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The Developer's Role in Creating Successful Web Sites
by Lance T. Walker

Anybody can spend a bunch of money on advertising and call it marketing. The real test is what happens once all that traffic arrives on the web site.

At that point, the marketing challenge is to keep our goal (the sale, the call, the store visit) in mind as we guide the customer through a satisfying buying experience. And here is where the web developer, or "production specialist", can


literally be the difference between success and failure for the project. The responsibility here is twofold; Content and Navigation.

1) Content - once our home page design has captured our user's attention, it is imperative that we have something of substance and relevance to say. Furthermore, we must get to the point extremely quickly. This is no time to brush up on our novel-writing skills. Recent studies indicate we have a maximum of 8 seconds to give our surfing visitor a reason to stay, or they're gone. Content should be seamlessly consistent with the design message being conveyed, and aimed right for our target market's hot buttons. Accurate, constant research is key, and findings must be immediately shared with design and development. We must define our target audience in detail, aim for the lowest common denominator in that group, then add the cool stuff once we're sure we are hitting the mark - while testing for audience response every step of the way.

2) Navigation - Poor navigation is probably the most severe problem web shoppers face today, and it is critical that web designers get a handle on the problem quickly. Charlie Morris, author of Nav 101, tells us:

"No matter how good a site looks, or how much useful information it offers, if it doesn't have a sensible navigation scheme, it will confuse visitors and chase them away. A simple, understandable navigation scheme can increase your number of page impressions, boost return visits, and improve your conversion rate. It's a critical aspect of the site design that has a direct effect on the bottom line." (Web Developer's Virtual Library. Nav 101, 1999.)

User-interface specialists tell us there should be a maximum of 6 links on our home page. Any more than that, and the user gets confused as to where we want them to go. Three of those links should probably be 1) About the Company, 2) How to Buy, and 3) Contact Us. There is a lot of flexibility here, as long as we keep the goal - selling - in mind. The so-called "portal" model, with seemingly 900 links on one page, works great as a pass-through directory. But unless we own all 900 sites and are using this one as a site map, we're sending our own customers right out the door.

Structure the site like a pyramid, with each level giving more detailed information. In no event should it take the shopper more than three clicks to get to our order page. Repeat visitors, especially, will appreciate not having to wade through our navigation system in order to buy.

If our site is large and complex, we should put together a site map - a page that displays the site in strict hierarchical order. Each line should be a link, so visitors can quickly go where they want to.

To sum it up, our navigation system should:
1) Tell people exactly what is available on our site,
2) Help them get to the sections they want to see quickly, and
3) Make it easy to buy or request additional information.

The Development Stage - Our Last Chance to Get it Right

Flash. Shockwave. Java. T3 lines. DSL. Streaming video. 21" flatscreen monitors. As developers, we naturally want to play with every cool new toy available to us. But as developers with a marketing mindset, our web team depends on us to ask ourselves the following three questions - whether they realize it or not:

1) Do our users possess all the hardware equipment we assume they do?
2) Do our users have browsers equipped with the technology and software we are depending on?
3) Does everything on our site function as advertised?

The ability to use a patient, methodical approach is necessary in order to deal with the many limitations inherent in presenting material on the web. The Internet is literally being built as we go along, with styles and trends changing on the fly. To top it off, many people have begun to resist constantly upgrading their hardware and software when what they have seems to be working just fine. Their attitude is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Putting the latest whiz-bang tools on our site means little if our viewers can't see the results. On the other hand, we know that not using at least some recent technology can make a site seem dated and out of touch. Sometimes the issue comes down to duplication of resources, or deciding which market segment we're willing to disappoint. And while this is never an easy decision to make, it should at least be a conscious one that we can stand behind under scrutiny.

The programmer's legendary attention to detail is becoming more vital every day. Web languages like XHTML, XML, and SMIL will have much more demanding requirements than many so-so developers are prepared to handle, and be much less forgiving than HTML has been. We do our customers and ourselves a big favor when we refuse to tolerate bad code just because "it works OK". Wireless phones, Web TV, hand-held devices, car dashboards, and other Internet viewscreens of the near future will not have the computing power of our desktops. The developer who insists on good code is the developer who will be in demand.

The E-commerce economy is a virtual one, and highly dynamic. It exists solely at the will of satisfied users, and more of us are responding to that fact. New York-based research firm Creative Good estimates that $6 billion in Internet sales was lost during the 1999 Christmas season because buyers either couldn't find what they were looking for, or couldn't figure out how to buy. By Christmas 2001, internet sales were up a whopping 72% over 2000, although most of the rise was from purchases transferred from traditional retail outlets, rather than new business. And the Christmas 2002 shopping season was literally saved by Internet marketers offering free shipping (See Alf Nucifora's Shoestring Marketing article).

But free shipping and giveaways are not the long term answer. For all of our sakes, improving the customer experience on the web must start taking precedence over simply pushing the technology envelope. James Daly, Editor in Chief of Business 2.0 magazine, puts it this way in his article, The $6 Billion Experience Gap:

"Customers are on your site for products, not flashy technology. The home page should load quickly. Search interfaces should be simple. If a feature does not work well, do not put it on the site. Online customers don't tolerate mediocre experiences. It should be easy to find what you are looking for and start shopping. That simple insight alone is worth millions." (Business 2.0 magazine, December, 1999.)

To fill the web developer role is to be much more than a quiet, hard-working typist. As the front-end programmer, you represent the last chance our team has to heed what our boss, the customer, is telling us they want. Use your grasp of technology to help, not confuse. You are literally our last line of defense. Don't let us down.


-- SkyVault™ Web Design provides marketing consulting, web development, and Internet business services to small and medium sized businesses. They have been developing income-producing online properties since 1998. Contact the development team at: Free Report Reveals Secrets of Their Successful Marketing Strategy:


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