Building an Internet Business

by Stever Robbins

Roles, processes, and concepts to know if you’re going to be starting your own Internet business.

Internet businesses are the hottest startups around in late 1999. What makes them unusual is that they’re technologically based business, yet the founders come from marketing, strategy, or other non-technical fields. The technology is simply an infrastructure issue, but it’s a big one.

This paper outlines some of the basic concepts for aspiring web entrepreneurs: How does the web site design process work? What are the design and technology roles that need to be filled in a company? And how does the type of your business affect your technology needs? There’s also a resource or two for web design.

How does the web site design process work?

Five skill sets are needed to construct a web site. Sometimes you will have different people for each skill. Less common is finding one person with multiple skills. It’s almost impossible to find a single person who can do all phases of development. (Which is why a site designed by a one-man shop usually looks as if it were designed by a one-man shop.)

Graphic design: the look and feel.

The most visible part of the site design is the graphical look and feel. This includes the color choices, the graphics, logos, and shapes that appear on the screen, and the positioning of the design elements on the screen.

Graphic design is best done by someone trained in graphic design (or has a naturally good eye). Web sites designed by non-designers look that way. And they don’t look professional.

Graphic design is enough for producing great looking print media, but graphic design is not enough when you are building a web site.

User Interface design: the sequence of screens and controls.

Web sites, unlike print media, are interactive. A graphic designer can make the page look pretty, but they may be clueless when it comes to interface design. An interface is the set of controls, links, and buttons that a visitor to the site will use to navigate around the site.

Interface design is all about cuing the visitor how to use the site. Where on the screen will controls be? Where will menus go? How does your visitor know to click somewhere? For example, it would be an interface design question to decide that main menu choices are always visible along the left edge of the screen. And subchoices appear along the bottom. Interface design also includes deciding when to use buttons vs. checkboxes vs. type-in boxes, etc. to interact with the user.

Good UI design involves usability testing, as well. Usability testing tries to make sure that a site really is easy to use, often by having real customers experiment with the site while being watched by the team designing the site.

As a general rule, the only authority on a site’s usability is the your target population. The team that works on the site is far too close to it to know how intuitive it will be to a new visitor.

Information architecture: the path through the site.

While the interface design dictates navigation within a page, information architecture decides how a visitor will navigate around the site. Information architecture chooses the main menu choices—how many, and what they are. Information architecture design uses the business goals of the company along with usability considerations to decide how to divide content across the web site.

During an information architecture discussion, decisions would be made such as whether a site should be organized around constituents or functionality. For example, an information architect could propose the following different ways to organize a travel agency‘s web site. In each case, the site has the same functionality, but getting to the functionality would be a very different experience for the user:

  Organization 1 Organization 2
Business goals
  • Reduce staff phone time.
  • Encourage people to think about vacation packages.
  • Provide immediate, quick information.
  • Establish personal relationships with clients.
Main menu
  • Vacation packages
  • Business trips
  • Personal trips
  • Make reservations
  • Search for a flight
  • Contact an agent
How visitors contact agents

Three menu clicks:
1. vacation package
2. custom vacation
3. contact agent

One menu click:
1. contact an agent

HTML and programming: the clockworks inside

Once the site has been mapped out and the design finalized, the images and text that make up the design have to be created and put together into HTML (the computer markup language used to create web pages).

If the site is more than unchanging pages of text (“static pages”), then the programming and HTML writing is the site is made “active“ and able to do something more than be a color brochure.

System integration: connecting elsewhere

Often a web site may have to connect to other computers. System integration is the process of establishing the links between your web site and other systems, and making sure that the right data gets sent between the systems at the right time. For example, a web site that does catalog sales may take orders from the internet and enter those into the catalog‘s manual order entry and financial systems.

What are the roles that need to be filled?

The different web site design phases described above are typically done by different people. You can have one person perform more than one of the tasks, however. Or, you can skip tasks to bring your site to market more quickly.

Most one-person or very small web design houses provide mainly graphic design or programming expertise. If you use such a shop, make sure you think about the information architecture, usability, and interface design yourself. With very few exceptions, programmers make lousy interface designers—they aren’t very good at understanding how the rest of us think(1). And graphic designers, while they can create beautiful things, don’t always have a good sense for how a user will move through a site interactively.

You can hire a high-end web design shop such as Zefer, Viant, or Scient. These firms will do a business case analysis and create a site whole information architecture, user interface, and graphic design combine to support your business case. They will also charge as much for your twelve week web design project as it cost to launch the entire company. Of course, they‘ll have it done in twelve weeks, while bringing the expertise in-house will take much longer.

If you do choose in-house development, you will need the following roles filled. One person may fill multiple roles:

Artistic director
The artistic director controls the ultimate graphic design, “look and feel” of the site. An artistic director usually has a background in graphic design.
 
