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October 12, 2010

Is your web developer qualified?

Filed under: Website Development, Your Business — Mike Jaltuch @ 7:38 am

Most people hire web development companies for the same reason we hire an auto mechanic or go to a doctor, because we are in need of their expertise that we ourselves lack knowledge of. In most fields we use a common sense approach to determine if the expert is qualified to fulfill our needs. For example, we are not going to ask our eye doctor about a pain we have in our foot and we probably won’t go to the oil change shop for a new transmission. We do the same with scope size. For example most people would not want a nurse to do open heart surgery, or someone who has experience in building houses to build a 25 story office building.

However with web development there seems to be much less common sense screening happening when a web site / web application is needed. My assumption is because there is a much lower level of common knowledge about programming when compared to other fields. As a result I have seen a few common mistakes over the years in the criteria that people use when selecting a website development vender. Below are two of the most common examples:

#1 – Using what you understand as the main decision factor, even if what you understand is mostly irrelevant in the project.

A good example if this is design. I frequently see companies looking to have a complex web application developed and typically in this case a design is needed but it’s usually less than 5% of the time spent on the entire project. Of course this 5% is a very important part but it’s still a very small minority of the overall project. However, for someone who has no understanding of development they may tend to gravitate to the design since they do understand it and select a vendor solely on the merits of their design ability.

The result is a great design but the actual application may not work very well or be riddled with bugs. Or worse yet, end up being well above the skill level of the vendor resulting in a project that is doomed from day one.

#2 – Using the industry of your business as the single criteria for selecting a vender.

An example of this is a lawn servicing company that may want to set up an online system for their clients to manage all levels of service. When looking at prospective web development companies they are only searching for those who have multiple clients in the lawn service industry. This is similar to a law firm wanting a new building so they only look at builders who have built offices for law firms.

A better approach would be to try and determine the level of complexity needed for the project. Then only look at companies who have developed at least three web applications at the same or greater level of complexity as the desired project. It’s much easier to learn a few details of any specific industry that may be helpful in a project compared to gaining the development skills and experience necessary for architecting and developing the project.

The lesson is to step out of your comfort zone and try to apply some of the common sense logic we use elsewhere in our lives to our web development projects.

April 20, 2010

Requirements for an e-commerce website

Filed under: Website Development — Mike Jaltuch @ 8:50 am

The fastest growing and most common web application over the past decade has been e-commerce websites. The most common method of payment on ecommerce sites has been credit cards. However, many small business owners wanting to the plunge into the online ecommerce word don’t have a clue where to start or what is needed. I’ll try to break down the requirements and give a short description of why each is needed.

The method I am proposing is to have the entire transaction process remain on your site. You can save a few dollars by sending your customers to third party sites for payment processing. However this is considered unprofessional and some customers may question the security of their credit card if they are sent somewhere else to enter a payment. Also, there are no major companies using this practice. A quick check to your favorite online store will allow you to verify they most likely take care of all transactions directly from their own site.

First, a merchant account is needed and this can be set up at just about any bank. The merchant account is what actually processes the credit card. Most people use their current bank, however this is not required. If you are only going to accept credit cards in person, this would be the only account needed. However, since you will be accepting credit cards online a gateway account is required. The website cannot talk directly to a merchant account so the gateway is used to handle communications between the website and the merchant account.

On the more technical side, an SSL certificate must be purchased. This is attached to your website and used on pages where sensitive information, such as credit card numbers, are entered. When this data is submitted, all information is encrypted keeping your data safe from snooping eyes.

Finally a hosting account is required which is where the website resides. Depending on what technology is used will determine what type of hosting account is needed. For example, if PHP is used a Linux account is best and if the site is developed in .NET then a windows server will be required.

Anyone wishing to accept credit cards on their site will incur these expenses in addition to any website development needed to create the ecommerce application. Bank charges and processing fees will be incurred but may vary based on the bank and type of business. A good estimate is to expect a small setup fee, about $25/ month in bank fees and approximately 2% – 3% for transaction fees.

