This and many other posts are also available as a pretty, well-behaved ebook: On Web Development. And speaking of which, here’s a short treatise just about managing the quality of websites: The Little Book of Website Quality Control.
website maintenance and quality assurance constitute the backbone of high quality offers of information, and they mean the difference between amateurish and professional web design and development. Consequently, guidelines for quality web design define maintenance and quality assurance as important process ingredients which have to be applied continuously. Let’s see what this really means for our work.
The following list of measures does not target “initial” quality assurance. It assumes that websites are displayed correctly in popular user agents, and that HTML elements are used according to their purpose. Additionally, it prefers web-based tools over software that has yet to be installed.
1. Plausibility Checks
One of the most important aspects of website maintenance and QA is to check the necessity and “plausibility” of all website parts, be it sections of the site, widgets and gadgets, or publications. And even though it is advisable to have a clear picture in mind when creating and establishing a site, it pays off to regularly check if everything the website offers is really useful and does really provide value for the user. Questioning the use of a “Wallpapers” area on a personal website is useful, as is checking the benefit of a prominent “Admin” section or the value of an imaginary “Links” collection. Checking plausibility does not only help to avoid unnecessary work, it benefits your “face to the world” by making it focus.
Tip: Ask yourself if you’d expect a certain feature on a similar website.
2. User Tests
While tests with users are especially crucial in the early stages of website creation and revision, they are also important in operation. They provide important insight into the usability of a website. Continuous tests might not just reveal flaws in former tests—for example, when tested with only a few users—, but also indicate changes concerning conventions or general perception. There is no alternative to testing with users, and testing is always helpful.
Tip: From time to time, ask friends or colleagues to e.g. contact you via your website, and observe how they perform.
3. Content Maintenance
Any content being published should not only be double-checked before release, it should also be checked continuously after release. It is really important to keep content up-to-date. However, once an article or post truly gets “stale,” a quick update or comment might suffice to inform readers about the development; as a last resort, you could (perceivably) note that the content in question is “probably outdated.”
Tip: Check some older articles if they still contain current information.
Copy editing could be seen as a part of content maintenance, but it is different for two reasons: On the one hand, orthographic mistakes can fly under the radar for a remarkably long time, on the other hand do spelling mistakes have a negative impact on credibility. Usually you want to make sure that what you write is true and correct.
Tip: Print some of your articles and check if they contain any typos (they will).
5. Link Checks
Cool URIs still don’t change, but reality doesn’t reflect that. And even though external resources feel like it’s others who are responsible for these links when pointing into nowhere, it’s easy to take care of links by regularly firing up W3C’s Link Checker or Site Valet’s Link Service, among others. Don’t let your visitors get angry about broken links—or you.
Tip: Schedule at least a monthly link check, when possible automated.
6. Load Time Checks
Load time is an important factor of the experience a user makes with a website; speed is an attribute of good web design. Not all visitors are waiting for a truck full of decorative elements; watch yourself. Concerning continuous QA, load time and performance are especially interesting since they are—like user tests—necessary to be checked upfront, but are useful to be tested regularly as well (for example, via PageSpeed or Pingdom) to avoid inefficiency due to code or graphic changes.
Tip: Try to find a machine with a slow connection (or eventually use your mobile) to recall the times when we had no broadband access.
Invalid documents and style sheets can often (but not always) be considered a result of sloppy, unprofessional work. Similar to a house, a website won’t necessarily collapse when there are a few bricks missing or not in the right place, but the web developer in charge should answer the same questions as the bricklayer. Quality assurance of websites explicitly includes validation. The more flexible maintenance of a site occurs and the more people work on it, the more often tests should be carried out, for example by W3C’s HTML, WDG’s HTML (including the option to validate 100 pages of a site), or W3C’s CSS Validator. Deficits should be fixed.
Tip: Make validation a routine, even with style sheets, and look for ways to automate this (maybe you or your company already runs a few tests that could piggyback HTML/CSS validation as well).
8. “Change, Measure, Change Again”
As one of the key processes of web analytics, it is not just beneficial for “website monetization” but also for website quality to repeatedly change things and then measure these changes. For example, you might change the position of the login/registration section, track the results, and probably change again. Or you might add a “social bookmarks” widget, measure the outcome, and eventually change again. Or you might adjust some colors, confirm the impact on the element in question’s prominence, and probably modify again. Performing and testing little changes will mean huge benefits for both your visitors and your site, and this process can be seen as the supreme discipline of professional website design—and maintenance.
Tip: Play with your website ads by modifying their position or layout for at least a week; compare the results and feel the power of “change, measure, change again.”
9. Additional Tests
The quality of a website can be evaluated and improved by a whole bunch of additional tools. Depending on technologies in use and site update frequency, this should be done regularly as well to avoid user frustration, technical issues, higher costs, as well as professional reproaches.
Tip: Explore the abundance of available optimization tools by e.g. taking a closer look at UITest.com or The Web Developer’s Handbook.
The author just cannot share his experience with maintenance and QA without suggesting that it’s helpful to ask and reward visitors for pointing out mistakes in order to spot them and milden their effect. Even though Don Norman questions the commercial capability of this approach, encouraging and rewarding error reports easily increases the likelihood of noticing otherwise invisible mistakes by a factor of 10. (Donald Knuth recognized this years ago.) Quality has a price.
Tip: Offer your visitors some kind of incentive for mailing you when noticing typos and the like, and observe what impact that has on both frequency and quality of these mails.