GHDR Review 2: New Website, Increasing Opportunity

GHDR Review 2: New Website, Increasing Opportunity

Hello resolution makers! Today, April 4, is the second review day of Groundhog Day Resolutions 2013. This past month was spent fixing my website so visitors to davidseah.com would have a better browsing experience, and so they could (nudge nudge) find the products I’m offering for sale. It’s all part of my general push for creative independence and self-sufficiency. The “month of marketing” was frustrating and also mentally draining, but I learned a lot and have managed to deliver. Read onward for the details.

The Marketing Challenge

I declared March to be a month of marketing work, specifically to make the following benefits visible to site visitors:

  • What you can find to solve a particular problem
  • What fun things Dave is doing that you might like too
  • How to buy, download, or participate
  • What longer-term engagement is available on davidseah.com if you discover I’m in your tribe of interests and values.

I’ve always found it difficult to describe what it is I do in easy-to-understand terms that I liked. Partly it’s because I don’t like feeling pinned-down, but it’s also because I still haven’t figured out what the most accurate labels are. I consider these issues of “branding” and “identity”.

I also have not been sure what the best way to reorganize my website would be, as I haven’t had a clear picture of audience usage. After 7 years of running the site, though, I think I certainly have enough information to draw some conclusions. There’s been an increase in comments too, both here and on the Facebook page, which have been very helpful in identifying what people are excited by. Combined with web analytics, I have a better idea of what the “market” is, and what might best serve a specific set of interests.

The Process

I kept my running notes public in this daily note document, and it’s a log of what I’ve done. I’ve also distilled higher-level observations into a series of articles collected on the March 2013 Challenge page.

In general, I started with a 15M burst on this project, which would usually extend through the entire day. A few times I spent only 15 minutes due to other commitments, but otherwise this was my full-time focus. However, I decided to take weekends off, which is a change from my previous monthly challenge. I was curious to see how that would affect my focus, and I think there was no harm done.

On a side note, the 15M burst is part of the Momentum Maintenance ritual I’ve been practicing for the past four months. It’s worked out pretty well, though we have taken a break from the 715A waking time for this month. Knowing the power of this ritual helped give me the confidence to take on the great big hairy problem of fixing my website.

What Got Done

While I was expecting a challenge, the reality of the project was that it was at times intensely frustrating due to my impatience. There were many moments where I was unclear about what to do next, or disappointed with the progress I was making. It also occurred to me that I wasn’t as good at this as I remembered or thought, which raised the possibility that perhaps I was just not good at website design, marketing, programming, and so forth. There were some fairly dark days, though not so dark as to crush my spirit. I did take a lot of power naps, though! I also cooked a lot more comfort food than I usually do, and spent practically all my time indoors; I spent only 50 bucks in gas for the entire month.

Here’s a quick review of how the month unfolded. For more detailed notes, see the March 2013 Challenge page for links to review posts.

Week 1: Content Strategy

This went well and felt very productive. I reviewed what I knew about my website and which content had been most popular. I had some new insight on download popularity as well, which spoke for the silent users. From these insights, I derived a list of audience groups and their interests.

I next looked at myself, seeking areas of overlapping interest between myself and the audience groups. Because I want my ongoing efforts to be sustainable, they have to involve activities that engage my curiosity and generate energy. The crowning achievement was this diagram, which mapped everything that I thought would work.

The next step: convert the diagram into an actual website. With the mapping diagram, it should be easy!

Week 2: Tackling Visual Look and Feel

The first stage of making the website, I figured, was to address the front page. A great front page would establish, in a matter of seconds, what I was all about (as described in the diagram) and provide portals for exploration of key content that lead to a desirable interaction: a bookmark, a referral, a purchase, a download, or communication with me.

I had forgotten, though, how long it takes me to do visual design. I started with a review of my available photography, looking for suitable images of my interests and work that could go onto the front page. Perhaps predictably, I didn’t find anything that really seemed strong enough to anchor a page. Doh.

I next tackled some information architecture (IA), using the mapping diagram as the guide to determine what went where. This is where I started to become frustrated: there’s a huge difference between content strategy and actual design. The kind of design I do depends on intent behind a specific message. I’m great at seeing relationships between defined concepts and organizing them as such. However, if the message isn’t yet defined, then the visual design process is very frustrating. I didn’t realize it at the time, though, and therefore was intensely irritated at just how SLOW and CRAPPY the process was going. I did eventually get something designed, but I wasn’t quite happy with it. However, the voice of experience assured me that in time, this would be resolved. Or so I hoped. My major victory for the week was having forced myself to do it despite the discomfort.

