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Evaluating Ideas

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Brainstorming is fun! In the early days of a new project, there are tons of ideas flying around, and those ideas spark discussions that spark more ideas. Maybe this new section of the site will have live-chat, and a video tour, and we’ll add voting to the comments!

It can be pretty hairy to narrow down the list of potential features. If the ideas were developed a while ago (which is usually the case in my projects—brainstorming tends to happen before outside consultants are hired), people are often very attached to an idea that they love and don’t want to give up.

I’ve found that what works best for me in these whittling sessions is to have a framework to fall back on. An established framework means that no one is trying to justify their idea to me; all ideas are evaluated in a relatively emotion-free setting so we can decide which solutions are the best ones to pursue.

A Venn diagram with two circles: what the business needs, and what the user wants to do.
Image courtesy of Elise Weeks.

My framework initially started as a Venn diagram with two circles: “What the business needs” and “What the user wants to do.” Finding features and content that fit in the overlap is basis of the core model and many other great strategic approaches.

This is the level of evaluation that helps nix ideas like “photo gallery of the company golf tournament.” (Because, hint: no user has a task that is completed by seeing your team in dopey hats and spiky shoes.)

A Venn diagram with three circles: what the business needs, what the users wants to do, and what is appropriate for the website.
Image courtesy of Elise Weeks.

I’ve started adding to my Venn diagram. The third circle holds “What is appropriate for the website,” which covers questions of brand intent, technology, and cost. A few years ago, we had a client who wanted to have live-chat crisis counseling on their site—they had trained counselors on staff, it fit perfectly with their mission, and it served the needs of their users. But (at the time) the technology just wasn’t ready: third-party solutions didn’t have the privacy and reporting capabilities they needed, and there wasn’t budget to build something from scratch.

Another client was talking about putting forums on their site, to mimic the engaging dinner table conversations people had at their monthly events. This circle helped us have a discussion about whether that was an appropriate use for the site—and since part of the emphasis of the events was being physically together, we decided that site forums didn’t align with that goal.

A Venn diagram with four circles: what the business needs, what the user wants to do, what is appropriate for the website, and what is sustainable for the organization.
Image courtesy of Elise Weeks.

My fourth circle is a love letter to all content strategists, and holds “What is sustainable for the organization.” A weekly podcast plan that only lasts a month, lovingly crafted team profiles for two of the 28 staff, a community calendar whose last event was held in 2013—we’ve all seen plans like this fall apart. This circle helps me push on questions of time and energy without sounding so, well, pushy.

This circle also provides opportunities to talk about ongoing needs like photography, in-house versus external development resources, and what happens when the person in charge of this complex taxonomy goes on maternity leave?

I’ve found that grouping feature discussions with these circles has helped me have much more productive conversations with my clients, and has given them a framework for continuing their evaluation discussions when I’m not in the room. I recognize, though, that these particular four labels are based on the type of work I do and the shape of my projects. Do developers, or project managers, or in-house strategists have a different set of evaluation needs? What are the labels in your circles?

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