May 10, 2013

It's a lucky thing that websites are not babies. Either that, or it’s a lucky thing I’m not a mother. By the time my websites are born, I hate them.

I am tired of the design. I see only flaws.  I realize all my paper prototyping and use-case modeling and beta testing failed to account for the 500 unanticipated ways in which our needs would change and our organization would evolve. Often, by the time we go live, I feel stupid: How could I have not thought of that? Why couldn’t I have seen that far ahead?

Sometimes I feel envious of industries in which you can be “done.” When you sell a pair of shoes, you don’t get to go back and change the lacing system. But when your offering is online, it must be continually updated: to fix bugs, improve the service, keep yourselves up to date. And since the Internet ages in dog years, those updates have to happen all the time.

Every tech start-up worth even half its salt knows this; it’s built into the lexicon, with phrases like “iterative development” and “permanent beta.” But those are tech start-ups. It’s their job to develop their websites. Non-tech companies and non-start-ups are likely to have a different mindset.

Imagine, if you will, a fictional 30-year-old company. Perhaps it is the shoe company we discussed just two paragraphs ago. It has been operating in three locations in downtown Milwaukee for over a generation. The founder heard about the World Wide Web in the mid-‘90s, and in the the early oeightiesventured in when he paid someone to create a simple digital rendering of the company’s real-world brochure. The website didn’t offer e-commerce, good digital designers were few and far between, and nobody really knew what they were doing, anyway. They “finished” building their website and put it online, where it sat, static.
Maybe seven or eight years later, the founder’s daughter convinced Dad that the website needed an upgrade. He let her do it. It’s an improvement on the old one, but still doesn’t represent a serious foray into the digital space. No matter -- it's “done,” and uploaded, and we don’t need to think about it again for another seven or eight years.

And now, just for a moment, shift your perspective to one probably much closer to your actual mindset. Imagine you are visiting a website and you see a date on it. It might be on a blog post, or in the body text, or in the footer. Imagine that this date is from two years ago, or four, or the full seven. How do you feel about the company?

There is a long tail of businesses around the globe that still don’t understand a website is fundamentally different from a brochure. We expect a website to be vibrant and current and entirely accurate, to include all the latest information and most recent releases. It can never be “done” the way a pair of shoes is done. It must be continually evolving, the way a window display is continually evolving: pausing briefly in a particular incarnation before reconfiguring itself anew.

These businesses need help. And we need to help them. Website designers and developers need to stop saying, “I’ll do your site,” and start saying, “I’ll handle your site.” Expectations need to be managed: “We recommend revisiting the design and functionality at least once a year.” Costs need to be realistic: “It’s important to include a line item in every budget for continual improvements to your website.”

My disgust with the websites I work on isn’t something to be ashamed of; it’s an evolutionary tactic. It saves me from growing too attached to any one of these incarnations. It keeps me focused on improvements and possibility. And it reminds me of this essential truth: When it comes to online presence, our work is never, in fact, “done.”

By Kaila Colbin
Kaila Colbin is a serial entrepreneur who is fascinated by all things Web and human.
Courtesy of MediaPost

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