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(Proto)Type-Cast Yourself

You'll recall we recently discussed the concept of wireframing (see (Wire)Frame Yourself) and its critical role in site planning. I promised you we'd hear more from my friend, John Quarto-vonTivadar, on another planning tactic that will make your site development process sing with efficiency from the very start and will save you a bunch of money, too! Well, John's back from a well-earned vacation and has emailed me some thoughts on the topic of prototyping, which I'm gonna share with you now!

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Prototyping is a pre-development method for integrating all the elements that must go into your website so you have the most effective and efficient conversion "machine" possible. And there's no doubt about it - taking the time to do all the fussing up front, before you carve anything in stone, saves you lots of time and money later in the game. Sound like something you'd go for? Then stick around!

There are three critical components in the planning stage of your web project. First, you wireframe your entire site, creating a text-based model that establishes the flow of your specific logical and business functions by identifying all the entry and exit points your users will experience on every page of your site (see (Wire)Frame Yourself). Once you've completed the wireframing, you are ready to move to storyboarding, where you begin to define the look and feel and specific content of your site (see Behind the Scenes: E-commerce Secrets from Hollywood?). As storyboarding moves forward, you are ready to turn to prototyping.

A prototype is a “model” of your finished site. When it’s finished, it should be indistinguishable from the final delivered project, with the exception that it has not been coded and is not fully functional. Actually, it's a lot like putting on a play. Long before the curtain officially rises, the director and producer have cast the show, choreographed it, rehearsed it repeatedly, and finally held the dress rehearsal.

Think of your website as such a play. Your opportunity to prevent an “opening night" disaster comes during the prototyping phase. This is when all the participants who have an interest in the project can continue to influence the final outcome, at a time when the costs of making changes are relatively inexpensive.

We mentioned how all too often the final project gets developed and delivered and suddenly the client (hey, that’s you!) has questions like “Well, can’t you make it do this?” “That’s nice, but I’d rather have this show up in blue rather than red” or “Uh … that’s not what we expected!!!” These sorts of objections and comments only occur because the prototype was left incomplete (or didn’t even exist!) before the hard-core development (programming, database design) was done. And at this late stage, it costs big bucks to fix these problems.

The solution is to employ - and completely finish! - prototyping first. Your goal is to establish a final frozen prototype that is indistinguishable from what the final product will do. If you do the pre-development correctly, when it comes to debuting your project officially, you should find the unveiling rather boring. Why? Because you will have seen it all before! And because you have signed off on the final frozen prototype, there should be no surprises.

How can you achieve such a positive and cost-effective outcome? The key is in realizing that the prototype stage “evolves” in a way the earlier stages of wireframing and storyboarding do not. Prototyping of a static web site (what is often called “brochure-ware” on the web) can often occur in tandem with storyboarding. You may have seen this in action: some designers will demonstrate the “look-and-feel” of design and layout elements, while in the active window content area they insert a whole bunch of pig Latin text (or 17 million blah blah blahs, my personal favorite). Why? Because at that moment the idea is to focus the website owner on the user interface rather than the content. But as the storyboard begins to take shape, the prototyping continues to evolve as content is solidified. Here, especially in a dynamic site or application, it is vitally important to continue reiterating each and every piece of the application so the appearance of the prototype becomes more and more what you want to see in the final project.

As you progress, you will note your concerns shifting from user interface issues to more content-driven topics: "Ok, great … this is where we get the results of a search form the user filled out. But what exactly will be displayed on the screen?" If you’ve done the previous pre-development steps correctly, you already will have sorted out the look-and-feel issues, so now you just need to produce a screen shot that mimics exactly what you want to see in the finished product. You do this for each and every screen your users will see. Addressing problems now is guaranteed to be a lot cheaper than ignoring them or simply overlooking them and then having to fix them in the hard-core development phase, when much more expensive people are on the payroll and a change to one area may require changes to many other areas.

