Attention: Web Development isn’t easy!
Solutions 8 has spent the last ten years building, revising, honing and just generally obsessing over our proprietary development process and workflow. Every “win” we’ve experience helps inform the process as does any mistake we make along the way (as few and far between as they may be). This helps ensure that the process continues to improve with every Client we have and keeps us ahead of the aggregate development curve. It’s completely unique to our firm and we’re proud of the results it yields.
Before We Begin: Project Management Tools and Processes
Your dedicated project manager
You know what they say: it takes a village to build a custom website.
Okay so maybe nobody says that, but it’s true. Website development is a dynamic process that requires multiple specialists and proficiencies. From content creators and graphic designers to frontend developers, backend developers and database administrators you will have a complete development team assigned to work on your custom application. This “village” can oftentimes double in size when you add the Client (you!) and their team into the development mix. Custom application development is an extremely collaborative process and requires ongoing input and approval from the Client.
Because this process can be relatively daunting, you will be assigned a dedicated project manager to manage the entire process and act as a communication conduit between you and our development team. He or she will ensure the project stays on track, manage the core project deliverables and will be responsible for reporting any changes to the development scope, cost or timetable for your approval before these changes can alter the project plan.
Because many of our Clients have multiple people on their end involved in the project, we ask that the Client identify and assign a single point of contact for us to treat as the “team lead”. This person will be responsible for final approvals as well as answering any questions that arise during the process. This “one to one” solution ensures that there is no miscommunication between our company and yours and also assists in maintaining accountability for everyone involved.
This isn’t to say your team can’t be involved in the process, as far as we’re concerned the more the merrier! We love collaborative environments and welcome the input and assistance of anyone who wants to be involved. With that said, it’s important for us to know who we should look to for final approval on deliverable items, who we can reach out to for questions and updates and who can help manage your team and deliverables in an effort to keep the development process moving.
Project management tools: deployment and training
Solutions 8 utilizes Mavenlink for all of our project management needs. Mavenlink is an award winning project management tool that enables with the abilities to:
- Outline the entire development process for easy visibility
- Track project budgets and expenses
- Track development timelines
- Assign and track deliverables for both our Clients and our employees
- Manage resource allocation and availability
- Manage and organize all communication and host files and media
This full spectrum, unified project management approach empowers us to adequately establish and maintain clear and transparent expectations for all parties involved.
In order to ensure seamless engagement with Mavenlink, Solutions 8 provides training for our Clients on the use of the tool during which we outline the expectations in regards to the Client’s responsibilities during the project management process. Some important notes regarding Mavenlink:
- You can add as many people as you would like to have access to the project management workspace
- We request that all communication take place throughMavenlink
- Mavenlink notifications are sent directly to your email – you can respond to them from your email as well
- Any conference calls or meetings will be summarized by your Solutions 8 project manager and posted to Mavenlink for easy reference
- Any change approvals required will be submitted to the Client for approval via Mavenlink
- Mavenlink allows for public and private communication
- All Client deliverables will be assigned in Mavenlink as “tasks” – it’s important that the task states be kept up to date
Click here to watch a video on Mavenlink
Project plan creation with task assignments and Gantt tracking
When we deploy your project in Mavenlink, it will include our custom development process as a collection of tasks and subtasks. All of the tasks will be assigned to their appropriate “owners” and will be placed in a development timeline that outlines all of the tasks, their expected turnaround times and their dependencies in relation to other tasks. This allows us to track the impact of late or delayed tasks in regards to future tasks as well as the project timeline as a whole.
Because development is such a dynamic process, it’s not uncommon for the development timeline to change multiple times throughout the development lifecycle. All changes to the timeline will be reported on Mavenlink with a request for acknowledgement and approval from the Client’s team lead. The same is true for changes in the project scope and budget.
Pre-Development: The Website Blueprint
When managing a web development process, a “blueprint” is absolutely essential to your success. The blueprint is our working document during the development and is the very beginning of our custom website development process
Your website is the foundation of your digital strategy, it should be the epicenter of everything your organization does online. Where your Digital presence is a solar system your website is the Sun. When building a custom website (whether this is your first step in the digital world or you’re a seasoned business rebuilding your site), it’s important to heed the carpenter’s motto: “Measure twice, cut once.”
In keeping with this paradigm, Solutions 8 builds a website blueprint for every custom application we develop. This blueprint is included in your project scope and will serve as the guiding document for your entire project development life cycle.
