Monday, July 27, 2009

How I Mistook My Web Site For A Club.

Right, wrong, the web, and you.

The old rule of thumb is that there is one way to get something right, and many ways to make a mess.

This is still true. False, but true.

Say you have a business, and you want a web site for it. Let's not think about the exact, precise focus of that web site. You may be selling potatoes or psychiatry, or sharing your feelings. It doesn't matter right now.

The point is that you want:
  • To do something, and
  • A web site to make it happen.
OK, fine. So what's MY point?

Fair question. My point is that, even if you want to do one narrow, focused, extremely specialized thing, there is one right way and a lot of wrong ways. And also a lot of right ways.

Confused? Try this.
  • Time matters. Today is different than five years ago. Next year will be different than today. The right answer for now is not the right answer for yesterday, or tomorrow.

  • Location matters. Asia is not South America. Florida is not Montana. Spokane is not Seattle. Main Street is not Avenue E. Different languages, different cultures, and different clientele demand different right answers, nicht wahr?

  • Market matters. Markets vary by time and location, but also by economic class, by industry, by tribe, by level of coolness, and in other ways. Your market may be a moving target, or you may be. You may be a follower or a leader, but either way you need to work to hit the target.

  • Fill in the blank. We don't want to go on all day, so you try a few. You know your business and all is facets, so you can continue this game on your own.

The Big Secret To Success.

OK, given all of the above, this isn't a free-for-all. There are still some underlying rules.

There is not one, unchanging way to produce exactly one right web site. If there was, we'd see only one web site, and it would be repeated endlessly. In case you didn't notice, the world hasn't done that.

However, there are some guidelines to follow. Think of a big highway.

A big highway has many lanes. You can get on the highway from many places. You can get off at many places. And in between you can drive as far as you want. There is no one right trip. You can start many ways and end many ways, and go many places, but despite that you still have to stay on the road. And follow the rules.

It's the same with web development. You have to pay attention to some things, but within broad guidelines you can go with the flow. Here are some things to keep in mind.
  1. Architect adeptly.
  2. Never neglect navigation.
  3. Deliberately design well.
  4. Get graphic, artfully.
  5. Don't copy, write!
  6. Keep content coherent.

1 - Architect adeptly.

Architecture is the overall design of your web site. Maybe your house is one big room, but probably not. Neither is your place of business, and your web site shouldn't be either.

Unless one big room is exactly what you need, and it could be. It's fine for some sites. But that depends on the business and what you need to do.

On the other hand, neither your house nor business have hundreds of tiny rooms. Probably. Your web site shouldn't either. Unless it needs to, unless you have a really good reason for it, and this all uniquely fits your business.

Site architecture should:
  • Reflect the business needs.
  • Support the customer needs.
  • Fit the information you're displaying.
  • Be understandable.
  • Be as simple as possible.

2 - Never neglect navigation.

Navigation depends on architecture, sort of. In fact, the word "navigation" implies failure, but it's the word people use, so let's stick with it.

Whoa, failure?

If you think about it, you shouldn't need "navigation" to get around. Do you need a map to get around your house (we're picking on your house again), or your business? Even your city?

In a city, even it's a big one, you find out pretty quickly where you need to go, how to get there, and after that it's "intuitive". You do not need a navigator or any maps at all.

Web sites are a little different, because cities, in a way, are all similar. A city isn't an information system, but a web site is, and each web site has a different purpose, and so needs thought.

And web sites change frequently.

For good navigation:
  • Keep the site as simple as possible.
  • Let visitors know where they are.
  • Let visitors know where they can go.
  • Show visitors how to get there.
  • Keep travel times short.

3 - Deliberately design well.

If you feel fine working out of a cardboard box, then we're done. If you pick your clothes at random out of a freebie bin on the street corner, then we're done. If you don't care, then we have nothing to discuss.

For clothing, you want something clean, comfortable, convenient, protective. And not scary. Something appropriate to the situation. Appropriate to you and to your audience.

