All posts by Johnny Castro

After spending a lot of time in the past year casting wide nets at moving targets, I’ve really come to appreciate the diligence and research that goes into software requirements, particularly functional requirements.  The Great Recession has forced almost everyone (in the private sector anyway) to think and work even more efficiently.

Unfortunately, there isn’t always time or money available to spend on properly-developed requirements that include the realistic use case coverage, revised and efficient flow diagrams, etc.  Bob Doyle of Bobs SEO, a Las Vegas SEO consultant describes the life cycle of a web app or feature in 5 steps:

  • Concept
  • Prototype
  • Revision or two
  • Approval
  • Go live

I’m familiar with this contracted development process and while I don’t find it ideal, I’m getting better at working within it out of necessity.  One thing I still struggle with is knowing where to start and where to stop; i.e., evaluating the project to determine what level of fidelity best serves the project requirements.  An embryonic concept may not see the light of day if evaluations of a high-fidelity prototype don’t go over well; a feature-rich, interactive manifestation of an underdeveloped idea is just that.

Through LinkedIn I found an excellent article that illustrates how to approach prototype fidelity. This passage in particular resonated with me:

People like shiny things that move. The cool factor of prototyping will be difficult to resist.

It’s difficult to stifle the urge to skip the research and tedium and discussion that help an idea evolve into requirements, because seeing and clicking is instant gratification.  Fundamental information design is analogous to the  foundation or set of concrete footings upon which a physical structure rests.

In the midst of the Great Recession, I find it ironic that Network Solutions – already a target of criticism for nuisance up-sell advertisements and expensive domain registration – has decided to reinvent the wheel.  While businesses everywhere are forced to downsize and get back to the basics of delivering value, Network Solutions has decided to go in the opposite direction by burdening their existing customers with new proprietary terms for familiar products and services.  They’re all prefixed with “ns” for “Network Solutions,” ostensibly to serve a misguided campaign to supplant 100% of the Internet’s existing competition not by virtue of delivering value, but simply through re-branding.  Apparently they’re under the delusion that either (A.) customers will come to adopt the term “nsWebAddress” instead of “domain,” or (B.) customers will be so impressed by their ambitious marketing they’ll forgive Netsol for confusing them, and won’t cancel their renewals.  (Of course, you have to first find the renewals screen in order to configure it.)

That someone convinced Netsol upper management to invest heavily in a more bloated user experience – alienating existing customers and probably scaring off new business, both unsolicited and through potential referrals – is almost too hard to believe.  Reminds me of a line from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.  Three days into a marathon LSD-induced trampoline session, a bearded, bouncing Dewey announces to his manager ”I’m reinventing music, into something I call schmusic!”

Could it be an elaborate prank?

Just a brief overview of what has been an effective strategy for developing and delivering a business-oriented web design:

Step 1 – Establish Goals and a Big Picture

In order to know what pages and other content needs to be here, we need to establish a purpose.  For most business IT websites, the primary goal is to educate visitors on the value of a product or service and drive sales.  So, for this example we’ll start there.  Everything else is an outgrowth of that.  This may mean hosting literature, and/or placing strategic calls to action for trial downloads, consultations, webinars, or simple form data collection.  Map out the objectives, because the goal (sales) is simple.

Step 2 – Identify Inspiration & Execute a Design

This “design” phase is in my opinion quite ironically the least important.  It should really be as simple as discussing with your designer (or if you ARE the designer, discussing with your client) some examples of design work they consider noteworthy and relevant.  Sometimes they’re competitor websites, and other times they’re unrelated.  Knowing what the buyer is after makes it easier to hit the target quickly.

Step 3 – Revisions & Delivery

Unless the buyer doesn’t know what they want or has too much time on their hands, this should go very quickly.  If it doesn’t, something has gone very wrong and either the designer sucks or the client sucks.  More often than not, a buyer who indicates in clear terms what they’re after has little trouble getting that if they’ve gone to a designer that they can communicate with.  Once the revisions seem to hit the spot, delivery should be made in whatever formats suit the project.

