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How to Prioritize Website Improvements
by Marianne Kay
A website is never done. Like a garden, a website needs constant attention and care in order to flourish. Content updates, bug fixes, and security patches are maintenance jobs that must be done for the website to survive, in the same way garden plants need watering in order to grow. In addition to the basic maintenance, there are also constant opportunities for improvement.
My institution, the University of Leeds in the U.K., is an ultra-large organization with more than 1,000 websites, and the backlog of improvements for the university’s web presence contains hundreds of items. When the list is so long, it’s easy to see that not all items are equally important. For example, redesigning a legacy website so that it follows new design guidelines and complies with web accessibility regulations is a large and time-consuming task. Doing so involves multiple teams and a range of skills. Software upgrades are different; they are technically complex, but they only require experienced developers and testers to get the job done. Updating product fees is an example of a simple, straightforward, well-documented process. All of these tasks are important—all of them need to be done—but prioritization is hard because it’s difficult to compare them to each other.
To make prioritization easier, it is helpful to categorize long lists of items into groups by target audience (e.g., students, researchers, or industry), by project (e.g., student recruitment, sport, or outreach), or by the skills required to complete them (e.g., development, design, or copywriting). Several smaller lists are easier to work with than one very long list.
One reason why prioritization can be hard is that stakeholders see and approach the same features differently. Stakeholders have their own perspectives and agendas. However, prioritizing improvements for the whole organization means that stakeholders need to focus on the overall strategic goals, and prioritization frameworks provide good structure to do just that.
The three most commonly used prioritization frameworks are the Eisenhower matrix, MoSCoW, and RICE. The Eisenhower matrix is best visualized as four quadrants with tasks that are urgent and important (do it), urgent and not important (delegate it), not urgent and important (delay it), or not urgent and not important (delete it). The goal of this process is to challenge all of the requests in the “urgent and important” category and move as many of them as possible to the other three categories. The MoSCoW (must-have, should-have, could-have, or won’t-have this time) method is simple; it’s an effective, fast way of prioritizing long lists of items. The RICE (reach, impact, confidence, and effort) method relies on data and has more depth to it than MoSCoW, but it is also more time-consuming.
Requests that arrive in the form of, “Is it possible to deliver XYZ?” can be particularly tricky to prioritize correctly. These often come from senior management or the HiPPO (the highest paid person’s opinion) and suggest that the answer to the request should be as simple as yes or no. Within this question, there is a hidden assumption that neither prioritization nor further discussion is necessary. If XYZ can be done, that’s arguably all that matters.
Don’t fall for the implied urgency and simplicity of the aforementioned request. Your best bet is to provide a short, immediate response to confirm that you’re gathering information and that a full response will be given later. This buys you time to consider the proposed idea carefully and in more depth. The following are some questions you might want to ask yourself in order to turn your attention away from the HiPPO pressure and in the direction of a balanced evaluation:
- Will this improvement enhance user experience?
- Does it fit into the overall business strategy?
- Is it time-sensitive due to market conditions or industry events?
- How many users will benefit from it?
- Will it still be valuable in 3 years?
- What’s a rough estimate of the effort required?
- What’s a rough estimate of the business value?
- Is there money available to fund the development, as well as future maintenance?
- Do we have the skills to do it well?
No requests should go to the front of the queue unchallenged, and no requests should be assigned a high priority without justification.
Prioritizing your workload helps you to focus on the right activities and be more productive. A clear prioritization process reduces stress, improves motivation, and delivers business value. Organizations use frameworks (such as the Eisenhower matrix, MoSCoW, and RICE) to conduct efficient, high-level prioritization; however, more in-depth discussions rely on data and insights that may take time to gather. Keep in mind that priorities can and do change. The ability to respond to shifts in the market and to learn from mistakes is essential. However, if the prioritization process and criteria are clear, then prioritizing improvements frequently becomes an easy, well-practiced habit.