In my networking circles, many business owners tell me they want an app. When I ask what they want the app to do they are, more often than not, uncertain. Mobile apps are the hot new commodity, but are a considerable investment and just having one isn't enough. If you don't yet have a mobile Web site, developing an app is certainly getting ahead of yourself. Before jumping in with both feet, you can save a lot time (and money) by doing some up-front planning and strategy to deliver an experience your customers will love and use.
I recently came across an interesting article about the seven deadly sins of Web design. One element in particular got me thinking (not just because we were using it on our own site): the slider. Most sites you see on the Web have rotating panels on the landing page. It's a popular way to present a variety of information, right? According the article yes, but also ineffective. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of alternative examples out there. Well, look no further because we've got a few options for you.
Once an application is finished and you're using it, that's all there is to it, right? Doubtful. Technology changes quickly and some issues don't show up until after the application has been live for days, months or even years. Recently, we started troubleshooting resource alarms on a client's production application and discovered some underlying issues that didn't begin to appear until the system had over a thousand users managing hundreds of thousands of unique data elements.
There are plenty of options out there and most business owners rely on their technology team to make that decision. While it's certainly a good idea to take their advice into account, the decision about where to host the site should really be in your hands. If you don't have an in-house Web team, your resources may change, but you need consistency when it comes to your site. Make sure you have some control over the hosting and make sure you know the requirements of your Web site.
Too often, I meet people who started a project with another designer or developer and have spent a lot of money and still aren't happy with the result (or haven't even seen a result). Business owners are great at what they do: running their business. If they don't have a background in Web technologies and digital marketing practices, it's hard to figure out who to listen to. So, here are three phrases that should be red flags and trigger a deeper evaluation of the individual or company you're interviewing to create your Web site.
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.
Marketing products and marketing services each require two very different approaches. In the former, your customers get something tangible that they can hold in their hands and evaluate quantitatively. The latter is more subjective and your customers must rely on qualitative criteria to determine if they will give you a good or bad review. When it comes to services, people buy from people they like. Seeing your face plastered on a billboard or in an ad on a Web site, email, or newspaper isn't going to have as much sway with them. Which brings me to this headline and the fact that the first rule is to just show up.
I've been getting a lot of questions about CRM (Customer Relationship Management) applications lately and, not having found the right solution for myself just yet, I wanted to pass on some ways to make it easier to keep up with projects and opportunities. It seems like most of the CRMs that are available are are cost-prohibitive for small businesses. It is possible to bring together a number of different services and keep the costs down, but my goal here is to find a CRM which is both easy to use and offers the tools available to enterprise users, but is still affordable to the solo consultant or small business.
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.
As someone in the industry, I know that content is king. I hear it daily. I also know that I don't have an enterprise-level marketing budget, but need to routinely take care of some menial marketing tasks - tasks which take time, but really don't have to. Email newsletters and social media are two marketing channels which integrate well with your Web site, drive traffic, and keeps your business in front of your customers.
It takes time to create content once and there's no reason you can't grab that content from your site and send it out. But you certainly don't want to copy and paste it all yourself when there are tools in MailChimp which can take care of it automatically.
1. RSS-DRIVEN CAMPAIGNS.
RSS, short for Really Simple Syndication, serves up a list of content on demand. Most of the time these go into some RSS reader (either Web-based or App-based - I like Feedly), but you can also create RSS-Driven Campaigns in MailChimp. It checks the RSS feed you set up for the campaign automatically, you just have to set the schedule. When there are new blog posts, an email campaign is sent out to your list. It's important to coordinate the email marketing schedule with your publishing schedule, but it provides an easy way to send out your blog posts automatically. RSS feeds can be created for Joomlaarticles, but if you're using a blogging component extension, such as EasyBlog, it's built in. You can even set up separate campaigns for individual bloggers by creating an RSS-Driven Campaign pointing at the feed for that blogger's posts.
What's the first thing people see when they look you or your business up business online? Your Web site's home page should seek out and grab hold of clingy customers, not repel them like Bounce does static. If Google is saying you bounce too much, there are some ways to reduce it. When someone lands on your site and can't find some compelling reasons to stick around right away, they're gone (or they "bounce") and you probably won't see them again. When it comes to landing pages, it's vital to immediately answer three questions: "who are you", "what do you do", and "who says so".
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.
