How to project manage a new website build
Tweaking your website is a science in itself, and doing it yourself may not be the best approach. We asked the experts and firms that have recently upgraded online for their tips on keeping web projects on track.
Planning is everything when it comes to website projects. To fail to plan is to plan to fail. The biggest mistake when transforming one area of a business is losing sight of the effect it has on the organisation as a whole, according to Caroline Woolf, management consultant at project management specialists PIPC. “Planning the implementation, timescales and budget upfront is the only way to save spiralling costs and customer dissatisfaction,” she says. The first consideration when embarking on a web project is to ask what you want to gain from your upgraded site, says Rob McCarthy, managing director of web content management (WCM) specialist GOSS Interactive. “This will affect the system you choose,” he explains. “For instance, if you are an online retailer, using an agency with a proven track record of e-commerce applications is vital. Alternatively, if you are a public body or media agency, you could be delivering thousands of pages of rapidly changing content. In that case, you'll need a partner with a good pedigree in delivering that kind of scale.” Consider where the project skill sets lie, advises McCarthy. “If it's in house, do you have the skills already, are they up-to-date and can they deal with job in hand?” he says. “Alternatively, if you're looking for an external partner or development house to support you, consider what its long-term strategy is, and if it matches yours.” There are plenty of options from open source (OS), to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS), Software as a Service (SaaS) and traditional licence models.
Give yourself time
Harjiv Singh, co-founder and chief executive of public relations and marketing agency Gutenberg Communications, recently launched a comparison website for UK shoppers without third-party help. “The one lesson we have really learned is: always build in extra time in your deadlines, especially when it comes to large technology build outs,” he observes. Comparenbestbuy.co.uk is an online comparison shopping engine (CSE) that allows shoppers to assess more than 400,000 products from over 1,000 top UK retailers. It uses multiple criteria, such as brand, prices and product type to enable smart purchasing decisions. “A CSE with a large number of products needs thorough testing, and the fixing of broken links within the site before it can go live,” says Singh. “Since launching our beta site, we continue to get good feedback. Taking this on board and turning around any necessary changes quickly is a challenge, but it's essential for a consumer site like ours.”
You also need to take time to pick the right software to deliver content or products that you know will be relevant to your users, says Conrad Bennett, senior technical director for web analytics specialist Webtrends. The UK's leading parenting club Bounty is working with Webtrends to drive a new baby name campaign and redesign core elements of its website. The section will re-launch later this year, and aims to draw Bounty members further into the site as they browse through relevant content provided by the use of web analytics data. Tom Fitzgibbons, acquisition manager at Bounty, says: “This project will make our content much ‘stickier' in our mission to have the very best parenting site metrics and become the first port of call for all parents considering names for their baby.” Bennett worked alongside Bounty on the implementation of the software. “Our project allows Bounty to capture XML feeds as consumers visit the site and view a specific name,” he says. “It uses their URL and unique visitor ID, which is put into a database. A basic algorithm is created, so when people type in a name, visitor data links other names directly to it, and the site makes relevant suggestions.”
The right route
Sometimes best-of-breed solutions are better than trying to reinvent the wheel. You have probably used the AA's online Route Planner. It's free, and it's the motoring organisation's biggest profile raiser. However, it has spawned a lot of competition. And as functionality has been added, maintaining the mapping infrastructure became a resource-intensive process. By 2008, the AA reached a point where its existing servers could no longer cope with the vast amount of data it was creating. “Our mapping service had reached its limit,” says Steve Wing, manager of mapping services at the AA. “We were used to considerable year-on-year growth, but our competitors were beginning to catch us up. When this stalled in 2008, we had the choice of buying and managing another server, or layering our own routing insight onto a third-party mapping platform.” Since switching to Google Maps, the AA has noted an increase of 12% in downloaded routes, with time spent on the site by visitors also increasing considerably. Careful evaluation and planning were essential to re-engineer this essential part of the website with minimal disruption to the service during transfer. “The deployment project started in late 2008,” explains Wing. “By January 2009, this functionality was fully integrated into the website.”
Get into new markets
Growing small business insurer Arista needed to introduce a new line of competitive online insurance products within a very tight timeframe and budget. “We had to develop a front-end presentation for each product that would suit the working practices of brokers before caching the necessary information and delivering it to the Arista back office system,” explains Dave Cheeseman, the company's head of business systems. “Breaking into a crowded market was always likely to be a challenge. We knew that to really make an impact we would have to be agile and flexible enough to meet the demands of our broker partners faster than the competition.” In-house development can be tricky and expensive, but sometimes it's the right option. Since Arista wanted a solution it could manage internally, it looked for an open presentation layer platform that would give it the ability to develop future web solutions itself. It turned to edgeConnect to give it the tools to build its own solutions, without the need for specialist web development or integration skills. The drawn-out processes that traditional development methods follow require that a business specifies its requirements to IT, which then proceeds to write the necessary lines of code, says Dharmesh Mistry, chief technology officer at edge IPK. “Often, during the testing phase, you realise that IT has misinterpreted requirements and extra development cycles are subsequently added,” he explains. “Allowing a business to create, visualise and configure products itself helps to avoid this and remove unnecessary coding from the equation.” Arista's new system was deployed in a third of the time taken by traditional programming methods. Finally, it's vital to monitor the success of your web project. You could just use Google Analytics – it's free and all you need to get going is a gmail account. If you are running a larger retail site, however, you might require a more feature-rich package to enable you to follow users around and find out where and why they drop off and do not complete every transaction. This will help you gauge how well your money has been spent and inform future development.
Word on the web
Dharmesh Mistry, chief technology office at edge IPK, has delivered online solutions to countless businesses. Here are his tips for success:
1. The ‘beermat' principle: Business, marketing and technology
It's important to note that these are three very different facets, and need to be treated as such. However, when planning and managing a web project – you need to manage all three for it to be a success.
2. Begin with the end in mind
Ensure a clear understanding of your goals and realistic expectations of the outcome from the outset.
3. Know your customer
You need to design your web solution to meet customer requirements and deliver your goals through those needs. For example, if you are looking to cut costs through self-service, you can achieve this by providing a quick, easy-to-use web solution that is more convenient for customers than your traditional channels. If it's easier to pick up the phone, they will.
4. Testing customer patience is not a virtue
Make content and services quick and easy to find. Users shouldn't have to trawl through lost content or menus and button clicks to get what they need.
5. Keep it fresh, but ‘sticky'
Remember that a web project does not finish once the site is live. You have to monitor its use (through statistics) and regularly update its design to ensure usability. Luring people to come back often and stay longer is what they call in the trade ‘stickiness'.