The website blueprint will ensure quite a few essentials, including:
- Your target buyer persona is clearly defined so the application can be built in a way that will most adequately serve their specific needs.
- Everyone involved is on the same page in terms of goals, functionality and scope.
- Your specific needs are clearly outlined and directly addressed through pre-defined solutions.
- Project requirements and vendor deliverables are clearly defined and understood.
- Client-side deliverables are pre-defined allowing you adequate time to prepare as well as the opportunity to ask any questions you may have.
- You will have the ability to refer back to it throughout the development process in order to maintain the level of consistency required for the development of such an important component of your business.
Having a well thought out “blueprint” for your web application will save countless hours of time, innumerable amounts of money and help stave off a stress level that could make a bomb defusing expert weep like a spice girl at a “where are they now?” convention. The core facets of the blueprint are detailed below. During our pre-development phase we will walk you through every single detail outlined below and assist in their definition and articulation for inclusion into the blueprint. The website blueprint is comprised of 7 steps.
Step 1: We help you establish your core goals
Not to go all “Stephen Covey” on you, but with every website build we want to begin with the end in mind. Without establishing a firm goal (or goals) for your website, you may find the final scope of work to be disjointed and incongruent with the real needs of your organization’s digital presence. Defining actionable goals in the beginning gives you something to refer back to and use as a standard when determining more specific components of your site, like its functionality.
We should refer back to these goals throughout the entire pre-development process in order to ensure every step taken is aligned with your target end result. Without this process, it is not uncommon for an organization to look at their newly completed development and realize that it does nothing (or very little) to actually facilitate their goals. Instead, it is simply a collection of things they assumed should be a part of their application.
These goals can be fluid. If we realize in the planning phase of the application that they are incomplete, then we mustn’t hesitate to make any necessary adjustments. However, I caution you against adding a single piece of functionality that doesn’t do something in the nature of bringing you closer to at least one of your core goals.
Step 2: We define your “buyer persona”
You should get used to the term “buyer persona”, you’ll be hearing it A LOT! While your core goals answer the proverbial “what?” in the scope of your application the buyer persona defines the “who?”
Sometimes this can be confused with the term “target demographic”; while they’re philosophically similar a buyer persona is more valuable for our specific purposes. It is a detailed description of an individual person (or persons), outlined in a way that allows us to speak to your expected user directly. We build a persona that’s meant to look and feel like an actual human being. A “target demographic” on the other hand, is a definition of general groups or “clumps” of people. It’s much more difficult to engage a group than it is to engage a single person.
Not only should we define who we want to attract (our buyer persona), we should also define who we don’t want to attract as a prospect or lead (our negative buyer persona). Defining negative buyer personas allows us to take steps towards limiting the number of unqualified leads your application generates. This not only protects you from a time and resource perspective, but also from a reputation management perspective by ensuring prospects who engage with your brand don’t feel misled or underserved.
Establishing your buyer persona helps provide further definition to your functional specification. It allows you to isolate your core users in terms of their needs, concerns, interests and (potentially) behavioral patterns. Your buyer persona will help direct every single facet of your custom website development; from branding, colors, fonts (sizes and types), and navigation to more direct features like functional components and your sitemap.
Content specifically is an extremely important example of an instance where your buyer persona informs the development process. Content can (and should) be as brandable as any other marketing material you produce. The way you speak to your buyer persona, what you say, how you approach each topic, the information you include (and exclude), the verbiage you use and how you organize your narrative should all be custom tailored with your buyer persona very firmly in mind.
The very last thing to note, before moving on, is that your buyer persona (in the context of website development) isn’t just your Customer. Your buyer persona is anyone you expect to use your website: clients, employees, vendors, partners, etc. We should define each group as a separate buyer persona as is necessary in order to ensure the components of the application that speak to their specific needs are built with an appropriate amount of “digital empathy”.
Step 3: We do a competitive analysis
This part of the process always yields interesting results. We base the competitive analysis on your input as to who you believe your primary competitors to be as well as online research that examines what organizations have strong presence and visibility in your industry and target geography. It’s important to have a sense as to what your competitors are doing online and what the “industry standard” appears to be from a website perspective. Oftentimes, there are unspoken expectations that begin to establish themselves organically as industries mature online. Sometimes, what we learn in the competitive analysis is what not to do, what can be improved on or where we can establish a competitive edge.
For instance, if each of your three largest competitors is offering “live chat” as a primary call to action it’s probably worth discussing whether or not this puts you at a disadvantage if we choose not to comply with this unspoken standard. Taking that a step further, we should discuss whether or not it is even feasible from a process and managerial perspective considering the size and bandwidth of your support staff.
