In my first year as a web writer here at Bethel I’ve worked on many different projects with various offices and department. We’ve created new sites, migrated old sites into the new system, and worked to make existing sites even better.

Through it all I’ve seen some successes and some…let’s call them challenges. Here are 5 things I’ve learned that lead to a better web project.

1) Communicate

If you only take one thing away from this post, please let it be this: communicate early, communicate often.

See a red flag that will slow the project down or a hurdle in the distance that could trip us up? Is there someone in your office who should be involved in the conversation, but isn’t? Am I about to step on a landmine?

Don’t wait to sound the alarm. It’s easier to change course or make adjustments while the project is underway than after the site is launched and we find out a form we’ve created violates FERPA laws.

2) Be accessible

Your Google Calendar is a powerful tool. Use it!

We all know that scheduling meetings with large groups of stakeholders can be a headache. It gets a lot easier when everyone keeps an up-to-date calendar. When we share our schedules we can find times to meet that work for everyone.

Worried that allowing everyone to see your calendar will cause you to lose control of your schedule, or infringe on the time you normally use to work on projects, regroup, or eat lunch?

Put those things on your calendar. That way, people will know to leave you alone when you’re preparing for class, and they won’t go looking for you when you’re at the dentist.

Along with this, it’s good practice to respond to emails in a timely way. I’ve read that it actually increases productivity if you set aside a certain time every day for responding to emails, instead of trying to keep up with them as they arrive in your inbox (confession: I’m not the best at this, but I’m working on it).

Even if you don’t have the time to completely answer a question right away, or you’re not the right person to answer it and have to forward the message to someone who is, at least let the sender know you got the email within 1 or 2 days.

3) Prioritize

When you start planning your site, one of the first things you should do is ask yourself what’s important. The answer can’t be “everything.” When everything is important, nothing is important.

What is your audience supposed to get from your site? What are they supposed to do after they visit? What should they learn? How should they feel?

Think about your message. What are you saying? How are you saying it? Is it readable? Understandable? Scannable?

Here’s a tip: Content first!

All the bells and whistles and Flash and videos and interactive features in the world won’t help your site if your audience can’t figure out what’s going on.

Your website tells your story. Make sure you understand what that story is, think about how you’re going to tell it, then tell it in a way that’s clear and user friendly. Otherwise your audience won’t stick around to hear it. They won’t care that your headers are red and flashing.

Delight your audience. Inform your audience. Help your audience. Don’t bore them and don’t confuse them.

4) Know your strengths, and your limitations

I have some things I like to think I’m good at, and a whole lot of things I know I’m not. I suspect most people are the same way. That’s why none of us are islands. We work in teams to match our strengths to other people’s weaknesses, and vise versa.

Maybe you learn new technology faster than most, but have no idea how to use a semicolon (but really, who does?). Maybe you’re always coming up with new ideas, but trying to organize them in an Excel spreadsheet would make you want to poke your eyes out.

Know yourself and the people you work with so you can each contribute to the project in ways that will be fulfilling, enjoyable, and effective.

In the same vein, recognize the strengths and limitations of your office or department. Do you have the time, capacity, and capability to create and consistently maintain pages of new content, blogs, videos, news and events feeds, complicated interactive features, virtual tours, and alumni success stories?

If you do, I’ll need you to introduce me to your genie.

If not, it’s important to…

5) Set realistic goals

Video is hard to sustain. Maybe you have some extra funds to create a video this year, but there’s no guarantee you’ll have those same funds next year. And it doesn’t take long for video to grow stale and dated. Unless Zubaz and side ponies come back in style, we don’t want a Saved by the Bell spoof with a Duran Duran soundtrack on our website.

Are you sure video is the best medium for the message you’re trying to deliver?

This is a question you’ll need to answer when you’re planning your website. There are many more like it.

What’s your goal with that interactive experience? Do you have enough contributors to support a blog? Are you going to have an event feed with no events on it for much of the year?

I’m just as guilty as anybody of setting unrealistic goals and dooming myself to failure. I see a new project in front of me and I start imagining the possibilities and bite off more and more till I’m choking on half-finished interactive choose-your-own-adventure academic planning features.

Of course it’s important, early in a project, to let your imagination run wild and think of all the great things you might do in a perfect world. But at some point we all need to reign it in and think “what am I capable of right now, and what will that look like in 1, 2, or 5 years?”

By being realistic with our goals we can save ourselves a lot of time now and prevent a maze of abandoned web pages in the future.

Web projects are big, complicated, and often messy. They take time.  To be successful they need feedback from a lot of different people, and people will disagree. Difficult conversations will be had. Difficult decisions will be made.

I’m still relatively new to the game and don’t claim to have all the answers. Considering how rapidly the web changes, I doubt I ever will. Hopefully the things I’ve learned so far can help you as you embark on projects of your own.