Are Reliable Software Developers as Elusive as Bigfoot?

Are Reliable Software Developers as Elusive as Bigfoot?

No. But finding one can prove just as unattainable as a Sasquatch sighting unless you know the right questions to ask. But if you’re like most people who don’t know the techno-babble that most developers use, you probably just smile and nod like you understand the difference between CSS, html, jquery, and Ruby on Rails, and you don’t ask any questions. Don’t make this mistake.

If you’re wondering who Ruby is and why she’s hanging out on train tracks, it might be time to call for reinforcements…..

Just as you would bring along a trusted friend or relative to help you buy a car, reach out to your more tech-savvy friends and ask them what questions to ask your potential developer. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a tech genius waiting in the wings, then look into hiring a consultant that can help you in the early stages.

If you don’t know any Mark Zuckerberg wannabes, and you can’t afford a consultant…

Consider these 7 points when choosing a software developer:

# 1 Developers are not too smart to explain

You should always ask your developer what the technology stack is he will be using for your project and why he’s choosing it. Then, research that technology and make sure it’s a fit for your project. If he says it’s too complicated for you to understand, be very leary. He should be able to explain anything to you in layman’s terms. This is your project (and money) afterall. You have a right to full disclosure.

#2 All developers are not created equal

No developer is an expert at everything and some projects are infinitely more complicated than the next.  Websites are no longer just HTML and CSS. They have evolved to be complex applications that run on remote servers and APIs.  A good developer has spent years learning and perfecting good development practices, and most will have four-year degrees in Computer Science or a related field.

#3 You get what you pay for

What drew you to this developer to begin with? Is this a family friend that you are trying to help out by throwing him some business? Or is it a freelance developer with an unbeatable price?  If either of these is the case, you should do your due diligence in checking him out before you hire him. Ask for his resumé.

#4 A support team is essential

There are a lot of talented freelance developers out there that do great work, but software design is more than just coding.  There are tried and true practices that require a high level of communication and specialized roles such as Product Managers, Quality Assurance Techs, and User Experience Engineers just to name a few. The more support a developer has, the more he can concentrate on developing a great site without stretching himself thin.

#5 Communication and transparency are pivotal

Communication is important on any project, but it becomes critical for a difficult project where many issues and bugs arise. You want to make sure whomever you choose as your developer has a staff member dedicated to your project who can answer your questions and update you on your project. There should always be someone available to answer your questions on your project.

#6 A stringent quality assurance process is vital

This can not be stressed enough. Software testing is the cornerstone of every project.  Ultimately, the success of your project hinges on efficient deployment and testing of your product.  The software cycle depends heavily on efficient QA and testing for improvements to your product. This ensures your project stays on course when issues arise. And when issues do arise, a good developer is going to do everything it can to resolve the issue and make you happy.

#7 When the going gets tough……”this number is no longer in service”

Continuity is essential to the life of your product. Some freelance software developers are notorious for disappearing on you. As mentioned above, good developers want to keep you happy. Their reputation is everything. They will do good work and warrant it for the future. Some things to look for that identify a committed developer:

  1. Do they have an office?
  2. Do they have references.
  3. Are they insured?
  4. Do they warrant their work?

It is undisputed that a search feature is necessary for all online stores. The only question to ask yourself is which category of online store you fall in: stores utilizing their search feature for their customers’ benefit (and ultimately to boost sales) or online stores that are allowing it to sit under-utilized.

To Build a Sturdy House, You Need a Solid Foundation: Choosing an Ecommerce Platform

To Build a Sturdy House, You Need a Solid Foundation: Choosing an Ecommerce Platform

Every home builder knows that good construction starts with a solid foundation. The same holds true for building your online store. Your eCommerce software, or platform, is the hub of your online store.  It is an online manifestation of your business model, so it is important to understand what you are looking for before you start your search. Your eCommerce website is an investment, and like all good investments, it should be well thought-out.


 

 

Before choosing an eCommerce platform, you have to ask yourself three important questions that will put you in the best position to find a cost-effective eCommerce solution.

