Web Page Design
Photo by picjumbo.com: https://www.pexels.com/photo/notebook-beside-the-iphone-on-table-196644/

Thinking Things Throught: Part 4

While previous steps depended largely on listening to your client, asking the right questions, and discovering what the client doesn’t always know he needs, it’s time now to synthesize—put it together.

It’s time to anticipate what someone will do when they find the website. Is there a competitor’s website that has features worth borrowing? If so, what is your initial reaction when finding the website? Maybe you

  • Liked the Page Layout and Visual Appearance. That initial impression is important, but it doesn’t do much after the first view. That’s not to say that the color scheme isn’t important; it is very important. There’s a lot of psychology in choosing the right colors that are consistent with the topic, gender of the user, and other audience characteristics. It’s about what appeals to them. You don’t want to lose them before they even see what you’re offering.

  • A Heading or Piece of Text Grabbed Your Attention. We process headings on web pages extremely fast. What did you see in the page that made you think? (If you must think to understand the heading, that’s backward, and it doesn’t work.)

  • A Photo or Graphic Conveyed A Message. A picture can convey an emotional response better than many words. A few words can convey a message better than many graphics.

  • You Knew Almost Instantly What to Do Next. Study the placement of buttons, style and type of menu, and use of whitespace that guide your eyes. Learn from that example of the page layout.

I’m not suggesting that you plagiarize a website—just look for inspiration from others trying to solve a similar design issue.

Organize Your Information

I’m kind of old-school. Outlines make sense—within reason. Putting content into categories makes sense as long as there is some fluidity between categories—some items just don’t always fit one category. Joomla is built around putting content into categories, but it also provides easy flow between categories.

The easiest, cheapest tool is sticky notes. Create a sticky note for each topic. If a topic doesn’t fit, break it into subtopics that do or create a new category of topic. Turn the pile of notes into a hierarchical menu. You can move things around to fit how your users can be led through the website to find the information that is important to them. Create new notes and discard bad ideas. Now, you have a starting point for setting up content categories and menu structures in Joomla. The same process can fit other CMS tools as well.

Calls To Action

The problem with the previous step is that people are really good at putting things into neat categories because they’re logical, or so it seems. What the website users want is to get to the information they need as quickly as possible, a logical path or not. What the website owner wants is for the user to take some action once they find what they’re looking for. Maybe it’s to make a purchase, request more information, download a document or something else you discovered in your requirements analysis.

Chances are, your pile of sticky notes doesn’t lead your users where they want to go in the best way. Now, you have to think about how to build a path that works. Short is best. If it requires multiple clicks, you may have to build a funnel that allows the user to wander about from multiple starting points to lead to the destination you have anticipated.

At the top of your funnel, you should have information or links to information that provide the information your user needs. Not everyone has the same information need or starting point, so your funnel is broad with multiple points of entry. Starting points at the top of the funnel may lead toward multiple destinations for a complex layout; as the user moves down the funnel, the choices quickly narrow.

Don’t be afraid to re-do your sticky notes showing the paths to your calls to action. When your user reaches the destination (trap) you have laid out for them, their response should be unambiguous—easy. Not every link in the funnel needs to lead to the destination; they need ways to back out, back up, detour to another destination, or exit.

Page Layout

Old school page development calls for graphics programs to create prototype pages or wireframes that can be coded later. With the tools of Joomla or WordPress, I think it’s much easier to drag and drop and create menu structures for different pages. You can edit, change, delete, start over, and improve easier than cranking up another tool to do the layout.

More later.

Planning - Thinking Through

Thinking Things Throught: Part 3

Before jumping on a server or your own workstation, take the time to create a plan. Don't get hung up on creating a plan document. Creating a plan is about planning, not writing. Know what you are going to do, how you're going to do it, where you're going to do it, and how and when you will involve your client.

Thinking Through a Plan

There are two competing issues for a website development plan: 1) What the website will look like and 2) What content will the website host. You’ll pretty much have to work on both issues at the same time.

Your client may have some ideas they would like to copy from a website they have seen—colors, menu structure, images, etc. Pay attention because those issues may affect how you organize the content.

You can list the major topics on sticky notes and arrange them in some logical order on a wall. While it should not define your menu just yet, you will gain an understanding of how the content relates.

