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Technological malpractice in organizations

…And the messes we clean up.

We do a lot of work on other peoples’ websites. Often times people come to us to fix their websites because someone built them a bad website.

Let’s dig in to what we mean…

Defining bad and good

Bad and good are subjective and slippery. They’re different for different people/groups/purposes and depending on the needs being met by the website. Generally speaking though—and for our purposes—a goodwebsite:

  • meets all the technical requirements, AKA it functions as it’s supposed to
  • is easy to navigate and find information without being told where to go
  • has backups in place in case anything goes wrong
  • is accessed by secure login credentials
  • is made with clean, well-organized code and has no additional bells and whistles beyond what it needs (I’m looking at you, premium WP themes)
  • runs on up-to-date software on a secure server
  • can be used by most/all people, even those with legacy software (to an extent) and/or alternative accessibility needs

bad website is one that doesn’t meet at least two of these requirements. If it fails to meet three or more of these requirements you can consider yourself ready for a strategic overhaul.

Conversely, a good website consistently meets all of these requirements.
great website will also have been built:

  • with the future in mind
  • alongside good documentation for how to update/maintain the website
  • in conjunction with a digital style guide

Why not just build a good website from the start?

If making a bad website is so bad then why don’t people just make good websites from the beginning? Well, the truth is it’s not that simple. Here are some reasons why a person would pay for a bad website:

  • they can’t afford to pay for a good one, or
  • they have no idea what a good website is, or
  • they’ve been sold a false bill of goods, told that what they’re getting is good by a person who knows it’s sub-par but needs the money, or
  • they’ve been sold a false bill of goods, told that what they’re getting is good by a person who doesn’t know the difference between a bad and good website and/or just can’t deliver a good website.

Beware bad actors

This issue of technological malpractice is especially insidious within nonprofit and volunteer organizations. A common approach for a group without money is to reach out to large, flashy agencies to build them a site pro-bono. It works because these agencies often build some “social good” into their business plan. Meaning, they try to balance their portfolio and public perception by serving groups who are actively working on social change so that they don’t have to. It seems like a win for both groups. But they often don’t have the capacity to build a good website for these groups because it would be exceedingly expensive (they have a high hourly rate) and time consuming. So they build what to any other professional organization would be a temporary website, say a Hail Mary and call it a day.

(I have personal feelings on this topic which is why we started a coop)

Some common problems with this kind of work include:

  • end clients often don’t have access to their servers or admin privileges on their website
  • end clients aren’t given a basic understanding of where things are registered or hosted
  • no maintenance plan or package has been offered or set in place, handoff is shaky at best
  • no understanding of how to edit the website, often coupled with an inability to get in touch with someone who can/will help
  • unwillingness to listen to your true needs, especially when it intersects with their desire for the site to look a certain way
  • the agency disappears after the site launches

Another common one is the computer whiz approach. In this scenario someone in a group says they know someone who’s really good with computer things and they ask them to build a site. It’s often someone who is related to a person in the group or is learning this new skill. Think: so-and-so’s cousin’s kid or that guy from the neighborhood who made the HOA geocities page 11 years ago.

This person may or may not be qualified to build the site. They may or may not feel compelled to maintain the site. They may or may not feel a sense of fear that a group of non-techies will destroy their creation.
Some common problems with this kind of work include:

  • a lack of willingness to turn over control
  • really wacky code that is hacked together in disorganized ways and challenging for anyone else to edit
  • websites built on obscure platforms or legacy code that’s no longer supported
  • lots of items in the top navigation and/or long, rambling pages
  • lack of overall vision
  • technical components are stitched together with other out-of-the-box technologies that don’t play well together, too many plugins and extensions used when a little bit of code written by a professional developer could have sufficed

Caveat

It should be worth noting that not everyone who builds a bad website is building it badly out of malice. Sometimes people just aren’t experts, or they’re just learning. And that’s fine so long as everyone is being honest about their situation and can come to agreement about their expectations and needs. If you’re just learning how to make websites, you can always ask for help.

It’s also worth noting that not every website needs to be a custom job. Many of the clients we work with need custom solutions to strange and quirky problems. But we also encounter a lot of folks who just want and need a simple site with some text and photos and a contact form. In cases like this it’s ideal to build for simplicity.

We often recommend Squarespace for easy sites like this. The setup is simple and they’re very stable and cheap to maintain.

Learn what questions to ask

Now that we’ve identified some of the issues here, let’s talk more about how you and your group can avoid technological malpractice. Here are some questions you can ask when you’re starting work with a new web person.

  • How will you be building our website? With plain code or with an existing system?
  • What will it look like for me to make changes to the website? Will I need to call you?
  • How will our website be maintained? Where will the database backups be stored?
  • Will you be providing documentation and/or training?

Another important thing to get from your developer is your login credentials. And not just for the back end of the website, but for the domain registration and for the hosting, too. This can also include your email marketing credentials, your social media credentials, your PayPal/payment gateway credentials, and even API tokens. You can share these sensitive tidbits safely with a tool like OneTimeSecret.com.

It’s also good to make strong, unique passwords and never set the admin username as “admin”. You can read more about password security on the EFF’s website.

Your website is important

Whatever the case, it’s a lot of work to maintain a website. I always tell clients that having a website is like having a car. For the most part it’s fine on its own, but it does need gas and occasional service. Over the life of the car it’s going to have issues—some more extreme and expensive to fix than others, and escalating with age. And at some point it will be totaled and you’ll just have to get a new car (if you believe in owning cars). Because technology is always changing, websites have to change to keep up. We’re doing our job when we’re planning for that kind of change. It’s important to take reality into account when building any kind of technology.

And it’s meaningful work to build a website. Almost every group needs a website of some sort: to lend legitimacy, do advocacy and outreach work, share research and resources, or just get people excited about what you’re up to. We love helping people think holistically about their technology and how it interfaces with their brand and their needs and their longer-term plans.Our work is to help support the good work of others.

Wrapping up

Resources

Most of what we’ve been talking about here is related to good, custom websites. But what do you do if you can’t afford a good, custom website and still need a highly functional website for your group?

Here are some other tools that are cheap, easy to use and require little to no maintenance.

In short

You don’t need to have a lot of money or resources to have a good website. And in fact, thinking things through ahead of time will conserve both (time and money) for your group much more effectively.

But to get that good website, you may want to think a little longer about what good really means to you so that you’re ready when it’s time. Consider thinking about things from a goal-oriented space instead of a solution-oriented space. Understanding your problem and the parameters around it will allow you to gravitate towards a tool or system of tools that get you where you need to go instead of prioritizing what you think you like. The solution may be simpler than you think.

I hope this has helped you and/or your group to navigate the strange and ever-shifting world of website development. Remember: a good website is worth the work and the planning.

In solidarity,

Katie

This blog post was originally published on Medium

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