It's been nearly two years since I first posted my blog "3 Questions Clingy Customers Want Answered", but it still holds true. You might be wondering why I didn't just recycle the blog. If you weren't, well ... I'll tell you anyway - it wouldn't help with my goal to get new content every week this year. I also wouldn't be able to tell you about a recent interaction I had related to answering those questions.
Most small businesses rely on an outsourced Web designer to manage their Web site. With the economy improving, not all of those resources are sticking around. They are instead heading back to work for other companies themselves and they all handle the transition differently. Some are great - providing their client with well-documented processes and information about their site. Many simply fade away. If you're outsourcing your Web design and development to a freelancer or independent firm, here's a few tips on making sure you're ready if you're forced into a transition.
Failure to plan is planning to fail.
We've all heard the old adage, but with software, failure should be part of any plan. This isn't because we want or even know that failure will occur. We certainly don't want the application to fail, but disaster happens. It could be a fire at the data center where the application is housed, infiltration by a malicious hacker, or any number of things that cause an application to fail. What's important, though, is that you have a plan in place to get back up.
A great many projects are hatched by business owners everywhere, but they don't all become a reality. Just like not all businesses survive the first 5 years, not every project is executed in a way it can be successful. I recently gave a presentation to a group of small business owners about how Web apps are like houses. If you're scratching your head, then keep reading and I'll explain.
Building a platform with security built-in from the beginning isn't a common occurrence. Many freelance developers or small development teams consider security late, if at all, which results in what we call "bolted-on" security (versus "built-in" security). Bolted on security, while still security, tends to poke a lot of holes in an application. Here are three things to discuss with your Web team about before you start the next project or enhancement.
Security was on everyone's mind last year, including mine. One of the things I was keenly aware of was that most people talk about it fearfully - including me. I wanted this article to be different. We all know there are people out there who want our information - that hasn't changed. As a web development company, however, we must do our part to make obtaining that information more difficult.
It's no surprise that technology is on everyone's mind, particularly small businesses who face a unique challenge. In order to stay relevant, they need to update their technology, but often that means bootstrapping a solution better suited to large enterprises or costly custom development. Neither is appealing to small businesses who often have small technology budgets. The solution lies in MVP.
In my previous blog, I talked about how we updated our client's technology platform and increased their site's visibility and conversion. Marketing was just one aspect of that project and it all tied together with necessary upgrades to address new regulations and reporting in the mortgage industry. We needed to meet a specific deadline to update the forms their platform generates.
When you embark on the journey of creating something, it's important to remember your audience. Whether it's coming up with a great blog or presentation, a re-designed or completely new Web site, or a brand new product or service, it's important to keep in mind that, without an audience, you're really just talking to yourself.
When you talk to an architect about building your dream home, you can get a rough idea of the cost by providing some preliminary information. It's not until they dig into specifics - the kind of countertops, number and size of bedrooms, and other important details - that they can provide you with an exact number. The same is true when creating a custom Web site or application. Estimates are often based on little more than an hour-long conversation and a few general examples.
When it comes to a digital presence, you want to look good and your first instinct is to find a great Web designer. After all, you're not writing software, so why would you want a developer? As I network with other businesses, I find they tend to fall into two camps: they either believe Web designers are the same as Web developers or they think a Web developer can only write code and can't create a Web site. Well, I'm here to set the record straight.
When it comes to solving our client's business challenges with software, there's a lot that has to happen to make it a reality. The first stage is the proposal and we want our estimate to be as accurate as possible so the client can plan accordingly. To that end, when planning out a custom solution, we focus on four key items: keeping the timeline short, prioritizing features, talking about our client's problems, and talking about the end result
KEEPING THE TIMELINE SHORT
When creating a custom solution, whether it's for employees to use in back-office management tasks or for a customer service channel, we plan to produce the minimum viable product (MVP). An MVP will implement only the core functionality of the software with minimal "bells and whistles" so that a solution can be in place as quickly as possible. If a challenge facing our client means they will cease to exist in 6 months without it, including all the extras and producing the final version in 5-7 months won't help. Our goal is to have an MVP complete and implemented in three months or less.
TALK ABOUT YOUR PROBLEMS
Where our clients see problems, we see challenges and a puzzle to be solved. Like a good psychiatrist, we're great listeners and encourage our clients to tell us about the problems they're facing in their business. Hearing these challenges gives us one piece of the puzzle and some insight into what doesn't currently work, narrowing down the options on our way to a viable solution.
PRIORITIZE FEATURES & STICK TO IT
In order to keep the timeline short and solve the puzzle, priorities need to be set. Lots of ideas will come up during the initial brainstorming and we'll need to transform these into features so they can be prioritized. Once this is done and a plan has been put together, any ideas that come up during the project should be evaluated through this lens. Many times, a new idea can just as easily be added during a future enhancement project rather than disrupting the current momentum toward a solution.
TALK ABOUT THE END RESULT
Prioritizing features and knowing the challenges our clients face is just one part of getting to a solution. Second only to knowing and understanding the problem is knowing the desired outcome of a business process. It could be an email that is triggered, a work order that is created, or an order that is shipped, but that outcome is the other end of the process that our solution will manage. Everything in between will be handled by the software in some way.
Addressing these four items provides the most insight into how we can help our clients. From this information we can propose an appropriate solution and begin devising the architecture of the solution's components.