April 7, 2010

Don’t throw common sense out the window

Filed under: Website Development, Your Business — Mike Jaltuch @ 11:21 pm

A famous definition of the word ‘insanity’, simply stated it is, repeating the same thing but expecting different results.

In business, I see many people doing this exact thing with respect to their web projects. Unfortunately due to the low barriers to entry in this industry there are many sub-par developers out there more than willing to take your money when given the chance. However, if you work with a company or individual and they don’t perform well, shame on them. If you use the same criteria when selecting your second vendor and it produces the same results then shame on you.

I recently received a call from someone wanting a web application. During our conversation I discovered he had already gone through four developers in the past 18 months and still has nothing to show for his time and money. In discussing the high level aspects of his project I soon determined it was roughly a 150-200 hour project.

He agreed as the other developers told him it would take 1-2 months. The strange part is that he was looking to spend around $1,500 for the project.

This is the point I became lost. He said this was the amount he agreed to pay all his previous developers so therefore expected to find another one, hopefully better, and it should cost the same.

This is a perfect example of doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. I’m not sure how he thought an experienced developer was going to work on a semi advanced database project for less per hour than a high-school kid will make working at McDonalds.

Needless to say, it was a very short conversation.

Next time you have a failure, and it will happen for everyone at some point, make sure to take a step back and learn from your mistakes. Look at something from all sides by putting yourself in the other persons shoes. What could you have done better or differently? What could the other side have done better? Are you to share in any of the blame? If so, think about how to change for the better in your next attempt.

Just remember, in your next attempt, don’t do the exact same thing and expect it to magically work.

March 26, 2010

Website design v.s. website programming

Filed under: Website Development — Mike Jaltuch @ 10:21 am

When developing a websites two general skill sets are utilized, design and programming. Design being the creative part where you develop the look/feel of the site. Programming, of course, is the actual coding/database development which includes your business logic.

For a fairly simple site, the relationship between the two (design and programming) can easily be a 50/50 split. However, the vast majority of websites are upwards of 90% – 98% programming with a very small percentage of overall work going to design.

It’s not that design is being shuttled to the back burner, but creating a design for a small or large project are not much different with respect to time involved. Therefore, when working on large projects the programming aspect is a much larger percentage of overall time.

Why is this important to know?

Since most people are not technical, they don’t understand or relate to programming. Therefore it’s common to only consider design when selecting a company to develop their website. It’s human nature to gravitate to what you know. They simply look at a development companies designs and select the one who they feel has the nicest looking designs.

I’m not saying design is not important. As we all know many people will judge a book by its cover, including your customers. But with that being said, a website that looks great but doesn’t work correctly is useless. Look at some of the most successful websites on the internet today; Amazon, EBay, Yahoo, Facebook, Craig’s List etc. The list goes on. There are a few things all these sites have in common – they are very successful but none have what I would call ‘great creative design’. All these sites are easy to use and work well.

So take a lesson from other sites worth billions of dollars and spend a little more time focusing on the workings of your site and a little less time on design. When talking to potential web development companies, try to focus on the complexities of the projects in their portfolio and if they are similar in size to yours. Doing so will give you a higher chance of success vs just looking at their design skills.

March 8, 2010

Website Hosting Options

Filed under: Website Development — Mike Jaltuch @ 10:15 pm

One issue everyone who has a website needs to deal with is hosting. At Learn Method, since we are strictly a website design and development agency so we don’t do any website hosting. The advantage of situation is that it puts us in a very unbiased role to recommend a hosting solution.

As I often tell clients, this is a not-too-common but very good situation where our interests are exactly the same. It’s in my best interest to help you find reliable hosting for the lowest possible price. The reasoning is simple.

