Volume 3, Number 1
Designing, implementing and managing a commercial website suitable for a modern-day company, firm or business enterprise has become both a software technology minefield and somewhat of an art form. While almost anyone with some basic web design experience can create a nice-looking website using off-the-shelf tools and some training, having a website perform precisely along certain desired lines to help grow a business is another matter indeed.
This article presents a case for a disciplined engineering approach to a website design, what we call “Website Engineering,” and includes a checklist of considerations, useful at various stages of the design and implementation phases.
The management of a firm might think that an in-house website development effort could both be cost-effective and yield high-quality results. Sadly, this is rarely the case. Most of these efforts are not successful because they are not provided enough time, planning or staff members with the necessary specialized training.
One reason why in-house efforts yield sub-par results is that the “minimal effort” to pull-off a successful website now involves several dissimilar technologies.
Every year, the bar moves up slightly where site visitors expect better performance and previously advanced features are now considered standard. A demonstration of the latter can be had by simply visiting a site that was designed ten years ago (example from ibm.com), before the advent of HTML 4 and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that “upped the bar” by allowing web sites to look like printed brochures. (For comparison, here is a modern-day IBM web page.)
Having a network technician or programmer on staff doesn’t necessarily mean that he (or she) knows which intricacies of website design and implementation would be required to best support the firm’s branding, promotional, sales and marketing activities. Conversely, having in-house graphic artists put together a site does not mean that they have the technical skills to develop the respective critical server-side elements such as databases, templates, scripts, security and access control for different types of site visitors nor able to effectively utilize such elements should they even already exist.
…a firm would benefit from having experienced developers approach their website’s design from more of a systems and software engineering perspective.
We submit that a firm would benefit from having experienced developers approach their website’s design from more of a systems and software engineering perspective. Inherently, engineer are trained to handle implementation pathways littered with technically advanced requirements and to resolve issues and solve problems that occur along the way. Also, such engineers can be conveniently called upon to address other technical issues beyond the scope of the website implementation.
Whether updating an existing site or starting from scratch, a firm should consider the following factors as they will influence the degree to which the resulting website is successful.
Research and Planning
A first step for a firm is conducting an adequate amount of research in order to help define the role, expectations and metrics for the website. Here are a few questions to ask before any design work begins:
- What is the purpose of the website?
- What are the goals of the firm for its website?
- Who is the primary target audience?
- What other types of visitors to be expected?
- How will the firm present its message to its visitors?
- Can aspects of the firm’s business be represented graphically?
- How will the site’s content be organized?
- Does the firm have trademarks or brands to promote?
- Are there graphic images available that relate to the text?
These are just a few preliminary questions that could be answered. Additional questions will arise depending on the characteristics of the firm, its industry, and its business procedures and the number of products or types of services, the size of its customer base, covenants, government regulations, and so on. A good design team will interview a firm’s management to determine the proper requirements for the site. Once the requirements are set, an implementation plan to create the site can be easily developed and then adopted.
The overall graphical interface of a firm’s website needs to be attention-grabbing enough to invite people in, but not so elaborate that it take the focus off the main reason they came in the first place. If the design elements overshadow content, viewers could tire of it quickly.
On the other hand, if the site is lacking in presentation or looks like it was developed in the 1990′s, some viewers may extrapolate this deficiency to mean that the firm generally is in need of updating and that the rest of its technology (in whatever industry it is in) may also be out of date.
The firm may have the best, most advanced products in the world, but without a properly produced website, visitor will never know. A good design team will help a firm achieve a balanced design that combines both form and function without either becoming overbearing.
Usability determines how well visitors to the firm’s site are able to find their way around. The following elements all need to be considered when addressing usability:
- Navigation appropriate to the site
- Placement of and margins for major site components
- Colors, color depths backgrounds and graphical effects
- Text and overlay brightness, contrast and transparency
- Common screen resolution being used by visitors
- Browser and operating system types
- Mobile devices with small screens such as cell phones
- Support for visitors with special needs
If visitors are impeded from being able to easily comprehend the firm’s site, they may quickly decide to move on, quite possibly to the sites of the firm’s competitors. A good design team will ensure that usability issues are properly addressed.