It’s been maybe 12 years since I’ve had to do day-to-day interactive design work, and I’d forgotten that it ALWAYS takes me a long time to make something I’m pleased with. The minimum amount of time to get from concept to polished screen seems to be about 40 hours. That seems like a long time, and maybe it is compared to more practiced graphics veterans. I have no idea, but beating myself up over it isn’t going to make the work go any faster.

Week 3: Dealing with Frustrating, Switching to Content Development

After resting over the weekend, I started the week by addressing my feelings of frustration. I realized that I was overwhelmed by the number of decisions I was allowing myself to make on-the-fly, without regard to which role was most appropriate.

I took a couple of days to reassess my approach. To make the project seem more doable from a technical perspective, I decided to reduce the scope from “new website” to “improving the current website”. I looked for solutions I could wedge into the existing site foundation, so I could deploy sooner than later.

The real issue, however, was the content, specifically the message: what actual copy was I going to write about specific topics/products, and what specific images would I use? Once I had those bundles of content, I could then lay it out in the blocked-out areas of my website mockup. I spent most of the week writing lists during my 15M push, and refining them over the days.

It later occurred to me that I was wearing multiple hats as boss, manager, creative director, art director, artist, copywriter, marketing manager, web designer, web developer, usability expert, and design integrator. Each role has with it a set of concerns and demands, and I was not being methodical about wearing just one (or two) hats at a time. It’s not very fun to try to make something cool if someone is constantly telling you that there’s a deadline to meet, or that such-and-such an idea might create problems with a certain demographic before it’s even tried. Once I realized that this was going on, I was able to put on the right hats at the right time and “protect” my creative time from my management time.

What was preventing me from moving forward, I then realized, was that I was anxious about talking about myself in a promotional manner, and this was a major contributor to stress. Putting on my project manager hat, I talked myself off the ledge and re-iterated what I believed in: that just talking about what I did and what I thought about it was all that I’m doing, and that this approach would work just fine. Just share. Just show. I didn’t need to worry about crafting fancy statements to build up my importance in the eyes of the unknown audience. Instead, I could just say what I’m interested in and why, backed with a sense of quiet humor.

Week 4: Pushing Through Design

With the competing voices in my head quieted to some degree, I shifted toward development of the specific technical features and supporting content. Since I still didn’t have clarity on exactly what that was, the first step was just to make something and see what it looked like; this is the working through the uncertainty part of the creative process that I’ve only recently become confident in.

I started by implementing a skeleton HTML/CSS front page within my existing WordPress theme, SEAH_UNIFIED. It took several hours to resolve the basic structural problems of the CSS, and I learned a few new nuances regarding “CSS floats”. I happen to dislike CSS as a markup technology because, well, I think it’s a stupid design in many respects, so it was a challenge to even force myself to learn more about it. But having done that, I’m more capable and self-sufficient creatively: +1 for creative independence!

After that, it was just a matter of styling each individual content area. Creating the new header, with its collection of overlapping DIVs, went smoothly with my newly-solidified understanding of CSS floating and clearing, and I was able to resolve some long-standing layout gotchyas that had confused me before. Once the header was in place, I made a set of Pinterest-style boxes where my products could be shown in a row. This created a working web page with content at the top and the bottom. I also took the time to take a new header image, showing of a whole bunch of things that I thought would say something about me as an eclectic and somewhat technical creative person. This helped make the design seem real.

With a header and a product footer in place, I again faced the bugaboo of content: What was I going to put in the middle sections? I needed a list of posts, some rotating picture banners, and a few words about myself. How to design these areas without having actual content? I decided not to worry about specific content and just work with placeholder content to get a feel for it, trying one or two different approaches and hating them. It became apparent to me that the amount of text that was appearing on the screen was a turn-off, so I looked for alternative ways to get the message across. I added in two kinds of graphic sliders, and ended up with a design that I was fairly happy with.

While all this was going on, I also wrote, rewrote, and rewrote again the copy that describes “creative independence”, and realized that it fit better when moved up to the top of the page just under my banner. It had to be short, engaging, and set the tone of the website. It’s my voice, my words of welcome, my invitation to stick around and get to know me. I’m still rewriting it every time I look at it; it must have changed at least 50 times in the last two days as I add/remove words.

In hindsight, this is the kind of work that I feel is the best personal balance, as it involves both practical implementation skills and design insight. As I had ideas about better ways to present the design, I could then turn around and put on the technical hat and make it happen. Though I am really impatient and don’t really enjoy doing the technical work, I can get it done when I’m able to put aside my displeasure and focus on taking the time I need to both learn and implement a solution cleanly; this is the consolation prize. It’s real work and consumes a lot of time, but it’s also rewarding.

