“We build web sites”. That’s how I describe our business to people I meet and my Grandma. It’s simple, too simple really since that’s just scratching the surface of what we do. We guide our clients in how the use their web sites, we build the sites, and we educate them in how to make the web site an integral part of the business. We look at their business processes and explore how they use technology throughout the organization. We really work in the realm of information systems: how people, information, and technology interact. A web site on its own is really not very exciting. It’s how a web site conveys information to people or to other computer systems that is really of interest. It’s making a web site part of an integral part of a larger cohesive business that is really useful. But getting to the point where you realize this fact tends to take a while.
“We need a web site” This is where it starts. In a meeting, in the hallway, by the water cooler. Somebody has the notion that the company needs a web site to reach consumers or business partners more effectively. Nobody really knows how to build a web site or what exactly it should do. You’re pretty sure you need some HTML, whatever that is and maybe Flash, that sounds impressive too. And your buddy mentioned that he knows a guy who can build web sites so it shouldn’t be too hard to get this done.
You get your first site built. It’s got your logo on it, a contact form, and some nice pictures of your building and your management team. It also talks about what your company does and has a detailed corporate history going back to the revered Founder’s first dollar. You even have an 800 number so people can call and find out how to buy your products from you. Maybe you even have a map to your stores. All in all, not bad. People can now Google you and you have a shiny now URL you can put on your business cards. You have now joined the 20th century.
After a while you start to look at other sites and realize that they manage to actually sell their products online. Perhaps you could do this too. But you have nobody to talk about your ideas with since the guy who built your site now works for a company in Bangladesh making beads for peace and you haven’t heard from him in over a year.
You do some research and find a list of what you hope are reputable design firms with portfolios that seem impressive. You ask them for proposals for what they will build for you and get back a wide range of documents describing e-commerce sites, Flash introductions, streaming video, databases, and budgets that should cover a moon base. Time lines range from months to years for getting something done. Amazingly, all of these plans have arrived based on only a brief conversation with you or a few emails.
You wade through the proposals and talk to the most promising firms. Finally you settle on one and they go to work. 14 months later your new e-commerce site launches full of bells and whistles. Your logo is bigger and better looking. You now take credit cards online. You have a nifty Flash video of your revered Founder introducing your latest product line. Your home page also takes almost 2 minutes to download and only works in Internet Explorer 5.5 or 6 (we don’t care about no stinking Macs). Welcome to the 21st century and the world of e-commerce.
Your e-commerce site isn’t getting the traffic you were hoping for and while you thought you were changing the way you do business everyone seems to be doing the same things they were before once the orders come in. You’re still using your old order processing software running that ancient database system. You still have a giant file room where everything is printed out and stored away for 8 years for auditing purposes. Customers complain that they can’t find the products they want on the web site and that the ordering process is tedious and confusing.
Now you realize that it’s not enough to have a site and it’s not enough for it to be an e-commerce site. Now it’s got to be easy to use and it has to tie into the rest of your business. Now you’re ready to run. Now you’re ready to build something that will really help your business because it fits how your people work, because it improves how your people work.
Once you hit this point you’ve matured as a business in understanding why you have a web site and how to use it. You understand that it is not a thing that you have but a tool that you use. It is a tool that improves how you sell, how you communicate, both internally and externally, and how you work. It is dynamic and will not be built and finished because the system needs to grow and change with your business. It will change based on changes in how you work, changes in the marketplace, user feedback, and other factors in order to meet your current needs.
You now understand that your design firm needs to be your partner in keeping your business running at optimal efficiency. You now tell the firm about the projects that you used to think were outside the scope of the “web stuff” because they may be tied in to your web site and online systems even if you’re not sure how yet. You start to embrace the idea that just having new software, good computers, fast servers, or a big web site isn’t enough. People have to know about the technology and be able to use it or it’s just waste of resources. Now you know. Now you’re thinking.
Understanding how web sites should work and how they should fit into your business can be a challenge. You have to understand the technology, what it can and can’t do. What it should and shouldn’t do. You have to understand your business, your employees, and your customers. Generally business people can’t do this on their own since you’re too busy running your business. Web designers can’t do this on our own since we are not a part of your business, we need your expertise in your business and industry and participation to keep us informed and bounce ideas back and forth. A successful partnership can result in a mature, healthy approach to integrating a web site into a business.