Sometimes too much detail in a large section of text, although accurate, can make readers grow tired.
The firm needs good content, but what does “good” mean? Whether it is repurposed marketing material or newly created web-specific content, it should be consistent and focused. Ideally, it should make clear points and be of enough quality to keep readers’ interest. Sometimes too much detail in a large section of text, although accurate, can make readers grow tired.
The content should be an easy read, easy to print and be structured and positioned well for easy scanning with time-saving connections to other areas of the site.A good design team will help a firm examine and constructively criticize its content, point out places where additional content could be advantageous, and ensure that only the content that meets the site’s philosophy is posted to the website.
HTML and XML serve as the most common base formats for web pages, and are responsible for representing the “look and feel” of content across the Internet. The raw “code” of HTML and XML looks very different from what you see in a browser, cryptic to the uninitiated, and when coupled with scripting languages, it becomes the domain of systems analysts and computer programmers. Improper coding and “bugs” will lead to internal and external website problems that degrade the visitors experience and the delivery of the firm’s message, no matter how otherwise great the presentation of the content.
Website problems can result in:
- Impaired usability
- Functionality not working properly
- Gross web page errors
- Broken navigational controls and links
- Not being indexed well (or at all) in Search Engines
- Website pages not rendering properly in different browsers
- Missing content (e.g. content not being displayed) and web pages
- Long download times from poor code or site structure
- Incompatible or distorted graphics
If a firm’s site is hamstrung even for just a short while, a firm could lose its audience’s trust in its site, or worse, itself. Depending on the agreed-upon services to be provided, the members of an experienced design team can ensure ongoing, well-formed website operation.
When world-class products are being designed, their producers are smart enough to solicit the right types of engineering so that the best possible product is made right out of the gate. Because of the short lifetimes of today’s products, there may not be a second chance.
Creating a website is an engineering effort, requiring an optimized balance between attractive design components and computer technology that has to strike a positive nerve when it is finally unveiled. As is often true in other engineering disciplines, the right approach requires some thinking, recognizing the requirements, and choosing the right tools, much of which may not be obvious.
- Obvious web site considerations:
- graphics design
- style sheets
- content: text, pictures, music, video
- interactive components (e.g. Flash)
- easy to understand site navigation (e.g. menus)
- request forms, guestbook or discussion forums, as appropriate
- Non-obvious considerations:
- low-level graphic and special effect issues
- behind the scenes website organization & structure
- compatibility with different browsers and computing devices
- web server configuration and ongoing maintenance
- backup and disaster recovery (e.g. mirrored sites)
- database engine (e.q. SQL) and scripting languages (e.g. ASP, PHP)
- sourcing, including and accounting of third-party advertisements
- referring sites and Search Engine positioning
- easy way for firm personnel to update content
- transactional processing (e.g. handling payments and downloads)
- Virtual Private Networks (VPN’s) for employees
- email, ftp and other web-related services
As you can see, a website is much more than just the graphics and the content; it involves the hardware platform on which the site exists plus all of the software and hardware components required to provide the desired functionality — in other words, an engineering effort.
That “engineering” is required to produce an effective website should not be considered a disadvantage or a turn off. Instead, wrapping a website’s development around an engineering banner actually begins an expedient and cost effective process. For example, DataPlex engineers took over a website, unfinished for years, and completed it in less than four weeks with additional functionality along with significantly better usability.
In another case where a high level of software engineering was applied, DataPlex developed custom applications too advanced for implementation through traditional Internet markup languages and then seamlessly integrated them with the client’s website.
We include the points made above in a convenient checklist that a firm can use as a starting point or modify for its own website design purposes.
Let Experts Help
For the reasons presented in this article, a firm thinking of building a new website or redesigning an existing website should rely on “website engineers,” a qualified team of experts such as the designers and engineers at DataPlex to develop its site. In so doing, a firm will have the non-obvious considerations properly addressed. It will realize a high-quality site in a quick and professional manner, with the best possible usability, resulting in a high percentage of impressed website visitors, with corresponding benefits that match up to its goals.
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