Waterfalls and the need for agility

Steall Waterfall
A classic waterfall can be made easier to navigate with a bit of agile thinking!

I was out walking at the weekend and the huge amount of rainfall on Saturday night resulted in some spectacular waterfalls on the Sunday, reminding me of a blog I’ve been meaning to write for a while now about my thoughts on the different types of project methodologies.

There are many methodologies for delivering projects, from the traditional Waterfall methodology to the increasingly common Agile approach. Even within these general categories there are specific approaches such as PRINCE 2, APM or SCRUM. There are many people who are firm advocates of one approach or the other, and amongst the project management world I have heard much debate about the pros and cons of each.

Before starting work with various organisations it is not usual for me to be asked about which approach I use, and I will often be advised as to the methodology that is in place at that organisation and which needs to be followed. Though I do believe a consistent approach should be employed across an organisation, or at least a programme of work, so that everybody is working the same way and can understand what is going on; I am not someone who believes that any particular methodology or approach should be employed rigidly within an organisation, nor that it should follow a text book example to the letter.

This may sound like I’m sitting on the fence but this is not the case, it is just that I prefer a more practical approach. I prefer to use a methodology that best suits the organisation, the project and the team who will be delivering it, and if it’s possible to do this within an existing framework then that would certainly be the approach I would recommend.

Never the less I find that in the Digital World there are a specific set of challenges that occur in project delivery which need flexibility and agility to be overcome, however if a purely agile project approach were to be followed then it may conflict with an organisations need for clarity on scope (what is being delivered), timescale (when it is being delivered) and cost.

A diagram of how a more agile waterfall might work
One way of making a classic waterfall more agile

For many organisations the idea of not having a signed off set of requirements, timescale and budget up front is not something that they can easily take on board. However the nature of delivering large scale digital projects does not lend itself well to a purely waterfall approach; a website is not a static entity in that the site is likely to be constantly changing throughout the project, even if this is just purely in terms of content, and these changes risk impacting the way that the end product looks and works if they are not considered frequently throughout the main delivery.

Increasingly, therefore, I am finding that a hybrid approach to delivering projects – where a more traditional waterfall methodology is combined with prototyping and iterative project delivery (a more agile methodology) – is the better way to balance the needs of the technology providers with the business owners.  This more agile waterfall model can take many forms but for me the key is in understanding the business requirements up front, alongside the costs and timescales which may be constraining factors, then working on the solution with all parties (designers, developers and the requestors) in a manner that ensures that if changes are required throughout the build they can be incorporated as early as possible with minimal impact on the overall objectives. By constantly reviewing the delivery with everyone there is less chance of surprises and less chance of the end delivery being unsatisfactory.

I’d be interested in your thoughts. Do you think the days of running a strict waterfall methodology for digital projects are over? Are you an advocate of an agile approach? Or do you too think that the answer lies between them both and will be different depending on the need of the organisation?

If you’d like to know more about reviewing your project methodologies, or need support with a digital project then contact Saja Ltd we’d love to help


When is a website broken and when is it the message that’s broken?

The other day I wrote a blog noting that one of the most common questions I’m asked is how much does it cost to build a website in which I tried to explain why this is also such a difficult question to answer, and why it may not be the question which organisations should be asking.

A marketing purchase decision funnel
Potential customers go through many stages before making a decision to use a service or buy a product, and being able to measure your effectiveness at each stage in reaching out to these customers will help you to serve them better.

Another concern which seems to come up quite alot is “I have a website but it is not doing me any good.” When I dig a bit further into what is meant by this it often turns out that though they have set up a website they are not seeing any increase in customers as a result.

Fixing this problem is as important as fixing a website that doesn’t load, or one that has issues with it’s appearance when it does load. If a website isn’t loading then the fact it’s broken is quite obvious, however when everything appears to be working fine technically but the site isn’t achieving what it was built to do then something else must be broken.

Here are some questions you can ask to see if you know whether your website is working for you:

  • Do you have analytics on your website to tell how many potential customers are visiting your site and do you know how to interpret the numbers you are getting?
  • Does your website have goals or objectives as to what you are trying to achieve with it? (ie is it trying to sell something, is it generating leads/contacts or are you providing an information service) and can you measure the success of these specific goals?
  • Do you understand the steps your customers go through before making a decision to use your service, and are you able to measure your impact at each of these stages?

Potential customers go through many stages before making a decision to use a service or buy a product, and by being able to measure your effectiveness at each stage in reaching out to these customers it will help you to serve them better.

There are many challenges with marketing online in ensuring you are effective at each of these stages but two of the most common issues are: high volumes of traffic but no increase in customers purchasing or contacting you, suggesting the visitors are not getting something they need; or low volumes of traffic, suggesting some extra digital marketing is required possibly from some Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) improvements. Both of these can be resolved by analysing the traffic to your website to highlight where the potential issues are and often they can be improved by making some fairly simple changes. However the most important thing is to understand what your objectives of your website are so that you can make sure these are being met.