 


 

What functionality do I NEED?

This is the functionality that you must have in order to run your business. Essentially, if the platform does not have these functions, the software will not work for you.  You should have these ready for your web developer or software provider and let them know the lack of these is a total deal killer.

What functionality would I WANT ?

How much return can you get on your investment? Before dumping money into a product with many features that you may not need, you must make sure you have an idea of how many sales it will take to cover the added cost of that platform and how much the extra features are contributing to the excess cost.

What can I AFFORD?

Now that you have your list ready,  it is time to get a budget together. Your budget must cover the NEEDS for your platform. If reputable developers are telling you that it doesn’t, then you need to revisit your list of NEEDS.  If you have room to play with, then start adding WANTS to your project scope. Last thing to remember,  if you find someone whose quote sounds too good to be true, then it is.  “You get what you pay for” cannot be more true in web development.

There are essentially 3 categories of eCommerce platforms, known as Shopping Carts, available to choose from. It’s important that you know the differences between the three along with the costs and benefits of each so that you can make an informed decision about which to use when building your eCommerce store.


 

Hosted Shopping Carts

Pros: Low Upfront Cost, Low Barrier to Entry, Speed to Market, Automatic Software and Hardware Upgrades, Support

Cons:  Lack of Customization and Features, Higher Long-Term Cost and Monthly Fees

Recommended for:  Businesses with limited budget, time, and a generic business model.

Often referred to as SaaS(Software as a Service), hosted shopping cart software is an ecommerce platform that you essentially lease from your provider.  These, for the most part, are turnkey solutions that provide the easiest and most cost-effective way to get your products on the Web and up and running.  You pay the provider a monthly fee to host your store and maintain/update the software.   The software is hosted on the provider’s servers, and because their software is subscription based they often market to the largest common denominator to maximize their subscriber base.

 The benefit to this approach is that you do not have to worry about managing and upgrading the software and hardware and a lot of popular features already exist on the platform.  The big hosted ecommerce platforms are constantly updating their software and improving their platforms with new features.

There are two major disadvantages to a hosted ecommerce solution.  One, you generally pay more over the long-term, especially if you have a lot of products.  Two because of the largest common denominator approach the hosted platforms often spend their development budget on the most popular features making it difficult for this software to cater to specific need of individual businesses.

Also in most cases, you are unable to customize the software because the hosted solutions are maintained on the server of the provider, and web developers do not have access to the source code to customize the website; recently, this is becoming less of an issue as major hosted partners continue to add hundreds of third-party plugins that accomplish much of the customization you would need.  Examples of popular hosted eCommerce platforms are Big Commerce and Shopify.


Licensed Shopping Cart Software

Pros:  Lower Long Term Cost, Existing Platform and Features, Customization, Existing Plugins, Online Support Communities

Cons: Higher Upfront Cost, Lack of Phone Support, Manual Software Upgrades Often Required

Recommended For: Businesses with reasonable budget and moderate custom requirements

Licensed shopping cart software can range from very simple plugins to your existing CMS like WooCommerce to even more robust, customizable platforms like Presta Shop and Open Cart.   Licensed software can be free “open source” software or software that requires you to purchase a license that may need renewing yearly.  Because you have access to the source code of the platform licensing your shopping cart software allows you to modify your store’s shopping cart to meet your specific needs.  This may be simply modifying existing features or building out a complex integration with third-party solutions.  The cost of implementing licensed ecommerce software is usually more expensive on the front end, but you save the monthly fees of a hosted solution.  If you require detailed customization for your business model but lack the budget to build proprietary software from scratch then licensed software may be the only solution for you.

Licensed software usually requires the user to host his own software.  Depending upon a company’s needs, this hosting can be provided by a third-party hosting provider such as Rackspace or Inmotion hosting.  This ensures that all your data will be backed up properly in a secure location.


Fully Customized Demand-ware

Pro:  Top-to-Bottom Full Customization, Investment in Infrastructure

Cons: Development Cost, Support, Internal IT staff might be necessary

Recommended For:  Enterprise level companies with sufficient budget, companies with a niche business, custom database requirements, resource intensive database and hosting requirements .

