Continuous Improvement

Ideas & Insights from Research & Design


Over the past year, we’ve been rolling out a new approach to our work — Continuous Improvement.

In 2014, when Marks & Spencer launched an aggressive redesign, it didn't take long to gauge the reaction. Negative user feedback flooded the comment threads and internet experts panned the redesign. But it wasn't just about the reaction — the numbers told the real story. A steep dive in traffic showed that regular visitors weren’t converting into sales. Marks & Spencer quickly scrambled to solve the problems, but the damage was done. Experts clearly laid the blame of the 8.1% drop in sales and resulting share price dip on the launch of its new website. It took years to recover, and some argue that Marks & Spencer’s digital properties never fully reached the potential user base had they approached the redesign differently.

So what did they do wrong? And what can higher-ed web teams learn from this? Two words: Continuous Improvement. Change does not come easy for most people — too much (and often too late) at once, and it can harm your brand. Although web projects sometimes can and should take bold risks, there are ways to minimize that risk and its effects.

Enter Continuous Improvement

The concept of continuous improvement comes from the Japanese manufacturing sector shortly after World War II when Toyota introduced the concept of small, incremental improvements to their production process. Today, “Kaizen” is recognized as a key business strategy in large organizations.

Bringing it to the digital world

Unfortunately, continuous improvement hasn’t taken off in the higher-ed digital world. We love freedom to innovate, toss the old methods out, and start from scratch. Everyone wants to be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg and launch a groundbreaking new product. For most organizations however, this approach is often at odds with the real-world goals and needs of daily operations. To be clear, it’s not that we shouldn’t innovate or be afraid to start from scratch — far from it. Innovation and calculated risk taking is an essential part of a successful continuous improvement strategy.

What's different?

Compared to a traditional digital project, Continuous Improvement is able to provide better results for a number of reasons:

  • It leverages research and data on user behavior to make incremental improvements
  • It extends the lifecycle of a site beyond just a few of years
  • It spreads the cash investment over time at a more predictable rate
  • It brings a new web platform ‘to market’ faster
  • It pairs well with the Design Sprint process
  • It avoids internal team burnout
  • It minimizes user disruption or attrition after major redesign periods

In short, Continuous Improvement is an iterative design/development methodology geared towards the fast-paced nature of digital projects.

What are the challenges?

  • It’s a different mindset. Everyone understands how projects work, but it’s a big mental shift to think of your work on your website as never fully being complete.
  • Everyone understands projects, and organizations find it easier to budget for them. Good luck trying to find an extra $25,000 a year to continuously improve the website, but most organizations won’t bat an eye at a capital expenditure of $250,000 when the website gets old. Why is this? It’s safe. Organizations understand it and can measure the success of an initiative with a start and finish.
  • It’s boring. Whittling away at a task list or seemingly trivial long-term plan isn’t easy, and it’s much more exciting to tackle a big redesign project. Continuous improvement isn’t sexy, but it’s the right thing to do.

Why opt for continuous improvement?

Continuous improvement has the potential to increase the health of a higher-ed website and the teams responsible for it by allowing them to:

  • Maintain ongoing momentum with less redesign burnout
  • Better align priorities with the school’s strategic plan
  • Keep administration more engaged with smaller, regular investments (and corresponding report)
  • Make work more meaningful by connecting real problems with measurable solutions

Ready to break out of the traditional project cycle? Let’s talk.