Actors portraying John Adams and Benjamin Franklin each hold one hand of a woman in a yellow dress and sing.
Brooks Ashmanskas as John Adams, Erin Kruse as Martha Jefferson and Christopher Bloch as Benjamin Franklin in the Ford’s Theatre production of 1776, directed by Peter Flynn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

7 Lessons from Ford’s Theatre Website Redesign

5 min read

Are you thinking about or in the process of redesigning your website? We want to share some lessons we learned when we redesigned our website

With the support of the Ford’s Theatre Board of Trustees and with the strategic vision developed in our institutional long-range plan and five-year digital strategy, we are taking steps to broaden our impact through digitally supported initiatives. Our first step in our digital evolution was developing a new, sustainable website, with an integrated ticketing and donation system that ensured our online customer experience complemented our on-site experience. Knowing that institutions have far more shared challenges than unique ones when approaching a website redesign, I’ve focused on seven lessons we learned to help inform and support others in their efforts to expand their digital reach and web presence.

The Ford’s and FastSpot team in a content workshop at Fords.

Lesson One: Create a content strategy before you start your redesign.

From the beginning, our lack of a clearly defined interpretive plan presented challenges when defining the information architecture, content and functionality of our new website. If we were to make one major adjustment to how we approached our website redesign, we would have invested additional time in reimagining content and prioritizing objectives before starting the process. Alternatively, we could have incorporated it into the discovery phase of the project. This would have helped us avoid being boxed in by current content and our old website’s structure, and provided a base of knowledge to help us anticipate functional needs and priorities.

Lesson Two: Have things in writing.

Communication is the key to a successful project. A good project manager should ensure that everyone involved has a clear understanding of the project. With so many moving parts and tight deadlines, it can never hurt to set the expectation from the beginning that everything needs to be in writing. As wonderful as modern project management tools are, things still do slip through the cracks. Each meeting should have a clear agenda and objectives to keep everyone on task. Designate a note-taker at each project management meeting to circulate a wrap-up of discussion points and assign action items. This will reiterate understanding and define responsibilities.

Before our redesign, looked like this.

Lesson Three: Establish your vision and goals.

Your internal team must define a unified vision for your new website and the institutional goals it will help achieve. Having support from your executive board and investment from a cross-departmental internal team from the project’s infancy creates feelings of mutual responsibility in the project’s success and ensures the project aligns with long-term organizational goals.

Lesson Four: Leverage your data and user stories.

When starting projects and initiatives that have the potential to cause internal disagreement (such as prioritizing content and overall vision), lean on data, user stories and your external website vendor to facilitate, mediate and guide major decisions. Test your assumptions with your users to validate your ideas or concepts. Your users are there to save you from yourselves.

Lesson Five: Develop a content schedule and creation process.

If you plan to have multiple content creators, develop a consistent process for creating and approving content. Take steps to ensure staff are properly trained and develop a content schedule, creation strategy and approval process to streamline internal communication and improve your online presence by having a consistent voice, scan-friendly content structure, search-engine-optimized information and focused messaging.

At Ford’s, we created all new content for our new site. Many different departments were writing website copy, and we found that trainings were fundamentally important. Writing copy for the web is difficult, different from other types of writing and may not come naturally to many otherwise great writers.

The NEW home page!

By providing time for training and workshopping, our team would have been more confident about their writing and would have sounded more cohesive  . The challenge of having many content creators means the possibility of having many different voices throughout the website. Consider having one copy editor to review and adjust the writing in order to conform to a voice and tone guide. If your organization does not have an audience-focused voice and tone guide, we recommend taking the time to develop one.

Students access the Ford’s Theatre Google Expedition in their classroom. Photo courtesy Trisha Goins (@heartinlife via Twitter).

Lesson Six: Test, and then test again.

As we created content and added website features, our team made an internal effort to test with different website user groups (such as teachers, historic site visitors, etc.), but this did not allow much time to make any large-scale adjustments. Build time throughout the process for formal testing that can be conducted by your external agency both pre- and post-launch. User testing can also be a strong tool to settle internal disagreements and assumptions about content needs and website components.

Lesson Seven: Listen to your users.

User feedback is extremely important when developing a new website and content. Solicit, listen to and evaluate user behavior online to avoid making decisions based on your own assumptions or preconceptions. Listening to our audience informed many of our content decisions and the way it was delivered. In our process, we solicited advice directly from teachers in helping to develop our learning tools and lesson plans.

Be mindful when there is user confusion; ask yourself critical questions about the design as well as the messaging points. So often, we try to solve all user confusion with copy edits and more explanatory text, but this doesn’t always work. Adding text can muddy the clarity of information; sometimes the issue is with the design.

Ready to start your own website redesign? Try our templates!

Our team has put together easy-to-download tools and templates that we found most valuable during this process. We have included: 

  • a rating matrix we used to assist us in evaluating and selecting our digital agency to partner with us on this project
  • a Kano-inspired graph to visually plot your digital agency candidates to help us select a finalist
  • persona templates to define audiences
  • an audience profile/user path chart

 Download Now

Recommended additional readings:

  1. Boag, Paul. (2014). Digital Adaptation. Smashing Magazine.
  2. Boag, Paul. (2017). User Experience Revolution. Smashing Magazine.
  3. Lencioni, Patrick. (2006). Silos, Politics and Turf Wars. Jossey-Bass.
  4. Nielsen, Jakob and& Hoa Loranger. (2006). Prioritizing Web Usability. New Riders.

Alysse Bortolotto is Lead Digital Content Manager for Ford’s Theatre.

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Alysse Bortolotto is Lead Digital Content Manager for Ford’s Theatre.


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