Measure Twice and Build Once

In Uncategorized by tfwm

My carpenter Dad would understand this title. If you earn your livelihood by the hammer and saw, your creed is “measure twice and cut once.” This principle ensures the end product is a perfect fit with minimal effort, few mistakes and delivered within budget. It also speaks to more, however, than efficiency. This creed is the philosophy of a craftsman who takes pride in creating an attractive product that will serve well long into the future. I am a carpenter in the virtual world and I find this creed is equally applicable whether I’m building an Internet strategy or undertaking a Web construction project.

Your Finger & Your Right Foot
If you are considering a Web site, the most critical exercise to perform early in your planning is to identify your user groups. Accurately measuring your target audiences will dictate how you build each area of your site. Miscalculate a target audience and you’ve put your finger on the number one reason why half of all new dot-coms fail. Even if you build it right, visitors won’t automatically come, but knowing your audience is half the battle.

Whether you’re bringing an insurance agency, a non-profit wildlife advocacy or a church online, you want to start on the right foot. The smartest way to understand your audience is to draft simple user profiles on members, visitors and outreach targets. Identify which services would interest each type of user. How would each visitor prioritize your list of services? How does each holiday differ for them? Use these needs and preferences to continually guide content development, services, use of technologies, page design and even color selections.

When strategizing, a church has a particular advantage when it comes to understanding its audience because brick-and-mortar ministries are the same under click-and-mortar. Even if initial thinking excludes an outreach program because it wouldn’t translate well online, don’t dismiss the support you can provide to those peripherally affected (family and friends) or the opportunity to reach those who minister to those in need.

The Internet is about relationship building. Creating an online presence that fortifies offline missions will build lifetime value for visitors and, in turn, grow the enthusiasm and financial support to sustain it.

The next phase is planning how to extend your offline values and beliefs to your online ministry with the same warmth-of-community. What is it about your church that offers this warmth? Is it a new-comers welcoming focus or maybe a homeless ministry? You know your church’s strength, and the measure of your online success will be how well you communicate who you are, what you care about, and how well your message resonates with your users. Once you understand your audience as users, welcome them like visitors then embrace them as family. When you’ve completed this exercise, you will have a plan that will be integral to a relevant and thoughtful Web ministry. With this plan in place, your Internet venture will remain focused which is particularly important if your site maintenance rotates among volunteer Webmasters.

You Know Best, Don’t Forget it

Last spring I was teaching graphics for the Web to a group of creative and “connected” managers. When I asked what they wanted to learn and why, I was surprised most by answers to “why”. I discovered that, in instances where site development was being outsourced, the novice technical status of these key people seemed to negate all the other valuable talents they could contribute. Although these managers were at the heart of their mission and had uncanny insight into their churches or businesses, their confidence was shaken by foreign territory. The results were inappropriate service offerings, long timelines for changes, content that didn’t reflect core values, technology overpowering content (which should never happen) and frustration.

The tip I shared first that day was this: vendor relationships need to be a collaboration between experts with at least a 60/40 proposition favoring you, the client. Vendor services should always be in the background, catapulting your expertise. You will work hard to contribute your 60%, so don’t be afraid to ask questions, assert your opinions or dictate specific directions. Wherever you have the confidence to steer the right course, you will find a grateful audience.

Last spring I was teaching graphics for the Web to a group of creative and “connected” managers. When I asked what they wanted to learn and why, I was surprised most by answers to “why”. I discovered that, in instances where site development was being outsourced, the novice technical status of these key people seemed to negate all the other valuable talents they could contribute. Although these managers were at the heart of their mission and had uncanny insight into their churches or businesses, their confidence was shaken by foreign territory. The results were inappropriate service offerings, long timelines for changes, content that didn’t reflect core values, technology overpowering content (which should never happen) and frustration.

The tip I shared first that day was this: vendor relationships need to be a collaboration between experts with at least a 60/40 proposition favoring you, the client. Vendor services should always be in the background, catapulting your expertise. You will work hard to contribute your 60%, so don’t be afraid to ask questions, assert your opinions or dictate specific directions. Wherever you have the confidence to steer the right course, you will find a grateful audience.

