Category Archives: General

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.

How Important is your Google Plus Page?

Default Google Plus Page

 

How often do you click on a link to a person or business in a Google search, or see the ‘related’ link in Gmail and come across something like this?

More importantly, what does this say about you, or your business?

What this tells your potential customers is that you don’t care. I know that not everyone uses Google Plus as a social network. I know that many potential clients or customers won’t have a their Plus account set up, but it’s expected of businesses, and if you are expecting people to do business with you then this is a really quick fix.

It’s as easy to start as putting up a proper photograph, or logo if it’s a business, and a background image that your customers/clients will relate to. Then it’s simple enough to link it to the existing material on your web site.

Make a point of browsing G+ for anyone connected with your business and follow them. This is the beginning of building your G+ presence. It certainly won’t cause an overnight sensation or drive a spike in traffic to your web site, but it will give potential clients/customers more confidence in you and your business. Here’s one I prepared earlier:

peterhollowayplus

The IT Advice Gap

the MIND

There seems to be a huge amount of confusion about what sort of IT assistance a business needs.

At the top end of the scale is the enterprise – the organisation with the resources and requirements for a huge amount of specialised IT assistance in a variety of IT sectors. These organisations are willing to pay top dollar for the right people to progress their IT projects. Often they pay too much and projects become bloated and hide bound by vested interests and corporate rules.

At the bottom end of the scale there are smaller businesses (and some of them not that small) that see IT assistance in the same way as they see garages for their cars – something that’s there when it breaks down, but not something to be used every day.

At its root this is a perception problem: enterprise class businesses can and will pay for what they need and more, but generally this is expensive because of the scale of their requirements, not simply because this level of advice is overly expensive. The smaller business as a result of this perception: that advice over and above repair is expensive, tends to shy away completely from thinking strategically about their IT resources or use.

With the small business costs are tighter and time is tighter still. As a business owner or manager, thinking about how IT can improve their business is outside of both their capacity to understand and their time to give thought to. As a result many SMEs are missing out on the wealth of understanding and advice that is available to them.

When we think of our IT requirements only in terms of support we are simply waiting for something to go wrong – a bit like not servicing your car and waiting for it to run out of oil before taking it for repair. We all understand that some simple maintenance goes a long way. This is true for the IT industry as much as any other sector, but with IT there is constant change, constant innovation and, at the present time a huge increase in tools available to the smaller business – we need more than mere maintenance.

It’s well worth knowing what those tools are and how they can positively and hugely impact productivity for the small to medium enterprise. We no longer need a corporate bank account to gain access to corporate class email. We no longer need a huge hardware infrastructure to support our file sharing or database. Most of the IT products that we use today can be implemented over the internet, providing constant access both in the office and on the road. This internet access means that multiple devices and platforms will all work: PCs, laptops, tablets, phones, Windows and Apple products.

What’s the main roadblock to implementing these sort of services? It’s the IT advice gap – corporates take advice and implement. SMEs don’t allocate resources to thinking strategically about IT and as a result miss out on knowing what is available to them and how straightforward it is to access.

For years I’ve struggled with using the term IT Consultant as it seems to bring with it the connotation of ‘overpaid high level IT guy in a suit’. On the other hand I think that to class what I provide to businesses as ‘support’ is to reduce my service to merely fixing what’s broken. I’ve tried to use the term Information Technologist because this is novel and therefore not linked to preconceptions – every business needs an Information Technologist who can see their existing setup and advise on how the present tools can help.

There is an advice gap that you could drive a large truck through and I believe that it is failing the SME more than any other sector. Is your business falling through the advice gap? Do you see IT simply in terms of support and repair? Would you consider trying to bridge that IT advice gap by taking some strategic advice?

Finding an IT partner who can help you to think strategically about your IT will inevitably improve your productivity and the satisfaction of your staff.