If I direct a client to a hosting solution with frequent problem the one usually getting the calls is the web developer. This is followed up by us contacting the hosting company to resolve the issue and usually having to spend time to prove it’s a hosting issue and not a coding one. This is wasted time as nothing is gained by us or the client. Therefore, it’s in our best interests to find a website hosting provider that will provide the most stable easy to manage solution.

When your site goes down, and be prepared that at some point it will go down since no computer is immune to issues, you want a hosting solution which can quickly deal with any issue at any time. Remember that computer problems usually occur at the least convenient times.

Our recommendation is usually very simple and addresses a single question first asked by many clients.

We have an IT person and a net work so can’t we just host the site internally at our office?

My recommendation on this decision is the same 100% of the time—use a professional hosting company.

Over the past 10-15 years prices have come down so low that it’s virtually impossible to duplicate the level of service internally that you will receive with a hosting company for the same cost. Any decent hosting company will have redundant connections to the internet, backup power, daily backups, and 24×7 tech support on the premise to offer support when needed. This cannot possibly be matched for the price offered by most companies today.

Try hosting internally and you might feel like you are saving a few dollars, but what happens when your server goes down at midnight on Friday? This recently happened to a client who hosts internally and the site was down until the IT department returned to work on Monday to fix the problem.

Once the decision has been made to use a professional hosting company, we make recommendations based on the specifics of the project. Issues such as server platform needed, project size and expected volume are just some of the criteria looked at before recommending a specific provider.

February 9, 2010

Experts are there for a reason… use them

Filed under: Website Development, Your Business — Mike Jaltuch @ 9:55 pm

If you need open heart surgery, would you rather have an expert perform the operation or a general doctor that sort-of knows what they are doing?

The answer is obvious, so why is it such a tough question in your business?

It’s my guess because most people are thinking short term costs instead of long term expenses. By this I am referring to the short term cost of hiring an expert vs the long term expense of what it will cost in the long run in problems by trying to save a few dollars.

I recently had a client who tried to manage his own mail server. Even though I only develop his website and have nothing to do with his email, I kept getting calls asking questions about his email server and configuration. I can only assume because he was lost and grabbing at the first person he could think of.

Over several months as he kept making changes in his business and internal network they continued to have problems. And I continued to get calls asking for help.

Eventually I recommended that he use the email company I use myself for my business. It’s a company that only does email as that is what they are experts in. I’ve been using them for almost 2 years with no problems and a dedicated team who understand email inside an out to help if I happen to have any problems.

This client finally took my advice and within a week I received another call saying how great everything is working from his outlook to web-based email and even his blackberry integration. As a result of using an expert for something which is not his core competency, he can now focus his efforts on what he is most competent at – running his business.

A website is another great example of using an expert. I have had several clients who tried to develop their own sites, some who even hired a single person for all aspects of their web presence. The problem is that they are getting back to using a generalist. Not too many individuals are experts at design, programming, databases, marketing, copy writing, and project management just to name a few of the specialists we utilize as an agency. If you are lucky enough to find someone willing to take on all these tasks, most likely they are not an expert in any of them.

January 26, 2010

If it sounds too good to be true it probably is

Filed under: Website Development, Your Business — Mike Jaltuch @ 9:07 am

It always amazes me how much of a rush some people are to launch a website, at times sending rationale out the window. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying deadlines don’t matter and you should be carefree about your website’s completion date. However, when planning a project listen to common sense and if you have set an arbitrary deadline, listen to the experts and be flexible. Doing so will only save you headaches in the long run.

Recently I was working with a prospect on scoping out the requirements for his new online business. During this process, as I usually do, I asked if he had a date when he wanted the project to be completed. He responded with a date approximately 45 days away. After our meeting I wrote up the requirements as we discussed and informed this prospect it would take a minimum of 75 days to complete the project.