Don’t get hung up on technology and brands and methods, because it doesn’t matter from a business standpoint for design considerations.  The server technology is irrelevant for design purposes (I will happily but politely rebut anyone who says otherwise).  The tool you use to create the markup and CSS – Dreamweaver, Frontpage, whatever – is irrelevant.  It simply doesn’t matter HOW it is done, as long as it is done – and done right.

I can’t write enough on this topic.

The most important thing to consider for a small business owner or employee soliciting a bid to get a web presence up and running is communication:

  • Does the vendor demonstrate interest in the purpose of the website?
  • Over subsequent conversations do they demonstrate some commitment to memory of the details of your particular project?
  • In general, is their communication of a professional nature? (I.E., quick replies, coherent and attentive emails with a courteous and professional tone.)

The answer to all these questions needs to be “yes.”  Any vendor who doesn’t express specific interest in YOUR project cannot be expected to act as a surrogate problem-solver.  As such, at best they can only sell you what you are asking for explicitly…but being possibly new to web design procurement, you may not know exactly what is in your business’ best interest.  One client once told me his biggest beef with high-dollar service vendors was that they often gave him what he asked for, instead of what he needed.  The distinction here is attention and communication.

As much as I hate to think about it, there are thousands of web design vendors out there who are more than happy to take your money to drum up designs using the bare minimum level of interest necessary to get you your deliverable and broom you out the door.  It sucks, but it’s reality.

A good web design vendor will help you identify the right solution, even if that means spending more or less than what it is you’ve asked for explicitly.  Part of the job description of a true professional web designer is to identify and address requirements.

More on that, after this…

I’ve written about logo design before, and didn’t have good things to say about the process as part of business front end development. It’s too easy for a start-up or small business owner or owners to get caught up obsessing over minutia like the logo, which has very little to do with meaningful business value.

On the other side of the coin, I’ve worked with clients whom I feel do it right. They exhibit the following characteristics:

  • When they propose logo mark (the graphic portion of a logo) metaphors, they describe them in practical, simple terms that have personal relevance for themselves or their team
  • They leave the execution to the design team
  • They cooperate with a “one thing at a time” design process which presents them, for example, (1.) a mark concept, (2.) logo type concepts, and (3.) color concepts in no particular order but sequentially, to streamline the decision-making process

It’s always encouraging to work efficiently on something like this, because not only does the trust lead to inspired design work, but it’s also an efficient use of business resources to invest only what is necessary in front end/storefront development and keep their efforts based around their core competency.

The design team might accrue more billable time if they pass along the cost of endless revisions to the client, and some design houses are more than happy to do that. It all comes around, though, and the only design the people I work with are interested in is that which serves the business objectives. Anything else is navel-gazing, figuratively speaking.

The word “blogging” may conjure up images of academics with too much time on their hands filling the internet with opinions.  That doesn’t matter really; what matters actually is that the tools created in response to the blogging trends are GREAT tools for publishing web content.

Every advanced content management system (CMS) under the sun – Joomla, Drupal, DotNetNuke, phpNuke, etc. – has a learning curve comparable to learning to hand-code HTML, CSS and client scripts in Wordpad.  It defeats the purpose of a content management system when the system itself presents a big bloated user interaction between the user and their goal: publishing content.  (I tried using VBAdvanced, an extension of the fantastic commercial message board VBulletin.  It requires a great deal of background and familiarity with the VBulletin universe and with BBCode, an interpreted markup language.  That’s right…interpreted markup code that only works on message boards.  WOW.  But I digress…)

A blog platform like WordPress, on the other hand, is installed far easier than the above, often using something like Fantastico which insulates the user from technical b.s. they don’t know nor care about anyway.  Point and click install and initialization….truly turnkey.

Then, using it the best part…as simple as “Action-Done.”  There’s no learning curve; it is as simple and intuitive as using an average Word Processor.  Want to write a new page?  You literally click “Write Page.”

That usability is still secondary to the potential of the tool: an easy-to-use way to publish topical content on the internet in as few steps as are necessary.  This represents tremendous business value.

