Wednesday 19 June 2013

When to back down

Boxing Glove Wind Chime?
Boxing glove wind chime by JPott on
Flickr, used under creative commons
When do you back down, and when should you be bolshy? Is it a matter of experience, or are there any hard and fast rules?
There is plenty of best practice guidance that can be applied to websites:  
  • Accessibility
  • Editorial style
  • Branding
  • Usability
  • Cross-platform compatibility
And lots more, especially for public sector websites.
Sometimes it’s hard to follow all the rules. Sometimes it's impossible – these rules can conflict with one another. For example, NHS branding guidance states that logos should be top right. But what happens if usability testing of your new homepage design shows that users commonly expect the logo to be the home button, and the home button to be top left. How do you resolve that?

It's also common to be asked to do something that breaks these rules. For example, you can be put under pressure to put a news item on the homepage that doesn't belong there.
You certainly don’t want to give in to pressure and just do something that’s against your judgement because you’re being asked to by someone higher up the food chain. But if there is a clear conflict of opinions or reasoning, someone has to make a choice. That’s where your organisational priorities and web strategy can come in.

In the logo placement example, is it more important to your organisation to do exactly what the NHS branding people tell you to do, or to make your website behave in the way your users expect? In the homepage news item example, is it more important to get an urgent message across, even though it's only relevant to a small handful of staff, or to delay the message while the content author sorts out a better way of communicating with his niche audience?
Because whichever way you go, you need to be able to explain why you chose that route, either pointing to empirical evidence (e.g. user testing) or a documented decision path (e.g. a policy, corporate document, meeting minutes, or email chain). Be clear who is empowered to make those decisions – is it you, or do you have to escalate?
If you really don’t want to back down on something, ever, you probably need to enshrine it in some form of policy, or if your organisation operates on a less formal structure, by convincing the highest authority (such as the CEO) of your case, so you know they’ll always back you.
For your own sanity, it is worth applying the 80:20 rule. This might mean applying all your best practice guidance in 4 out of 5 situations, and allowing 1 in 5 pages to not come up to scratch; or it might mean applying 4 of your principles without exception, and being flexible on the fifth rule. 
Eighty per cent compliance should be enough to demonstrate the usefulness and worthiness of the guidelines, without giving you a reputation as a harridan. The worst thing you can do is be so inflexible in applying rules, that people walk away and look for another solution in order to bypass you, whether that’s phoning your colleagues or boss to see if they’ll give a different answer, or building their own separate website.

Key points:

  • A little compromise can be the key to a successful working relationship for years to come.
  • Listen and understand their point of view.
  • Know your boundaries and how far is reasonable to go to fight your corner, and when to back down for the greater good.
  • Know what to do when you can’t solve the problem yourself.
A lot of this is about experience, but it’s also about being confident in your arguments (why you are asking for something to happen) and in knowing where you and your policies stand in the pecking order, not of who is more influential than whom, but of organisational priorities.


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