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.

What About Windows 10?

w10

Well, Microsoft have finally made their announcement: the new version of Windows is on its way! What does it mean to business users?

What’s in the Name?

It’s happened many times before: a company has used a version number that’s not strictly sequential. Usually there’s a good reason, even if that reason is commercial rather than technical. Famously the database program dBase was initially released as dBase II because nobody liked to buy version one software.

What’s behind Microsoft’s move to 10? I think there are two things behind it.

  1. There are significant moves under the bonnet to consolidate platforms, to unify the Windows experience across devices. This is to be expected in the current technology climate. If Microsoft produce a product that lives up to this promise then I think they will be justified in giving it a number 10 as it will be a significant technological change.
  2. We’ve been used to single digit versions of software for years – these things evolve slowly. But more recently some major players have been upping the ante. OS X, anyone? Firefox and Chrome are both well into double digits. There is definitely a sense of maturity that comes from a double digit version number, something that implies stability and maturity. I suspect that Microsoft had this at least in their minds as they considered the version number, and I’m sure that they believe that it is a mature product –  the justification will only come with the shipped product.

The Ecosystem

These days it’s not just about the operating system, it’s about the ecosystem: phone, tablet, web, PC – all have to work together. Apple have seen an increase in consumer purchases of Mac products because of iPhone users. Chromebooks are now becoming mainstream due to the ubiquity of Android and the Chrome browser. Microsoft are travelling in the other direction, but they have to provide an equal value proposition in terms of the entire ecosystem.

The promise of a single unified interface and architecture is a big one, but one that Microsoft may just be able to pull off. They have been providing the main building blocks of virtually every SME’s IT systems for too many years to think about, they have a wealth of experience and understanding. That understanding is changing however. Google have shown that a new kid on the block can change how people work. Google Apps for Work is doing this in some style.

The weight of existing users is still with Microsoft, and if you use any of their business server products then this will still be the most natural way to go. The Windows 10 front end will fit more naturally.

The Startup

Where Microsoft may not fare so well is with the new business startup. For these businesses the infrastructure requirements of becoming a ‘Microsoft shop’ may be too much. The barriers to entry to the ecosystem may be too high. If Microsoft can push their Outlook.com email platform across platforms and perhaps provide cloud applications for the middleware that most SMEs inevitably have then they may well be onto a winner.

Alternative Options

As has already been pointed out, there are viable and usable alternatives already out there. Both Apple and Google have broken into the operating system market in significant enough terms to deny Microsoft’s place as the only choice. However, for many small businesses it is probably still the default choice.

In my opinion and experience the Apple ecosystem isn’t comprehensive enough or cost effective enough to be an attractive option for the SME – always allowing for the fact taht there are certain industry sectors that will always prefer the Apple route. The Google offering is certainly more attractive as a low cost, hugely scalable collaboration ecosystem. As such it will work well for many businesses that haven’t yet made a decision.

Winners and Losers

In the operating system stakes there may not be any obvious winners or losers any more. The diversification of platform makes it harder to see success as well as harder to choose which way to go. The heavily cloud based offering of Google is certainly very attractive to the small business, and many larger businesses are finding it more than adequate for their needs.

I suspect that it will be the medium sized businesses that will stay with Microsoft. I think that the reason for this comes down to middleware – the bespoke applications, often developed in house, often starting with a spreadsheet, but usually moving up through Access or similar as the business grows. At present Microsoft provide more accessible tools for this sort of middleware, and a more straightforward path to building your own business data tools. If Microsoft can continue to provide this path, along with a comprehensive ecosystem to rival the rivals then I’m sure that Microsoft will continue to dominate at least the corporate desktop for a few years to come.

Getting into the Cloud

Getting into the Cloud

Do you remember when the Blackberry phone arrived? A phone that did email! It had a keyboard too, and, for the first time allowed the busy executive to instantly reply to an email without having to unpack the big slow laptop that was lurking in the boot of the car. Suddenly email was accessible, any time, anywhere – it was a huge boon to large companies, but this boon was denied to the smaller businesses simply due to the costs and technology involved, the barriers to entry were insurmountable.

In 1999 I was involved in the Microsoft Exchange Server email roll out to the EMEA entities of a multi national corporation. This was cutting edge stuff! For each business unit in every country there had to be a minimum of four servers to allow for Blackberry use. Even for large corporations this was a significant outlay in terms of up front costs and ongoing licensing, and not one that could always be justified even at this level.