Assuming that you plan to use a content management system like WordPress or Joomla, make note of some special requirements that go beyond a common HTML page. Those requirements call for a special plugin or extension for things like event calendars, contact forms, polls, forms, photo galleries, and links to social media.

Managing Content

If you have deep pockets, a good developer can create a website that works exactly as you like. There will be design issues and skills for front-end development—the user interface. There will be design issues for back-end development—the underlying code and database where the content is stored. Be prepared to spend serious dollars and time. Otherwise, consider a content management system.

When it comes to choosing a content management system, there are many choices. The CMS you choose will be with you for a long time, so avoid making a choice because of CMS popularity, the apparent ease of use, or initial cost.

Here’s how I relate the CMS to the automobile industry.

  • Quick and Easy, Pre-packaged, Do It Yourself Systems. Most website hosts have one of these systems that make development quick and easy for simple sites. When relating to the automobile industry, I consider a beginner-friendly website template to be more like a mountain bike.

  • Big Name, Easy to Develop Systems. This includes systems like WIX or Weebly. They can produce efficient, attractive websites that meet a lot of needs. You may be locked into a particular web host with extra costs for hidden maintenance charges and other constraints. I consider them to be more like an exotic sports car. You can go in style, but versatility and capacity are lacking.

  • Popular Blogging Systems That Double as Powerful Websites. WordPress fits here. Among all CMS systems, it’s by far the most popular. But, most of the websites are about simple blogs and simple web pages. I consider WordPress to resemble a sedan. You can add features to give it a lot of capacity, but you lose the easy to use and develop capacity quickly. It’s like adding a trailer hitch on the sedan to carry extra luggage.

  • CMS Designed for Robust Websites. This is Joomla and a few other lesser-known CMS systems. Relatively easy to use, robust, and with plenty of easy to add options, these tools will create a very powerful website. I compare Joomla to an SUV. It will pull a trailer easily. It will haul lots of people and luggage. Four Wheel Drive is built-in. It’s flexible. You can beef up WordPress to reach this level, but it will not resemble a sedan, and you’ll pay for the extra complexity to reach the capacity that Joomla has built-in.

  • CMS Developed for Complex, Enterprise Systems. This is Drupal. It’s a beast with lots of power that can handle the largest, most complex of needs. It can resemble a big SUV or a Mack Truck. WordPress can be turned into a powerful system with bunches of extra coding. Joomla can be beefed up to a truck status, but it’s going to take some serious design and a complex hosting environment. Neither Joomla, WordPress, nor Drupal is for cheap web hosts either.

Thinking About Content Storage

It takes one or several servers to manage your website. Some share their hard disks with thousands of websites all spawned from the same IP address. Even if that sounds scary, powerful servers can manage most small business websites easily at a reasonable cost. With steeper requirements, you can obtain your own IP address for better performance, or you can use a host like Amazon to spread your website among many, redundant servers in the cloud. In any case, look for the kinds of support that will be available. Some servers and hosting companies specialize in specific kinds of websites.

With deep pockets, you could create and manage a complex website with your own HTML, Javascript, Ruby on Rails, or Php. Almost any server can support that kind of website, but you’ll have to manage your own code.

In short, do the research about levels of support, security, performance, and optimized delivery.

The Waterfall Process

Thinking Things Throught: Part 2

In part 1 of Thinking Things Through, I described some of the methodologies I’ve used for software development. When I Google “website development methods,” what I see from multiple companies are variations on one or more of the software development methods. Usually, they look like a typical waterfall process. Snip the circle, straighten the circle into a line, and you have the waterfall process.Web Development life cycle

There’s something they miss.

These methods give an analyst the tools to derive a requirements document which generates a design which gets implemented in html or through a content management system. In other words, the tools let the developer build their view of what the website should be. That’s not the developer’s job.

The developer’s job is to build the website the client needs. Sometimes that’s not exactly what the client thinks they need, so it’s the developer’s job to help the client see other possibilities. Using sophisticated tools and lifecycle methodologies isolates the developer from the client. That’s not good. It’s too complicated for the client.

Website Development Must Be People-Based

Rather than starting to understand the client’s requirements with pen in hand to draft notes or graphics of processes, etc., it’s better to shut-up and listen.

Understanding Needs

Here are some open-ended questions to get the client to talk about what they need.

