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How to Have a Successful Web Design Project (Part 2)

September 8th, 2009

What determines the success (or failure) of a Web development project?

While there are many important factors (both on the client and developer side) there are two all-powerful prime lynchpins that will make or break even the most qualified participants: Perspective and expectations. Some time ago I made a blog post on perspective, in this second of two posts I’ll discuss expectations.

Expectations

Without . . . a set of shared exceptions we risk orchestrating an iPod dance party”

Success in almost any transaction or relationship is determined by establishing and meeting a set of shared expectations between parties. A $3 meal at a McDonalds can be just as successful as a $200 meal at a Smith & Wollensky Steakhouse. The same degree of success can be realized at both regardless of the vast difference between a dedicated waiter serving dry-aged prime beef and a mass produced sandwich handed to us in a crumpled paper bag. It’s all about us getting what we expect.

When a client and developer view a project from a shared perspective, setting expectations is the natural progress of collaboration. Without the collaborative systematic development of a set of shared exceptions we risk orchestrating an iPod dance party. Both parties may participate but they’ll each be in their own world and when the music stops they will have completely different perspectives from which to determine success.

Developing a shared perspective is the responsibility of the developer and starts with listening, interrogating really (in a nice way, without the light), to the client and extracting the core business goals of a project, the details of the client’s unique value proposition, the needs and profile of their customers and other such vital information.

Provocative and challenging questions should be presented to the client in this stage to help them gain an outside perspective and the developer needs to be willing to adjust their biases so that in the end there is an unambiguous meeting of the minds about the project goals. In addition to the primary goals, there are many technical parameters that need to be discussed and agreed upon including development environments, creative parameters, branding continuity, etc.

After goals and requirements have been collaboratively determined, the developer is responsible for drafting a formal systematic development process that articulates the specific developer tasks that will be provided to meet those goals, and establishes a work-flow time frame for project completion.

All of this is not that profound or new. It’s really just common sense. But from my observation, the temptation is often great to gloss over a formal development of a shared perspective and expectations. It’s usually in the context where the client and developer develop good initial rapport and feel confident that they’re “on the same page.” Feelings are great but Web development projects are too complex and expensive to rely on luck for success.

How to Have a Successful Web Design Project (Part 1)

May 6th, 2009

What determines the success (or failure) of a Web development project?

While there are many important factors (both on the client and developer side) there are two all-powerful prime lynchpins that will make or break even the most qualified participants: Perspective and expectations. In this first of two posts I’ll touch on perspective.

Perspective

A Website, even when built with cutting-edge technology and top-tier design, can at best only reflect the real value that your business offers.”

Unfortunately many Web development request for proposals I see are in reality an afterthought or addendum to an already established business model. A common misconception is that a Website or application is some sort of magic accessory that will improve the effectiveness of any business to which it is applied. Revenues down?  Slap up a new ecommerce storefront and watch the numbers climb. New customers declining?  Have your existing Website optimized for search engines and all will change. We refer to this as the Field of Dreams syndrome or the “If you build it, they will come” mentality and it is probably the number one cause of failure and lost effectiveness for Web development projects.

The most essential key to a successful Web development project is not about the Web at all. It’s about defining a competent strategic perspective and then determining the optimal role a Web asset should play within a business’s overall strategic business plan.

A Website, even when built with cutting-edge technology and top-tier design, can at best only reflect the real value that your business offers. Conversely, a high value solution, even when wrapped in subpar quality design and development, can be wildly successful. There’s no better example of this than plentyoffish.com which serves up an antiquated template design, a blurry logo with a tagline too small to read, and a site full of distorted images — all while earning over $10 million of year with only a staff of a few people. Plentyoffish.com focused on the essentials of business and has proved its truly unique value proposition to its market space.  (see And the Money Comes Rolling in, Inc Magazine)

Don’t get the impression that quality graphic design and Web development aren’t important . . . they’re critically important. They just have to be backed up by legitimate value. Very few sites, even those offering stellar value, can get away with sub-par design and features; sites like plentyoffish.com and craigslist.org might but they are definitely an exception. In fact Stanford University reports almost 1/2 of the new visitors to your Website will make an immediate judgment call about the credibility based on your Website’s presentation alone. So, the optimal approach is to first develop a business plan that delivers unambiguously unique value and, second, deliver that value proposition professionally including quality design and Web applications.

So for a client and developer to position a project for success, they need to both commit to intense reality therapy so they can view the project from the same, or very similar, high-level and objective perspective. This can be tough for a number of reasons. On the client side it’s often more than they bargained for and they’re not prepared to invest the time and effort into delving so deep into the soul of their business just for a Web development requirement. They may agree intellectually that it requires a thoughtful strategic approach, but succumb to the “just get it done and off my plate” urgency while fooling themselves into thinking they’ll come back and fix it later.

