3 PDF in its natural habitat: the cathedral noticeboard.</p>

The A3 PDF in its natural habitat: the cathedral noticeboard.

This was a problem, because Ely Cathedral has a small team, and while the A3 PDF may not have been very user-friendly, it was staff-friendly — because it only required someone to take a single step, uploading a document that already existed anyway. We didn't want to create a mountain of extra work just to get that information into the website.

Instead, we went back to the drawing board and set up another mini discovery session with the people who actually create and use the PDF the most. Now we're building an export tool so that the service information still only needs to be entered in one place — the website — and from there it can still be easily exported as a delimited data file, which will in turn be easily imported into InDesign to continue creating that PDF. In short, we haven't created any extra work, just shifted where the existing work was being done.

Long-term we’re also planning to investigate whether service information can be imported directly to the CMS from the spreadsheet where the cathedral’s head of music actually plans it. But we never would have known any of this was necessary if we hadn't walked through the cathedral doors ourselves.

<p>A view from inside the cathedral's octagon tower.</p>

A view from inside the cathedral's octagon tower.

Reflecting the character of a cultural attraction through the website

A highlight of our trip to Ely was that we got to have a private tour of the cathedral's magnificent Octagon Tower with one of their tour guides, Jenny.

We'd all seen pictures of the Octagon already, of course, and read about it on the existing Ely Cathedral website. But again, getting that in-person experience with Jenny — and listening as she shared fact after fascinating fact while leading us up increasingly narrow spiral staircases — gave us a much richer flavour of the cathedral and its history.

That prompted us to revisit our initial page designs and consider how to reflect this tapestry of information on the site itself. Obviously we didn't want to give away all the detail of the tours ahead of time, but equally we wanted to give visitors to the website a better sense of what to expect. We also wanted to provide a fuller experience for the growing international audience Ely had attracted during lockdown via their livestreams — who might not ever be able to see the cathedral or attend a tour in person.

As a result, Ely staff now have the option to add a "fact" block to any page of the website. These will slot in anywhere, in a variety of different configurations, so that — like Jenny's asides when she noticed a particular stone or piece of graffiti on our tour — it's easy to show visitors that almost everywhere you look in the cathedral there is a deeper story to uncover.

Seeking design inspiration

One last bonus of our in-person visit to the cathedral was to give our designer more raw material to work with.

As part of the initial designs, he'd already drawn a number of custom icons for the site inspired by the photographs Ely had supplied to us. Visiting in person meant we could go around and take our own pictures of the subtler ornamentation and texture around the cathedral — and use these to inspire more of the site's custom icons that are truly unique to Ely.

Cultural attractions need in-person website discovery

We may never go back to doing fully in-person discovery sessions, because the online sessions really do work well most of the time. Online tools also let us expand our reach, more effectively serving clients anywhere in the world. And as much as we all enjoyed flying to Milan when we were building a new website for Goppion, virtual discovery is clearly more economical and environmentally friendly. It's also worth noting that if we're building a voting system for a TV awards show, there's not necessarily anywhere to visit that would provide us with any useful insight we couldn't get online.

But when we're building websites for a theatre or a cultural attraction, wherever possible we'll still try and visit our clients in person — so we can get that on-the-ground perspective that can mean the difference between a good website and a great one.

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