Countdown On

Before you launch a site, you will need to find a host for it – an Internet service provider (ISP). Your ISP is your access to the Internet backbone (the super highway). There are several factors that will influence how easily a visitor accesses your site and ISPs play a critical part. The capacity of your ISP’s equipment will determine how many visitors can tour your site simultaneously and how fast. Selecting an ISP who offers a large pipeline to the backbone prevents peak traffic bottlenecks and crashes. A poor match between you and your ISP can reduce this helpful gatekeeper to a costly traffic troll. There are several good online resources to help you find a hosting candidate from dozens of ISPs; one is The ISP List (www.thelist.com). Sometimes, Internet traffic volume itself is the culprit for sluggish Internet access. If you feel adventurous, you can explore Internet traffic reports (www.internettrafficreport.com)

Build Once

Internet projects are similar to expanding a business into a new geographic market. In doing this, it is critical to gain an understanding of the target market’s culture. Chevrolet learned this hard lesson when marketing its ‘Nova’ in Mexico – in a glaring oversight, they didn’t realize they were trying to promote a car whose name translated to “No Go.” Site layout, links, fonts and color are all culture-specific and especially important considerations in your user profiles if your site is multi-cultural. Your overall goal is good online manners – appropriate Web site design with meaningful content. This mix will define how well you compete on the Internet – and every site is competing. Even a denominational site must compete for users’ time and attention.

Highlighter, Please

When you start plotting what-goes-where on your Web site floor plan, remember you will be speaking visually and the layout should reflect “lightness” in an information-intense environment. “Lightness” refers to the visual weight of text, graphics and white (negative) space on your pages. Negative space confers breathing space and people need a lot of breathing space. Another component to consider in your design development are choices. People like to make choices. Think about how crowded grocery shelves have become. Your Web site doesn’t need to have this kind of diversity, but choices are important.

Don’t let users get lost in a maze of pages, though. Keep users within 3 clicks of the “heart” of your site. And last, avoid static cling (page content that’s of more interest to you than your users) by providing real-time information and intuitive navigation. The Internet culture wants you to respect their willingness to visit by providing a good user experience. Start with your brochure story then shift your development from “what you want to say” to “what does our congregation wants to know”. In answering this, you begin to offer options such as:

• The latest legislative/lobbying actions

• Relevant global news

• Enhanced ministries (email request for Sunday pick up)

• Industry conferences/workshops

• Disaster volunteer response.

A little psychology can also improve the user experience you are creating. Simple insights into human perception can help a Web designer in determining page layout decisions such as when to use columns, bulleted lists or a table. There are six basic principles:

• Law of Succinctness: the tendency to see objects as having some perfect or simple shape because it is easier to remember. In the example, the polygon is more easily perceived as being a circle because our memory is associating it with an existing experience.

• Law of Proximity: the tendency to group objects that are close to each other. This rule is important to page design as it gives us an easy way to indicate that certain pieces of information belong together.

• Law of Experience: the tendency to match objects perceived to things we already know. This is why successful designs rely on easily recognized graphics.

The last three laws are:

• Law of Unity: the tendency of grouping objects that are closed shapes.

• Law of Equality: the tendency to group similar objects.

• Law of Continuity: the tendency to assume continuity in objects.

Now that you have the layout and graphics you love, will browsers play with your colors? Along comes a visitor who will access your Web page through their browser which has its own way of displaying millions of colors. How will you ensure your colors are displayed as true? The answer is a palette of 216 safe Web colors – colors displayed the same across all browsers. I won’t list these colors here, but you can visit my Web page to learn more about these colors (www.businesscolony.com/webcolors).

Susan is an insatiable traveler of both the virtual and real worlds. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee and took a year off in 1999 to pursue Internet studies in England and at the University of British Columbia. Mixing her artist’s eye with 15 years in the corporate arena, Susan has been bringing her talents to Internet strategies and Web design projects for six years. She currently works for United Methodist Communications, and may be reached at scrawford@mindspring.com or through her Web Site, The Business Colony (www.businesscolony.com).