- How you analyze, transform, and product manage a digital presence depends on its size and complexity.
- Much work on digital presences is actually on a sliver of the broader presence.
- Broad change is more effective (and sustainable) than narrow change.
This is something I've been meaning to write for at least a decade (although there's some of this in Website Migration Handbook), and I hope I've finally found a way to write this in an effective manner.
I propose seven axioms about digital presence / website size and complexity:
A digital presence should be as small and simple as it can be while meeting its goals.
Some digital presences will naturally be (and should be) larger and more complex than others.
Much of the difficulty in analysis and change of a digital presence is actually not in its size.
Size × Complexity is a better metric than solely size.
Much work on digital presences is actually on a sliver of the broader presence.
Broad change is more effective (and sustainable) than narrow change.
All this is hard.
These all role up to the most important rule: how you analyze and transform a digital presence depends on its Size × Complexity.
Three levels of Size × Complexity
Since I am anchoring the above on the concept of complexity, I group digital presences into three Size × Complexity levels:
Focused. These are small sites without a lot of backend complexity.
Medium. These are sites that are just large enough to start requiring a bit more sophisticated ways of analyzing and improving, but teams may be tempted to continue working on them as if they are small.
Complex. These digital presences require new ways of analysis and more sophisticated ways of rolling out changes.
Of course most sites (like this small site for David Hobbs Consulting) are focused. These allow the most hand crafting. On the other end, there are a relatively small number of complex digital presences.
⚠ Beware: false focused sites
In our day-to-day work, we obviously are need to concentrate on our team's work. Ordinarily we cannot work outside that since it's not within our job description, role, or contract. But if we stay too focused on what is administratively "ours", we can feel like we have a focused site (concentrating just on what you control) when the site visitor experiences anything but a focused site. An easy example is within a large organization where multiple teams have sites on the exact same topic, which is of course confusing for the site visitor.
Consider thinking about Size × Complexity in two ways: what you directly control and also for your entire organization (for instance, use the calculator on this page to evaluate both). Even keeping this distinction in mind during your day-to-day may be helpful.
If you are a consultant, even in the process of forming a scope and contract you can attempt to convince the client to look broader.
Regardless of your role, look for ways to broaden the discussion for higher impact (also see What's Your Number? Go Wider for Higher Impact.)
But isn't a complex presence just a series of focused ones?
No, for a variety of reasons, including:
Duplication. With more complexity comes an increase in the probability of content duplication, or, worse, near duplication (see What Is Problem Duplication?).
Cross-referencing. Related to duplication, ideally there is significant cross-referencing across the digital presence (especially to reward people being close to where they land at your site, rather than bouncing them back to the external search engine they started with).
Brand consistency. Brand consistency goes beyond logo and colors — sites and pages should share deeper similarity across the organization.
Cross-site reporting. There need to be consistent and rationalized approaches to enable cross-site reporting, rather than one-off one-by-one reports.
None of the above can be accomplished with a laser focus on an individual site in a complex digital presence.
How to approach focused, medium, and complex digital presences
The most important reason to figure out size and complexity is to apply the right analysis and planning techniques. Of course the same goes for maintenance, governance, and other activities around digital presences, but here we focus on content analysis and transformation. In all cases the medium site is somewhat of a blend of the focused and complex sites, so may need the more sophisticated techniques for content analysis and transformation.
Content analysis and complexity
Content analysis is radically different for focused and complex sites. Focused sites can rely on spreadsheets and manual analysis. There are huge advantages to this approach, including: virtually everyone has the software and understands spreadsheets, it can feel extremely satisfying to go step by step through spreadsheets, and it allows lots of fluid, ad hoc analysis.
But these approaches are not effective for complex sites. Complex sites require more subtle approaches like looking for patterns (for example by using charts), rules (for example to categorize content that isn't currently targeted), iterations (by being automated you can change assumptions / data and seeing the implications) — see SEER Content Analysis: Scalable, Engaging, Exploratory, and Repeatable.
