Redeveloping Websites to Drive Organisational Change

Natural History Museum

Website redevelopment as a driver of bigger organisational change

How do large cultural organisations approach changing their websites? Emily Smith from Natural History Museum explains why they decided to “let go” a little when re-developing their new website.

The Natural History Museum’s purpose is to challenge the way people think about the natural world –its past, present and future. We are well known and loved for the public galleries exploring the wonders of the natural world, but less well known for our pioneering research programme that explores the origins of our planet, the diversity of life, the security of food supply, eradication of disease and management of the earth’s resources.

With our combination of scientific research and public programmes we are uniquely placed to engage the public with the big issues facing humanity and the planet and in 2014, we embarked on a programme to assess our approach to digital media in the light of this incredible potential.

Working with a Digital Strategy Agency

Working with strategists Blue State Digital, we set out a vision for our use of digital: ‘Translate unique authority and collection into extraordinary experiences that lead to ongoing relationships which create real world impact’. We also decided on a set of principles to adopt in the development and delivery of our digital programmes:

  • Digital media should increase the science profile;
  • Enhance the off-line experience, not replace it;
  • Be executed through sustainable technology;
  • Driven by action-focused content with easy entry points;
  • Focus on agility, momentum, testing and learning and to think mobile first.

The web re-development project was the first project that kick started this new approach. In common with many large organisations with a high public profile, we had got into the habit of treating digital projects the same as the large building projects, feeling the need to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ before launching. In light of the new strategy we set out to deliver the new website with speed not perfection as a driving principle, and with the view that we should be constantly responding to ongoing user testing and analytics.

Understanding our Online Audience

The user experience work helped us recognise the discrete needs of our different audiences and shape a new approach to content online. In the past we had developed a ‘one size fits all’ approach to content, and found through the user testing that in doing so we had created content that did not meet the expectations of our public audiences for ‘snackable’, visual content; nor our scientific peers who wanted direct access to scientific staff and data held on our collections. We developed the new IA (Information Architecture) in response to this. The new site features a discrete area for our science audience that provides rich information about the collections, direct access into the data portal, biographies of our researchers and the latest research news. Complementing this, an area ‘Discover’, aimed at public audiences provides visual, accessible, sharable content that explores the Museum’s research in a way that appeals to a wide public.

Natural History Museum Science

Letting Go – Developing with an Iterative Approach

Through the web-redevelopment project we have also learned to let go. Again, common to large organisations with a high public profile, we had been managing all content online centrally, using a generic ‘Museum’ tone of voice in our editorial approach and closely curated content. We are now beginning to recognise that our staff tell the Museum’s stories in the most direct and engaging way in their own voices and on the new site we are surfacing social media and blog content directly into the main navigation.

The web redevelopment project has been as much about driving cultural change as re-developing a website. Over the course of 6 months, we have initiated agile project management methodology for our digital projects, radically changed our approach to content creation, and recognised that we can cater for the needs of diverse audience groups whilst maintaining a strong, unifying visual identity. We’ve begun the celebrate the unique and compelling voices of our scientists as and are finding new and creative ways to challenge the way people think about the natural world.

We still have much to do, – the initial footprint of the new site will be completed in July and we’re learning along the way. In the ‘second phase’ of the web project we will be experimenting further with devolved publishing and actively commissioning our staff to create ‘homemade’ film content that explores and shares their passion for the collections and research. In the spirit of ‘test, iterate, learn’ we’ll be keeping a keen eye on analytics to see what’s working and actively seeking user feedback – any feedback along the way from readers on this site would be very welcome!


Industry Experts article, written by:

Emily Smith Natural History Museum

Emily Smith

Head of Audience Development, Natural History Museum

Bringing Digital Technologies into Museums

Emily heads up the Audience Development team at the Natural History Museum with responsibility for digital strategy, marketing, temporary exhibitions, events and activities strategy. Her 20 year career spans marketing and communications for organisations including the National Gallery, Royal Court Theatre, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Natural History Museum. Highlights have included the collaboration with Colossus Productions and Sky 3D towards the BAFTA award winning David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive.

Image Credits. Top: “Monkey” by Jonathan Leung (Creative Commons); Lower: “Discover” page on Natural History Museum website; Bottom: “Our Science” page on Natural History Museum website.

Author: admin

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