Zen & The Art Of Web Development

BMW R 26, 1959 courtesy of celesteh, originally posted on Flickr“For me the most boring task is cleaning the machine. It seems like such a waste of time. It just gets dirty again the first time you ride it. John always kept his BMW spic and span. It really did look nice, while mine’s always a little ratty, it seems. That’s the classical mind at work, runs fine inside but looks dingy on the surface.” Robert Pirsig, Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

When I first read this, quite a few years ago, before children, before marriage, I owned a Porsche. It was immaculate. I lived a short walk away from work so I didn’t use the car much during the week; each weekend, though, I would spend a couple of hours cleaning the car. I good proportion of my salary went on waxes, polishes, shampoos, lint free polishing cloths… I didn’t do a stroke of work on the engine or anything mechanical. My excuse was that the engine bay was too tightly packed for an amateur to work on and I didn’t have the tools. Pirsig’s remark bridled; I refused to believe that my efforts weren’t worthwhile.

One of the things about having children is that you don’t get very much time to yourself; these days both our cars are well-maintained (professionally – I still don’t have the tools). and my primary mode of transport, my bike, is maintained by me in a Pirsig-like manner as well as being clean and shiny – not because it looks nice but because it’s coated in WD40 to keep the rain off and rust at bay.

When clients approach us for a new web site they talk about customer retention, conversion rate of visitors to buyers, life time value of each visitor and so on. When we first get feedback from a client it tends to be along the lines of “That looks good”, “I don’t like the blue”, “Can we have a green gradient “, “I would like rounded corners on that” or  “Can we hide that search engine and customer friendly text as it makes the page look cluttered”. Part of the reason for this is that many clients are not qualified to talk about usability and, until a site is launched, measuring the impact of design elements on conversion rates is not possible. Everybody, though, can critique design.

We build websites purely for businesses whose goal is to make money from the website either directly from on on site conversions or to gain search engine rankings. Yet still the first deliverable most clients ask for is a design – rather than an explanation of how the site will generate return on investment. We can charge a fortune for design and build but just try and get a commitment for ongoing analytics analysis and maintenance…

As frustrating as it is to brief my designers to change the tint of a gradient again there are some good reasons for this behaviour. By acknowledging these reasons we can work with the client to get past just looking at the colour scheme in order to make the site usable and functional. The way anything looks is a proxy for how it performs. We just don’t have time to understand everything so we look for short cuts. We guess how fast a car is by how fast it looks, we stereotype people by the way they look, we first taste food with our eyes, we judge books by their covers. We all make aesthetic judgements every day and by and large they are reasonable accurate. Most clients have neither the time nor the inclination to discuss the merits of server-side versus client-side processing (though they all want AJAX); they need to use the way the site will look as a proxy for how it will perform. The client will generally also need to present the site to their boss – who has less time and even less inclination. The site’s first job is to make the client look good in front of their boss.

How do we square the circle? Wherever possible I would go with a quick launch. This often means launching the site with a small fraction of the functionality and a basic design. It does mean that you can get analytics in place and test the impact of refining functionality and adding new features. Design changes can be tested; colour schemes tried out; and the impact of rounded corners measured. Designer, developer and the client can discover together what makes customers in this market buy.

Usability testing can be a very powerful tool. For it to work well you do need a web site that is, to all intents and purposes, complete. The process of sitting with a client behind a one way mirror watching someone struggling to use your creation is enlightening. Everybody immersed in a project gets to know the site and the product so well they stop asking the basic questions. Watching a naive user see the site for the first time is a powerful experience. Analytics will give you the quantitative data but user testing adds qualitative information.

Finally we spend time at the start of the project defining how the user should work with the site what they need to be able to do at each stage. We use a rapid prototyping tool so the client can be walked through the functionality. This of course helps the developer build something that is more usable than it would otherwise have been but also involves the client with the functionality and decisions that  don’t involve tints of blue.

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