Administrative overhead is almost nothing; time spent publishing content is equivalent to the content produced.  A three-sentence update takes no longer than you would imagine.

Additionally, a blogging platform archives published content in what is increasingly becoming a very standard, intuitive format.

The way to truly succeed is to leverage tools to their useful extent, instead of trying to re-invent the wheel.

On the other hand, if your priority as a business owner is to impress yourself with a completely Flash-driven website that has techno music the user cannot turn off, then a blogging tool like WordPress might not get the job done.

Because of the front-and-center accessibility and intimacy of the logo as a concept, logo design is an area where people who haven’t yet thought about practical logo design parameters feel comfortable weighing in with very specific feedback:

“Let’s see what happens when you make this a dotted line.”
“Try using an image of a starfish holding a crossbow, and he’s grinning.”
“Maybe try making this part transparent instead. And glowing.  With some smoke.”

Specific design revision instructions like this are as inspired and well-intentioned as they are potentially detrimental to project success.  The above examples, while slightly melodramatic, aren’t that far off from some of the requests I’ve had.  I’ve parted ways before with business owners who brought an ostensibly important project to a grinding halt by bringing too many non-stakeholders into the design feedback loop.  I refuse to waste their time (which is money) by indulging impractical requests.

Great logo ideas are not the exclusive province of graphic designers; some of the best marks in the business probably began as some CEO’s absent-minded doodle on a the back of an envelope.  However, in the context of a logo design initiative for a smaller business who has outsourced the task to a fully-qualified vendor, it really doesn’t pay to be very hands-on.

The fact is that a client’s over-reaching involvement in an outsourced design project jeopardizes that client’s return on their investment.  As if it weren’t hard enough already to get metrics on the ROI of a design overhaul initiative,  someone who pulls the trigger on an expensive design project makes it even more complicated by getting too involved.

As a business owner, your priorities should guide the direction of the ship; “what” vs. “how”. Every second, every ounce of energy focused on low-value minutia is time and energy taken away from high-value tasks.  Thomas Jefferson spoke of his admiration for Franklin and Washington, who “…laid their shoulders to the great points, knowing the smaller ones would follow of themselves.”  A more recently elected U.S. President, while campaigning, was heard to have objected to his campaign’s innovative  logo design, but quickly moved on citing “…bigger fish to fry.”  This hyper-focus on the big picture is commendable.

“But the logo is the first thing people see…it’s critical for us to have the right logo.”

I appreciate that sentiment, and as a professional designer I respect each and every client’s paid prerogative.  The logo itself, though, is NOT your brand.  Your brand is the entirety of efforts; your organization’s body of work, the value you have delivered and will deliver, and the impact your product or service has on the world…these things are what give your logo mark its meaning, and not the other way around.  Before the color green meant “go” it meant something else.  The designations of universal traffic colors have rather arbitrary origins that by virtue of their use have come to acquire their present meaning.

“How am I supposed to go with a logo I don’t like?”

Put your priorities in the right place and this becomes moot.    Businesses live and die by what they do and how well they do it.  The best way to build a brand is to be #1 in the field, better than the rest without question.  If you hire someone competent to design you a logo, let them do it and be done with it so you can return focus to the future of your business.  In order to be successful in business, you have to build a better mousetrap.  You don’t need to build a better logo (unless your logo has major problems.)

A lot of great businesses have completely mediocre websites.  It’s easy for a brick-and-mortar establishment with no history of web leads and sales to overlook this point of contact for their business front end.

Some such businesses take the step to create a website, but only perfunctory in nature with little attention paid to goals and design.  Depending upon your market position, this may or may not be risky.  For successful mid-sized enterprise looking to grow and raise capital with a public stock offering, this is a terrible mistake to make.  First impressions are everything and a cheap-looking “afterthought” website says that either (A.) no one within the company is keeping close tabs on the company’s image or the manner in which company information is disseminated, or worse yet (B.) they don’t have the budget available to put together even a minimally presentable web front end.

