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A Planned Approach to Web Development

Is it finally time to build a web site for your business? Thomas P. Bergman provides a set of good questions and helpful hints to get you started.
This article was adapted from The Essential Guide to Web Strategy for Entrepreneurs, (Prentice Hall, 2001, ISBN 0-13-062111-0).
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So you have finally decided to build a Web site for your business. How should you go about it? If you are a techie, you probably know how to build a Web site, but you might still have questions as to what features you should include. If you are not a techie, you might know what features you want, but you might be a little short on how to build them. In this article I will present a systematic approach to Web design that will help you—regardless of your level of technical expertise—to establish a Web site that does what it is designed to do, one that is completed on schedule and within budget, one that is easy to maintain, and one that is as cost-effective as possible.

If you are a little "shell shocked," let me reassure you here: you can readily find a Web developer to get your site built and operating and to assist you in site maintenance as well. If you do not already know how to build a Web site, I do not recommend that you attempt to go it alone. However, even if you have never turned on a computer before, I recommend that you do learn enough to perform the routine maintenance of the data in your Web site. Routine maintenance tasks are usually simple and easy, requiring little time or effort, and you can expand the tasks you take on as you become more comfortable. The more you do, the less you will have to pay your Web developer to do. To get started, though, you will need to find a Web developer on whom you can rely for the initial build and for ongoing "hand-holding."

My philosophy is that you should opt for the highest value in the use of your own time. Even if you are comfortable working on your Web site, you must consider what else you might be doing instead: selling, perhaps? Just make sure your Web site does not become a major distraction that ends up costing you money instead of improving your profits as planned.

You already know this: projects come out better if they are carefully planned. If you are like me, you do not always plan carefully, but you certainly know you should. Let me emphasize the importance of planning in developing a Web site. Even a bad Web developer will cost you $40 an hour, with good ones charging $90 an hour or more. That means if your Web development project takes twice as long as it should, you can easily spend an extra thousand dollars! So, do what you know you should do: plan carefully before you act.

Most of my clients show up with no idea what they want from a Web site. They have no idea how the Web works, what it can do, or how exactly it can help their businesses become more profitable. If you have stuck with me to this point, you are way ahead of the game. Now, as you get ready to kick off your Web development project, let me help you get organized. Table 1 lists the steps you might follow in developing a Web site for your business. By following such a plan, you have a better chance to get what you are after for your business and get it for a reasonable price in the bargain.

Table 1 Steps to Follow in Your Web Development Project

  1. Decide what exactly you want from your Web site.

  2. Decide on a structure for your site and develop a rough site plan.

  3. Decide what interactive elements you need.

  4. Decide what graphics you want to include.

  5. Write the text for each page in your site.

  6. Determine your budget and timeframe for the project.

  7. Establish your Web infrastructure.

  8. Collect your toolkit.

  9. Discuss your site plan with at least three developer-candidates and obtain written proposals.

  10. Evaluate the developer proposals and select your developer.

  11. Monitor the development progress.

  12. Establish procedures for ongoing site maintenance.

Decide What Exactly You Want from Your Web Site

What exactly do you want your Web site to do for your business? Do you want your Web site to ...

  • Act as a brochure to tell your story to prospects?

  • Sell your prospects and customers on signing up for an email newsletter?

  • Let your customers track packages or view their current account balances or order statuses?

  • Provide a convenient way for prospects and customers to contact you or a specific person in your company?

  • Deliver electronic documents to customers?

  • Host a live chat interaction with tech support or sales personnel in your company?

  • Let customers set their own appointments with your business?

  • Do something else?

Deciding exactly what you want from your Web site will be most effectively determined by somebody who best understands your business, and that is probably you. I suggest you bring together your top-level staff for a discussion and brainstorming session. Nearly everyone can offer suggestions for things you could do with your Web site. If you do not yet have a staff, bring together a few friends for the same purpose. When you get to the point of hiring a Web developer, solicit his or her advice as well. Remember, you do not have to do it all at once. Divide your list of Web site functions into phase 1 and "maybe later" phases. Then get on with phase 1.

As you determine what you want to get out of your Web site, keep your focus grounded in the bottom line. It is not enough to decide you want to provide an additional service; you must translate that additional service into a profit effect, or into an intermediate effect that you know will lead to greater profits. For example, if you add package tracking, how will that impact profits? There are two ways: first, your employees may be freed from some phone calls, thereby reducing your labor costs, and second, you may see increased visits to your Web site, which could generate additional sales.

Most elements included in your Web site can be treated as either a means of increasing the number of visits to the Web site or increasing total sales per customer. Make sure you quantify each objective you choose and then track your results to determine whether your Web site is in fact pulling its own weight.

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