Any issues identified during the competitive analysis can be approached in one of three ways: compliance, compliance with modification or non-compliance.
Here’s an example (that actually happened) told in the second person, because it’s more fun that way:
You’re a large scale furniture wholesaler. Our competitive analysis shows that your primary competitors are all hosting their product catalogs directly online and making them available for their users to view and download. This is an issue because exposing product information and pricing online might compromise your relationship with existing Clients that are retailing your products. Historically, you have required users to contact your sales department first in order to qualify the lead prior to sharing the catalog, but doing so will put you at a digital disadvantage since your competition is allowing for an easier barrier to entry.
Compliance: We fall in line with the industry standard and include the availability of our product catalogs in our development blueprint. Incidentally, there’s nothing wrong with this option. Developers constantly push for “bigger and better” in an attempt at providing value, but sometimes the best option is to make sure you’re fulfilling what we expect to be your buyer persona’s expectations upon reaching your site.
Compliance with modification: We make the product catalog available online but we exclude wholesale pricing or bulk-purchase pricing tiers. The catalog prompts users to contact your sales department if they’re interested in receiving a full catalog with full pricing information included. This option maintains compliance with the industry standard to a degree and still mitigates the risk of exposing wholesale pricing online. This option might sound like a good compromise but it’s also a departure from what your user base is expecting. It would be important that we have a discussion about possible outcomes, how to determine success and maybe develop an AB testing schedule that enables us to ensure the efficacy of this approach.
Non-compliance: We decide to stick to our guns and require users to contact your sales department in order to receive a catalog. We make sure to build a narrative that explains the reasoning behind this requirement and educates our buyer persona as to how this approach is actually in their best interests long-term if they become a Client. Our protection of pricing data is another value-add that we bring to our Clients and something that separates us from our competitors.
Because I know you’re curious, the Client went with option #3.
One very important thing to note is your competitive analysis should include your direct competitors as well as your buyer persona’s alternatives. The difference between a competitor and an alternative: Southwest Airline’s direct competitor is US Airways, while a competitive “alternative” is Greyhound (or road trips or telecommuting for business people, etc.) By including alternatives in our competitive analysis, we further enable our ability to speak to our buyer persona’s needs as well as our value proposition(s) in relation to those needs. Speaking of value proposition…
Step 4: We help you outline your unique value proposition(s)
You’re in business for a reason! There are reasons that a potential Client should do business with you over your competitors or competitive alternatives. It’s important for the development of our custom application that these reasons are adequately outlined and appropriately featured in our sitemap, calls to action, content narrative and functional utilities.
Defining your value proposition is a very strong step towards developing your content schedule (based upon your sitemap) as well as informing the content creation process. We’ve already established the “Who” and “What” in relation to your custom website, this step allows us to understand the “Why”.
An equally important, albeit less popular, step in understanding your value proposition is identifying the opposite end of the spectrum which we refer to as “value shortfall”. These are areas where your organization might not be equipped or willing to be adequately competitive. Part of this facet of the process has already been defined through your negative buyer personas (prospects that don’t fit within the user group we want to attract). Further definition is helpful in understanding the “Why” in relation to the reasons this user group isn’t a fit for your organization.
The easiest example of “value shortfall” is usually price. You might have competitors or competitive alternatives that can perform certain services or provide specific products at prices that you are either unable or unwilling to compete with. This doesn’t at all mean that you can’t compete for prospects that are price-conscious, it simply means that (in this example) we need to tailor your sales narrative to speak to value over price and assist them in understanding why your value propositions are worth more than a simple reduction in price.
Step 5: Determine and outline your core functionality
Here’s what you’ve been really itching to put down on paper this whole time! What is it that you want your website to do? Use the goals you have established along with the newly clarified knowledge of your buyer persona to determine the functionality that should drive your website.
Remember, stay away from adding functionality for its own sake. There’s an ongoing epidemic in the world of web development that consists of people adding costly functional components to their site because they think they need to. With each piece of functionality make sure to confirm that it helps further one of your primary goals. The flip side of this coin is this: be creative! The sky is truly the limit and almost anything is possible. Just because something has never been done before doesn’t mean you can’t be the first to do it. What processes currently take place in your everyday business that could be digitized and hosted on your website? What utilities can you arm your users with that will supplement their ongoing experience?