By understanding what stages your customers go through, and by understanding your goals for interacting with your customers at each of these stages, you can then put in place ways to meet both you and your customers needs. Then by measuring your success at each stage you can start to make improvements based on your findings: a recipe for continued success!

Whether you’re an expert at looking at web statistics or not, sometimes if you are running a business it  can be difficult to take a step back and look at your customers’ journey in finding you. Often it can be helpful to have some support giving a fresh perspective, particularly in identifying ways to fix any issues with a site not being as effective as it can.

Whatever your reason, if you’d like support to analyse whether your website is working for you, or to help you to meet your website’s goals better, then get in touch – I’d love to help you be as successful as you can.

Building a website: Should you be asking what it costs or what it’s worth?

One of the most common questions I’m asked when I meet potential new clients or even when I just happen to mention what I do is: How much does it cost to build a website? This is normally followed by a statement such as “I don’t need a big site such a few pages” or “I’ve been quoted £3000 for a website, it seems a lot”.

Should you be asking about cost before value
Costing up a website can be bewildering so ask for skilled help

The fact that this is such a difficult question to answer but such a simple one to ask is no doubt the cause of many a headache of web development agencies all over the country. The fundamental challenge with the question lies not just with the ‘How Long is a piece of string’ nature of the question, but around the perception that creating a web page is easy because there are so many tools out there which provide templated solutions..  (I’ve blogged on the pros and cons of this before)… and to some extent, yes, it is easier than ever to build a website but this doesn’t mean it will add value to your organisation.

The harder question is how much is a good website worth to your organisation. A well designed website won’t just drive traffic but it will turn visitors into customers and generate sales and/or revenue for your organisation. A poorly designed website may have the opposite effect. The skill is not always in the building a site but in the thinking behind it and the bringing together of many talents to grow your business online.

Bob the Builder
Whether it’s Bob the Builder or your local plumber you expect to pay for qualified skilled tradesmen, building a website is no different

If you were to ask a plumber to fix a leaky pipe or sort out your boiler you would be paying a skilled tradesman for their time at a cost which could range from £30 per hour to £60 or more per hour depending on the job being done. e.g. a job requiring a CORGI qualified plumber is likely to cost more. It is very similar in the world of building a website.

To illustrate the costs of building a site a bit better let me give some ball park figures for the staff costs for a small site with no added gadgets or e-commerce functionality:

– a web designer can cost between £200-400 per day depending on experience (and location!), this equates roughly to a rate between £25 and £50 per hour. It can take anywhere between 1 day and a week to come up with and agree concepts for a small sized site (depending on the subject matter & complexity). Averaging this out a cost could be £800 – £1000

– This then needs to be built and depending on whether you want a site you can update yourself, and the level of analytics etc you want behind it, this could be between 1-3 days or more, but let’s say it’s just a simple site and £500

– You then need text, images and the site to be tested before you can even think about going live. Say another £100-£200.

Without even thinking about the cost of pulling the above work together, or non staff overheads you’ve spent approx £1500… and this doesn’t even look at the cost of items which would really add value to your site such as

  • user journey mapping.
  • a strategy to help you maximise value from your website.
  • content written by a professional copywriter.
  • cost of graphics tailored for your website.
  • functionality to encourage users to return or transact on your site such as blogs, e-commerce functionality, or discussion boards.
  • mobile compatibility
  • ongoing measurement & analysis of visitors using the site, and recommendations as to how to get more value.

All of these things take more time than that listed above, and all of a sudden spending £3000 on a well designed, functional website which you can keep up to date yourself and which will encourage people to do business with you seems like it might be cheap!

When businesses are struggling with recession, and start up organisations are struggling to find money to get off the ground I can understand that spending any money on building a website can be difficult. However, I would argue that it doesn’t matter how much or little you spend on your website if you don’t get value out of the end result; the first step is to ask what a website can do for you and then approach an expert to find out how to make sure that is what happens.

To get advice on how your website could be adding more value contact Saja Ltd

Is the increase in ‘DIY’ templated sites a downward spiral for user experience?

I had a call from a client last night who had encountered an issue with their website. Like many small business, or clubs & organisations, they set up and look after their own WordPress site; the sites don’t need a lot of technical knowledge to run and come with good user instructions for setting them up. In many cases this approach can be a great way for start ups to get themselves online simply and effectively, the CMS style interface is normally fit for purpose and to begin with they do not need anything more sophisticated, but periodically they encounter an issue which requires a little bit more technical support and this is often when I get a call.

For small businesses who don’t have in house IT or digital support, using a dedicated agency or support company to run their website can be expensive and isn’t always practical or cost effective. A fully supported digital solution may be something that they may aspire to in the future but often I speak to people who are just looking for help setting something up that they can run themselves. Supporting businesses who are looking for advice on how to set up their website, and providing support packages for small websites who are looking for sporadic pieces of technical advice to resolve issues such as those my client experienced yesterday is something I get a lot of satisfaction in providing. In these instances I know that I am making life easier for those that I’m working with, saving time and money for them, and often I can add value to the user experience of their digital presence at the same time or can work with the organisation towards their more long term strategic goals for digital users.

