For An Effective Web Site, Keep The Goal Firm But The Tactics Flexible

In our last issue (In Web Site Development, Up Front Planning Leads To Time And Dollar Savings), we talked about the importance of having a clear vision for your web site in the form of a brief conceptual guide that outlines what it is you are trying to accomplish.

This week, in what may at first glance seem like a complete contradiction, I’m going to encourage you to avoid over planning. You see, there is a big difference between having a vision for where you want to go, and having a step-by-step plan for how you are going to get there.

Let’s say for example, that you wanted to drive from Boston to Florida. Better yet, avoid Florida. Let’s say you wanted to drive from Boston to California. The typical approach would be to map out a route ahead of time, and follow the directions until you reached California. Perfectly reasonable.

Another method would be to simply get in your car each morning, and head west. Every time there’s a directional decision to be made along the way, you go west. Granted it’s a little unusual, but I think you’d agree, not totally irrational.

Now here’s the key question: Under what circumstances would the second method for driving to California seem like a smarter approach?

(Think about it for a minute, no peeking)

Answer: When there are no maps, and there is no clear path.

In other words, the less that’s known about the route, the less important (or even possible) it is to have a step-by-step plan, and the more critical it becomes to be clear on what your goal is.

Can you imagine somebody 200 years ago trying to map out each and every turn of a trip from Boston to California? It would have been a waste of time, and the single most important piece of information needed for that journey would have been knowing that California was more or less west of Boston.

And so it is with building a web site. Effective web site building is an experiential, iterative process.

There is no way of knowing before the fact which aspects or sections of your web site will be helpful to visitors, confusing to visitors, valuable to visitors or valuable to your company. Some of the most (seemingly) trivial web site functionality may turn out to be among the most valuable, and some of the really innovative stuff may turn out to be a waste of time. You just can’t tell with any certainty.

Here’s a real life example. When I was working with MediaOne Road Runner, we discovered that feedback email — a non-revenue generating, labor intensive component of our web site — was suddenly very useful as a real time means for keeping a pulse on customer satisfaction. Our initial plan however, called for hiding a single feedback email button deep in the site, because it “generated expense, not revenue.” As we began to understand the value it created for us and our customers, we shifted both our site layout and our marketing focus to make it more prominent.

Bottom Line: Think of your web site as a process that adds value to your business, not as a thing you build once and walk away from. Like any process, it needs to evolve, and there’s a limit to how much fine tuning you can do until you get it up and running.

Remember, keep your goal in mind, get in your car, and keep heading west until you see the ocean!

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