Your company may have a specific business model that requires software that has a level of customization that cannot be achieved by merely modifying existing open source platforms.  For example, a website like http://www.timbuk2.com/customizer allows customers to customize back packs on an individual level, down to the last detail.  It would be impossible for an out-of-the-box software to specifically cater to that business model.  In cases like this, the user would need to develop a specific list of requirements that his software would need and work with a web developer to build a custom piece of software that automates his business model.

Hiking, Healthcare.gov, and Bad UX: A Case Study

Hiking, Healthcare.gov, and Bad UX: A Case Study

Designing a website with great usability is an intricate process and can be accomplished in many ways, but in its most basic form, a well-thought-out website boasting solid user experience should accomplish one thing.  It should provide clear direction that allows your user to navigate the website resulting in no “dead ends” or uninformed decisions.

Being an outdoorsy person who enjoys hiking, I like to relate the user experience to a trail map. An inaccurate map causes a hiker to lose confidence in its value very quickly. The same goes for a website.  With both a trail map and a website, you have to assume the user knows nothing and has never been there; therefore the two things you want to avoid are the user coming to a “dead end” or the user becoming lost and confused.

When I refer to a “dead end,” I am talking about a situation in which the user comes to a point on a website where he can’t accomplish the task he set out to do because the user interface is not giving him a clear option on how to navigate to the next step or, even worse, the next step does not even exist. More often than not this results in a user leaving your site or calling customer service, both of which cost you money and potentially, your customer’s happiness.

A dead end is bad, but even worse is when a user becomes lost and confused.  Go back to the hiking analogy. A lost and confused person on a trail, using an unreliable map, does not know if he is continuing down the right or wrong path and could eventually tire himself out to the point of exhaustion walking in circles. The same can happen on a website.

We don’t claim any political affiliation here at Xtra Mile Media, but we think one thing both sides of the aisle can agree on is that a poor user experience is frustrating at the least and very costly at the worst, especially when it comes to important issues like health care.

Case Study:  Healthcare.gov

Let’s take a look at healthcare.gov, a beautiful website with a clean appearance.  After spending just a little time on the website, you will begin to see that the UX was secondary to design when this website was being developed.  We will cite a case study or “user story” of a healthcare.gov user who wants to reset his password.

Problem:

Lost Password on Healthcare.gov

User Story:

User should easily be able to reset his password.

Analysis:

The User lost his password and was sent a password reset email.   The email had a link that redirected him to the website, where his goal, of course, is to reset his password. Sounds simple enough, right?  Well, you would think, but this objective obviously was not tested for optimal usability.

Step 1

He is asked to enter the answer to three security questions.

Step 2

He enters the three answers

Step 3

He enters his new password info.

Step 4

He is returned an error message that tells him 1 of 2 things could be wrong and gives him the option to return to the login page.   Time to start over.

Problem Solved:

No

User story accomplished:

No

Analysis :

First, he feels confused. Second, he is not confident that if he proceeds and spends additional time on this site that he might be able to solve his user problem. Does he want to keep heading down the wrong path and invest more time into this?  Probably not.   Most users will probably pick up the phone and call healthcare.gov, or they will leave the site.  Either option probably results in a frustrated and angry user.

What’s the main issue here? Healthcare.gov does not define a clear direction or solution to the user.  Instead, the error page gives him two different things that could be wrong:

    1. One or more of your three answers to your security questions could be wrong. (Once you return to the login page to start the process over again, you have very little additional information with which to solve the problem on the 2nd time around.)

2.  You didn’t provide a new password.

 

Start with option one: It’s a little more complicated than it seems because you could have one, two, or three of any combination of the answers wrong.  Let’s take a look at the possible combinations of answers: use w for wrong and r for right.

www, wwr, wrw, wrr, rww, rwr, rrw, rrr

That is 8 different combinations of possible right and wrong answers that you have to play a game of memory with until you get them right, each time navigating through the entire loop to get to the final screen telling you if you got them right or wrong.

