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Don’t treat the web like stop-and-go traffic

It’s what makes turbulence vomit-inducing and roller-coasters fun. It’s the physics equivalent of “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” It’s change in location divided by time, divided by time. It’s acceleration… and it’s what makes you dread working on your website.

The difference between velocity and acceleration

When your location changes, we call that distance. You were in the garage, now you’re at the curb, and the difference is 10 feet. When your distance is changing, we call that velocity (or speed if you’re on a bus with Keanu). The garage was 10 feet away, now it’s 20 feet a second later, so you’re traveling at 10 feet per second (or about 6 mph). When your velocity is changing, we call that acceleration. You were traveling at 6 mph, then you floor the accelerator and quickly ramp up to 90 mph. Vroom!

The biggest difference between velocity and acceleration is how we perceive them. Specifically, that we don’t really perceive velocity at all and perceive acceleration quite acutely. An elevator feels like just a tiny room except for when you’re pressed into the floor as it begins its ascent and your moment of flight as you jump right at the apex. #YOLO

This sensitivity to acceleration means a lot of things in our everyday life. We can sleep on planes, despite traveling over 500 mph. We hate start-and-go traffic, despite never exceeding 10 mph. So why treat the web like something you hate?

In your workplace, beginning a new web project is an increase in acceleration. Before you can take off, you’ve got to clear the runaway by taking other projects off your plate. You’ve got to assign people to the project and get them “up to speed”. Even our metaphors acknowledge acceleration. Then, when the project is complete, you “wind down” and everyone goes back to what they were doing.

Until the next, inevitable web project starts.

It’s a disruptive way to work and ends up causing delayed starts, long gaps between necessary changes, and lost momentum.

Finding your momentum

One more physics term: momentum. It’s your velocity multiplied by your mass, and it conveys—among other things—how hard it is to stop you once you’ve started. Sounds like a good model for managing your web presence. So how do you do it?

Have a destination in mind. Ever been lost? How fast did you go? You stopped, or slowed to a crawl while trying to decide where to go next. Or worse, you wander aimlessly, like a scene out of Alice in Wonderland:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“—so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

You should be able to articulate what you’re trying to do online with simple words, like “Help interested customers find Fair Trade products.” or “Show citizens how corporate money affects legislation.” Having a clear purpose will let you measure progress and measuring progress will let you know where to go next.

Make course corrections easy. When making changes are a big deal, those changes require meetings to discuss them. Those meetings have to be scheduled, which increases the time between changes. That time between changes means that changes become a bigger deal. You end up spinning your wheels (another car metaphor!) and nothing gets done.

The alternative is to make constant small improvements at regular intervals. Instead of bundling changes into big “redesigns” every two years, try every two weeks. Two things happen:

  1. You receive the benefit of the change immediately.
  2. These constant changes foster a culture of innovation—you’re more likely to try something if you can change it back in two weeks instead of being stuck with it for another two years.

Wait, did I just say to redesign your website every two weeks? Yes, I did. But remember you’re making small changes in service to measurable results. We’re not talking about full redesigns. We’re talking about making your resources section more visible or removing the “Latest News” section because no one ever clicks on it.

Keep your foot off the brakes. The web is not going away any time soon. Maintaining your web presence on it isn’t a traditional project with a start, middle, and end. If you treat it like one and take a breather once you’re “done”, you’ll inevitably just have to start back up again at some point, having lost all of your momentum.

Instead, it’s time to look at everything from your website to your social media engagement to your email marketing as a permanent commitment to the health of your organization. You give your car (or bike!) tune-ups regularly to avoid costly and painful visits to the mechanic. You brush your teeth regularly to avoid costly and painful dentist appointments. And now, you give time and attention to your web presence regularly to avoid costly and painful web redesigns.

So put your website in gear, keep your hands on the wheel, and your foot off the brakes. You’ll be amazed what you can accomplish thanks to physics.