I had asked him if there was a reason he picked this specific launch date. Sometimes the launch of a business may be timed around an event such as a trade show or a specific time of year if the business is seasonal. However he admitted it was just a random date he selected that had no significance. He did stress that he ALWAYS meets his deadline dates in business and therefore it was essential to complete the project by his specified date. I explained that it’s just too much work for such a short timeframe and to do a quality job something like this should not be rushed.

In the end, this prospect only cared about his arbitrary deadline and therefore went with a firm that gave him the response he was looking for. He later admitted this was the sole merit for his decision. I don’t expect to get every project I bid on, however when losing a bid for sticking to your guns and being honest is a bit frustrating. We could have said what the prospect wanted to hear, gotten the project and then worried about the consequences later. I opt not to take this approach and provide an honest estimate I can stand behind.

Last week was the deadline for his project and when visiting the domain name I was not too shocked to see a message saying the site is under construction and will be lunching next month. This seems to me like a company willing to say what you want to hear just to get the business then worry about the unavoidable upcoming problems later. Of course I can’t say for sure if that’s what happened in this case, but as someone who has been in the industry for over a dozen years, I do know it exists.

January 19, 2010

The values of a good internal resource – Priceless

Filed under: Website Development — Mike Jaltuch @ 11:16 am

One of the interesting aspects of the web development field is the wide variety of people and companies a developer gets to work with. Over the past dozen or so years, I have worked with everyone from individuals starting up a new venture, small (but established) businesses, to large companies (some of the fortune 500 status). Since our website development projects have spanned a wide variety of industries, the trends I have detected are more on a general business nature vs industry specific. The most important trend to learn and share with new customers is the recipe for website success.

While there is no one size fits all with respect to a website’s success, there is one trend I have noticed over the years that all of my most successful clients have in common. Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with the web development company or anything they do. It has to do with who they have, or better yet, who they don’t have internal to their organization.

A vendor, such as a web developer, is an expert in their industry of web development. They are not an expert in selling, fixing or servicing widgets, the xyz trade association or whatever the current client’s business happens to be. Even if the web development vendor has extensive experience in your industry, they most likely are not an expert in your specific organization. This is why it’s imperative to have a person tasked with the responsibility of the website within your organization. This person should be responsible for gathering and organization all relevant information from the various departments of your organization and then passing it to the developer. They don’t need to be technical but do need to understand the technicality of how your business works, especially if your website will be executing specific business tasks. The developer then has a single contact to work with to confirm all business logic and get other necessary information.

Even though one person might not know the inner workings of each department, having a dedicated internal resource in a valuable asset. With this structure in place, there is an internal person putting pressure on the various departments to provide the necessary information. Time and time again, when working on a large project and the client has not tasks someone with this responsibility, the project often lacks both ownership and the spark internal to the organization necessary for its success.

For any large web development project to succeed in the long run means it must become a living and breathing tool within the company. This requires constant maintenance and unless someone has been tasks with this as a major part of their job it seems to get overlooked more often than not.

January 4, 2010

What website development technology is best?

Filed under: Website Development — Mike Jaltuch @ 5:21 pm

All websites, with the exception of very simple static sties, utilize at least one programming language in addition to HTML for website development. Any site with ecommerce, online registration, CMS, or even simple database integration will need to use some type of programming language in addition to HTML. Some of the more common web development technologies are .NET, PHP, Classic ASP, Cold Fusion, J2EE, PERL etc. However the real question is, which one is best? If you ask this question to three different developers you are likely to get three different answers. Generally the one they develop in is professed to be the best followed up by a lecture on a list of flaws with all the other technologies.

I prefer to take a little different approach to this topic. I believe with the hundreds of projects I have been involved in, most of the time there is no specific technology far superior to the others. I say this only because most projects can easily be accomplished with a talented developer who specializes in any of the above technologies mentioned. This should imply that the developer is much more important than the language they are developing with. It’s similar to how an artist is more important that the type of paint they are using, water colors vs oils. If you are a fan of water colors, you will probably like a oil painting from a great artists more than a water color from an artist without any talent.

