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Lessons Learned From the Overnight Website Challenge

by Meghan Seawell on June 14th, 2012

Earlier this year, I was among the lucky nerds chosen to participate in The Nerdery’s Overnight Website Challenge. It’s a competition where teams of web professionals get together in a large, sweaty room and (attempt to) build websites for worthy nonprofits in 24 hours. That’s right. Whole websites, overnight.

I was in charge of content for my team. Here are some lessons I learned while trying to do content strategy on a super tight timeline (which, as I understand it, sometimes happens in the real world, too).

Lesson 1: Prepare

Every content strategy project starts out with a few unknowns. In this instance, you don’t even know which nonprofit you’re working with until the day of the event. But that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare.

Make a plan

Before the event, my team created a project plan based the only thing we knew: timeline. We gave ourselves benchmarks to reach at specific times, and for the most part, it worked. We completed the initial stakeholder interview, site map, and key page templates ahead of schedule. But, we may have missed a beat when our content timeline’s final milestone was slated for Hour 8 and simply said, “Begin writing!” We probably could have used a little more structure for the ensuing 16 hours (like, “Complete first draft,” or “First round of editing”). Heh.

Gather your tools

I wanted to be ready for every possible scenario. In my case, this involved me lugging around a printer and a bunch of books, just in case someone wanted me to talk about Mobile First (they didn’t). It’s a good idea to look through favorite resources or past project work for inspiration (and anything you can beg, borrow, or steal).

Lesson 2: Get clear on roles and responsibilities

When you need to work quickly, everyone needs to know exactly what they need to do. This is especially important if you’re working with people for the first time. Unlike many other teams, my teammates and I do not work together daily. We each brought unique experiences and processes to the table.

Be sure to take time to get a thorough understanding of what everyone’s responsibilities are and how decisions in each “department” impact the others. On our team, gaps in knowledge across team members resulted in:

  • Duplicative work. Oh hey. We just made a decision that renders this work moot. Can you redo it real quick?
  • Last-minute scrambles. Um, I know we didn’t tell you this was coming, but we kind of need it right now. Can you make that happen? Like, immediately?
  • Less-than-optimal timelines. Why didn’t we save more time for this? Oh, that’s right. We didn’t know it even existed.

Well, now we know for next time.

Lesson 3: Figure out when to stop planning and start producing

As content strategists, we like to plan. We love to architect systems and think about how things should be done. It can be hard to stop thinking and start working, and not surprisingly, I found myself reluctant to make the leap. It’s difficult to find the “go” moment. For each project, it will be different. Just make sure you don’t spend all your time thinking when you have a lot of creating to do.

Lesson 4: Know when to let things go

When you’re working at the speed of light, you don’t have time to be stubborn. That means, sometimes you have to let go of things you hold near to your heart, such as:

Your favorite idea

Before the event, I designed a rather elaborate documentation system based on a common theme among participating nonprofits: making it ridiculously easy for a team of volunteers to update the site. It was lovely. Really. But as it turns out, our nonprofit only has one person updating the bitty little 25-page website, approximately quarterly. Elaborate documentation systems weren’t really necessary. So I let it go.

Your process

It helps to remember that your regular process (or parts of it) may be totally weird and inappropriate in a different setting. I got it in my head we should use page tables. That’s what content people do, right? I wrote it into the timeline and set it up and explained it to my teammates. Then, after we spent about an hour diligently describing the content we were about to write, my teammate said to me, “These page tables are really stressing me out.” I realized I was also stressed and could by no means justify continuing the process. So I let that go, too.

Your printer

Whoops. I carried a printer all around campus and didn’t print a single piece of paper. This hurt more than anything else. Literally. The printer was heavy. I hope to someday let this go.

Lesson 5: Stay positive

Working on projects, especially in extremely taxing circumstances, can cause tensions to rise. We’ve all been there. Deadlines loom, mistakes surface, and your teammates suddenly start resembling dart boards. The most important thing you can do is stay positive, remember that everyone is under stress, and just smile through it.

At the end of the project, whether you succeed or fail, you’ll be left with your relationships with your teammates. The stronger you make those relationships, the more likely you are to work through failures, build on successes, and create great work together in the future.

So, while our site didn’t launch at the 24th hour, we did have a lot of fun. And we produced some really solid work for a great organization—Community Neighborhood Housing Services (CNHS), a nonprofit that provides homeowner and homebuyer assistance. Here’s the final product: communitynhs.org.

I’m excited to take these lessons, build on them, and try again next year.

  • http://www.lifesize.com/ David Temple

    Interesting project Meghan and excellent lessons. Seems like a contest where everyone is a winner.  Too bad it’s only once a year and only in MN. Hmmmm…..

  • http://daveswhiteboard.com/ Dave Ferguson

    Ordinarily I’d be inclined to think this sort of thing was Not a Good Idea.

    Then I thought about different ways that people get better at complex skills. Those are the result not just of smaller, individual skills (e.g., lay out a page; code a page; write the content) but the interplay of those skills.

    By way of analogy, one set of skills makes you good at using your organization’s inventory-control system. Another set of skills makes you good at negotiating purchases with suppliers.  Being good at inventory management combines those in a way that practicing either subset in isolation does not.

    So your 24-hour time limit added a time pressure that’s similar to the drill part of drill-and-practice.

    In addition, the after-action reporting that you do here (the “now we know for next time” stuff) applies not only to a specialized event like this challenge but to other parts of your work as well.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, which I think applies to many other areas outside content strategy.

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