Things you learn when launching a large corporate site

On Friday night, circa 3am, our company launched the newly redesigned website of a large, fairly well known financial services company. It would be nice to be able to mention the company and link to the site, but I’ve been advised against it.

The new site features a fresh, clean design, clear and simple interface and loads of new functionality. The project turned out, in the end, to be monumental. At times, our whole company stopped and worked on this one project to get it done in time, and a few of us put in some late nights working on this one. To say that this project put our company under strain would be an understatement. I am told, however, that this has opened up a lot of doors to six-figure business next year (signed off!). Whether that is worth the strain is another story. Here are some thoughts from a designer’s perspective on delivering a large site for a large corporate client:

What was achieved:

  • A 3 column (fixed width) layout using pure CSS, valid semantic markup and no layout tables. Not the first we’ve launched, mind you, but challenging nevertheless.
  • Transfer and conversion of 1,196 pages of old CMS content to more semantic and valid markup in the new version of our CMS. The project entailed a main public site, around 100 sub-sites of financial planning partners, and a mini-site for a major sporting event that they sponsor. This was more difficult than anticipated. We were able to dump the data in OK but the formatting and some of the linkage was in bad old fashioned markup that got rightfully stripped out by our newer and relatively more intelligent Content Management System.
  • Designing and implementing the various design templates for the main site and sub-sites. (Incidentally, a large corporate extranet has been developed concurrently and is in the final stages of development.)
  • User tools including large/normal text resize, print and email to a friend. The text resize and the print functionality required custom stylesheets to be developed.
  • Delivery within a very tight deadline, especially given there was difficulty in initially getting the client to sign-off on designs.

What was learnt:

  • It’s very hard to design for multiple influential stakeholders with highly subjective outlooks. We went through four complete concept designs and the work of two designers (the second being myself) before we arrived at an agreeable outcome. (People generally have very different ideas of what constitutes ‘cutting edge’, ‘punchy’, etc.) Sometimes, when the client’s main concern is the exact aesthetic detail and not just the user and business objective of the site, it’s a matter of working hand-in-hand with the client to find out what it is they exactly want, and showing them your ideas every step of the way.
  • The fact that no amount of technical or operational detail is too much when scoping out a project. Having said that, there are always unforeseen issues and technicalities, that you learn to tackle with experience.
  • That some days you really miss table-based non-semantic HTML (but only in moments of despair and irrationality).

What is yet to be learned:

  • How to deal with a situation when the client is inflexible with the timeline, and when the timeline is pushed out by a great degree at certain milestones, in this case the design sign-off and the population of site content.

Anyway, a very big congratulations to the whole team involved. I designed the final templates, but this project was definitely carried off by the several team members who really put in the hard yards to make this work.

I’d be more than interested to hear any comments about similar experiences and ways of dealing with tough projects…