iData Technologies Blog


Rapid Prototyping with Protoshare

Posted 9/3/2009 1:36:00 PM by Mark Reichard

Readers of this blog will know that I'm in favor of any tool that helps with requirements definition and project planning for Web projects.  I'm convinced that it's the insufficient definition of requirements and a failure to agree on concrete expectations between clients and developers  that are the primary cause of failed Web projects. 

Just two weeks ago we were called in to consult with a company that had hired a Web vendor and was concerned about the project.  From our discussion, it seemed that the vendor was of the "start writing code first and ask questions later" school of Web project management.   and their response to several of the clients requests for details about the sit was that all would become clear once they saw the finished site, and that anything the client did not like could just be changed.  Just like you would not hire a contractor who planned to build your building first and then find out how you wanted it look and function, you should not hire a Web developer who does not thoroughly research your requirements and draw up a detailed blueprint for the site.

In line with this idea, we've recently started to use a rapid Web prototyping tool for all sites that we develop.  The tool is called Protoshare (www.protoshare.com), and it allows you to quickly and easily create functional prototypes of Web sites.  You can iteratively prototype the site by first specifying which elements (links, text blocks, form fields) will be on each page without specifying details of colors, fonts and images.  This allows you to get agreement on the broad outlines of the site.  You can then add additional detail by developing CSS sytle sheets for site elements and uploading images.  Finally, you can give a designer access to the prototype to develop design comps for key pages, and these comps can be uploaded directly into the site for client review.

We've found this to be an invaluable tool, and the regular enhancement schedule means that there's a good chance that the few gripes we've had with the tool will be resolved soon.

Tags: Project ManagementComments


Determining the impact of a non-profit site

Posted 4/24/2009 11:22:02 AM by Mark Reichard

In our last post we talked about the importance of focusing on the concrete goals that a Web site is supposed to deliver and of measuring the site’s success in accomplishing those goals. We also discussed the difficulty that non-profits, social service agencies and government often have in identifying concrete goals and particularly in devising ways to measure their site’s success at accomplishing goals. In this post we’ll discuss three strategies that non-profits can use to determine how successful their site is in furthering the mission of the organization.

The first and most obvious of these strategies is using a Web analytics package such as Google Analytics (www.google.com/analytics) to monitor traffic to your site. As content and new features are added, you can track visits and page views on the site and determine whether more people are taking advantage of the resources on the site. It stands to reason that increasing traffic indicates that your site is becoming a more valuable resource, while decreasing traffic might indicate the opposite. Using raw visits and pageviews traffic can be problematic however, because raw numbers don’t tell you how visitors came to your site or why. If you want to truly understand how visitors are using your site, it’s important to know which areas of the site are most visited, how users are coming to the site (direct navigation, links from other sites or as a result of finding your site in an Internet search engine like Google). If you’re not getting traffic from search engines, it’s worth researching whether your site appears in search results for terms that are relevant to your site and, if not, to think about search engine optimization for the site.

If you are getting traffic from search engines, it’s a good idea to use your analytics package to understand what search terms users are using to get to your site. These details may tell a substantially different story than the raw data about site visits and pageviews. On the iData site for example, there are a couple of blog posts that have addressed somewhat arcane topics not well covered elsewhere and that rank well in search engines. These posts account for a substantial portion of the traffic to our site, but not they are not really related to our core products and services. If we relied only on overall site traffic to measure the effectiveness of our site, we would not get the complete picture.

Another often recommended strategy involves posting an online survey. Most modern Web Content Management Systems (CMS) such as iData’s Synapse Publisher include an online survey builder component, and there are a variety of free or low cost online tools such as SurveyMonkey (www.surveymonkey.com) that allow organizations to survey their sites’ visitors about how they use the site and what the organization might do better. These surveys can be a valuable tool, particularly when the organization’s understanding of how their site is used is wildly out of line with reality. In such cases, an online survey can provide an important wake-up call to those responsible for managing the site. In many cases however, a survey is of limited use. First of all, most users have been surveyed by so many sites that they will not participate, and they may resent being asked for their input. Also, online surveys may suffer from the same limitations that focus groups often do in the sense that site visitors feel compelled to offer strong opinions even when they do not feel strongly one way or another about your site, so the survey responses may include emphatic statements that exaggerate the importance of the data.

