Responding to website challenges in a crisis
Charities need to be nimble in times of crisis, and that has never been more apparent than since the start of this year. Initially the continued tightening of charity finances, and then the massive impact of coronavirus on the operations and money of charities. When users want to engage with the various services that charities offer, the first place they look is usually online, and their first port of call is most often going to be your website.
When users visit government or NHS websites, spending time admiring fancy graphics comes low on the priority list. After all, they are there seeking advice or solutions to a problem, sometimes an urgent one. They want a site that’s easy to navigate and allows them to access important information. Charities are no different, and it’s more important than ever to make sure your information is as accessible as possible.
Featuring important content
With this in mind, the homepage needs to feature the most up-to-date and important content. What is the service or information that you anticipate most users will need? Where can they get advice or urgent help? Users should be able to follow a clear roadmap that helps them quickly locate the information they need. Not only that, the website itself needs to be robust and well-supported to withstand a crisis.
Nothing good ever comes from being underprepared, and here I will run through the four most important things charities need to consider when designing websites that are able to cope in times of crisis when traffic is sure to surge, and services become ever-more vital.
Most charity websites largely act as hubs of information, allowing service users and interested parties to find essential advice, news and data. The last thing you want is for the site to be slow or unresponsive, even during “normal” times. The platform you use needs to provide a high degree of security, resilience, and scalability to cope with heavy demands and unexpected peaks.
This means selecting a hosting provider with a proven track record of enabling sites to continue to run under extreme pressure. Collaboration will work so much better than going it alone. The day that user traffic spikes is not the day you want to find out just how secure and stable your website is – or isn’t
Website crashes and slow loading pages create a sense of insecurity amongst users, so it’s much better to have a website that fails rarely and gracefully, rather than one that looks pretty. Even websites for retail firms like Screwfix have pre-built queue systems for unexpected spikes in traffic. Since the start of the pandemic, it has been common to hear about websites not queueing users and simply crashing altogether, leaving people in the dark and feeling stranded.
Giving and charity sites have, in the past, crashed under the strain of huge spikes in donations. Sometimes all it takes is a wave of overwhelming good will, not even a crisis. Having a website that’s able to support such level of activity is paramount.
Hosting providers can give charities the all-round services they need on shared platforms. There’s growing support for these platforms, for example Wordpress, to be used for the public good, with hosting based on shared values and an equal partnership between the charity and hosting provider.
Not all hosting is created equal. If things go wrong, you want the reassurance that your hosting support provider has sound plans in place to handle any outages should they occur, for whatever reason. It’s important that charities look to partners that offer monitoring and alerting services, as well as out-of-hours contracts and 24/7 emergency support. Without a holistic service, you risk leaving yourself exposed, with gaps in monitoring which could result in service users’ needs unintentionally not being met.
There’s an increasing climate of collaboration and fully accessible support when it comes to hosting providers, so don’t settle for one that neglects to provide you with full technical support. Aim to work with teams that have expertise in crises and building resilience.
Content design is fundamental to the effectiveness of public facing websites. Charities provide services for many diverse groups, including those who are vulnerable and will be in need of content that is accessible, easy to understand and laid out in a simple format. In times of crisis emotional responses are heightened, so it’s important that users can easily access the information they need.
The key here, first and foremost, is not to overcomplicate the homepage. The more pages you have, the more complicated your website will be, so it’s best to keep the number to a minimum and direct users to the most important information using banners. If you were to look at the NHS England or GOV.UK website right now, you are likely to see large banners in bold colours and a simplified design, reflecting the fact that people will be seeking information on
Covid-19 and making the location of advice immediately accessible.
Although these kind of changes can be made retrospectively, in an ideal world, you should always design your website as if it you are going to be using it during a disaster.
A clean looking, stripped-down homepage is likely to perform better in an emergency. Information is easier to update for those working behind the scenes, as well as being accessible to a potentially larger group of users.
Although it seems pretty obvious, it’s important to remember that sites need to be optimised for mobile users too. People expect to be able to access high-quality information and services anytime, anywhere on any device – especially in times of crisis. How many times have you tried to access a website on your phone and been bombarded with wrongly sized images, miniscule text or content that simply doesn’t flow on the smaller screen?
Content publishing models
When you need to get information onto your site quickly the last thing you want to be doing is creating a new process. The current need for timely information has put the responsiveness of organisations under the microscope and highlighted how slow some have been to get off the mark.
Changes in government policy and narrative are happening all the time, sometimes from hour to hour, and keeping up with that is vital. You know that your website is resilient and robust enough to deal with large traffic spikes, but if the information it contains isn’t up-to-date, you will inevitably run into problems.
Updating your website is important but especially when you’re experiencing a fast-changing situation and a surge in visitors. It’s important that charities have well-established and efficient content approval processes in place. Assigning team members according to their skills and expertise makes it so much easier to get vital information to users. If there is a clear chain of approvals through the correct people, website updates will be timely and you don’t risk users not being able to access urgent advice or services.
Knowing you can cope
A famous advocate of your charity drums up nationwide support, a video about your work happens to go viral – or maybe a change in policy results in users of your services needing more support and advice: for whatever reason, a surge of website traffic can be an adrenalin rush. But it can also be very stressful if your website isn’t properly prepared for it.
Whether you experience a small spike in traffic or a large surge, it’s important to know that you are able to cope, and that you are fully supported during times which challenge the website’s capabilities. Today, the global and public health situation is constantly changing, and you never know which government announcement could apply to your sector or the people you are supporting..
Quite apart from the pandemic, there aren’t always warning signs that a surge in traffic is coming, so the best defence is to run your website the right way all the time, and make sure it’s updated, secure, optimised and backed up regularly. That way you’ll be prepared when the unexpected does happen.