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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Wednesday, 23rd May, 2012

A business embedded approach

A big part of client centric web design is being focused on business drivers and objectives. In this post we look at how to increase your knowledge of the clients business.

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Over the first three posts in this series I have introduced the idea of client centric web design. I have explained that it leads to better websites, happier clients and improved profit margins.

However, to make client centric web design really work you must have an intimate understanding of the client and their business.

At face value projects can look like previous work. They might target a similar audience, use the same technology or be within a familiar sector. However in reality every project is different and we must resist the belief that we know enough to leap into Photoshop.

We must take the time to understand the clients unique requirements.

Gathering requirements

When budgets and timescales are tight there is a temptation to start development immediately.

Part of this temptation comes from a misunderstanding about the nature of the sites we build. To us they are websites; a way that users find information and complete tasks. However, they are much more.

Websites are complex business tools

To our clients and their organisations a website is an essential business tool that is deeply integrated with business aims. It is a marketing channel, a recruitment tool, a customer support mechanism and more.

Venn diagram showing how the website is used by every part of the business

Most of us are good at understanding users and their needs. We understand that taking the time to do so informs our decisions. We need to do the same with our clients. Requirements gathering provides us with this knowledge. Without it, we only know half the story.

Requirements gathering doesn’t just help make decisions, it also justifies them.

Requirements gathering aids sign off

If you understand business drivers, you can explain why your choices help meet organisational goals. The sign off process becomes based on evidence and not on subjective opinion.

Not that opinion is removed from the process. We know that politics and other non-project related factors influence decisions. However, requirements gathering provides enough knowledge to use these to our advantage.

For example, we may meet a person who is particularly influential, but also opinionated and difficult. As part of the requirements gathering phase we can interview that person. In that interview we will learn more about them, like the fact they are passionate about recruiting top quality people. With that knowledge we can focus our future presentations on the benefits to recruitment, so ensuring their support.

We now know how important requirements gathering is. The next question is; what process do we use?

I am going to presume that you are already doing the basics such as setting measurable success criteria and business objectives with your client. Instead I want to look at reviewing what currently exists online and stakeholder interviews.

Let’s begin by reviewing what exists.

Review what exists

Most clients will come to you with a fairly rigid idea of what they want to build. This is unfortunate.

Sometimes their decisions aren’t particularly well-informed. And, the client misses out on your ideas and experience.

I urge clients to pay for a review of their current online presence before settling on requirements. This process helps me to better understand their business and gives me a chance to contribute.

These reviews are micro-projects before the main build. Clients usually like this because it provides an opportunity to work with me on a small piece of work without committing themselves to a larger project.

There are three different types of reviews I want to look at here. You may use just one or even all three. It depends on the client, their budget and time.

These reviews are:

  • An expert review and strategy document
  • A heuristic review
  • An analytics report

Let’s address each in turn.

An expert review and strategy document

An expert review consists of systematically assessing a site. As you navigate the site various issues arise. Many are obvious, such as poor navigation or verbose copy. Others are more subtle, such as no clear calls to action or inconsistent labelling.

Once you have reviewed the site, the findings are translated into a report. This document identifies flaws, suggests solutions and educates stakeholders about web design best practice.

An example expert review

Each review will vary. Content might include sections on accessibility, usability, design, content, and social media. It will focus heavily on business aims, calls to action and measuring return on investment.

In many ways the expert review is similar to a heuristic review. The difference is that an expert review doesn’t just observe, it also makes recommendations.

A heuristic review

A heuristic review uses a standard set of criteria to measure the effectiveness of a website. As with an expert review these criteria include usability, accessibility, design, content and more.

Each criteria is measured on a 1 to 3 rating, with 1 being poor and 3 being good.

This type of review provides a more balanced analysis of the website because the reviewer is using a consistent set of criteria to rate its effectiveness. This means that it can be used to compare the existing website to the competition if appropriate.

Diagram from a heuristic review

The numerical results are turned into diagrams that clearly represent the sites strengths and weaknesses, showing where extra work is required.

The last part of the review process is an analytics review.

An analytics report

Analytics are important to any web project. Without them it is impossible to judge whether new development generates a return on investment.

To carry out an analytics report, software such as Google Analytics must already be running. Usually organisations already have analytics installed, but they can be poor at monitoring and interpreting them.

Where analytic software is not present, install it on the current site while development is underway. This will give some data on the existing site to act as a baseline for comparing the new work you do.

Existing analytics also provides an insight into the behaviour of users. By using techniques such as advanced segmentation it is possible to tell how different users behave.

Advanced segmentation in Google Analytics

Reviewing an existing site will not give you the entire story. You will need to talk to stakeholders to discover the whole picture.

Interview stakeholders

A stakeholder interview is a semi-structured discussion held with any person with an interest in the success of your web project. This includes those who work directly on the site (such as a content editor) or who rely on the website to meet their business goals (such as departmental heads).

These interviews usually last for about one hour and are held individually. Although simple, they give valuable insights that inform your project.

You could be forgiven for mistaking stakeholder interviews as a luxury that delays a project from starting.

Although not every project requires stakeholder interviews, they are particularly useful when working with large organisations with complex requirements.

In this type of situation they provide four benefits.

  • They bring the web design agency up to speed with organisational requirements. Stakeholder interviews are a way of understanding complex projects in new sectors. Through speaking to stakeholders we learn about the sector and organisation, while also identifying how the website can meet business needs.
  • They offer a better perspective on the role of a project. Most web projects within large organisations will affect many parts of the business. A single department often commissions a project and they have a particular perspective on its aims. By talking to other stakeholders you make sure the project helps everybody within the organisation.
  • They are politically advantageous. Internal politics are a reality in large organisations. This means there are no shortage opinions about the website. Stakeholder interviews allow people to express those opinions and feel that they are engaged. This goes a long way to diffusing potential conflicts further down the line.
  • They provide access to the real decision makers. On larger projects you will rarely deal with the real decision maker on a day-to-day basis. This can prove problematic when that decision maker is behind the scenes with his or her own personal agenda. Stakeholder interviews allow you to talk to these people and better understand their aims and motivations.

In the book which accompanies this series I go into detail about how to run an effective stakeholder interview. However here I want to emphasis that well-run stakeholder interviews make sure your web project has goals that benefit everybody in the organisation, while achieving agreement from all parties.

Next actions

Knowing about the client, their business and their requirements, is crucial to client centric design. Without that knowledge there will be misunderstanding and conflict.

Make sure you take the following actions before your next project.

Include stakeholder interviews in future proposals

Depending on the budget this could be a part of the kick-off meeting or a series of separate stakeholder interviews. The aim is to talk to anybody who has a say in approving your work.

Have clearly defined business goals

Don’t start work until you have a list of prioritised business aims that are measured and translated into calls to action. The kick-off meeting is a good time to draw up this list.

Review the client’s online presence

Ideally this should cover their existing website, social networks, analytics and competition. However, where budgets are tight, spending an hour looking over their site will suffice.

You will not regret the time spent researching the background of the project. Nowhere will that information be more valuable than when getting sign-off. This is what we are going to discuss in the next post in this series.

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