A better way to gauge how the site is used is to incorporate the site into the business processes of the organization. This can be done by encouraging site visitors who need to contact you to do so through online forms with responses emailed to someone in your organization and stored in a database so that they are available for periodic review and reporting. These forms can be developed for any area of your organizations mission where you get information from customers or clients and act on that information. Applications can range from typical contact forms that users fill out to request more information about your products or services to event registration forms that users fill out to register for events or classes. For non-profits, a key part of the organization’s mission is often providing information, which at first glance might not seem amenable to this approach. If the information is important enough to your clients, you could consider requiring users to register before providing the information. Based on our experience, we would exercise caution with this approach, however, because --- particularly in the case of non-profits --- getting critical information out is often more important than measuring who is consuming it. In most cases, using Web analytics reporting to understand how frequently your key information is accessed and downloaded is a better idea.

Two objections that many non-profits have to the idea of incorporating online forms into their business processes are:

  • The staff of the agency or organization would often prefer to speak with clients and potential clients who access the site in order to accurate access their needs and be sure that they are pointed in the right direction.
  • Wise non-profits and government agencies sometimes do not object to providing an online form but they also want to provide a phone number, email address and mailing address in order to allow site visitors to contact the organization in the way that is most convenient to the visitor.

Both of these issues can be addressed by providing offline contact methods that are published only through the Web site. These can include a site specific 800 number or phone extension, a Web-site specific PO box or mailstop and a Web-site specific email contact address. Many 800 number services (such as Ring Central --- www.ringcentral.com) offer detailed reporting on use of the 800 number, and email traffic is easy to track. Using these methods, organizations can provide site visitors a choice of the most convenient way to contact the organization while still providing an accurate picture of the impact of the Web site on the organization.

This post has discussed how non-profits, social service agencies and government can understand the impact that their Web sites have on their operations. The next post in this series will discuss what to do when you get those results --- particularly when you determine that you need to attract more traffic to your site.

Tags: Analytics, Content Management, E-marketing Strategy, Project ManagementComments


Web projects as political footballs

Posted 1/1/2008 12:00:00 AM by Mark Reichard

I’ve been reading The E-myth Revisited by Michael Gerber this week, which has prompted me to think about what we do well and how to systematize our process and communicate about it more effectively.

One of the key things that I've come to --- I think it helps that we work in several different areas at the same time. We are active in SEO, but our main focus is content management. Since our largest client’s Web site offers content in more than 20 languages, we are forced to think about both SEO and content management in multiple languages. Since in addition to Web development and consulting we are also a software developer, we’re always thinking about creating things that are maintainable down the road and can be easily extendable.

I had occasion last year to work with folks from a major e-commerce search and site navigation vendor. They make amazingly powerful solutions, and have a client list that is literally the who’s who of major e-commerce players. The one challenge that I found in talking with some of their folks on a client project was that they did not seem to have good answers to some of my questions about how to create a search engine friendly site that uses their navigation and search features. I got a lot of suggestions to “have the front end take care of that.” Fair enough, and as I’ve said their clients are enormously successful using their tools, but I was very concerned about having so many issues coded around in the front end --- I was concerned that we’d end up with a brittle and un-maintainable solution . Similarly, when we had conversations about how to implement a highly multilingual solution, we were back to suggestions to code around limitations in the front end.

Lots of similar stories come to mind of working with designers who believe that pretty pictures really are the most important thing, although they will give lip service to things like SEO and usability, which to them are fundamentally distractions from the pretty pictures. The point is, though, to find out how to help folks create sites that work --- for the customers, not designed by committee, least common denominator, compromises, which seems all too often to happen.

We have of, course created
design guidelines and we’ve mapped out at least a first cut at an ROI-driven Web planning process, but guidelines and process maps don’t address the fundamentally political issues at the heart of the design-by-compromise process that often seems to take place.

One way that we have thought of talking about what we do with clients is to ask them “what is a Website?” Lots of people will answer that it is a tool for getting information about an organization, or sometime for buying the organization’s goods and services. Some will say it is a collection of image and text files on a Web server. We’d typically try to get them to thing of some of the other things that a Website is:

- Your first introduction to many of your new customers, employees and partners,
- The most powerful customer service tool you could have,
- Potentially the hardest working sales person you could have,
- At worst, a potential source of liability and or embarrassment

To this list we should add “a political football.” What we’re working on now is a process to address the political side of Web development and redesigns

Tags: E-marketing Strategy, Project ManagementComments