However, there are a few things to consider which may show why one option is better than the other in your specific situation. For example, if your website needs to be hosted on an Linux based server then .NET or ASP would not be a good solution since these require windows servers. If budget is a concern then cold fusion may not be a good choice as it needs cold fusion server software which can run up to $7500.

One of the most critical factors to consider on a larger application which will be in service for many years is additional development for support and upgrades. I have had several calls over the years from companies looking for another development company to take over their existing project. Many times we had to turn them down because we don’t specialize in the technology required. Some of these callers were contemplating redeveloping their sites as they could not find any local development companies with the necessary skill sets able to take over their project. With a little upfront research, problems like this can be avoided.

My suggestion is to find a development company that specializes in more than one technology. They can then look at the requirements of the project and your organizations specific situation and propose the best technology for the job. At Linear Method, we focus most of our development on Microsoft.NET and PHP. These two technologies were chosen not only because they are probably the two most widely used technologies today, but they cover the two most common platforms. .NET is the most common programming technology for Windows and PHP is the most common web technology for Linux. Along with these two technologies, the databases used are Microsoft SQL Server and MySQL which are the two most widely used databases for web development.

These technologies will leave the client with options once the project is complete. In addition, since .NET and PHP are very common web development technologies, existing code modules can be leveraged for most projects saving both time and money during development.

With all this being said, if you have a developer you trust and a fairly simple site that won’t need ongoing maintenance and have the flexibility to host on any server environment then just about any technology should be sufficient.

December 27, 2009

How much does a website cost?

Filed under: Website Development — Mike Jaltuch @ 11:21 pm

One of the most common questions I get is “how  much is a website?”.  It’s probably because most people have never been involved in developing a website and therefore have no idea what’s involved. 

Unfortunately there is no easy answer.  My typical response is that it’s just like buying a car.  You can spend $3000 on a car, used of course, or over $300,000, for a Rolls-Royce.  Websites have just about the same ranges with the exceptions of the very upper echelon of sites that can easily go in the millions of dollars.

Another common follow up question goes something like this… “How much will it be to develop a site that is just like www.somesite.com?”  Unfortunately this is also a question I can rarely answer.  My favorite analogy on this question is that it’s like asking a builder how much would it cost to build a house just like the one at 123 Main St.  However, if all the builder can do is look at the outside he has no idea on any of the following:

How big is the house,  3 bedrooms, 4 or maybe even 5?

Is the basement finished?

Are the floors hardwood, carpet, tile or something else?

What about the kitchen?  Are the counter tops granite?

This list can go on and on. 

Web applications are very similar.  We have created several sites which function more as web based applications where the public may have access to less than 10% of the site.  An excellent example is 9Health Fair.  This site is open to the public for general information and searching the database of health fair locations.  However, approximately 90% of this site is only accessible to the 9Health Fair staff with some portions available to those managing the individual sites. 

The fair has over 18,000 people who volunteer each year.  These people must be managed and assigned to appropriate sites matching the sites offerings with the skills of each volunteers.  Site coordinators need to go through a very thorough process of setting up their site each year by entering in detailed information on their fair which then must be approved.  The entire process is managed online and completely invisible to the average user.  These are just some of the many functions the website manages.

Assume someone wanted to start a health fair in another state and use the 9Health Fair as a model.  If they asked their developer what it would cost to develop a site like 9Health Fair, any response with even a fairly tight range would be cause for suspect.   It’s impossible to estimate a project when you only have 10% of the information, especially when you are unaware you only have 10% of the information.

The solution is a little old fashion hard work.  It takes some (or multiple) discussions with the developer going through in detail exactly what the site needs to do.  An experienced developer can walk you through this process, continuing to ask additional questions which are based on your responses from previous questions.  Only after this is accomplished and a requirements document written up can the initial question be answered, “How much does a website cost?”