Thursday, May 08, 2008

Building an Effective Web Experience

Who's on your web team? If you're a bootstrapper, the team probably consists of one person - you - and, if you have budget, a relatively low-cost web developer or designer, probably someone you know, just met, or was referred. Because your funds are limited, your web presence is inherently constrained by your need to limit expenses. You know you have to address the web somehow - it's the prevailing media ecology, and it's relatively frictionless to create some sort of presence, so whatever dollars you spend to get attention will probably be spent there.

But it can be complicated and confusing - what should you really be doing online? What sort of web site should you develop, and what's involved in building a site that will be effective? Is an online brochure enough? What other content should your site have? Should you have a blog? And should you spend money for search engine optimization or pay per click online advertising? What about design and brand development - how important are visuals? And what time and effort should you commit beyond the development of your web site? Should you spend time creating a presence on a social network platform like LinkedIn or Facebook or Myspace?

Consider best practices for high-end web design. Jesse James Garrett of Adaptive Path created a chart and book called "The Elements of User Experience" - an effective web site produces an optimal user experience, which in turn results in real conversions - i.e. users taking actions on the site that are relevant to your business. Your site could have a bazillion visits, but the visitor count is meaningless if they're "bouncing" rather than converting - taking the next step, which may be as little as completing a contact form requesting more information. [pdf of Elements of User Experience chart]

Let me restate for emphasis: people convert - take relevant action - because there's something compelling to them about the site they're visiting. This is part of the user experience of the site, and Garrett's "elements" chart breaks down the construction of that experience as a platform that moves from abstract to concrete, from conception to completion. The foundation of the project to develop a compelling user experience is strategic: determining user needs and site objectives. Based on these, the functional specifications and content requirements for the site can be articulated, and this supports interaction design and information architecture, then information design (interface and navigation), then visual design for the site.

High-end, high-dollar web sites are built by teams of specialists who are paid well to focus on various elements of site development, and who work well together to integrate efforts and produce a coherent final site that can be very effective. As a bootstrapper, you don't have a team of specialists, but you should be aware of the elements Garrett has described. The most critical is the need for site structure to emerge from strategic thinking about your business. Successful web presence depends, not so much on technology or design, but on clear strategic thinking that drives site structure and development.

So when you're ready to develop (or thinking to redevelop) the web site for your business, make sure your overall mission and goals are clear (you've presumably already done that in developing the business). Understand your business model: what's your source of revenue? Identify what would be a relevant conversion for a user visiting your web site (i.e. contact, purchase, subscribe, etc.) Then integrate all this thinking into the development of a powerful, coherent web presence.

Jon leads the Bootstrap Web Subgroup and is involved in two bootstraps, Polycot Associates and Social Web Strategies. He manages his web presence in multiple locations including his Weblogsky blog.

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