For web sites too. It doesn't happen by chance. You need design.

What kind of design? Graphic design.

We just covered the big architecture and the navigational floor plan, so now we're talking paint, lighting, carpeting and things like that. You want a "look".

For each dimension of your web site you need a pro. For this one too.

You want the right:
  • Colors.
  • Sizes and shapes.
  • Visual weights.
  • Typography.
  • Emotional effects.
This is all vague touchy-feely stuff, easily avoided and ignored, until you see what a good graphic designer can do. Or a bad one. Then you understand.

This is as important as the name of your business. As important as your phone number. As relevant and fundamental as a safe, secure shopping cart.

Check out sites of big name, influential companies and you'll catch on.

4 - Get graphic, artfully.

Do you have a company logo? If not, then get one.

When you find an artist who can do one the right way you've probably found a good artist for the rest of your site.

But maybe you need mostly photographs. OK, fine. You need a photographer too. But this is still art.

A graphic designer deals with big, sweeping issues, like color. A graphic artist, however, deals with smaller, more specific elements like logos, drawings, diagrams, icons and so on.

You might not need a lot of art but be sure that what you have is good. Get someone who knows what they're doing. No finger painters.

You might want an artist to:
  • Scale your logo up or down for use as a recurring element.
  • Work a familiar and respected company image into several formats.
  • Create a unique set of icons or other symbols.
  • Convert photographs into posterized images or line drawings.
  • Develop original works of art that are distinct to your brand.

5 - Don't copy, write!

Words. Gotta have 'em.

You know they're good, but are you? Sure you can read and write, but can you write well enough to make a living at it? Think about that.

If you aren't really that good, then don't kid yourself. Use someone who can make you look like a winner, not a joke. Bad copy writing tags you as a loser. You can do gooder than that, betcha.

A copywriter can:
  • Create company slogans.
  • Write newsletters.
  • Develop ads.
  • Help optimize for search engines.
  • Keep all your text in sync.
  • Generate press releases.
  • Produce smooth, crisp, meaningful content.
  • Turn visitors into customers.
  • Make your hair stand on end.

6 - Keep content coherent.

So then, does this add up to something?

Well, that's up to you. The architecture of your site, the navigation, the look, the feel, the art, the words -- they're all team members. If they work together, you get effective content.

Content? Is that it? And it means what?

It means the point, as in what the point is. It's your message. It may even be your product.
  • If you're a blogger, your content is your words, and what they mean.
  • If you're a photographer, it's your images.
  • If you sell products, your content is your catalog.
  • If you sell services, your content is a demonstration of your smarts.
  • And always, content projects your credentials and reputation.
So, it varies.

Remember back to the beginning, where we said there was only one right way, and also several right ways? Well, this is it. Content is the milk in the glass, the steak that produces the sizzle, the story of the story.

If you are captured by a web site, it has good content. If you get the picture, understand the story, move in the groove, it's because of content.

It's not the instruments, or the musicians, or the dance floor. It's the dance. Get people dancing with you and you've got it made.

What this all means.

So we've trudged through all these ideas and sketched them out. You have a good idea of the different web site dimensions, but just to be clear about all this, we have to repeat that this all serves two purposes:
  • Serving your customers, and
  • By serving your customers, serving your business.
That's what it's all about. You don't go through this process if you don't care. If you don't care then you don't care, and there is no point to any of this.

But if you do have a business, and you want it to thrive and grow, then you pretty well need a web site. And if you have a web site it should be a good one.

A good web site:
  • Is focused.
  • Is easy to use.
  • Is pleasant to use.
  • Is simple.
  • Serves the business.
  • Serves customers.
  • Is kind of fun all by itself.
Get a good web site and you're off to a running start. But don't forget to keep thinking about it, because no one solution is forever.

And one more thing.

So why is this titled "How I mistook my web site for a club"?

Because, if you want to get things wrong then ignore all of the above. Pretend that the web is a way to trick people into giving you money. Only a way to beat them over the head.