Just use common sense, there’s no need for a long-winded explanation of how web design can affect first impressions of your business.  As has been mentioned before on this website, spending a lot guarantees no measure of success, as there are no silver bullets.  However – the flipside – spending nothing (in time, energy or currency) guarantees that your priorities will be made known to your sales prospects.

Chances are you’ll make a much better impression on sales prospects if your site has received some professional attention on both a content level and aesthetic level.

For small to medium-sized businesses and small businesses in particular, web design is a scary investment due to the lack of ROI metrics on many design projects (most SMBs don’t have the budget for such metrics even.)  A small business owner may feel obligated or otherwise entitled to manage such a design project with a heavy hand, thinking “It’s my nickel.”

Understandably, an ambitious web design project is a tricky investment for a business owner who is busy trying to grow while still break even or turn a profit.  The micro-management approach, however, invariably yields terrible results.

Take responsibility for the commitment you’ve made to whomever has been hired to handle your design project, and trust them to do their job.  Chances are you hired them after they demonstrated competency on an associate’s project or in a reasonably impressive portfolio of work and references.  The web designer got the job by being a professional and being good at what they do, in so far as they’ve managed to elicit project offers from business owners such as yourself.  Whatever your business is, it isn’t web design or you’d not have hired someone else to do it.  Therefore, you must go out on a limb now that you’ve made that financial investment, and trust the professional to do their job.

It’s very easy to develop creative impulses when overseeing a design project you’ve paid for, and it’s difficult to ignore them.  That’s a good sign, speaking generally, to try and do your best to ignore the impulse.  If you get involved and tell the professional you’ve hired how to do their job, you will (A.) be offering suggestions with no basis in practical, professional design experience and (B.) elicit inferior work from a now uninspired designer whom you are paying a perhaps significant amount of money.

You cannot guarantee great web design work by any means known to man, but you CAN guarantee less-than-great work by getting too involved in design projects and micromanaging them.  Trust will lead to inspired work.

A lot has been said about Web 2.0 and agile methodologies in the world of IT professionals, but little if any of it is meaningful for your average small business owner selling, say, handmade organically-derived hypoallergenic soap.

User Driven Hosting was created as a simple concept, a simple mission with simple goals:

  • Empower small business owners to leverage the internet to grow their business
  • Specifically, showing them how to leverage existing resources instead of “reinventing the wheel”

You’ll see this come up on this site again and again as a recurring theme.  One of the concepts of agile programming is the acronym “DRY” – don’t repeat yourself.  Programmers got smart and decided to stop repeating work and use libraries of commonly-used functions and other code to the maximum extent in order to reduce the amount of time required to create and maintain applications.  Web designers haven’t quite caught up with this trend.  Unfortunately many web design boutiques and local web design “shops” and vendors enjoy reinventing the wheel only to pass the cost along to the customer.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of small business websites share the same features.  Similar navigation and content structure, and similar application of “design.”  (This doesn’t apply to fancy Flash-driven sites, but then we’re not in the Flash site design market.)

User Driven Hosting’s mission for each client is to quickly deploy a site built on an open-source, ubiquitous and rigorously-tested website framework.  The technical specifics aren’t as important as what it does, and what the net value translates to:

  • The ability to easily manage content – adding pages, editing pages, adding photos, video, items for sale
  • Extendability – “plugins” or external sets of features written by 3rd parties to enhance this framework allow site owners to import other blogs, Flickr photo accounts, and countless other features…the possibilities grow daily
  • Low cost per unit time – no SMB just getting plugged into the internet should spend thousands and thousands on web design unless they can justify it in sales

The bottom line is that agile web design = working smarter, not harder.  Using existing resources, and working within flexible but reasonable rules to favor a practical and useful conventions over a website design – and budget – with unknown boundaries.  As the agile programming language tool Ruby on Rails advertises, favor “convention over configuration.”  Don’t sweat the small details, the sink fixtures and cabinet handles and shower curtain rings.  Put your efforts behind the important tasks, such as running your business and educating new customers with a smart website, and everything else will fall into place.  That’s what we are here to help you do.