When it comes to SEO and marketing online, we're all subject to the whim of the search engines. One of the biggest struggles for any marketer is knowing what keywords to use, where their site ranks, and what similar keywords might also be useful. Here are three tools available that can give any marketer some extra insight.
Let's face it, when it comes to Web design and development, most business owners just know they need it. It's all a big mystery what their designers and/or developers do every day to market and build a client's brand identity online. There are often misconceptions about the benefits we provide to businesses and, as a business owner, it's important to understand them so you get the best outcome for your project.
Here are the three most common misconceptions I've come across while networking.
1. "IT CAN'T BE THAT HARD!"
This usually comes up when asked for a "ball park" estimate for a project, but there are two things to bear in mind when asking to have a project done. First, what is your time worth and how long would it take you to deliver what you are requesting from your developer - time that would certainly be better spent doing what you're best at, running your business. Second, consider that by hiring a developer, you get not only their expertise, but also the tools that you would otherwise need to purchase for yourself or an internal development team to complete the same job. Anyone can swing a hammer, but it takes a craftsman (these days a whole team of craftsmen) to build a house that can stand.
2. "I SAW SOMEONE ON GURU.COM/ODESK/ELANCE CHARGING $20 AN HOUR, CAN YOU MATCH THAT?"
We have hourly rates that surprise many people and the simple answer is no. Sure, you can find someone on a freelancer site that is less expensive, but often times they're not local ($20 an hour is a small fortune in some countries), so having a face-to-face is difficult (if not impossible). You're effectively outsourcing to another country, which means if something goes awry with the developer, there isn't any legal recourse. A common problem with outsourcing development is getting what you asked for - then seeing the exact same thing pop up on a competitor site (with perhaps some colors or a logo switched out). You are paying professionals for their expertise as well as the product they deliver, whether it's a Web site or some kind of application, and it is a business asset. You should make sure that you are receiving exclusive intellectual property rights to the product you've paid to have created.
3. SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT IS A ONE-TIME FEE.
You are commissioning a product that will need to be maintained over time. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not perfect. Even after an application is implemented, something will come that got past us, our QA team, and our client. Perhaps your customers are even requesting new features. When creating a custom application, keep in mind that you are creating a product that will ultimately become an asset for your business. As such, you own retain full ownership of the application, including maintenance. Once any warranty period passes (check with your developer for the specific timeframe), you should consider setting up a maintenance plan with them to handle upkeep and improvements long-term.
Software developers have honed their craft, probably over years, to achieve their level of expertise. You wouldn't go to a doctor and ask them to treat you first so you can decide if you want to keep seeing them. Nor would you ask them to "give you a deal" or price match or give you a diagnosis after just one test - in some cases, it can take months and multiple visits to a doctor to determine what's wrong. The same is true with software developers - professionals who create tools that make it simpler for business owners to run their business.
When I'm out networking, people always tell me they aren't sure how to use social media for marketing. It can be intimidating and involves a great deal of experimentation to find the right mix of content, not to mention the fact that every business is different. I've found two questions need to be answered to point marketers in the right direction. First, what is important to you? Second, who are you trying to reach?
It sounds simple enough, but those two basic questions have led to long conversations. In the end, you need to choose the "voice" of your social media channels and know the audience you want to reach.
1. CHOOSE A VOICE
This probably sounds much easier than it really is, but asking yourself what's important to you is a great starting point. Each response that comes to mind can be qualified against how it compliments your business culture, your own ethics, and whether or not it's something you feel your customers will be passionate about.
I've always been something of a privacy nut and I bring that as part of the culture of the company. Not many people think about it at great length, though that's changed some recently. Sure, I could post every news story about hackers stealing personal information, passwords, or defacing sites, but it's really about what people can do to protect their online accounts so that, when a popular site is compromised, their information isn't as vulnerable.
With this article, I'll continue a series on the lexicon of app development. In this post, I'll cover something that comes up during many stages of a project, particularly Web applications. When we talk about Web sites, software, and apps, developers often reference "bugs" in the code or mention "enhancements" or "features". If you'd like to know more about the difference, you should keep reading.
There's been a lot happening in the news recently about stolen passwords, breaking into sites, and other illicit activity. It's important to understand that it's not if you get targeted, it's when. Unfortunately, this is the simple truth of living and doing business in the Internet age. While you may not be able to stop every attempt, it is possible to protect your Web site with some simple steps and easy to install software.
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.