On the developer side of the coin, it requires a commitment to a deeper type of relationship than that of just a self-interested transactional service provider. The developer needs to define themselves first as a business advisor and secondly a service provider and then only for those services in which the developer can represent themselves as an established expert. It’s only if the developer can truly be objective, and not threatened about recommending 3rd party involvement, that a genuine shared strategic perspective with the client can be reached.

To be continued . . .

Comparing Linux and Windows Web Development

February 6th, 2009

I happen to read Guide to Key Comparisons of Linux vs. Windows Servers over at work.com and thought it was worth pointing out to those who might not be that familiar with the fundamental differences between Windows and Linux Web server environments.

Because this it’s such a common misconception I should mention first that running Windows or Linux on your Web server has no relationship to the operating systems you and your site users are running on their personal system.  Individual computers running Windows or Mac OS Xand and using common Web browsers don’t care what operating system the Web server is running on.

Here highlights I took from the article:

  • Both Windows and Linux are about equal when it comes to market share, reliability, performance and security.
  • Because Windows is proprietary commercial software and Linux is open source software, if your business decides to own and operate your own Web servers, Windows can be more costly. However, this base cost is nominal if you choose to outsource your Web server hosting and management.
  • Linux offers the inherit advantages of open source . . . in terms of flexibility and customization. The author states:

Linux distributors, using an open-source application with more flexibility, can implement “extensible” packages with greater customizability. In normal situations, the performance of the two is comparable, but if system functionality is most important to you, this may have an impact on your final decision.

Another critical consideration that wasn’t mentioned in this article is total cost of ownership. Linux is generally regarded as the leader in this category, but not necessarily, it all depends on each organization’s goals and required applications. Researching total cost of ownership can be confusing . . . since many of the most popular studies are drawing data mostly from very large IT enterprises and in very large enterprises TCO tends to level out between Windows and Linux.

As a general rule the smaller the organization, the more clear-cut are the TCO benefits of Linux over Windows. This does not imply that Linux will not be the best choice for the largest enterprise environments (examples of Linux enterprises include the city of Los Angeles, NASA, Amazon, American Fidelity Assurance Company and Overstock.com), but what it does mean is that any business should spend the time to evaluate the options in light of their specific needs to get the right answer.

Web Design Perfection

January 20th, 2009

media-templeTo my recollection, I’ve never made mention on this blog of a specific Website as an example of being truly great. While no one has elected me as the design judge of the Internet, nor will any great people likely take notice of this post, I am compelled to call out a Website that I’ve been captivated by for some time and that serves as a great example of the principles that we here at RisingLine advocate every day.

No, it’s not RisingLine.com (although I have to admit I think quite highly of that design), and before I continue I should disclose that I have absolutely no ulterior motive in praising the site I’m about to mention . . . no referral fees, or kickbacks of any kind.

So enough with the rambling, MediaTemple.net is the site to which I am directing my compliments. The first thing a visitor to their site will notice is that graphic design is extremely powerful but not overpowering. . . minimalist, detail oriented, clean, modern, just plain classy. It does what a graphic design is supposed to—provide a professional backdrop to the content of the site which beams credibility without distracting from the message.

I have to assume by the continued proliferation of shabbily designed sites on the Web that many don’t realize just how important design is. As we like mention, over and over, research has shown that a shockingly high percentage of people make a judgment call about the credibility of a company within seconds of visiting a Website based primarily on the graphic design (see the Stanford Web Credibility Research site for more insight on this topic). While my high school history teacher did not find it amusing when I offered to turn in a picture instead of the assigned 1,000 word essay, it really is true that a picture (or for our purposes a design) is worth a 1,000 words of credibility, and all that communicated in the blink of an eye.

A very common misconception is that an effective design is one that has a lot of swirls, colors, moving things and flashy graphics. While those types of sites might be appropriate in some instances (although I can’t think of any of the top of my head) professional Websites have a demanding purpose to concisely communicate value propositions and persuade their prospects to buy. Much Web design we see out there does more to distract from those goals than reach them. Media Temple offers us a great example of a well refined goal-oriented design that delivers their message with just a touch of panache.

Even the best graphic design is of no real use without concise messaging, clear communication flow and easy to understand navigation. These disciplines are collectively known as usability and are achieved exceptionally well by Media Temple. What’s even more impressive in this accomplishment is that the unique value of Media Temple’s hosting solutions are considerably more challenging to communicate than their competitors because they really are unique. Media Temple provides virtualized hosting accounts that are spread across a grid of resources as compared to the typical shared hosting company that sticks customers on a server in their farm to fight with the other squatters for finite resources. Based on my experience using their product, Media Temple’s solutions live up to the grand impression they make on their Website.

While I’m not going to get into the details, the usability of their client-side administration panel and knowledge base impresses me even more than their front end. I recently spent some time in Media Temple’s Grid-Service environment testing the CMS platform we develop on (coincidentally their hosting platform provided the most consistent high performance of any of the many shared hosting environments we’ve tested in) and I had a hard time tearing myself away from their administration panel when our project was complete.

Hats off to Media Temple for their great achievement and many kudos for providing us all a great example of what the Web should look like.

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