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From time to time I need to bring down my website for maintenance, bug fixing, upgrading etc. I have seen that many sites just place the "Site is under maintenance, please visit later" sign on the main page and that's it.

My site is a part of the prepaid service, that is real important to users.I am afraid they will find this practice a bit disappointing. Also what about 24 x 7 uptime promise that all modern sites including mine are boasting about?

I am working really hard on the technical stuff in order to make a downtime period as rare and short as possible. Still I am not sure that it is enough.

From your experience, am I exaggerating here or is this really so annoying and intolerable for users ? And if it is, how do you cope with this problem?

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You don't explicitly state this in your question, but I assume you are talking of updates that you can't do on the fly just swapping out files, correct? How long does your maintenance usually take? –  kontur Dec 3 '12 at 13:10
    
@kontur: About a hour approximately. –  Flot2011 Dec 3 '12 at 17:03
    
@Flot2011 Is it really 100% necessary that nobody else is using the site whilst you're working on it? –  Ruirize Dec 4 '12 at 16:54
    
@Ruirize: Unfortunately, at times it is :-( –  Flot2011 Dec 4 '12 at 18:05
    
@Flot2011 Why would that be? –  Ruirize Dec 4 '12 at 22:33

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I would recommend the following steps to ensure a painless (or relatively painless) process of keeping your users informed about a site outage :

  • Determine the user base of your site and determine the time of minimum usage : I am hoping you have some sort of Analytics built in which shows what your users and where they are originating from and what time they visit their site. Look at your previous logs and see if there is a specific time where the use of the site might be really low. For example your users might be from the united states only and you might find the minimum use of the site is at 1 AM PST. So that would form as a good starting point for when to do the update.

  • Inform the users about the outage\update in advance : I really like how my bank (Chase) informs me that there is a scheduled maintenance well in advance by making it really prominent when I log (this appears like 3-4 days before the actual scheduled maintenance). This way I am aware of it and can plan my activities accordingly.

  • Remind your users - If you have access to the contact information of your users (emails), send them a reminder which informs them about the scheduled maintenance so that even if people haven't logged in they know about whats going to happen. Use social media for this as well since tweets and your facebook posts can keep users informed

For the day\time slot of the maintenance, I recommend looking this excellent article on smashing magazine about maintenance pages. To summarize the article

  1. Keep you maintenance pages simple and useful:The entire point of a maintenance page is to let visitors know that your site is still around and that the maintenance is only temporary. It doesn’t need to do anything beyond that. Make sure it’s immediately apparent what your page is about and provides your visitors with the information they’re interested in.
  2. Realize it’s an inconvenience to your visitors. When your site is down, your regular visitors are inconvenienced. It’s a simple fact. But don’t let inconvenienced visitors turn into alienated visitors. Simply acknowledging that your site’s downtime is a pain for your visitors is often enough to satisfy them. Apologize for the downtime, give them information that’s useful to them, and make them feel like you realize what this means to them.
  3. Don’t be afraid to use humor. There’s no need to get all serious just because your site is down. Using a bit of humor or otherwise making your maintenance page entertaining helps to improve your site’s image in the eyes of visitors inconvenienced by the downtime. Think about different angles related to your site’s content that could be portrayed in a humorous light.
  4. Give your maintenance page the same look and feel as your regular site. You want visitors to immediately realize that they have arrived at the correct place, even if your site doesn’t quite look the same as always. If your maintenance page bears no resemblance to your regular site, many visitors may just assume they’ve gone to the wrong URL without bothering to read what your page says.
  5. Let visitors know when your site will be back. Maintenance times can vary greatly. Sometimes a site might be down for only a few minutes. Other times it could be an hour or two, or even longer. Let your visitors know what time you expect to be back up and running. This way they’ll have an idea of when to come back.
  6. Provide recommended content. Keeping a few articles from your site on a static page for maintenance downtime is one way to offer your visitors something to look at while you’re performing maintenance. Other sites even recommend content from other websites, generally that they think would be of interest to their visitors
  7. Invite your visitors to come back when the site is online again Since your users actually have visited your service during the downtime, they, of course, would like to use the service. Therefore it makes sense to notify them when the site is online again. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to notify all users of the service that the site is back online. So it’s a good idea to make it possible for users to get notified when the service can be used again. The latter can be done either via e-mail, SMS or a tweet.

Finally when the site is back up again

  • Tell your users when the site is back up again - Once your site is back up again, ensure users are informed about it. This can be done simply by a tweet or a facebook post or even email (however dont spam your users with emails or you might get some very frustrated users)
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From our company practice, it's best to do it at the time of least visitors. There has to be a block segment of time that you have the least number of users. And something under 25 visitors. And at a time that if your website is not running, you're not gonna get people who feel upset by it.

Examples would be 2am on Friday night (ie. early saturday morning) or 2am on Saturday night (ie early Sunday morning). These time slots are always the least active for all the companies we work with and their users.

And when you pick a time like this, you don't have to go through the trouble of putting anything up really. As long as you can be done within 2-3 hours, you'll be 100% fine.

But if you want to put something up, make it not so formal. Keep it creative and maybe even throw a flash/js game up on your site that people can play for fun. Or an article you wrote which lets them pass time. Adding personal touches like this calm people down and make them more understanding. Mailchimp does this throughout their app and they make any error/issue feel "ok".

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+1 for a game or an article sugestion –  Flot2011 Dec 5 '12 at 8:41

From my own experience, yes, it's really annoying. Just imagine that your user will have to find another service (while yours in a maintenance mode), register there, explore and understand another user interface, reenter all of the data that he or she need to get things done, etc. It will take some time. And if you ever thought about "why users really use my service?" one of the possible answers you have is: "because my service helps them to save their time". So, maintenance (even if you will warn your users before and make the process as smooth as possible) is a bad and annoying thing. And you should try to avoid it (make it transparent for the users) as much as possible.

So, most user-friendly way of updating web-site is to do it "transparently".

The answer to the question "How" is out of the scope of this site (it's a completely technical thing), but there are several ways of reducing (or even avoiding) such periods which are widely-known (like switching between two instances of your app, etc).

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I wish it would be as easily as just switching 2 folders –  Flot2011 Dec 3 '12 at 17:10
    
@Flot2011 I understand that, but still, we're all using google and amazon which are complex apps (end even ecosystems) and how often do you really get this "we're upgrading, please hold on"? The problem here is that you may think that it's not possible and "help your users to deal with that" but, at other hand, you may think differently and figure out how to "help your users to avoid that completely" instead. –  alexeypegov Dec 3 '12 at 18:41

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