Why is building a website so hard?

I’ve been working in tech startups for the last couple of years and have been up close and personal with what it takes to get something designed, built and onto the internet.

During the consulting parts of my career I’ve helped build plenty websites for clients. But it’s a whole different thing when you are in-house and personally responsible for whether the site is delivering results. I’ve found that as soon as you’re responsible for the actual business results, your whole mindset changes. Personally, I’ve found that all of a sudden usability and simplicity become more important than aesthetics.

I’ve always been fascinated by how things that seem like a nice easy website project can become complex, stressful and expensive. It’s not just the normal “things take longer than you expect” effect from project management. Something more profound is going on when building digital products. There are several interesting issues that cause website projects to be harder than you’d expect:

1. Unknowable scope

You never really know in advance what you actually need a website to do. Even the best planning, user experience mapping and project scoping won’t capture all the possible things that users may want to do on your site or all the features that you may want to put in front of your users. In the world of construction and engineering they have a concept called a “change order” these are supposed to track changes to the scope, but in software development, it’s possible that the scope isn’t even known in the first place.

Mitigation: Taking an iterative approach based on lean startup, agile development and design thinking can help bite off small chucks to work on.

Code

2. Hidden dead-ends

A dead-end gremlin is when you get 90% of the way down the path with implementing a part of a system, only to find that there is an absolute block based on a requirement that the tool or module you’ve chosen can’t deliver. Often these gremlins show up as hidden systems that depend on each other to do something seemingly simple like send an automated email.

Email marketing and payment processing are the worst areas for dead-ends because everything sounds simple from the outside, but the reality of actually making it work can be very hard with multiple systems depending on each other.

Mitigation: Being as clear as possible about the mandatory requirements in advance can help, but the best solution is to find ways to prototype the idea so that you can test whether everything hangs together properly.

3. A beautiful unique snowflake

In the world of marketing and branding, it’s tempting to want to make everything unique, different and beautiful. This is a great way to create a unique brand, but it can be a terrible way to create a website. Good web design prioritises functionality and effectiveness over looks.

Ford Model T Dash

Before the 1940s, every car dashboard looked different and had different levers, dials and displays. After the 1940s, almost every dashboard from every manufacturer conformed to the same basic layout with a speedometer, rev counter and fuel gauge, which meant that any driver could drive any car without having to relearn everything from scratch. The basic design interface has stayed the same ever since because usability is more important than uniqueness.

Ford Deluxe DashStandardisation makes everything simpler for the end-user. The same is true in web design. We expect links to be blue and underlined, the scroll bar to be on the right, and the menu to be on the top (or maybe the left). Websites that break basic navigation conventions just to be different are making the medium more important than the message. It’s nice to be unique, but it’s better to be effective.

Mitigation: Using standard web development frameworks and content platforms can help make sure that a website is consistent and easy to use.

4. Testing and compatibility

Every website project that I’ve worked on started with great promises about compatibility and great intentions to test everything. In practise, too many websites don’t work on mobile phones or the wide range of browsers that are out there in the real world. Personally, I’m a fan of minimalism in web design. The less distracting fonts, animation and noise there is, then the more that the content can shine. Ironically enough, simple and minimal design is also more likely to work on a wide range of devices and browsers.

Mitigation: Make designs and code as simple as possible and don’t assume that every single person in the world uses Chrome.

Lean Copywriting

The Lean Branding process consists of strategy, messaging and design. Of these three, messaging and copywriting is often the hardest to apply lean principles to. Language can be very subjective, so judging how best to create copy in a fast-paced environment is not easy. There are a few lessons I’ve learned from creating copy to help express a refreshed brand position.

Copy and messaging is where your brand comes to life in the written word. People are visual creatures, but language is still one of the most powerful ways to communicate and persuade. In almost every industry copy and messaging is a vital part of bringing the brand to life.

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Traction: A startup guide to getting customers

One of my favorite marketing books to refer to for ideas is Traction: A startup guide to getting customers by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares. Their first edition was also available as an audiobook on Audible. They are now in the process of publishing a 2015 second edition so I thought I’d take a moment to share some of my favorite parts of the book. Continue reading Traction: A startup guide to getting customers

Equity crowdfunding at Seedrs

Seedrs provides a tool that startups can use to raise capital from their friends, family, customers and the crowd. This process is often called “equity crowdfunding” because it’s like Kiva or Kickstarter, except that the investors get equity in the company instead of a product or a loan. In January 2014, I joined Seedrs as part of the marketing team.

Seedrs Team Wired Magazine
The Seedrs team have been featured in Wired, TechCrunch, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.

At the end of last year, Seedrs raised 2.58 million pounds from over 900 investors using their own platform. That means that in my new marketing role, I now have over 900 bosses. I feel very accountable for the success and growth of the business. In this blog post, I want to share two main things about my new role, the expanded view of marketing that we’re taking at Seedrs, and the way that we’re incorporating lean manufacturing habits and processes into our team culture.

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Value Proposition Canvas Template

A value proposition is where your company’s product offer intersects with your customer’s desires. It’s the magic fit between what you make and why people buy it. Your value proposition is the crunch point between business strategy and brand strategy.

value proposition canvas
The  value proposition canvas includes elements from behavioural psychology and design thinking.

When you’re starting a new project or a new company you need quick and dirty tools to help you focus on executing things faster and better. Good strategy tools exist only to help you focus on getting the right things done. The value proposition canvas is a simple tool that quickly gets you to the ‘minimum viable clarity’ required to start building and testing.

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Growth Hacking with Patrick Vlaskovits

Patrick Vlaskovits, arguably the sharpest modern thinker on Lean, visited us at the Innovation Warehouse last week. Patrick has recently published his new book, The Lean Entrepreneur. He spoke to us about growth hacking, which is a new way of thinking about marketing (within a startup or innovative company environment). Growth hacking is the application of the mindset of a hacker to the challenge of growing the demand for a product.

Patrick Vlaskovits and Peter Thomson
Patrick Vlaskovits was in London for a few hours so he dropped by the Innovation Warehouse.

Patrick has reverse engineered what causes rapid growth in some disruptive products but not others. He’s pulled together thinking from advertising, marketing, lean and even black-hat affiliate marketing. The key (to Patrick) is that the Medium is the Message (a quote from Marshall McLuhan). Disruptive ideas need disruptive marketing channels. To get an innovative idea to spread quickly, it needs an innovative communications medium.

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The difference between marketing and design

Marketing and design a very different mindsets and professions. I’m guessing that both your company’s marketing and your design probably sucks. But then again so does everyone else’s. It’s been driven to blandness by a combination of focus groups that couldn’t “get” your new idea, repeated changes from your management team, internal squabbles and old ideas left over from a time when advertising spend equalled market success. But maybe there is an even deeper problem…

What's the difference between design and marketing
The difference between marketing and design is the focus on the end-user as an individual.

The difference between marketing and design isn’t obvious. They’re different professional disciplines but the real difference is in the mindsets that they bring to approaching a problem.

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