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Maximizing Design Firm Relationships by Managing Stakeholder Input

There are so many great ways for non-profits to maximize relationships with design partners. My last post addressed the budgeting process, and in this post I’ll talk about managing stakeholder input.

Website redesigns and re-branding efforts typically generate a lot of excitement. A website is one of, if not the most highly visible assets of any organization, and you’ll find that nearly everyone will have something to contribute. In fact, the sheer volume of opinions can be overwhelming. So how do you extract the signal from the noise?

1. Identify Key Stakeholders

First, make sure it’s not a free-for-all. Purposefully identify the people and groups that have a vested interest in or will be affected by a project. This varies greatly depending on your organization and the nature of the project, but some common examples of stakeholder groups on a web design project include:

• Organizational Leadership –Directors, VPs and C-level personnel. These high-level stakeholders are key to aligning project outcomes with organizational goals.

• Project Team Members – the people who have regular involvement and direct responsibility for the execution of the project. They are typically present at all working meetings and serve as a conduit for information to other groups. On a website development project, team members usually hail from the marketing and/or information technology departments.

• Content Contributors – Researchers, writers, marketing & communications, fundraisers, volunteer managers, membership management—nearly every department responsible for executing your organization’s mission will have content to contribute to a website. They may not need to participate throughout much of the project cycle, but there are key points at which they should be able to review the plan and give input.

• Administrators/Managers – those who will use or manage the end product. Often their job responsibilities change as a result of a new website or system. For example, if part of a website redesign involves the launch of an online store, who will be responsible for customer service and order fulfillment? If it’s not a new hire, existing staff members may need to be looped into discussions that will affect their job responsibilities.

• Operations – people who may not use the system directly but will be affected by it. To expand the example of an online store, the finance department may need to be aware of new bank accounts and credit card processing and settlements.

• Users/Customers – Obviously they won’t be dialing in to the weekly status meetings, but it’s important to identify your users as key stakeholders and consider their needs and perspectives throughout the project.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Your design partner may be able to suggest other groups to consider in your planning based on experiences with organizations similar to yours. Identifying stakeholders in terms of their relationship to the project is critical to managing the level and kind of input they contribute.

2. Incorporate Review and Feedback Sessions into the Schedule

You’ll probably notice that the majority of the stakeholders you’ve identified have responsibilities that are not the website project. We all struggle to maintain a balance between performing our main job duties and participating in projects or committees that aren’t “officially” in our job description. Mitigate the risk of stakeholder drop-out by setting expectations early on for what level of involvement they will have, and when.

Organizational Leadership has the greatest involvement early on in a project when discovery is taking place. High-level stakeholders provide the most value when giving strategic direction and set the overall course for a project.

Department heads, content contributors, and those in the organization who are impacted by but not directly involved with the project may be consulted in a group setting to elicit or validate functional requirements of the system. Depending on the size of the project, this may happen in a series of meetings shortly after Discovery has taken place, or in a single brainstorming session followed by a presentation of the results.

End users and administrators should be consulted early on so that their needs are incorporated into structural design and functionality of the site, and should become more heavily involved in later stages when user acceptance testing and training are the primary focus.

In addition to setting expectations for when stakeholders will be expected to provide input, be clear on the type of input you want them to contribute. The accounting department may have great ideas about the aesthetic of the site, but their main focus should be on financial processing implications and business needs.

3. Compile Useful Feedback

After any stakeholder meeting or info gathering session, you’re sure to be left with a ton of opinions, ideas, and suggestions. Avoid the temptation to pass it along in its raw from to your design partner. The results you get from the designer will be far superior if they are in response to quality feedback. Good feedback is:

• Appropriately timed – With each stage of the project, your design partner should explain the type of feedback they are looking for. Ideas that come too early distract from where the focus should be (e.g.: requesting a tabbed interface in response to a strategic brief) while ideas shared too late result in rework (e.g.: requesting a new feature during user acceptance testing).

• Internally consistent – There will be times when your internal project team disagrees on a particular course of action. Your design partner can facilitate discussion and help you come to consensus. However, it is not and should not be your designer’s responsibility to reconcile conflicting ideas or make business decisions on behalf of your organization.

• Focused on business needs, not personal preferences – If you have a preference for certain colors, typefaces, or imagery, try to consider them in the context of the business goals and user goals for the website. Allow your design partner to explain the rationale behind their choices. While you have the expertise about your organization and mission, your design partner’s value is seen in their ability to effectively communicate it to your audience.

By following these steps and engaging in open communication with your stakeholders and design partner, you’ll help to ensure that everyone feels that their voices have been heard and instill a sense of ownership and pride in the end result.

In my next post, I’ll discuss effective ways to measure the overall success of your website development project.

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