Monday, May 25, 2009

Appropo to nothing...

In the part of the country where I grew up, it was common practice to plant big, strong trees around the house. The land around here is pretty flat and once the fields were cleared for planting, the wind whips through without mercy. The trees break the wind in the winter and keep things cool in the summer.

It's just part of the landscape -- Victorian (or older) farmhouses surrounded by tall, strong trees.

This is valuable farm land that isn't particularly close to any population centers. It has largely escaped the fast urban development I'm accustomed to seeing in central Maryland. The landscape changes more slowly.

When the old farmhouses are taken down, the grass always returns to cover up the remains but the trees remain. They sit like living guardians or ghosts in the general shape of the houses that they once surrounded -- gates to a place that doesn't exist anymore.

It always struck me as sad.

Friday, May 15, 2009

How to manage a web site... flexibly

One of the realities of being in the web business is that sometimes you have to do things -- create interface designs, define information architecture, move that stupid home button 6 pixels to the right because someone just HAS to make some random change to prove him- or herself worthy of a big salary. You know that the change is wrong. Maybe it's more than wrong. Maybe it's making your site unusable.

...And you do this wrong thing knowing that you will be considered the reason that the web site failed.

Such is life. Every creative deals with this on a regular basis. The only way to have full creative freedom is to do all of your work the darkness of your own basement -- unpaid, unseen, unshared, un-commented upon.

Where's the fun in that?

So in return for a tiny bit of notoriety, the mindblowing joy of getting a paycheck, or just the human need to FINISH SOMETHING FOR ONCE we become...


Flexibility is tough -- kind of like falling into a fast-moving river with really big rocks everywhere. I've seen many "true believers" in the art and science of information architecture and interface design fall before the firing squad of clueless web site owners. They would not budge from their golden path; would not consider a different way to achieve the same (or very similar) results. Instead of talking to their clients, they would clutch holy books of taxonomy, data structure and usability in white-knuckled fists and, red faced, would preach from the gospels of heuristics.

I have a deep respect for both holy books and for doing the right thing in the face of those who don't want you to, but what if your books are wrong? The Web is still a mind-bogglingly complex and fluid environment. Every web professional has stories of how they tried to duplicate a successful strategy, only to fail completely because, in the time I took to build, the strategy became irrelevant.

How can you be sure what you are doing is right? Isn't it prudent to keep your attitudes as fluid and flexible as the environment you work in?

If you do, how do you avoid going completely nuts?

There are strategies to navigate this river, but they won't be the same for any two people. The environment you work in (your organizational goals, your audience's expectations, new technology) keeps changing so you can't follow the route of a predecessor (or pricey consultant) exactly. You'll be making what feels like a long series of micro decisions in order to move ahead toward your goal.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you make these micro decisions.

Have a clear and realistic goal. Whenever you read a book or listen to a consultant, this whole goal thing is the first thing to hit you in the face. Actually, it sort of sounds a like a cop-out first step. I know when I was starting out, I'd read this and say to myself "well, duh".

It's not a cop-out. It's serious. Respect for having clear and realistic goals comes from soul-sucking experience of having to work to a vague goal... or no goal at all. Having clear and realistic goals suggests the following:
  • You understand what your goals are.
  • Your goals are complementary (one doesn't completely undermine the others).
  • Your boss/client has exactly the same understanding of your goals as you do.
  • You have ways to measure the success of your efforts toward your goals.
  • You have a timeline against which to measure the success of your efforts.
Your "goal" could be a sentence or two (although those tend to be too vague to be useful) or 10 pages (yikes). Most of the time, it'll fit on a single, easy-to-post-on-the-office-corkboard page and have a lot of bullets.

Here's the really sneaky part of creating clear and realistic goals, however: Be ready to change them.

You are going to learn new things about your audience along the way. You'd be stupid to ignore these learnings just because you are stuck with the goals you came up with before you even started. That is part of the fluid environment you are working in. When you gain a new insight about how your audience wants to interact with you, incorporate it into your efforts. You should be able to incorporate them into your original bulleted list without too much trouble.

In fact, you should probably just schedule in hard review of your goals into your timeline... as often as monthly.

If you find that you are completely trashing your original goals in order to incorporate these new learnings, you should stop what you are doing and talk to your boss/client about rethinking your goals and strategies completely. You got something seriously wrong.

Now a bit of a warning on this: People with a background in traditional business really, really hate this -- so do most computer programmers and technical project managers. You might, in fact, be thinking the same thing: Well, if you are just going to change the goals, what's the point of having the goals? Well that is where you need to be making your micro decisions. Use your own common sense (that'll actually take you pretty far), business experience, and knowledge of your corporate environment to weigh how much you can change the goals. Little tweaks here and there in response to properly measured and documented customer response is common in business and won't be a problem. Just be sure you are properly measuring and documenting... and sharing these insights with other web site stakeholders (ie., boss/client) as you go along.

Be absolutely, positively sure that you aren't suggesting the goal changes in order to make your life easier or to make yourself look better. You'll need to defend these goal changes. Personal convenience is really hard (and quite awkward) to defend.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I do know that from personal experience -- on both sides of the situation. Seriously. You don't want to go there.

Goals (and measures) are critical. If you don't have them you never know if what you are doing is having any affect. That is hugely frustrating -- like trying to find your way home from a strange city all while wearing a blindfold. Set the goals, keep re-evaluating them, and keep measuring your effectiveness.

Flexibility with your goals in this case isn't being spineless, it's about being agile. When you are building and maintaining an effective web presence, agility is everything.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

An intriguing ad, I must admit…. Is it a bottle that, perhaps, once tasted like a platypus? What does a platypus taste like? I admit that I’ve never tasted one and, while I suspect they taste pretty wretched, I could be wrong. Probably not.... particularly if REI feels the need to advertise that their bottles DON’T taste like a platypus.

I’m also curious about the “& More”. Goodness. Do we have any other exotic animals that we don’t have to taste in bottles?

Honestly people. This is basic editing. I know you don’t have much space to work with, but a few more minutes of wordsmithing would have really helped.