Balancing design with functionality - learnings from our new website project.
If you ever want to test the methodology of an approach you apply to projects, build a website! At Chow:Hill, we undertake every project with three core pillars: Connect, Collaborate, Create. And these pillars certainly came to the fore when we embarked on the new Chow:Hill website you see online today.
It’s been a work in progress for our team – and others – over the past 12 months. Now that it’s live, and the celebratory cups of coffee have been enjoyed, we wanted to share some of the design insights we’ve learned along the way.
Learning #1 Connect with professional design expertise
As architects, design is our passion. It’s what we do, day in and day out. However, our design expertise is cemented in the built environment, not the digital realm. That sphere is very much the domain of digital designers and rightly so. This meant, the first step in our website build journey was connecting with those who could provide a different perspective on our brand. A team with the design expertise that could shape the vision we had for our website and transform it into a contemporary digital platform.
“Finding a website designer with the expertise we needed meant we first had to clearly define the parameters for our web build project,” explains Chow:Hill director, Jane Hill. “This provided a great opportunity to be on other side of the fence, writing a project brief rather than designing to one. The need to establish a clear project direction challenged us to hone in on the core purpose of our website refresh, the key outcomes and desired look and feel of the new site. In essence, we carried out the same type of gap analysis we would when developing the brief for a built environment, analysing our existing site and identifying the ‘pain points’ for the current user experience that we needed to address.”
Invest in time up front to plan the project and clearly define your brief. Treat it as you would any physically built design project - confirming the brief, building the team, and developing the programme.
Learning#2 Collaborate with the right team and the use the right tools
Given the significance of this project, it was important to us that we assembled the right project team. We took our time to find a creative group of people who understood what we were trying to achieve, weren’t afraid to push a few boundaries, and who we enjoyed working alongside.
“A collaborative approach was fundamental for us,” says Jane. “We wanted to work with people who would both listen and challenge us, be open to exploring ideas and not afraid of a bit of iteration along the way!”
That collaborative approach extended to the use of project planning and tracking tools. Our ones of choice were Microsoft Teams and Trello. We also shared access to Webflow, our chosen digital platform.
We also wanted our internal team to feel connected to the project, we therefore provided regular status updates, ran small focus groups throughout the design phase and opted for a soft, internally focused launch to gather first impressions. This first internal critique, (from a team of skilled designers!) and the suggestions for a slight tweak here and there proved invaluable to achieving the website online today.
Make sure the design team AND the design tools are aligned with your project purpose, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Provide regular project updates along the way and build in time for a soft launch -you won’t regret it!
Learning#3 Create a design that enables and inspires engagement, activity and ownership
When it came to designing the website, our creative minds were abuzz with ideas, but having the expertise of a team around us ensured we focused on the ideas that were functional in digital space. This focus on the end user experience led to a strongly prototype-based approach, working to test and evolve each section of the website before rolling out a design idea across the entire site (hence why we needed a team who weren’t afraid with a bit of iteration!)
“This approach enabled us to fail fast and resolve as needed,” explains Jane. “We were very aware that we wanted to create a site that would have both longevity and life, designed in a way that was easy to access and use and easy to refresh - living portfolio for our team. We wanted to create a website with a great user experience for both internal and external users.”
Seek and welcome feedback continuously. Once a website is live, it’s by no means complete. It’s very much a living thing. We’ll therefore continue to update, edit and add to ours, and welcome your feedback on how we could enhance your user experience on the site.
Finally, and most importantly, a very big thank you!
Special thanks go to Jonathan (Jono) Cook at Neon Hive for his creative digital design guidance and collaborative website building approach, photographer Amanda Aitkin for capturing the life and energy of our projects, Margaret Maney, Chow:Hill’s Communications & Strategy Co-ordinator for her digital project management and bringing it all together on time and on budget, writer and editor Ann Graham and Jeanine Graham for their incredible skill in creating with words, and HGB for their strategic design advice to get the project moving at the outset.
March 23, 2021