When colleagues from across the University come to us for help with their website, the first thing we ask them is: what’s your problem?
That sounds a bit rude and abrupt. Let me explain.
In any digital project or product this is the single most important question that needs answering. If there’s no problem to solve then there’s no work needed.
What do we mean by problem? What we don’t mean is that your website looks ugly, that it doesn’t look good on a mobile device, it doesn’t have the right tone, or that it’s not structured in a way that mirrors your team’s structure.
These aren’t problems, they’re solutions looking for a problem.
Let’s look at the first “problem”. Why do you think your website looks ugly? Have your users told you so or is just that you don’t like it? And if we make it look “pretty” why will that improve the work that you and your department do? Why will it help your website visitors to do the tasks you need them to do more easily?
You’ll find us asking “why” a lot. It’s the best way to get to the real pain point, to understand your real problem. This isn’t us being annoying, it’s a well known and effective problem-solving technique.
If you can’t answer these questions (or don’t want to) then you’re making a hefty assumption that (for example) changing the design of your website will provide any benefit to the University. That’s hard for us to justify.
People visit your website to do something, to complete a task. At a university, that could be any number of things like subscribing to your newsletter, enquiring about funding opportunities or applying to study.
Hopefully, these tasks are aligned to your business objectives. If they’re not, they should be. The role of your website is to encourage your users to do the things you need them to do and to make achieving them as easy as possible. It’s as simple as that.
If, say, you notice a drop-off in newsletter subscribers, a drop in people contacting you about funding, or a fall in applications then you have a real problem, a problem which we can help you fix. Your business objectives aren’t being met by your website.
For us then, a real problem is a problem your users have in doing what you need them to do in order to meet your business objectives. Fixing this might mean giving your website a lick of paint, changing its tone, making it responsive or rejigging your site structure.
Or it might not.
This is where we come in. By asking you why a lot, by talking to users, by looking under the bonnet of your website, by crunching the analytics we can tell you what the website can and can’t do to fix your problem.
We don’t expect all our colleagues in the uni to be digital specialists. They’ve got far better things to be experts in – like climate change, epidemiology, artificial intelligence. Let us be the experts. We’re the specialists. We’re paid to test your assumptions. Tell us the what and why (or help us help you find them) and we’ll work out the how.
In short, we don’t want solutions, we want problems.
Jeremy Torrance is the University’s head of digital comms.