Fast forward to today’s world. The barriers to entry have been blown away by the mobile and internet revolution, and yet far too many SMEs are still using mytradingname@btinternet.com as their email address. Want another email account? Add mytradingname2@btinternet.com! It doesn’t look good and it doesn’t work for your business either.

Because of the proliferation of free email accounts and the lack of awareness among the SME sector there is a huge under takeup of modern business collaboration tools. And yet cloud computing has not only come of age, but it has also come to the rescue of the SME. As a small business the purchase and maintenance of significant server hardware and software was prohibitive, but now getting your own corporate email is a simple as signing up with one of the cloud providers and setting up your domain name to connect to their servers.

The surprising thing is that the smaller the business the cheaper it is to get going. A freelancer can have corporate style email for between £3 and £5 per month. For a small business just multiply this by the number of users – this is much more accessible and affordable than setting up a low end Microsoft server in your broom cupboard! Instantly your business can share calendars, files, contacts across multiple devices, all for a small monthly fee.

What is lacking at this end of the market is simply a little bit of advice on how to go about setting it all up, and a knowledge of the benefits to the business. Which provider you choose may depend on what existing services you have and use. These range from a simple hosted Exchange product available from many sources. This provides corporate style email services provided using Microsoft’s email server software – this is what Outlook was primarily designed as a client for. If you are hooked on Microsoft you can sign up for a version of Office 365 which at base level provides email and online versions of its Office products. Pay more per month and get the full products for your desktop. If you’re not tied to Microsoft consider Google Apps for Business – there’s the same low entry point and a similar range of features but designed to work better with the Chrome browser and Android tablets and phones. For a lower TCO you can even purchase Chromebooks or Surface tablets rather than full PCs for mainstream use by staff.

What does the SME need to compete with the corporates? It needs access to business class collaboration and communication tools for all of their members of staff. It needs to be able to rely on these tools to be available 24/7, to add and remove users with ease, and most of all it needs to be able to do all of this without having to install and maintain costly hardware and software. Businesses must become more and more flexible to adapt to the modern working environment, and cloud collaboration and communications services allow the SME to do what they do best – adapt and grow while the larger corporates are still signing their approval forms.

If your business is at the small end of the SME sector then this is even more relevant as cloud services give you instant access to a wealth of high end resources that you just can’t afford otherwise. When the internet began to impinge on the business world one of the axioms was that ‘no-one knows how big you are on the web’ – this idea was founded on the growth of web sites as the shop window for your business. Nowadays the same is true in a much broader sense – there’s never been a better time to start or grow a small business or to take advantage of the incredible tools for communicating with customers, clients and business partners. With a few simple steps you can present your business as a modern collaborative organisation, no matter how small your business is.

The Smallest Business is Still a Business

Small business is still business

When starting out in business it’s vitally important to keep business and home life separate. We know that when you’re a small business, you are probably working from home, and more often than not juggling the work/family life balance on a moment by moment basis. We intuitively understand the need to keep the work life separate in our heads and to allow space for this in our time at home, but very often we fail to do this with our IT resources.

I was called out as a last resort recently to such a small business. All the business computing was done on the family PC, which, although well up to the job was also shared by every member of the family. There are some significant problems with this approach:

  • Usually the computer is left logged on and available for anyone to access files and applications
  • Kids are prone to download and install all manner of ‘helpful’ software
  • There is a single point of failure – if the family PC goes down the business files and software are unavailable

Remember that the smallest of businesses is still a business and the business resources and assets are crucial. The cost of purchasing a separate laptop for the business can be as little as £300 – that’s probably less than the cost to the business of the removal of malware and unpicking of business files from a shared PC that has expired under the strain of family use. Remember, our children are remarkably IT literate and yet incredibly naive – that’s a recipe for disaster when unsupervised on a business PC. The purchase of a separate machine also allows the home PC to act as an emergency backup device.

The Smallest Business Plan

Here’s a simple plan of attack for the smallest of businesses – the solopreneur or the home worker, or the husband and wife team.

  • Set up a business web site and domain and use a cloud provider such as Google for Work or Outlook.com for proper domain specific email accounts for each worker.
  • Purchase a separate PC or laptop and resolve to use it exclusively for business. Don’t let anyone else use it for any other purpose, especially not the kids!
  • Ensure that you have an offsite backup of all important files so that you can carry on working if a single PC stops working. Use the cloud providers above or a simple file sync service such as Dropbox.

The most important thing is to plan. Ask yourself the question: what would be the effect of our single PC being out of action for a week? And then go out and get your small business into business by getting your small business IT on a business footing.