Then there’s the second error message. It is just absolutely unclear.  If the user didn’t enter a new password (which he did), then why the heck is it even suggesting that he did? Plus, he clearly did because he had to enter one to progress to this step.

Solution:

The solution here is fairly simple and could be solved with a little bit of thought accompanied by a few extra lines of code from the developer.

On this screen, the user should immediately be told which questions are wrong and not allowed to proceed until they are right.

If there is a password issue, he should be told that issue on this screen

With a little bit of testing and these few tweaks, you have provided clear direction for the user and enhanced a beautifully designed website with a beautiful experience.

User Experience should always be the primary concern of your product design and development team.  Often, people get art and design confused. Exceptional design can be great art, but unlike art, good design must provide clarity and direction to the user.

Ignoring usability on your website could limit your beautifully-crafted work of art into being just that, a work of art.

SEEK & FIND: The Importance of a Search Feature on your online store

SEEK & FIND: The Importance of a Search Feature on your online store

Search feature

There  is no confirmed percentage, but most e-commerce experts will agree that customers browsing a particular online marketplace have a general idea of what they are looking for.  If it’s not a particular item, it’s in a definable realm of products.  The beauty of online shopping is that within moments of realizing that you want something, you can be browsing virtual shelves displaying the exact product you seek.  There’s no having to take a shower, or having to change clothes, or dealing with traffic, or parking, or annoying crowds.

If a customer enters your virtual store, then they most likely understand that you are carrying, or potentially may carry, the item they desire.  But how easily is it for them to find that item?  Is your site easy to navigate? Are your products placed in clear and concise categories? Can they find that velvet turtleneck within three or four clicks?  Of course they can. You did your due diligence, and you understand that to get that item in your customer’s cart, they have to find it first. Your practical and logical navigation features are simply perfect.  So we’re good there.

But not every customer browses online stores the same way. There are people that shop with a precise efficiency and determination. These shoppers take a different approach, and they know exactly what they want. They do their research, and they want to give you their money.  The only catch: they want to use the search tool, and if yours is hard to find or tucked away in a corner they will be a “gone pecan.”  (Southern phrase that translates to something having to do with leaving.)

All online stores should include a search feature.  The feature allows a customer to bypass the stroll down the aisles and go directly to the product or item they are seeking to find.  Your site needs the search tool just as I need my walkman playing Darius Rucker in order to fall asleep at night.  But how obvious is your search tool?  Is it placed in an obvious spot?  Are you using an icon that is easily recognizable?  Will it lead a customer to the right item?

The search feature can sometimes be an eyesore in an otherwise beautifully designed landing page.  Its mundane and common appearance gives it an unoriginal quality that just bothers you.  Too bad, this isn’t about you.  It’s about your customers, and customers will use it, so you have to have it.  An intelligent and creative designer can make it fit.  Regardless of your feelings about the search bar, consider the following three questions when incorporating it into your sight.

Consider the following 3 questions:

# 1 Is it in plain sight or can it be found within a second or two?

The search feature is an integral way for your customers to find the goods that fill up their carts.  This fact should make you drop any qualms you previously held against the “search.”  You should view the feature not as a hindrance but rather a feature as important as the navigation menus you’ve worked so hard on.  Placing it where it can be easily spotted near the top or close to your menu bar will ensure that the customers that intend to use this feature don’t click away because they can’t find it.

#2 Is there text already sitting in the search box?

Some search boxes already have a word or phrase sitting in the box.  The purpose I’m sure is to inform the page visitor that this is where they type what they are searching for.  Although useful, online shopping and surfing the web in general have now become routine activities for most of us.  Don’t waste your customers’ time by forcing them to erase pre-existing text in the search box.  Customers should be able to click in the box and begin typing immediately.  Having to delete words that they did not fill in is annoying, and although it’s trivial, in the big scheme of the shopping process, why allow yourself to be the one store behind the curve?  No major online marketplace does it, so why should you?  “So for now, for your customer’s sake, for your daughter’s sake,” (Chris Farley, Tommy Boy) you should avoid it.

