Crumlin Baptist Church

One of the great things about modern web design is that it can be as complex or as simple as you like. Web sites are complex – HTML, CSS, Javascript and a host of other technologies mean that hand crafting a web site is a highly skilled and time consuming business. But for those who don’t need to build from scratch and understand how the bigger blocks fit together it takes very little time to put together a functional and effective web site. WordPress is probably the go to application in this respect for the smaller end of the SME market and for not for profits.

Having moved over to Northern Ireland and to Crumlin Baptist Church I realised that they didn’t have a web site or even a domain name. Having the infrastructure already in place it was a straightforward matter to register the domain and create a simple WordPress site. Now that it’s up and running, control over the content can be delegated to the actual users.

Crumlin Baptist Church

Always Identify the Stakeholders

STAKEHOLDER

We all know what we need when we start a new project – that’s why we start it! Or do we?

Just because we have identified a problem or an opportunity to improve a process or piece of software doesn’t mean that we see all the issues or all of the requirements. It may seem obvious, but we can easily jump to defining the problem or the solution before we’ve determined the stakeholders.

I have a confession: when I think of the word stakeholder I have an image in my head of a Buffy type character about to stick a pointy stick into someone! That’s a good image to have, because stakeholders who are ignored in a project can come back to bite you (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor)!

The forgotten Stakeholder

The most commonly forgotten stakeholder, and coincidentally the one with the longest memory is the end user. We know that there are business process experts, programmers, project managers and a whole host of experts, but no-one knows the ins, outs and quirks of your business systems like the end users!

In most business processes that have been around for more than a year or two there are tips and tricks, fixes and work arounds that never get beyond the end user – unless someone asks. These are often show stoppers when a new or improved process is considered. If there is a particular feature that is used daily, but unknown by the project experts then that is the one feature that the end users will complain about post implementation (pun definitely intended).

Search out the Stakeholders

The first order of business, therefore for any project is to search out all the stakeholders – not just the ones who have a perceived expertise in the production of the new or improved process, but the workers at the coal face, the end users who know the process because they use it daily. The problem with unknown stakeholders is just this: they are unknown. The only solution is to cast your net far and wide at the outset of any project. It’s much better to have someone say ‘no, I’m not involved with that’ than to have them complain about lack of input after the fact.

Redefine the problem if necessary

Once you have cast your net and identified all the genuine stakeholders you can then begin to remap the process. You will inevitably find that there are differences between the theoretical process and the actual. All these modifications to the originally defined process must be included in the process definition before moving on to consider the direction of the project.

Happy Holders

If you conduct this pre-project discovery process fully you will find that your project will have a smoother ride to completion. You will also find that the stakeholders will have acquired a sense of ownership that not only makes them happier about the project, but, because of the sense of ownership will also have a vested interest in the project’s success. Being a stakeholder, therefore, is a two edged sword – it can work against the project manager if he has failed to cast his net wide enough, but for the savvy project manager who has included everyone  all these stakeholders in the project will have a determination to see the project succeed.

Seeing the Wood and the Trees

Seeing the Wood and the Trees

The IT business is one that very often concentrates on details and specialities. You look for an expert with 10 years of experience using Windows 8! You want to find a specialist in Bespoke Application version 11b because that’s exactly what you use. You are looking for that person who can jump in to your business environment and hit the ground running. Whilst looking for experts that have used the same systems as you already have is an admirable starting point it doesn’t really provide the best long term solution for your business. Here are a few reasons:

  1. Hiring a specialist to jump straight in will inevitably result in looking at the trees and not the wood. Focussing on the details of application specificity and detailed knowledge may well keep you doing what you are doing in the short term, but it won’t help you to move on or consider other options. The temptation will be to always work  within the existing environment because that is what your specialist has experience of. The ability to innovate will be constrained by the vision of the specialist.
  2. Hiring a specialist may well not provide you with the best expert in the application you are using. Very often product specialists learn the product and not the environment. As such they often do not possess an understanding of IT in general or of the underlying hardware, software, logic that goes into the computing environment.
  3. It is more important to hire someone who has a good grasp of IT, and the ability to learn. Do you really expect to be using exactly the same suite of products in 5 years’ time? Software and hardware and the entire IT ecosystem are still changing so rapidly that whatever product specialities your staff or consultants have now, they will most likely be redundant in a matter of years, even if the product is still on the market it will have changed markedly from what it is now.

Find someone who can see the wood and the trees

Whatever your IT requirements, or your plans, or even your ‘right now’ need for an expert. Don’t forget that the trees make up the wood and that before diving into the detail you need to know the size, scope, nature of the wood. You need to understand how it will grow, and how that will affect your business. If that is something that you as a business owner can’t do for yourself, look for an IT partner that can see the big picture as well as handling the details. It’s much easier for an IT ‘natural’ to pick up the specifics of your bespoke app than it is for a specialist to break out of his vertical perspective to see the entire wood.

Consistency in Business Web Design and Function

homogeneity

Where do you start with a large web design project?

It’s a difficult question, but one that becomes more vital the larger and more complex the web site project is. The web design community seems to be split fairly evenly between the designers – quite often graphic design led, and the coders – those who have come from an IT specific background, such as programming. The reality is that both design and function are important, and more than that, the homogeneity of the site as a whole must be considered as vital.

Think of some of the big web sites that you visit regularly, either social networking or news related or perhaps an industry specific site. The site itself becomes immersive: it is an environment all to itself, one in which the end user immerses himself to the extent that the framework on which it is built fades into the background. The question then is: if it fades into the background why is it so important? And the answer is simply this: if the interface, the elements, the functionality, the design is not 100% harmonious between the various pages or areas of the web site then the ability of the end user to become immersed is broken. The interface interferes with the user experience.

Extending the Design Brief

So, what do we do to mitigate this potential problem? It must be considered as a fundamental part of the overall design brief. We have accepted for years that a consistent corporate brand is vital, that paperwork, products, display furniture must all seamlessly integrate. In a sense it doesn’t matter how ‘pretty’ or otherwise the design is, the key is consistency. The consumer then sees a single brand.

For web design we must extend the design brief to include not just brand elements, but other visuals, such as the page layouts, the page elements (buttons, input boxes, graphic hints, columns and boxes). We also must consider functional consistency as part of the same design brief. All user interactions must be consistent across pages and elements, and if possible across devices. All navigation must be consistent and logical. The end user must be able to become immersed in the site so that they can navigate and interact without ‘seeing’ the surrounding interface. The ‘brand’ becomes so much larger than just the company logo and colour, but the end result is so much better for the user, and therefore for the business.

Back to the start

If we go back to the start, and think about where we begin with designing a complex interactive web site, we need to plan our site layout – page structure and flow, functional flow, termination points all with the understanding that these must be a unit: many parts, one entity.

All too often we begin web design and application projects with a specific function in mind, and quickly become bogged down in functionality when the ability to access that functionality is equally vital. Sit down and consider your business web site as a whole and think how it can be a homogeneous site: consistent in form and function from the big picture of the entire page right down to the individual elements that the user interacts with. Then you will be able to build function on top of this homogeneity knowing that the end result will be immersive and accessible for the end users. This can only lead to a more satisfying user experience and more interaction with the web site itself.