A website is not just for Christmas

Out with the old

The same type of story happens too often in the web world:

Simon is what we’ll call one client of a web agency. He runs a business that can benefit in many different ways by improving their website and web-based technology. Their current site is outdated and they’re all sick of it. So he spends time with the agency thinking of all the things it can do and all the scenarios that might happen. Together, they plan the ultimate system that will solve all his problems and achieve all his goals.

So far, so good.

After a month of planning, the agency hands Simon a thick specification document describing the perfect system. They say it will take 3 months to build. Simon signs on the dotted line and the build begins. Spirits are high.

5 months later, the grand launch has been rescheduled twice and the agency are battling to get the system working. Eventually they get the thing live and everyone can drink the champagne.

Unfortunately, there are a few issues. While there’s plenty to like about the new system, the developers have divided their time between so many different features that nothing works quite as well as Simon had imagined. He begins to realise that his ideas of what the specification document meant were rather different from what the developers were thinking. And his staff are a little overwhelmed by all the changes, and they’re not happy with the new demands suddenly placed on them or the new tools they don’t know how to use.

But the biggest problem is that Simon’s business is now 6 months further into the future and the system that was perfect for his business at the start of the process doesn’t really match what they need any more. He’s not sure he even likes the colours he picked any more.

Oh well. Time to start specifying another complete rebuild…

If you’ve been involved in a web project of any scale, chances are you’ve experienced at least some of this before. If you haven’t, you can consider yourself one of the lucky ones.

In with the new: becoming agile

It doesn’t have to be like this. There’s another approach being used by savvy web entrepreneurs and web professionals all over the world.

It’s about continual, small improvements that add business value at every step. It’s about smart working, using the powerful analytical tools that are cheaply available today to optimise the performance of your site. It’s about being realistic about the flaws in the traditional approach and not fighting them but, like a skilled martial artist, coming at the issue from a slightly different angle. It’s an agile approach.

The word agile suggests moving quickly and lightly, being nimble and flexible. Agile with a capital ‘A’ is a software industry term for a family of development processes which share a common ethos:

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

This ethos has borne myriad Agile methods and practices. They were originally developed with software development in mind, but they are extremely successful when applied to websites. The results can be seen in the success of companies like Netflix and Amazon.

Try it:

  • Find the core goal of your site. If it can only achieve one thing, what would that thing be?
  • Begin with the smallest fragment you can launch to deliver business value and get it live
  • Track everything and analyse
  • Launch quietly and launch often – continue to improve on and add to the site in bite-size chunks
  • Reassess and re-prioritise regularly with the stakeholders
  • Improve what works, change what doesn’t work and adapt to take advantage of new opportunities
  • With this approach, your website becomes a living process that continues to grow and adapt with your business.

This approach recognises that effective websites aren’t put live and then left to gather dust. They function through regular attention and work. There’s always room to improve your conversion rate or to increase your traffic. There are always new online strategies to explore. I urge you to think of developing your website as just another of your ongoing marketing activities, to be considered regularly and updated continually.

Another way of looking at it is to see it as carrying out several small, low-risk projects, instead of one large, high-risk one. You spread your online budget over a longer period but get results faster.