As much as it hurts to admit it, most of the important decisions of website development are not made by design professionals. They’re made by the business owners and middle managers who hire us. After all, it is they who hold the purse strings, so it’s only fair that they set the online priorities.
Unfortunately, this situation does have one major drawback. Although such people may be very well meaning, they are often blissfully unaware of the factors that should and do influence decision making on the web. The unhappy result is that poor investment choices are often made. For example, an executive who is oblivious to the potential of handheld computing might commission a site that is unusable on mobile phones. Similarly, an application that is built in ignorance of internet law might end up costing a small fortune in legal fees.
Setting the scene
Those of us who make a career out of website planning have a duty to help such people. Our goal must be to equip decision-makers with the knowledge they need to make sensible and informed choices about development.
The purpose of this article is to show you how to do this by means of a simple process of stakeholder education. This will enable you to explain the main factors that shape web deliberations and help “set the scene” for future decision making.
The factors encompassed by this process include anything that constrains the freedom of an organization to operate online. For convenience, they may be categorized into two groups: global and industry factors and business and management factors. (Both will be explored in more detail below.)
In my experience, the best way to “set the scene” is to convene a workshop at which senior website stakeholders are briefed on the factors that influence website-related decisions. The benefits of your educational efforts will become obvious soon after the workshop has concluded. You’ll find that stakeholders’ insights are far more informed and secure than would otherwise be the case; ultimately, better decisions will arise from the post-workshop planning discussions.
Let’s take a look at the key factors your stakeholders may be missing.
Global and industry factors
Global and industry factors are those that drive web development at the very highest of levels. While these items are usually beyond the influence of all but the very largest of firms, smaller companies can have a say if they act together, e.g. through an industry organization. They include:
- The law
- Online society and culture
- Best practices
- Industry and market trends
Because “ignorance is no defense,” legal compliance must be at the core of online activity. Internet law encompasses the legislation, government directives and court judgements that have the power to influence development.
Helpfully, a standard array of web regulations has now emerged at a global level. If you can convince stakeholders to pay attention to this core set of rules, you can be confident that a baseline of legality has been achieved.
Among the best known of these rules are those related to copyright protection. Simply put, your client must make certain that all graphics, content and code have been correctly licensed for reproduction (or authored in-house) before use.
Privacy and security regulations demand similar consideration. No longer can e-mail addresses and personal details be used without permission. Many nations now have long lists of legislation that constrain the manner in which you gather, store and exploit such data.
In a similar vein, directives about e-commerce play an important role in regulating internet activity—particularly directives that concern consumer rights and cross-border taxation. Indeed online gambling laws are proving especially difficult to manage for an international audience.
Controls on freedom of the press also create a variety of management dilemmas. Rulings on libel and defamation, hatred and incitement, and adult and obscene material place significant constraints on what you can and (more importantly) cannot publish. This is especially relevant if your stakeholders wish to explore user-generated content features like wikis and discussion boards.
Finally, if your employer operates in the government sector, you should not forget about accessibility and the other requirements that are important there, e.g. official languages legislation.
Some project teams have grossly mistaken assumptions about the impact of technology on their decision making—particularly about rates of change, which are often underestimated. If a development choice is made in ignorance of new trends, it can lead to a rapidly deteriorating experience for online visitors. To neutralize this threat, you should brief stakeholders, particularly those with little web experience, on emerging technologies and the opportunities they create. Current items to review include:
- Web 2.0 and the enhanced experiences it is creating.
- The ability to browse the internet using handheld devices.
- The multimedia potential of broadband.
Online society and culture
While the effects of the “internet revolution” may be overstated at times, there is no doubt that society has adapted well to its benefits. This is reflected in the many new audiences that continue to emerge online. You should spend some time explaining these changes to decision-makers, so they can understand the context within which their own site operates. For example:
- How many people have internet access in their country, region, or market?
- What types (and populations) of special-interest groups should be considered, e.g. senior citizens, disabled community members, non-English speakers, etc?
- How much is the web used for certain tasks or hobbies, e.g. banking, making friends, sharing photos, phone calls, etc?
- Is government support available for projects that narrow the “digital divide”—that is, projects that make it easier for people in disadvantaged communities to get connected?
Best practices are the set of development conventions used by professionals who create content and services for the World Wide Web. Although no central “registrar” of such practice exists (the efforts of the W3C notwithstanding), ALA readers should certainly be familiar with the following:
- XHTML as the preferred markup language for the web.
- CSS for the presentation of web content.
- ECMAScript for client-side interactivity.
- The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines of the WAI.
You should describe the benefits of these standards to stakeholders: how they support accessibility, make websites easier to maintain, and enable device portability. With a bit of luck, this should be enough to convince them that a high level of compliance is in their best interest, even if it requires extra money for staff training.
Industry and market trends
This category deals with internet usage within a specific industry or market. Among the elements you should review with stakeholders include emerging trends as well as the comparative strengths and weaknesses of competitors. For example:
- How many competitors are online?
- What business models do they use—i.e., how are they making money?
- How are they performing? Can they be benchmarked?
- Is there any literature that recommends best web practices for this industry?
Business and management factors
Business and management factors represent the constraints that an individual organization by itself has the power to change. Indeed, the influence of such items on decision making can often be more profound than the higher-level items already examined. This is because you now have the ability to help stakeholders shape their environment in order to make development easier.
The three most important factors to explore are:
- Website resourcing
- Company policies and practices
- Website governance
As many of us know, a primary reason for the failure of many sites is that inadequate funding is allocated for development and ongoing administration. To prevent this, you should give stakeholders a clear idea of the financial commitments required to guarantee a minimum level of success.
One way to explain maintenance costs is to relate them to different types of websites. This can be achieved using the concept of “website scale.” Website Scale is a means for classifying sites in terms of three parameters:
- Size: the effort needed to produce and maintain content.
- Complexity: the intricacy of the technology used for hosting and content delivery.
- Activity: the levels of traffic received.
|Large website||Medium website||Small website|
|Activity||Very busy||Medium to high||Low|
In this way, you can show that the costs of managing a large-scale site are far greater than those of a small site. Consequently, stakeholders can estimate how much “bang for buck” they can get for different levels of investment—and avoid asking for the impossible.
Company policies and practices
Policies are the legal code of an organization. They are the rules by which it limits the behavior of its business and staff. You should ask your decision-makers to study such principles in order to understand the constraints they impose on operations. If they seem likely to cause problems during development, can they be changed? If there are gaps, can a new policy be created? Some of the most popular policies to consider include:
- Security policy: the encryption mechanisms and storage facilities used for data.
- Brand policy: the types of images, colours and other features that may be used in design.
Underachieving websites frequently suffer from a lack of clarity about how decisions are made. This is especially evident in large organizations where judgements may be politically motivated, rather than driven by site objectives. As a result, you should review a number of control systems with senior stakeholders in order to arrive at an appropriate arrangement. This includes:
- Management structures and procedures: the organization and rules by which operations take place, e.g. team reporting, standards, etc.
- Roles and Responsibilities: the required skills on a web team and their duties, e.g. editor, design, coders, technical support, etc.
It should now be clear that a wide range of factors may influence website decision making. Yet, even a meeting as short as an hour or so could be enough to explain these items in sufficient detail for stakeholders to understand; the aim isn’t to turn your managers or clients into experts—it’s simply to make them aware of the influence they have on development and the factors you’ll all need to consider.
Ideally, you should arrange for this workshop to occur at the very beginning of an engagement, before any real plans have been made. By doing so, you can ensure that subsequent discussions remain informed, focused, and—most importantly—realistic.