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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Welcome to the first Thursday edition of the WebReference Update text newsletter. Each week, we'll be featuring a new article contributed by our readers through our Open Publishing Initiative. This week, writer Jon Dillon emphasizes the importance of focus in Web site planning.
Spread the word! Feel free to send a copy of this newsletter to your friends and colleagues, and while you're at it, snap a link to WebReference.com. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 1. FEATURED ARTICLE: Software Developers Have Something To Teach You
Way back, years ago when the Web was still in diapers, software engineers slaved away long into the night to produce applications. Specialized applications designed to do one thing and do it well.
Well, those days are over now, brought short by the era of the interconnected online everything. For example, Web sites like The Bureau of Atomic Tourism http://www.oz.net/~chrisp/atomic.html>, or Philip Greenspun's photo.net http://www.photo.net/>, once tremendously popular Web sites, have given way to multi-billion dollar electronic commerce Web sites with bottom-line expectations like Ebay or Yahoo. However, despite this tremendous business shift, the vast majority of Web sites still lack the clear purpose of software applications. The problem is crystal clear: developers often build a site without clearly defining the problems they are trying to solve.
Before you write your first line of code, design your first page template, or polish off your first content piece, you must first strive to get a clear idea of what your goals are (yes, even open source projects need goals, unless you feel really, really lucky). The best sites on the Internet are more like software applications than your average Web site! They have one or more clearly defined core functions, and they do them really well.
Consider a few examples. When you think of Hotmail, what do you think of? Free e-mail, right? That's because that's Hotmail's core service. How about Excite? Well, search is their core service. You might also think of classifieds (they bought a company called Classifieds 2000 a while back, which used to provide classifieds to almost all the big search engines), e-mail (they have a great e-mail service), or my.excite.com. Ebay is for auctions. Amazon is great for books. Progressive.com is for auto insurance (they have a great comparison engine). Mapquest gives you driving directions. Notice that each of the examples has one or more narrowly defined core functions. Some businesses have expanded their services over the years like Excite, but one lesson is clear: successful Web sites are successful because they provide solutions to problems.
It follows then, that the first step to designing a successful Web site is deciding what problems you're trying to solve.
Let's pretend that you are a consultant brought in to rebuild a company Web site. As with every new project, the most difficult part is figuring out where to begin. The most important question to ask is why. "Why are we putting video on the site?" "Why are we making these arbitrary divisions on our Web site to match our organizations structure?" "Why are we putting all of our FAQs in their own section instead of help?" In order to solve problems, first you must define what they are. Write down your questions, especially if you're not 100% sure how to answer them.
Ah, detective work. There is nothing more tedious or rewarding. Here's a process that might help. First, find out who has been meddling with the Web site. Try to get an idea of an organization's sense of Web site ownership. This will help you establish where your site modifications are coming from (sometimes it's spread out across an entire organization, which can create huge challenges). Now would be a good time to whip out the questions you wrote down and interview the builders. I don't recommend the "What the heck were you thinking?!!!" approach. For some silly reason, that question usually gets a rather negative, somewhat heated response. Just go through your list, perhaps expanding your questions to promote a better dialogue. Listen. Understanding the motivations for the choices of the original developers unlocks a world of information (you may even learn a thing or two about the management). You'll learn a lot more than you started out looking for and this will enable you to build a successful plan for moving forward.
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Analysis & Problem Presentation
Consultants have a hard job. They have to present their findings in writing for scrutiny. Sometimes translating your findings into a document is very challenging. Start by answering these questions (you may also need to expand your definitions or change the questions; this is only intended to be a baseline):
1. What is the site for? a. Improving the company image. b. Selling widgets (oooh, widgets!) c. Providing services to customer X? d. Building a resource aimed at being acquired or taking a company public? e. A multimedia playground designed for shameless personal promotion. (Oh come on, you know who you are! =) 2. Why is it needed? a. Do I actually need to build a new site or is this just another excuse to implement new technologies (well, maybe that's ok... if you have a good enough reason)? b. Is there somebody out there who I can model myself on who is doing the same thing already? c. What do my current users think? Why not ask them? 3. Do I have the skill I need to build it? a. Do you need to hire more people? b. Is someone else more qualified? c. Should I outsource? 4. Who am I building it for? a. Is it a site targeted at specific group of people? b. Does the organization have a specialized focus on their Web site (like support)? 5. Why do I keep asking myself all of these freakin' questions?
