SURF THIS: With tech tasks, define success before measuring it

August 6, 2007

I had a boss once who was infamous for his adages, always having one of these nuggets immediately at the ready. True, he would occasionally misfire, tossing off a "let's throw it against the wall and see what sticks" when the situation may have clearly called for something more genteel like "run it up the flagpole and see who salutes." But most of the time, he was right on the money.

One of his favorites was the old "How do you eat an elephant?" question. The answer: "One bite at a time."

That's great advice for Web development. Often, when you stand near the opening salvo of a major site overhaul or new development, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. The simple statement "We need a new Web site" can be much more complicated to execute. But almost any task that appears daunting can be attacked from the elephant angle: Just break it into smaller pieces and take it bite by bite.

To do this, it's helpful to ask yourself key questions along the way: What is the overall goal of the site? How will success be measured? What is absolutely required for launch? What can be held until later?

These last two questions can require the most critical thinking. Too often, even after the project is fully broken down into manageable bites, there are features and functions included in the development plan that aren't necessary for success. Even more common, things get added to the task list while development is underway.

I was reminded of this recently while talking with new clients. They had been working with a company to develop a Web site for a startup business for more than 14 months and estimated that the job was about halfway finished. Not surprisingly, they were frustrated with the progress, but even more so considering how things looked for the future: more of the same, with no clear idea of when the job would be completed.

After a second meeting, some of the reasons for the delay became clear to me. Certainly the development company they had been working with was partly to blame, but they were surprised to know that I felt they were culpable as well. Here's why:

Web development is a different animal than most marketing or business processes. Sometimes it can be difficult to know when you're finished and even harder to realize when you've done enough. Businesses and their developers, while tasked with creating the best possible solution to a problem, often get buried in featurecreep. It often works like this:

The phone rings and the client says: "Hey, I just had an idea. Wouldn't it be great if we added the capability to [enter really cool idea here]?" The developer, not wanting to ever say no, instead says, "Yes, that's a terrific idea!" And so the parameters of the job expand, the timeline shifts, and the client burns another month of development time and money without truly realizing how or why.

A better response, from both parties, would be to evaluate the [really cool idea] in light of the overall affect it would have on the development, particularly with an eye toward a measurable return on investment. It might make more sense-especially in the case of a new business venture-to do just enough to get the site "finished" and launched and work on adding [really cool ideas] in subsequent phases.

Because of the nature of Web development, especially with ever-evolving emerging technology, this approach takes a great deal of discipline. But it is precisely due to the technology that it's vital. In the course of development, if you are constantly re-evaluating the strategy and development process in the light of emerging technology, you'll never reach a point where you can feel comfortable flipping the switch and turning it on. The shifting sands of technology would simply eliminate the sure footing necessary for launch.

Instead of letting technology be your guide, focus on the core strategic vision for the site and analyze exactly what needs to be done to begin achieving your stated, measurable successes. Then, after your initial launch is complete and the site is performing these tasks, you'll be free to evaluate any [really cool ideas] in the calm environment that comes from having reached one important milestone.

This will allow each idea to stand on its own merit, without affecting the overall development or hindering your core business strategies. Then you'll be truly free to "throw it against the wall and see what sticks."

Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.
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