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Redesigning An interview with Josh Tong

Key Points:

  • As an organization, IREX wanted to show the forest, not just the trees, to demonstrate who they weretweet
  • IREX considered iterating, but decided they needed to replatform and then iteratetweet
  • IREX developed a prioritized list of objectives and user groups to ensure alignment during the redesigntweet

IREX is an international nonprofit organization that works in more than 100 countries to empower youth, cultivate leaders, strengthen institutions, and improve access to quality education and information. Josh Tong, digital communications manager at IREX, spearheaded the organization’s successful redesign. In this interview we concentrate on the things that matter most to David Hobbs Consulting—namely, on how organizations create greater impact by early planning of redesigns—and less on the technical details. 

What problems were you attempting to resolve?

The last time IREX redesigned its main website was in 2010. Many things have changed since then, and the website needed to evolve in response to those changes.

For example, IREX launched a new strategic plan earlier this year. People across the organization did a lot of thinking about how we could maximize our impact as the world changes. Record numbers of young people are struggling to find their footing in unstable states. Governments are clamping down on media and other institutions. How can we draw upon our core strengths to better address these trends? How can we improve our work and diversify our funding so we can be even more focused on our mission? The new site needed to align with those decisions.

The old website more or less reflected the organization’s internal structure. There were seven focus areas that corresponded to internal departments and working groups. Our dozens of active projects each had the same weight on the “Projects” page, which was a top-level page in the navigation, plus there were about 200 closed projects. But IREX’s new strategic plan highlighted that, as an organization, we need to show the forest, not just the trees, in order to demonstrate who we are and where we’re going. So we needed to reorganize the site and simplify the navigation.

Meanwhile, we knew that the site needed to be more focused on external users and their needs. We conducted user research throughout the process to learn more about the things that different types of people need to accomplish on the site—what information they want to find, what tasks they need to complete, what difficulties they were experiencing. Before the redesign, there wasn’t a consensus about the site’s priority user groups. Our priority users came into focus as a result of the strategic planning process, internal surveys, and user research.

Finally, we needed a responsive design and an up-to-date content management system. We did a light brand refresh during the process. IREX wanted a visual design that reflects the vibrant, dynamic nature of the organization’s work.

Everyone is pretty hot on avoiding redesigns nowadays. Why did you decide to redesign rather than iterate forward? 

When I joined IREX in the fall last year, we started with the question, “Can we begin with the site as it is and improve it in an iterative way?” We looked into costs, timetables, and tradeoffs for a number of approaches, and we decided that a redesign actually made more sense for our situation.

The main constraint was our old CMS. It posed a security risk, so iterating within that CMS wasn’t an option. We could have moved the old site straight into a new CMS and iterated from there, but that would have incurred significant technical debt—not to mention UX debt—while using up too much of our budget.

That said, we wanted to do the redesign in a phased way to avoid a long waterfall process. We didn’t want the redesign to drag on for 12 or 14 months. So for phase 1, we focused on the mission-critical content and features. Now we’re in a position to make improvements that are more iterative. 

[ Also see: We can't avoid redesigns. We can only lengthen the gap between them.]

Do you already know what you will be doing in the next phase? 

Nowadays, no one wants a website to become frozen in time. It needs to evolve to stay useful. More NGOs and government agencies are adopting this approach from the private sector, treating websites as living things that need steady investment and proactive improvements, not just reactive maintenance. That’s encouraging.

For example, Becca Jenkins is leading a website modernization initiative at the US Department of State, and she’s described how they are working to be more iterative, to make sure that they invest in ongoing improvements as they learn more about users’ needs. That’s what we’re trying to do, too.

So we do have some user stories in the pipeline, but we want to keep the backlog open enough that it’s not all predetermined. We want to continue testing it with users so we can make data-informed decisions about how it should evolve.

How did you get alignment during the redesign process? 

We tried our best to make the process transparent and inclusive—to build with, not for. At the outset, we conducted stakeholder interviews and an all-staff survey to collect input. We ended up forming a steering committee of senior managers and a working group of midlevel managers, and they provided different types of feedback throughout the process.

It also helped to conduct user research and peer research. We did user interviews, an online survey, and a competitive analysis. We reviewed analytics and created a content inventory. Once we had wireframes, we did usability testing with the wireframes by sharing screens with users via Skype. So we had different types of data from inside and outside the organization at every step. We used the data to make design decisions, and when a question came up, we went back to the data to decide whether the decision made sense for our organization and our users.

How did you plan the migration? 

We generated a content inventory of the old site. The old site had more than 5,000 pages. From the inventory, we created a content matrix of content that needed to be migrated to the new site.

The new site is much smaller. We revised, approved, and migrated about 240 pages manually. There were also about 2,500 staff and project bios that we needed to keep, and our digital agency wrote scripts to automate the migration for the bios. We created redirects to point the old URLs to the new pages.

How did it go? 

It all went pretty smoothly. We launched the site right on schedule, only six months after kicking off the project. In order to make that happen, we all stuck to some tight deadlines.

Since content is often the biggest source of delays in redesigns, we did our best to be proactive with content issues. We used real text and images in our comps instead of using lorem ipsum. We created a content matrix relatively early in the process and defined the workflow for revising, editing, approving, and migrating content. Then as soon as we received approval for the templates, we started filling out the templates and collecting approvals. So the content was ready in time, and it didn’t break the templates.

Any other advice you would give on redesigns?

Make sure that someone is looking at the redesign through a content strategy lens throughout the process. If you’re not sure what that entails, get a copy of Meghan Casey’s Content Strategy Toolkit and use it as a checklist. Someone needs to ensure that the redesign team understands the organization’s business model, that there’s a written list of prioritized objectives and user groups for the site, and that the objectives align with users’ most important needs. Take a close look at governance and workflow issues so you can define a realistic future state. Start drafting a content model, a taxonomy, content types, business rules, and page tables while there’s still plenty of time to make changes. These issues are often political, but organizations have to address them in order to make progress. It can be very rewarding once you do.

For more, see Josh’s blog at, in particular his piece on creating a content strategy at an international NGO

[ Also see: Four Types of Digital Presence Change ]

First published 08 September 2016