That last one is not a joke. The answers you come up are like a roadmap for building your site. The more questions you ask, the more specific you can be in targeting your issues and your solutions down the road. With all of your notes and information in hand, now is the time to write a problem definition. This entails writing down the results of all of information gathering. Do not skip this step. You may have the information, but until you summarize it in writing, I guarantee you won't really know where it is you want to go.
Problem definitions are distilled versions of what you have found. They usually have a summary, a section where important problems are defined, and a conclusion. I call it the simple presentation format. Here is a sample:
* The support section currently refers customers to a Web site
instead of providing more comprehensive solutions. Our customer
feedback has indicated those customers are somewhat unhappy with
* The Web site currently features the press releases more than five
clicks from the home page. This may result in reduced coverage of
* The company currently publishes its customer list to the Web site.
This makes sensitive information available to competitors and should
A small redesign of the Web site, including redesigning the top-
level navigation, removing customer information, and adding more
content to the support area should result in significant savings
for the company.
* The support section currently refers customers to a Web site instead of providing more comprehensive solutions. Our customer feedback has indicated those customers are somewhat unhappy with this solution. * The Web site currently features the press releases more than five clicks from the home page. This may result in reduced coverage of press releases. * The company currently publishes its customer list to the Web site. This makes sensitive information available to competitors and should be removed.
A small redesign of the Web site, including redesigning the top- level navigation, removing customer information, and adding more content to the support area should result in significant savings for the company.
Now you're ready to begin figuring out the specifics of solving these problems. By stating explicitly the problems you are trying to solve you have already calculated your definition of success, which is key to knowing when your project is finished. Doing a complete job defining the problems will greatly reduce the amount of work you have to do after you get started.
Here is a summary: 1. Clearly define the problems. Develop a complete definition of what problems you face without trying to come up with a solution. 2. Gather information that will help you solve those problems. This includes site builders, product managers, log files and their analysis, etc. 3. Propose a Problems Presentation document for manager and peer review. Clearly define your definitions for success.
Remember, play for the team instead of the individual, stay calm in the face of politics, and feel free to refer back to your Problem Definitions document in the face of adversity.
Jon Dillon is a 22 year-old author, designer and programmer living and working in San Francisco. He's been working on the Internet since he got out of college in early 1995. He's currently employed at MedicaLogic, making medical records available online. He can be reached through his Web site at http://jon.dillon.org, or email him email@example.com.
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http://www.netscape.com/netcenter/1999/october/1013_cool.html http://www.webreference.com/js/tips/ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 3. NET NEWS: Attacked and Hacked!, Two New Melissa Viruses Identified, Andover.Net Unveils GIFWorks 3.0, AOL Downplays 'Evil Connectoid' Bug in New Version, Programmers Explained? Caffeine Causes Changes In Brain Cells
>Attacked and Hacked!
The attacks on PC Week Labs' hackpcweek.com test site offer powerful ammunition in the security war. http://www.zdnet.com/pcweek/stories/news/0,4153,2350743,00.html PCWeek, 991011
>Two New Melissa Viruses Identified
An alert was issued Tuesday for two variants of the infamous Melissa virus, which took down more than 100,000 computers earlier this year. http://www.internetnews.com/bus-news/article/0,1087,3_217381,00.html Internetnews.com, 991013
>Andover.Net Unveils GIFWorks 3.0
Andover.Net Tuesday released GIFWorks 3.0, a free online application that enables Web developers to select, process and create animations online using a standard Web browser interface. Andover.Net's developers have added 20 new visual effects and over seven new editing tools to allow designers to jazz up their Web sites. Check out the windows-like DHTML interface. http://www.internetnews.com/wd-news/article/0,1087,10_216401,00.html InternetNews.com, 991012
>AOL Downplays 'Evil Connectoid' Bug in New Version
A serious bug in America Online version 5.0 that prevents users from accessing the Internet was well known to the company prior to the release of the software Oct. 5, alleges beta testers. http://www.internetnews.com/isp-news/article/0,1087,8_216641,00.html InternetNews.com, 991012
>Programmers Explained? Caffeine Causes Changes In Brain Cells
Researchers announced that caffeine may affect the process of long-term memory by changing the structure of dendritic spines, tiny "branches" found on nerve cells in the central nervous system. Maybe this explains some of the strange behavior of computer programmers.... http://www.planetrx.com/news/general/19991011-1563.html PlanetRX.com/Reuters, 991011
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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ That's it for this week, see you next time.
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