November 30, 2012

SO Sorry! We need to redo your site.

8 minute read, in Business / Code

Well, not ‘redo’, but, you’ll see what I mean.

I know we launched it less than a year ago. I know it wasn’t free, and that it took a lot of brain power, time and energy on both our ends. And I know you’ll probably have a hard time getting a new budget from your CEO, VP, foundation, ED or whoever pays for these things. But it’s necessary. Or it will be soon enough that I’d start thinking about it now.

I’d say that this disaster isn’t entirely our fault. Of course you’d expect me to say that since we built it. But if you can reserve judgement, let me tell you what happened before you decide who to blame.

Four things peaked this year, and they’ve all led to some serious shifts in how we work:

  1. The internet
  2. How we interact with it
  3. The amount of media we’re consuming
  4. How we work

Of course they’re all related, but some insight into the specifics of each are worth considering:

1. The internet

There are more people online, using more and higher bandwidth. Websites are basically applications, which sounds technical, but just mean they ‘do things.’ The age of ‘brochureware’ is pretty much over. Sure there will be noteworthy hold-overs–those who make beautiful standalone sites.

Just the same as there are musical artists who still put out elaborate album art with shiny packaging and accompanying print materials. More power to them, I hope these art forms persist.

The point is, young and old, comfortable and just learning, the internet is long past being a catalogues reference library. When you find your reference, the parts are moving, and we expect them to be. The internet is alive. And living things need care at multiple levels, from cellular to muscular, especially with regards to systems.

Your site needs to be connected to something–an interest, a community–it needs fresh oxygen, some blood coursing through it, and some respect, or it will get sick and die. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just worth knowing, because if you’re fortunate enough for people to interact with your website, you are creating impressions, specifically.

2. How we interact with the internet

DO leave your phone in your pocket when you get home from work or when you take the kids to the park (even if you’re sitting on the bench watching). DO seek out local, physical community engagement (though finding and planning for it online will help). But also, DO be objective about the degree to which you use the web and the nature and conditions of  that interaction; your attention span, and experience expectations.

We’ve gone, and are increasingly going mobile. Though I remember getting my first mobile phone, and I can remember thinking I would never need to interact with the web via mobile, tehy’re both faint, dreamlike memories, and still fading.

Here are some global or US centric mobile stats from September (cribbed from the social skinny) for a clearer picture of how we’re interacting with the web:

  • Mobile now accounts for 10% of internet usage worldwide (this has more than doubled over last 18months) (The Next Web)
  • 1.08 of the world’s 4 billion mobile phones are smartphones (Source: Hubspot)
  • 7.96% of all web traffic in the U.S. is mobile traffic. That number skyrockets to 14.85% in Africa, and 17.84% in Asia — up 192.5% since 2010(Source: Hubspot)
  • 91% of mobile internet access is for social activities, versus just 79% on desktops (Source: Hubspot)
  • Over 1/3 of Facebook’s users access Facebook Mobile; 50% of Twitter’s users use Twitter Mobile (Source:Hubspot)
  • QR code scans increased 300% in 2011 compared to 2010 (Source:Hubspot)
  • The average tablet user spends 13.9 hours per week with the device (Source:Hubspot)
  • 73% of smartphone owners access social networks through apps at least once per day (Source:Hubspot)
  • There was 103% growth in website traffic from smartphones from 2011-2012 (Source:Hubspot)
  • US consumers spend almost 1 in every 10 ecommerce dollars using a mobile device (Source:Hubspot)
  • There are currently 6 Billion mobile subscribers worldwide (Source Digital Buzz Blog)
  • This equals 87% of the world’s population (Source Digital Buzz Blog)
  • China and India account for 30% of this growth (Source Digital Buzz Blog)
  • There are over 1.2 Billion people accessing the web from their mobiles (Source Digital Buzz Blog)
  • Google earns 2.5 Billion in mobile ad revenue annually (Source Digital Buzz Blog)

For better or for worse, we’re spending a lot of time interacting with a lot of media, and the bulk of our expectations are being developed on other people’s sites and more often than we’d expect, on mobile platforms. We do not control the conventions, we adapt to them. We employ them skilfully if we’re paying attention. We are. Are you?