John asked that I make a point of mentioning two neat ideas he's been using recently1. The first is the notion that you evolve towards a frozen prototype using “development notes” that you manage on a screenshot-by-screenshot basis (this can be done easily if you are developing a web-based application, since these notes, which relate only to their associated pages, would appear at the bottom of each and every page). This helps keep a record of change requests as they occur. Doing this provides a vital history of how things have evolved. And you know you are truly done when the entire list is checked off.

The second idea is this: once the final prototype is complete, you make sure all the decision-makers who have a say in the end product sign-off on the prototype, freezing the format. After this point, you don't allow any further changes, and they can’t argue they weren’t informed or involved.

If you’re the client, you might want to consider writing these points into a development agreement, such that any changes after a prototype is frozen occur at the option and expense of the developers. Pity the poor project manager faced with $500/hour change requests that he might have got for a fraction of the price had he just taken the time to finish the prototype!

John says every time he's seen this process implemented, the result has been delivery of the final product in weeks rather than months, months rather than quarters. And often, quite delightfully, under-budget! (Is he my wireframing hero or my prototyping hero? Decisions, decisions!)

So … what are you waiting for? Start prototyping!!

---

1 John tells me these ideas originated with fellow Cold Fusion guru Hal Helms.


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When Content Isn't King

A while ago, when heavyweights like Forrester Research proclaimed content the single biggest motivation in getting people to log onto the Internet as well as return to a website, folks started jumping on The Content Bandwagon. After the initial rush to pad sites with tons of content, folks are finally starting to examine both the role and the value of content a lot more critically.

Now that we’ve got some experience and some data, what we know is this: Not all content is created equal. There are times when content is at best pointless, at worst actually destructive to conversion rates, and in any case most definitely not King (or even Prince).

According to a UCLA study, the Internet now beats out radio, television and magazines as an information resource (only newspapers - by a tiny margin - and books ranked higher)1. People do come to the Internet to get content. But don't go thinking just because people go online for content, they want that content from your site or that providing it automatically will help your sales. Think of it as the online equivalent of the old "milk argument," the one that says 90 percent of the people who go shopping buy milk, so if you want to increase sales in, say, your hardware store, all you have to do is add a milk cooler.

There is a difference between searching for content and going shopping. When people want content on the web, they go to sites that specialize in precisely the content they seek. When they want to buy something online, they want sites that offer a simple, trustworthy and streamlined buying experience (as well as outstanding service and great value), The only content they want is stuff that will directly help them make a more confident buying decision. Anything else only confuses them, or distracts them from buying, or slows the sales process, or bloats your site.

In e-commerce, content provides a lot of what you'd get from a real-world salesperson. You gotta have it, and because it occupies a central place in supporting the primary sales goals of your site, you cannot give it secondary consideration in the planning and execution of your site. You must make sure you have the content you need - but only the content you need, and content that is going to earn its keep.

You need content that's clear, concise, vivid, compelling, and strictly related to your product or service or to your expertise. It must motivate the shopper directly toward becoming a buyer. These days, folks are even monitoring the effectiveness of their site's content by tracking which elements prompted the best over-all results2. When you back-up killer content like this with a site that excels at the 5-step professional selling process - as an expert salesperson in the offline world would do - you will have a site that doesn’t just lay there and hope people will buy; you will have a site that sells.

Content is not King when it exists simply for its own sake, or when it attracts unqualified traffic that isn't interested in making a purchase from you, or when it undermines your sales process, or when it adds distracting layers that impede your prospect’s momentum toward becoming a buyer. So if you jumped on The Content Bandwagon, consider putting your content on a serious diet. Only then will you find yourself with content that truly rules!

1 "UCLA Report Finds Internet Surpasses Television As Key Information Source." Harlan Lebo. 15 August 2000. 

2 See "Optimize Content to Maximize the Bottom Line." Charlie Tarzian, ClickZ, 30 March 2000. 

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