A brief aside on this note: the vast majority of our time spent on this topic deals with engaging and converting new users. We tend to look at our website as a sales tool, and rightfully so! However, it can be so much more than that. Two groups we often neglect in this process are our existing Clients and our staff. What functionality might help you further service the needs of your current Clients? What functionality could you build or integrate into your website to assist your employees in their daily tasks, helping to make them more efficient or better equipped?
Step 6: Identify Your Consistent Calls to Action
Your consistent calls to action are the primary steps you want users to take when they reach your website. These calls to action (CTAs) should be highlighted throughout the entire application. What is it, specifically, that you want your customers to do when they reach your website?
Remember, this can be counter-intuitive if you don’t take time to consider your real needs. When I walk through this process with potential Clients inevitably one of the first things I hear them say is, “I want them to pick up the phone and call our sales department!” While this may be (and probably is) true for your organization there are instances where you might actually prefer users don’t call. Fielding inbound user requests can be tedious and take up valuable resources. Are there instances where you would prefer that they educate themselves on certain facets of your business before reaching out to you? Allowing users to “self-qualify” can save time and resources, especially if your particular product or service is highly targeted.
Also, make sure to keep your functionality in mind when you begin defining your consistent calls to action. For example, if you have an online scheduler built into your site, I would imagine one of your consistent calls to action should be to schedule an appointment. Remember, your consistent calls to action are steps you make available for your user to take throughout the entire website experience.
In addition to your consistent calls to action, it’s important to identify any ancillary or “sub” calls to action you may want to include in your application. These are calls to action that might not be important enough (or inclusive enough) to feature site-wide but still require inclusion in certain places of your website. A great example of an ancillary call to action is content downloads. If you’re on my website browsing the section on “search engine optimization” (which we’re amazing at by the way) it wouldn’t make any sense to approach you with a call to action to download my “custom website development checklist” because it has nothing to do with the topic you’re engaging with. However, I still want the checklist to be available when applicable and appropriate to the user’s browsing experience and placement in the sales funnel.
Step 7: We build your application sitemap
This is where we take everything that we’ve done so far and bring it all together! Your sitemap is a visual representation of your entire web application from the vantage point of what pages of content, functional components, downloads, links and other web facets will be included in your site, how they will be organized and where in the site they will be housed. This is where we outline your primary navigation elements as well as any sub-navigation if and when applicable. Creating a sitemap can be one of the more challenging steps in building your scope of work. You can download an example sitemap here if you’re interested in seeing how they’re structured.
The important thing to understand when outlining your sitemap is that anything that isn’t featured on the sitemap won’t be on your website. While this might sound like an overt statement of the obvious, a poorly defined sitemap is something that can plague a website development process as well as cause multiple rounds of iterations or change orders. This isn’t to say that your sitemap can’t be changed. We’re happy to accommodate changes or additions when they’re necessary and you will always be able to modify your website with relative ease using your content management system. However, a change to the sitemap can change the scope of the project, the cost of development and the turnaround time of the build.
Taking the time to properly define your sitemap up front ensures the development process can run smoothly without the need for change orders or an impact analysis in the cases of large functional additions. With all of that said, it is absolutely essential to consider your long term goals when building your website sitemap. Your website is supposed to be an organic utility that continues to grow with your business and industry. This means that the way your website is structured and organized should be developed in a way that allows for additions and changes in an easily scalable manner.
For example, a single-office organization won’t have any need for a “location” tab in the main menu since their contact information can be easily included in the “Contact us” page where users would know to look for it. However, what if the long term goal of this organization is to expand into five new states with an office in each of those states? If this goal isn’t considered up front and the main menu (which has limited real estate available before ease of use in navigation becomes compromised) is “spent” on other, possibly less valuable, components there will be difficult decisions to make once the need for the “location” tab is realized.
Now, instead of the simple inclusion of a menu item the need for which was anticipated, this company is faced with the need to modify their sitemap. A change in your sitemap, especially large scale changes, can negatively affect SEO (especially when URLs are modified as a result of it), increase the prevalence of 404 errors, and hurt user engagement especially among users who are acclimated to your previous sitemap.
With all of that said: change happens! Sometimes (maybe even “most times”) there’s no way to anticipate the changes to come. A change in your sitemap isn’t the end of the world (despite my chicken little rant) and there are ways to mitigate the risks involved. However, if we take the time to anticipate future needs, incorporate our wildly important goals and commit to a scalable infrastructure it will make managing these changes exponentially less painful in the long term.
So…now what? Let’s talk! If you’re willing to give us fifteen minutes of your time we can give you clarity and direction when it comes to websites and marketing.