 
Graphic designer
The graphic designer actually creates the design for your pages. It‘s a good idea to make sure you use a graphic designer who is familiar with the constraints of the web. Online design has different requirements than paper design, thanks to considerations like download times and restricted color choice. (See the book The Non-Designer’s Web Book by Robin Williams for more details.)
 
User interface designer
A user interface designer may come from a training or design background. Make sure they understand what makes things easy to use, especially on the web. Ask them what they think of Jakob Nielsen and his AlertBox usability column. If they say “Jakob who?” be skeptical.
 
Information architect
User interface designers will often give a lot of thought to information architecture, as well. A background in writing or editing can be helpful for an information architect, since writing involves organizing information over several pages into a logical presentation sequence.
 
Programmer (Java, JavaScript, C++, etc.)
Whether you need a real “heavy-hitting” programming staff depends on the complexity of your project. If your site interfaces with many outside systems and requires a lot of customer programming, it will pay off to hire some really top notch programmers (and be prepared to pay top dollar for them; every web site builder in the world wants these people right now).
 
If your system has many links to outside databases and systems, look for someone with prior experience in systems integration. If the system will be largely self-contained, you probably want someone with database and programming expertise.
 
Database programmer
I’m not sure this is a separate position. But if you are doing heavy database work (millions of transactions a day), you will be using specialized, high-end databases. These databases often require specialized knowledge to set up and use. While most good programmers can eventually pick up the knowledge, having someone who has mastered them before can be helpful.
HTML coder
HTML coding is a junior job. The trick with HTML however is that it’s tough to get things to look right on all browsers. A layout that looks great on Netscape 4.6 might look horrible on Internet Explorer 5.0. Ask prospective HTML coders about what they do to make their layouts look good on all platforms. If you want to be really tricky, ask them why it’s a good idea to have no line breaks inside a <td> tag in Netscape. If they have an answer, it’s a good sign.
 
System administrator
A system administrator keeps your machines and internal network up and running. They do things like install software, help you when your machine mysteriously crashes, and set up your email system. By the time you have 15 people in your company, you will probably need a full-time system administrator.
 
A common mistake Internet startups make is to have their programmers serve as system administrators. In fact, the two have overlapping but distinct skill sets. And system administration is rather generic, while the building of your web site is unique to you. Get a separate system administrator. You will be glad you did.
System architect
This is the person who has the overarching technical vision for how all the pieces go together, programming wise. It is typically a single person, and usually a senior software engineer. It is rare in a startup to have a system architect who is not also writing code (though it certainly happens).
 
Project manager
Probably the least appreciated technical position is project manager. Hire someone who has run technology projects before, and can also understand the business goals and objectives. Hire someone who has the strength of will to say “Not until our next release cycle” to you when you rush in with a “must-have” feature at the last minute.
 
High tech projects are utterly notorious for being over budget and very late. Several books have been written about the subject and still no one listens, because managers generally don‘t want to accept that something as ephemeral as programming can take that much time. A good project manager will help you balance your optimistic goals with the reality needed to make sure you have a product to ship.
 
A good project manager will be able to tell you about “QA” (quality assurance), release management, where common pitfalls are in technology projects, and how to schedule a tech project.
(You may wish to read the Inc. Technology article on hiring technical people for your business.)

How does the type of your web site affect your technology needs?

The more complicated your web site, the more you will need sophisticated technical people. In increasing order of complexity, here are the kinds of site you might create.

Brochures. An online brochure is the simplest site to create. You will need good design talent, but the only technical talent you will need is an HTML coder.

Off the shelf shopping carts. A simple ordering system created with off-the-shelf software will require a programmer, but probably a junior programmer will suffice.

Your own application. If you’re doing something that involves custom development, you will almost certainly need a project manager and at least one good programmer. Even if you are outsourcing your development, don’t underestimate the need for a full-time person whose job it is to manage the project.

An application that integrates with legacy systems, or systems owned by other companies (your clients’ or partners’ systems). Applications with a high system integration component often require a full complement of technical talent: project manager, system architect, senior programmer, junior programmer, and HTML coder.

What are resources for web projects?

For web site usability, the best site on the Internet may well be Jakob Nielsen’s AlertBox site. It has more research-supported information about how to make your site usable than any other site around. Nielsen also has an article describing how you can do usability testing quickly and cheaply.

For graphic design, check out A List Apart, a site devoted to understanding graphic design on the web.

For usability testing, check out the company User Interface Engineering at www.uie.com.

For HTML tricks and tips, Dave Siegel’s web design page is a good one (though somewhat dated).

Good Luck!




(1)
If you’re a programmer, please don’t take offense. I was a programmer for 14 years, myself. I’ve met a couple good programmers / UI designers, but most of us are just too close to the programming to understand what truly is and isn’t easy for other people to use. return to text

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