3. The amount of media people are consuming

The internet is pervasive. It’s a resource that cuts across virtually all our interestes, processing virtually any information–from ancient traditions like story-telling to modern applications like news and event sharing. And it’s mobile–we can interact with it virtually anywhere. So it has become a relatively accepted element of our consciousness and culture. And it can be accessed almost anywhere.

I’m not saying it’s everything. It’s not all important. Just that as the maker, owner, or beneficiary of the fruits of a website, it’s important to know that the way we interact with websites, the keepers of all the information we access– has evolved.

In this hyper-media saturated climate, signal to noise ratio must be considered at every level. Your site needs to be at least easy to look at, if not beautiful (and there are many forms of beauty).

It needs to be easy to interact with, so I go from context (can I do what I want here?) to action (reason I came) as intuitively and expediently as possible.

These factors are not always the only considerations, but they’re the convention. Sometimes, I take the crank-operated elevator at the Gladstone Hotel–it’s neither intuitive nor expedient.

In fact, when he was around, I used to enjoy getting into chats with Hank, the Gladstone Cowboy–and though I was richer for the experience, I didn’t leave any younger. But if I had to get into long conversations with country singers crank-operating beautiful but slow elevators every time I needed a lift, I’d find more reasons to end up at ground floor meetings.

My point is that while you should of course be chasing your customers/constituents instead of your competitors, failing to objectively consider and to try and factor in how people are being influenced by media today is a recipe for irrelevance. The vehicle matters.

4. How we work

So, the way we see it, no website will ever be finished again. Nor should it be. “Finished” is for meals. For things you polish. For things made out of plastic. That come in styrofoam, cardboard and tape, bought at a big-box retailer.

Websites are software. They’re part of a system designed to generate at least insight, though many other returns are possible. They need to:

  • be launched earlier than you think,
  • do less than you think
  • offer insight into clearly defined stakeholder goals
  • respect context–where their users came from and what they’re expecting
  • respect ecosystem–they’re on the web, itself composed of scripts, protocols and algorithms
  • be worked on and with, iteratively, always. You can go through lower intensity periods, where you’re hypothesizing, but eventually you need to get back to testing.

So we’ll deliver a milestone called ‘live’ and let the world see what we’ve been designing, testing and tweaking. But we’re never going to say it’s “finished”.

What this all means, to us, and our relationship.

Remember–I started this post with an apology:

  1. Websites must be responsive. Which means designed to reformat to offer a great experience at smaller screen sizes (like mobile) AND that we need to consider the context of these interactions. Do the same navigation and features make sense for people standing in line at the drugstore (for something trivial) as those sitting down at their office desk? We must now consider this.
  2. Websites must be constantly ‘refactored’.User Experience, metrics and conversions, performance (and other things that can be improved by revisiting code), etc must be worked on regularly. A website it more like a pet than a toy. It needs, love, care and poop removal, not a home on a shelf, occasional visits followed by an eventual replacement with a more current, ‘finished’ product. This sucks, because it means we need to completely re-imagine the service provider relationship.We’ve always had a partnership approach, we only work with people we like doings that matter. But they/you get funded in ‘budgets’ and ‘grants’. Each with relatively arbitrary deadlines and short term mandates. Even an in-house development team suffers from misperceptions and a lack of objectivity regarding the role a website plays for an organization and the relationship it demands.
  3. Less is more: Most existing sites need to edit features and content. New ones should start with a minimum viable product and iterate, adding new functionality and content in a manner that allows for testing and improvement.
  4. Trust is the bottom line: We know some old-school business types would feel safer with a contract that specifies what feature list we can be held to rather than a partner who you can look in the eye, talk about your problems with and who you know will go to the wall for you. They must be engaged. And there are an equal amount of executives who just need to be informed of the evolving, agile nature of digital project design, development and management for the web. Teach them. Employ them.

Now, can we redo your site, always and forever? That would work best. For both of us.

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