For a bit more on deciding on a content analysis technique depending on your situation, see the content analysis tool selector.
Transformation approach and complexity
Similarly, transforming a site is radically different for a focused vs. a complex site. A focused site can be transformed in a hand-crafted manner with a variety of one-off decisions.
A complex digital presence requires a more subtle approach: dispositions allow broader and more consistent decisions (with appropriate quality levels defined) and other techniques such as orienting a rollout around site types (rolling out sites grouping by site type rather than a more ad hoc approach) are important.
Product management and complexity
Digital presence product management is managing a digital presence for quality over time. Most of what I've written about product management is for complex sites (like my book Website Product Management: Keeping focused during change), so this is what I've spent the most time thinking about. A complex site has more interdependencies that need to be managed, so requires a more formal process to be effective, including having a more regular process and a published work program. Why a more formal process? Because there are more stakeholders, and if organizations want to maximize the bang for their dollar then you need to make broad changes that require more coordination and framing requirements rather than just implementing what a particular team asks. On the other hand, much of that formality would be ridiculous for a focused site, which can be much more informal and ad hoc in its approach.
The seven axioms in more detail
A digital presence should be as small and simple as it can be while meeting its goals. All things being equal, we want a small digital presence. This allows us to focus on what most important and is easier to manage.
Some digital presences will naturally be (and should be) larger and more complex than others. Larger organizations tend to have and need larger digital presences. This still doesn't overshadow the first axiom above, since you still want to have the site as small and simple as possible. There are also some types of sites that are naturally larger, for instance library or publisher sites, as well as product-heavy sites that need to have manuals and related materials.
Much of the difficulty in analysis and change of a digital presence is actually not in its size. Some of those large sites listed in the above bullet actually have some aspects that are low complexity — for instance, a library may have a huge catalog of resources, each with its own page, but from a complexity perspective may have one advantage of a consistent templating system and database structure to store and render those pages (although of course, depending on the library, there could be lots of other complexities!). Regardless, other factors like the number of sites, number of backend systems, and languages can immediately make the digital presence more complex.
Size × Complexity is a better metric than solely size. Related to the above, the combination of both of size and complexity is more useful than just one of those measures.
Much work on digital presences is actually only on a sliver of the broader presence.
Broad change is more effective (and sustainable) than narrow change. In general, we want to be analyzing or transforming more of the digital presence for higher impact. Also see What is your number? Go wider for higher impact.
All this is hard. None of the above is meant to say any of this is easy! Getting content and websites generally right is tough work!
The overarching rule: how you analyze and transform a digital presence depends on its complexity.
As discussed in "How to approach focused, medium, and complex digital presences" above, how to analyze and transform a digital presence depends on its complexity. Perhaps we can more frequently identify what type of site we are discussing when approaching our work on sites.
Size. The amount of reachable pages or downloadable documents on a site, or potentially across channels. NOT: total URLs, images used in pages, multiple pages of listing pages, and memory size.
Complexity. The complexity to analyze and transform. A principle in biology is that as body size increases so does complexity (elephants are more complex than nematodes). But in the case of analyzing and making change it's a problem if, for example, the site hasn't moved to a more semantic templating mechanism. So by this definition of complexity, a site with sophisticated templates is less complex than one with no templates at all (since it is much more difficult to analyze and transform if there are no templates).
Digital presence. A suite of sites, either internet or intranet. A digital presence could be an individual site.
Semantic. I'm not meaning anything too advanced here. I just mean that there are content types (and/or components) that are meaningful (they correspond to something out in the real world) rather than just for layout. So for example an Annual Report with unique fields (from other content types) is a reasonable content type, but Two Thirds Image With Text is not semantic (it's just about layout).
Content analysis. Understanding the current content (via inventories, audits, charts, and reports) in order to make decisions about content improvements or transformation.
Transformation technique. Methods of transformation (for instance, a smaller site can use a more manual method than a large site).