Pretend that no one will ever know. That no one will ever share their impressions electronically, instantaneously, worldwide, permanently.

Pretend that it's all about you, only about you, what you want, what you need. Pretend that the world is there to serve you, and not the other way around. Fine.

It's only your business that's depending on it.

Your call.

Quick references at Wikipedia:
Information architecture
Web design
Graphic design
Copy writing
Web content

Friday, July 03, 2009

But Not The Kitchen Sink

I once worked with a guy. A nice guy. A smart one.

He was tall, and looked good. He was healthy. He made more money than I did, had a fancier job title.

He once tried to talk me into doing his work for him, but my one good brain cell caught on, and headed him off at the pass.

He normally didn't do that. Only that once. We were friends. But he was really stupid too.

At least I thought so, because of how he tried to have fun.

He had a wife, and they had two children. This isn't the dumb part.

They owned a house (also not dumb).

They had bought a timeshare condo at Cabo San Lucas. That's at the tip of the Baja peninsula in Mexico. (I hear distant sirens.)

This entitled them to two weeks a year. (The sirens are getting louder, approaching rapidly.)

So since they had a timeshare condo, this was where they had to take vacations. (Yikes, an ambulance is going to run over us!)

None of this mattered to me outside of its recreational value though.

When I hear this sort of thing I feel lucky not to be involved. But it makes entertaining talk at the cubicle farm.

Some parts of the story made my hair stand on end. The parts about how they packed and what they took. Golf clubs, swim fins, toys, a stereo system, a video gaming system, bicycles, a raft, and enough other things to squeeze all the remaining air out of their car.

Or maybe it was a van. I forget. Again, not my problem but I had to wonder.

What I had to wonder about was how anyone could have fun buried in clutter.

They didn't, so much, I guess. Vacation time was work.

There was lots of organizing, running around, packing, unpacking, and yelling (as it was told to me). Many things got moved from here to there, and then from there to here, and most of those things were not used at all (but were there, just in case).

After two weeks everyone was back home, resting up. Dreading the unpacking.

Unfortunately most software projects are like that. Except less organized, and much less fun, and much more expensive.

Here is the typical process, compared to a vacation from hell.

Vacation Software project
Buy the timeshare contract. Start locked in to a solution before you know what the problem is.
Call the family together. Hire staff (without knowing exactly what they'll do).
Reserve vacation time. Create a schedule composed of wild guesses butted up against iron clad delivery dates.
Fill the car with everything you own. Buy, lease, or steal tools. Any and all possible tools, especially the wrong ones.
Drive like crazy for days. Work, work, work, and hope you get somewhere.
Once there, do stuff, but don't have fun. Work, undo, rework, and hope you get something done, somehow.
Fight a lot. Form factions. Work at cross purposes. Argue, gossip, fight, swear.
Drive home, frazzled. Fall into your own bed, at last. Declare victory. Deny reality. Pretend not to notice the warts, or the fact that this toad has horns.
Go back to work. Spend evenings falling asleep in front of the TV. Nap on weekends to recover. Assign regular staff to bend things into a usable shape. Promote clueless managers and fire the brightest staff. Find more scapegoats as needed.
Notice how low your bank balance has gotten. Go out of business.

There are better ways. We'll leave vacation planning to you, but for development, the best thing to do is to...
  • Know your business needs.
  • Make only changes that fill those needs.
  • Keep things simple.
  • Work with people you know.
  • Rely on those you can trust.
  • Question everything and everyone, all the time.
  • Work in good faith.
  • Be honest.
  • Be open.
  • Be fair, adult, and considerate.
  • Understand that you don't know everything.
  • Stay flexible.
  • Do things only in small steps.
  • Learn from your mistakes.
  • Be grateful.
Be grateful for the chance to work, to make a difference, to be good, and to work with smart, caring, competent people. The rest is easy. (Or at least simpler.)

Do this, and it's like being on vacation all the time, but without a rubber raft stuck to the roof, or a trunk full of swim fins and hot, rattling golf clubs.