  • What will a good website do for you? Your clients?”
    Establish a dialog to explore the goals the client has along with a good understanding of who the business and website serve.

  • If there is website being replaced, ask “How has the current website met your needs?”
    Build on success before understanding deficiencies and failures. Most likely, you’ll learn of deficiencies too.

  • Tell me about your competitors and their Internet services.
    You want to know who the competitors are so you can evaluate their web presence.

  • How do you see your role in developing and maintaining the website”?
    You want to know how they will present content to you for the website. Will you do the data entry? Will you have to re-write content for the web? Will they want to create and edit content on the website?

Start Thinking

Here are some questions for you. Your client may have ideas too. Listen up!

  • How can the website

    • Attract new users?

    • Retain existing users?

    • Guide people toward a desire response?

    • Reduce bounce rate?

  • What content or services are essential?

Assuming that you and your client have a common vision, talk/think through the required content, marketing approach, and expected outcomes of the website. You may discover a need to change some goals, and clarify your client’s role in the developing process. Sometimes clients assume that the developer can develop the website content; that’s the client’s job—always. The developer—you—can edit it, format it, and enhance it with graphics and a pleasing design.

Thinking Things Through: Part 1

There are no shortcuts to thinking things through. There are tools and methods that can greatly help people think. I've discussed some of the ways of systems analysis that I've learned over the years to help me think, understand needs, and even listen more carefully to what people and organizations need. 

I do not use most of these tools, but I do use the thinking methods I learned as I appraise a new or redesigned system.

The opportunity cost of not thinking through a system is generally not seen. We can't evaluate what we don't see. 

You can "save" money by using a "build it yourself" website. It may look good. But, if you fail to understand how to fully see what your system needs, it's easy to miss an effective "Call to Action." You may not even recognize what your customers or constituents see as important.

Contact me to help you think through your next website development project, especially if you're located in Middle or West Tennessee.

Enterprise Development Before Personal Computers

In 1984, I was recruited to help define the needs of the 3,000 field offices of the Soil Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture. Our computer system was a Unix system with dumb terminals. Our computer specialists at our Washington, D. C. headquarters thought they developed good requirements, but having never created such specifications, they didn't know what they didn't know. Our system was out of date before we started. Nevertheless, we attacked our software development processes using state-of-the-art methods for a dated computer hardware system.

When I was first introduced to the systems analysis tools for information technology, the emphasis was on defining processes, data flows, data stores, and external entities. simple gane sarson diagram Along with a team of peers, we spent a year creating a massive overview of the processes of our nearly 3,000 field offices. Even as we were scattered across the country with vastly different challenges and natural resources, the work our Soil Conservation offices did was remarkably similar.

As I moved into full employment with the team to build software for those offices, that overview was not sufficient. We had to construct a database, so we picked up skills in data analysis and data modeling. 01 entity relationship diagram

waterfall method process As we deployed pilot versions of the system, our agency adopted a standardized waterfall software creation model with definable steps, outcomes, and milestones. We were trying to implement a universal, policy-driven system in an organization with many different challenges. I wish that I could say that our self-imposed rigor in trying to engineer software delivered what we expected. It didn’t.

When we delivered our software to our first training classes, most of the participants had never used a computer. Seeing new possibilities within minutes of the first instructions, we had people offering suggestions and changes to how the system operated. In other words, the system was already out of date before we implemented it. Apparently, that wasn’t unusual with software development in that era. Maybe it’s still not.

The other factor that made our system outdated, was the pace of technology. No sooner than we implemented the hardware our managers believed would last for ten years, faster and much more capable computer systems became available at a lower cost. We couldn’t afford to continue buying out-of-date systems.

The Move to Personal Computers

It didn't take long to realize that personal computers, especially with the advent of the "386" chip, were the wave of the future. We looked to implement a client-server system over a local network. The Internet was basically in diapers.

By that time, we knew we and our managers had not really thought through the implementation of an information technology system. It wasn’t for lack of trying by good people; it was that trying to gain the knowledge and skills of technology that was running faster than us was impossible. Somehow we had to leap forward much faster. Those leaps had to encompass changes not only in technology but also in the management of projects, contract administration, and our equivalent to the military's materiel support.