Week 5: Final Deployment

The entire previous week just covered the HOME PAGE; this is the first page you see now when visiting davidseah.com. To recap its purpose, it is intended to quickly tell people who I am, what I’m about, and showcase a few choice pieces of content to read or purchase. The rest of the website, which includes the main blog index, all the subjournals (which are implemented as individual blogs), and the navigation that links them all together. There’s also the Productivity Tools page, which is implemented as a custom post type.

I spent the past several days converting my prototype home page into something that would co-exist with the rest of my template. I modified quite a bit of code, added some new functions, and got my feet wet with integrating jQuery into the template structure in a less-insane fashion than I had before. I also had to make actual content pages for products and selected content, which I kept to the absolute minimum using what photography I already had. Once everything seemed ready to make live, I merged the changes from my test area into the main theme, screwing it up once before getting everything in place last night.

Suddenly, the burden is gone. Opportunity beckons!

Postmortem

Although I didn’t track time rigorously, I estimate that I spent about 100 hours on this over the past month. There were 25 days of production according to my log, and I would say I averaged 4 hours a day.

There are elements of the design I am pleased by, and others that need work. What I have now, simply put, is a new piece of real estate in the form of my home page. It’s the new sign post, telling people what I do. And most importantly, it has new areas that can SHOW what I’m doing without having to scroll through miles of text. It seems like such a small thing, when i describe it like that, but it is the beginning of a more engaging website that is unafraid to declare what I stand for.

I’m not done by any means. There is MUCH content to generate, collect, and promote in the new home page areas. Content design and presentation is a new area to explore too; I haven’t done marketing graphic design before, so this should be interesting.

Technically, there is also work I need to do to improve the interaction experience on the bottom-most product slider; this means learning more Javascript and jQuery to implement some custom rollover behaviors. There are a few bugs and some additional copywriting chores too, the complexity and outcome of which are completely unknown to me at this time. I know that if I start them, I can finish them if I accept it takes time and mindful management of which roles I’m assuming at a given time.

Expressed in another way: I have a new toy, and it’s time to play.

The Month Ahead

The month of April will be busy with other commitments. There are a few client projects that I need to get back to, and I have a a dozen emails in my contact mailbox to answer in depth. Dad’s also coming to visit for two weeks from Taiwan, so I have to clean the house and plan some activities with my sister.

That said, I must remember why I reengineered the website in the first place:

  • Increase Engagement – I can measure this in page views, unique visitors, and referrals with Google Analytics and Mint. Also, I can see if there is an increase in email inquiries.
  • Increase Opportunity – With a more organized website showcasing more of my work, perhaps there’s an as-yet unimagined connection to be made! That’s what I really love about having a blog.
  • Increase Sales – I can measure this by sales on Amazon and Gumroad…if they go up, that is a good thing. That’s the whole point.

Sales is the most important for me, financially speaking. I’m trying to get this to the point where I’m making about $100/day, which would allow me to start paying off debt. I’ll also be able to put my time into projects that would pay off: the iPad applications, other kinds of design work, and who knows what else.

So, let’s say that this month’s challenge is to increase engagement, opportunity, and sales. I have a baseline now; let’s see what I can do to move the needle by using the new website design. I find the idea kind of frightening; I’m not sure of the new website is actually better or will be capable of doing what I ask of it. I’m too close to it. I do know, though, that making good content available to people is the root of success; my content strategy can be summed up as be a bright spot on the Internet and offer simple transactions. So let’s see if that holds true.

That’s it for now! Thanks for reading!


Groundhog Day Resolution Posts for 2013

Here are other posts about Groundhog Day Resolutions for the 2013 season.

  • 02/02 Kickoff - Setting 30 Products in 30 days.
  • 03/03 Review - The Aftermath of 30 Products in 30 Days; What's Next?
  • 04/04 Review - New Website, Increasing Opportunity
  • 05/05 Review - Winding down a long chain of external commitments, getting ready for a hopefully-productive month.
  • 06/06 Review - Reducing Friction from internal struggle, picking the winning attitudes and tasks that produce tangible assets.
  • 07/07 Review - Mid-year Review, Focusing Process
  • 08/08 Review - An unexpected vacation for me, Relaxed Progress Made
  • 09/09 Review - Slow progress made, but that's OK; I'm accepting the slow and mindful way!
  • 10/10 Review - After a month of experimenting with early rising, I realize that prioritizing my mission of creative independence might actually be what I need to do. Duh.
  • 11/11 Review - Not much progress made on Creative Independence, but I have attained a sense of surety and calm about what needs to be done--and how to approach it--while maintaining balance between external commitments and personal goals by accepting that they take time and that's OK.
  • 12/12 Review - The year ends without closure, but looking back I see that I've made progress. More importantly, I believe that I'm generally on the right path.