However a recent flux of adverts on the TV for the ‘build your own website’ solutions that come with hosting providers, has left me wondering whether or not a surge in small business websites being set up by non digital experts may have a detrimental effect on the over all user experiences online. I have been lucky enough to work with many digital experts in my career to date, some are experts at writing for the web, some at user experience and/or design, some at coding, some at digital marketing, but rarely do you find someone who is an expert at them all. I have always maintained that my skill is in a general understanding of these fields but also, most importantly, the ability and knowledge of the need to bring together the experts as required and help to co-ordinate their work. So, if lots of websites are being created using generic tools by people who are not considering the overall digital experience of their user, then will the experience be degraded in the future? Or is it possible that this area will become self policing and there will be a greater understanding everywhere of the importance of communicating effectively online?

As someone who still periodically encounters garish sites set up in old style HTML with unfriendly colours, bad spelling & grammar, and poor image choices, I can only support tools that help novice website builders create sites that are easier to use and more pleasing to the eye. This has to be good for small business and organisations who cannot always afford to pay for a site to be developed from scratch. However in my experience getting guidance from an expert with areas such as labelling, site structure and cross linking will more than pay for itself in terms of customer retention and value in the long term.

What do you think: are you encountering poor web design on a more frequent basis or do you think the increase in the number of templated sites is improving the overall user experience online?


Identifying your needs in an alien world….

One of the hardest things to work out when producing a brief, or telling someone your requirements, is being able to differentiate between what you want, what you need and not picking out a solution by mistake thinking it’s what you need.

If I were to put this into terms easier to understand, let us imagine an alien has landed on earth and his space ship is broken. He needs transport to travel around looking for parts to help fix his ship, but he doesn’t speak the language very well and doesn’t know what is available. (This is often surprisingly similar to how people feel when they first think about building a website!)
The first thing the alien sees go past is a horse and cart and so he thinks that he needs a horse and cart. This is not strictly true, he needs a vehicle and a horse and cart may meet his needs but if he wants to carry heavy parts a long distance then a van or a car & trailer may be better suited to the job. However because he doesn’t know there are alternatives to the horse and cart, and he has seen the horse and cart, then when trying to explain to someone what he needs he is likely to go and draw a picture of a horse and cart and say that is what he wants. This is a very common problem for all sorts of projects and can be the cause of many misunderstandings when suppliers are sought to build websites.

The trick to stopping this from happening is to break your list of requirements into a set of functions; and then checking you can answer yes or no to the question ‘does it do this?’ or ‘does it have this?’ for each function. Also try to ensure the function/question cannot be misinterpreted and is not ambiguous in anyway.

In our above scenario if the alien were to forget he saw the horse and cart and try thinking about the functions he needs his transport to fulfill, then the list of his requirements for transport could be:

  • economical to run
  • easy to load single handedly
  • able to carry large and heavy parts such as a spaceship exhaust (detailing where possible likely sizes, weights and shapes)
  • comfortable to sit in for someone of an alien shape and size
  • capable of transporting baby aliens safely
  • able to get fuel in remote places
  • possible to resell once he has finished and flies away home
  • low initial cost in Alien Currency

In this example it is important to say ‘comfortable to sit in for someone of an alien shape & size’ as it may be that in the opinion of a human that one vehicle is comfortable but for an alien with extra arms or legs they cannot squeeze them into the space! In the same way if you can set boundaries or a scale rather than only using a word like ‘heavy’ ‘large’ or ‘lots’ which can be interpreted in different ways then it is good to do so.

Another good way to check you haven’t accidentally put down a solution rather than a requirement is to see if your list can be read without someone asking ‘why do you want this?’. So for the requirement ‘easy to load single handedly’ it is clear that they need someone to load it single handedly. However if the requirement had been written as ‘needs a low access’ then it wouldn’t be clear why this was needed and it could be assumed that for some reason they needed a vehicle low to the ground when other solutions may meet the real core need (e.g. a lift, or a ramp)

Once the alien has created his list, if he were to take it to someone to help him out then they would be much better placed to do so as they will have more information about the sorts of things the vehicle needs to do. It may also be possible for the alien to prioritise the items in the list to help him and his advisors make a decision e.g. it may be that it is more important to have something that is easy to load than it is to be comfortable or the ability to carry large parts may be more important thus suggesting that a van with poor suspension would be better than a comfortable estate car of the same price. Prioritising the list will help ensure that the best overall solution is found.

space alien spaceship from clipartheaven.comThe digital world can be a very confusing place with new exciting technology appearing all the time. It is very easy for even the most experienced of digital users to get carried away with the buzz of this new technology and think that they really need this new tool or application to make their business run better. Sometimes this is the case, and sometimes even if you have a system in place it’s possible to take the most appropriate bits of a new technology and integrate or merge it with your existing systems to get their benefits. However the key to doing this successfully, whether you are enhancing an existing application or building something new from scratch, is to pinpoint exactly what it is that you want something to do and then use this information like a checklist for any new technology or solution provider you are looking at. This helps ensure that the work you are doing helps you achieve your goals in the best possible way, and will help keep you on the right track in a an often seemingly alien world.