Quite a few years ago I discovered the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) created by Carnegie Mellon University. It was a tool developed for the Defense Department to help create a more predictable, measurable framework for information technology systems. The tool contained rubrics to help an organization see which of the five levels of maturity they had achieved. It was the first time that I had seen a management strategy that differentiated ability and capability.

Along the way, I stumbled into systems thinking starting with publications by Peter Senge. five disciplines learning organization toolshero 1.jpgHere Senge introduced causal effects diagrams that examine the relationships among all parts of a defined system—a very high-level view of how things work together. Having been involved in a project that created a great tool for the wrong problem, systems thinking could have averted that disaster.

At first glance, these concepts all sound like some kind of mumbo jumbo some management expert created to justify paying premium wages for consultations. What consultants know is that most people exert no more effort into thinking than they must. We’re lazy thinkers.

The CMM is for an organization. A foundation for CMM is goal setting. Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” A Master Capacity Builder would help an organization create appropriate goals and the means to achieve those results.

The CMM focuses on the processes of the organization described by five factors: goals, commitment, ability, measurement, and verification. A process framework consists of five factors too: policies, standards, processes, procedures, and overview. Within those evaluations, there are multiple checklists described in rubrics—narrative descriptions of fulfillment criteria. To apply Peter Drucker’s mandate of “thinking things through,” these evaluations are a linear, forward-looking way to examine an organization.

After we created our client-server system using personal computers, two major movements changed everything.

#1. Organizational Changes and Learning to Listen

The USDA had too much duplication of effort. While the different agencies largely service the same group of farmers and others, each agency described the data differently using different computer systems. We began to reorganize to cut the redundancy and duplication through information sharing over a national network. One of my tasks was to create a customer service study composed of representatives from each of about seven agencies. Using support from sociologists from four major universities, we trained a team to use focus groups and interviews to listen to hundreds of people across the country. We called ourselves the "Listening Team." We discovered that people freely shared their suggestions. 

The second part of the task was figuring out how to assess the suggestions from all of those people recorded in hundreds of pages of notes. 

#2. Impact of the Internet

The Internet suddenly freed us from the constraints of old computer systems. One of my projects included the development of a content management system (before tools like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal) to automate the delivery of web-based content--specifically the policy documents of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Post USDA Career

After I retired from USDA, NRCS, I started working with local non-profit organizations in my community. At one time, I was on the Board of Directors for several organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Groups. Meeting the needs of constituents was a growing concern for them and for several small businesses. Still learning how to transition to local systems, I ran into the concept of capacity building. The Communities of the Future movement pioneered by Rick Smyre, developed a role called “Master Capacity Builder (MCB).” People that fill that kind of community role have strategic importance in community and economic development.

Smyre introduced the notion of a futures context. Rather than try to predict future outcomes from past experiences, he suggests creating one or several contexts for the future—even futures that might seem remotely possible. After teaching Master Capacity Builders how to engage in dialog with people from a community, he advocates starting with the futures context and working backward to discover the path(s) a community would have taken to reach that place. Rather than putting emphasis on reductionist thinking through steps, stages, processes, etc., Smyre suggests that getting people into a real dialog allows them to suspend judgments and assumptions that get in the way of real problem-solving. Working backward gives a very different perspective free of biases and prejudgments. Presumably, the deep thinking of this fashion would concentrate on the capacities that a community would require in a path to some future.

Website Development As a Specialty

Shortly after I retired, content management systems like Joomla and WordPress made major headway. I prefer Joomla because of its significantly greater capacity and flexibility.

No Shortcuts

There are no shortcuts in thinking things through. There are many methods and tools that help. None are complete solutions. At some point, we have to realize that we never quite get through all the thinking required for a perfect solution, and if we did, the problem would have changed itself before we arrived with the solution. It’s not the solution that matters; it’s the hard work of thinking that matters.

To put these things into perspective, I heard the story of a young agricultural worker who told a farmer that he could help him develop a plan that would enable him to farm twice as well. The farmer quipped that he already didn’t farm half as well as he knew how. This was a clear-cut case of capability versus capacity. Most likely the farmer didn’t have the resources or inclination to work at his full capacity even if he had the ability—the knowledge and skills—to do everything required. So it goes with communities, organizations, and leaders. None perform at their full capability because capacity and ability always come up short. Thinking things through must take that into account as we constantly adapt.