Since founding Sol Minion Development, I've been to dozens of networking events. Each time, the same question came up: "So, what do you do?" There's plenty of ways to answer this question and plenty of techniques. I've tried several of them, but it's hard to define what we do succinctly. After a little over two years and using the "Twitter Approach", I whittled it down: We solve business challenges using software. The challenges could be just about anything, from marketing to operations to customer service, but it's all solved in some way by software. So, what do you do?
Here are three examples of challenges faced by many businesses that we can help overcome.
I've talked about development projects and how we create customized, proprietary software for our clients. We do that by leveraging the open source software community which lets us build great software faster and with widely-used libraries that are designed to be reused and, as such, are tested quite thoroughly. Open source benefits our clients in three very important ways: better quality, shorter timelines, and lower costs.
I often forget that, when I'm in "developer mode", I speak a language foreign to many people. For that reason, this is will be my first article discussing concepts and/or jargon that come up frequently during or about projects. First, you may find it helpful to know that when developers talk about Web sites, Web applications, and mobile apps, we are referring to three different, albeit related, types of projects. Carry on if you'd like to find out more.
Web site, Web application, and mobile app projects are each a part of a mobile-era marketing plan and can be (often, are) interconnected in some way, but are very distinct and require different resources, budgets, and expertise. They range from basic brochure sites to custom Web-based applications to mobile apps and platforms that facilitate communication between one, two, or all three of these types of projects.
"Out of the Box" Solutions
These require special mention because many times they are used for any one of the three project types we are discussing. "Out of the box" (or "Boxed") solutions are the equivalent to software you purchase at your local Best Buy to run on your laptop. For Web sites, you might know them as "plugins" (if you're familiar with WordPress) or "extensions" (if Joomla is more your thing).
Regardless of your chosen platform, boxed solutions often provide complex capabilities (such as an online storefront/ecommerce) without the need to pay someone to develop the logic specifically for you by licensing software that is already available. This tends to be an inexpensive alternative to Web applications, but limits the functionality to how that solution was created and what features already exist for it. It might not let you put some function exactly where you want it to appear (or where your customers have requested), such as on a specific product page, or it might not work with your existing merchant processing service (credit cards), but it saves the expense of having this done for you.
These are all important points to discuss when determining the project's scope. If an out-of-the-box solution can't be found that suits your needs, custom development is your only option.
We'll start with the least complex of these projects. A Web site (or "website") is the equivalent of an online brochure, though you can add ecommerce and other, more complex interactions with your customers, a Web site is rarely more than an extended business card. These days, a Web site is displayed through a Web Application like Joomla or WordPress (called a Content Management System or CMS), but we aren't creating the application itself, only implementing it in order to display content based on customer interaction or allow customers to purchase their favorite hiking pack. Because they are so limited, Web sites tend to be the least expensive kind of project to undertake.
For a professionally designed, custom Web site, you should expect costs of $1,200 or more. It is possible to get them less expensive, but these will not be custom sites and will likely drop your content into a template that has been used many times on other Web sites.
Web applications are separate from Web sites, but are made available to the world in much the same way to work alongside your Web site (or are perhaps the backbone of your site and allows you to manage your content requiring only basic familiarity with Microsoft Word). Typically, Web applications are created to offer some kind of custom functionality, but more often these form the backbone of some internal system that needs to be available to both customers and staff. Web applications tend to be more expensive undertakings and are often considered product development since the application is a product in its own right, often providing some kind of subscription-based service (Dropbox, Gmail, and Outlook.com would all be considered Web Applications) or special feature.
It's important to note that commissioning a custom Web application is the equivalent of creating an entirely new product which is the intellectual property of the client. As a client, you own the application (generally covered under the "work-for-hire" implied contract, but an important fact you should get in writing) and the responsibility for maintenance, as well as addressing bugs, new features, and enhancements (terms all the subject of a future article), all falls on the company who wanted the software created to begin with. For that reason, the cost is often prohibitive to very small businesses. This can lead to "bootstrapping" using boxed solutions to achieve your goal until you arrive in a position to commission a custom application which can scale properly as your business grows and evolves.
The last type of project we'll cover is a mobile app. These are similar to Web applications, but instead run in an isolated environment on a mobile device, whether that's a smart phone or a tablet running Android or iOS. These tend to the most expensive undertaking for two reasons. First, there are many different devices and requires testing many unique scenarios to ensure the app works properly across as many devices as possible. Second, few apps can operate in complete isolation. In order to communicate between separate mobile devices or between the customer and the business, an app needs a component to accept communications from it. That component is a Web application that accepts and processes communications from the mobile app.
These are three of the most common types of projects that a custom design and development firm can assist with and its important to jump into the right project with the right developer. All three are linked to an effective mobile marketing strategy, but finding the right type of project to start with can seem daunting. It's often cost-prohibitive to do everything at once. Discuss your current situation with someone who understands the tools that are available and what each can offer so you can take a step in the right direction.
So you're a new business and you need to establish your presence online. Or perhaps you've been in business a while and your online identity could use a bit of an upgrade. But where do you start? It can be intimidating talking to someone about your Web site. It's your livelihood and outsourcing the creation and/or maintenance to someone else that may or may not understand your business is known to cause heartburn until trust is established.
When searching for the right person to establish or reinvigorate your digital branding, it's important to know what to expect.