#3 How can customers use your search feature?

This can quickly become a time consuming and drawn out process because it may require adding additional descriptions to your inventory. But because every sale matters, you’ll decide to do it. Some customers may search by SKU number, some by product descriptions, some by obscure references that don’t relate. How have you identified and tagged each product? You’ll want to be sure that no matter how a customer tries to search an item, it finds its way onto the search results. One of the best ways to handle this is to examine a competitor’s site and perform a search for a product using a variety of references. Then do the same to your site. What differences do you encounter? This will not only allow you to analyze a competitor but will also show you some better tags to use for your products or give you other additional ideas.

It is undisputed that a search feature is necessary for all online stores. The only question to ask yourself is which category of online store you fall in: stores utilizing their search feature for their customers’ benefit (and ultimately to boost sales) or online stores that are allowing it to sit under-utilized.

WRITING GOOD COPY

WRITING GOOD COPY

Write Good Copy, Don’t Copy Good Writing.

Originality isn’t something you can find in a Google search. It isn’t something that can be learned by reading Top Ten lists or 7 Habits of successful writers. Originality, in how it pertains to writing copy, comes from knowing every minute detail of your product and figuring out how to relay that information in a way that will make people just as excited about it as you are. It means writing in a way that is true to yourself, your brand, and your overall mission. It means understanding your customer and knowing how to talk to them. It does not mean stuffing a bunch of fluffy words into paragraph-long sentences just to cover more space on the page. And it most definitely doesn’t mean finding a really cool site and copying what you see. If you are trying to copy someone else’s originality, it will never sound as good as the original. It’s like buying the Honey O’s bag of cereal instead of Honey Nut Cheerios. They’ll always get too soggy in the milk, and your kids will hate you.

Copywriting on the web used to be mostly focused on stuffing as many keywords as possible into your writing without being detected by Google for keyword stuffing. The end result was writing that sounded like a jumbled mess. Today, with more sophisticated SEO and more savvy online shoppers, copy must be focused on building relationships with customers rather than tricking a search engine. It’s about building relationships and trust between your brand and your customers. You want your copy to convey your passion for your product so the company sees it through your eyes. If you have a passion for quilts made from ugly holiday sweaters, your copy needs to convey that to potential customers. You want people to read about your ugly sweater quilts, talk about them, share them on social media, and eventually buy them. It’s all about generating interest and buzz.

Kelton Reid, of Copyblogger, wrote a great guide to writing good copy. In it, he likens writing good copy to writing good advertising. He references the well-known ad man David Ogilvy, who said that good advertising should sell the product without drawing attention to itself. Kelton argues the exact same tenant applies to copywriting. The content doesn’t need to be flashy and stylish; it just needs to communicate to the customer and convey your message clearly.

Mr. Reid not only has great tips, but also references great writers throughout history from William Shakespeare to E.B. White. I encourage you to read his article in full, whether you are writing copy, writing essays for school, or just want to become a better writer, but here is a short summary (in my own words) of some of his points to give you a sneak peek.

Writing Good Copy

# 1 Make your Headline pop

It’s the first thing that draws attention to your work. If it sucks, you lose your audience from the start.

# 2 Don’t use cutesy spelling

It’s just as easy to write “tonight” as “tonite”. Don’t use short-hand or Twitter lingo in your copy. Save the OMGs LOLs WTFs and SMHs for texting.

# 3 Put down the thesaurus

Don’t try to incorporate big words just to have them in your copy. Write in ordinary language that clearly conveys your point.

# 4 Know your audience and put them first

The word “you” is very powerful. Use it.

# 5 Use clear & concise language.

Don’t add unnecessary words. Don’t make exaggerated claims. Use nouns and verbs, and keep the adjectives to a minimum.

# 6 Plan and Edit

This means using an outline or any other method to organize your thoughts. Once you write, revise, revise, revise. No one’s first draft is perfect. Don’t be afraid to edit and improve.