Thursday, 29 September 2011

The changing world of 'Know your customer'

Knowing your customers used to be a marketing issue. The more you know and understand what your customers want the better you serve them, the happier they are and the more likely you get return business. In our iMedia sense we may need to apply this from two angles – understanding our clients, and understanding their customer base. You might, for example, indicate in the scoping phase of the project, that you can – for a cost – get market intelligence on their customer base to aid targeting them more effectively interactively. They may have this intelligence already and offer it to you if you ask. You would perhaps have needed the first set of information on your client prior to this when you were winning the project. (There are many companies that offer to find intelligence on customers such as Onesource)

But things have got more complex, of course. Now the waters are muddied by the Know your customer (KYC) legislation that has been out in place for anti-money laundering initiatives. You may need to consider this angle when implementing any project in the financial services sector. See the pwc article April 2011, for more on this.

But let's get back to the marketing sense of know your customer. This is good business sense and the basics are covered in a Business Link Guide.

Knowing your clients goes hand-in-hand with knowing your competition, since if they are offering more services for the same or less money, it is easy to see why your clients might migrate to them, especially in the present stringent financial climate. You'd better be sure of your own reputation/branding if you want to counter any client's comparison with cheaper services being offered, or take the hit. Again, the basics are outlined by Business Link.

So, do you know your clients' business well enough to define their needs? Do you know their customer bases well enough to proffer goods and services to them in a way that is visible to your clients? Do you keep an eye on your competitors so you are in tune with your own sector and what it is offering at what cost?

All these are necessary and yes, I know there are so many other things taking up your time too.

Friday, 23 September 2011

The commissioner perspective and website development problems

It's easy to criticise the clients from hell, but commissioners have many bad experiences with their developers too. Often, the criticisms over-lap as one blames the other about the mess they are in.

Lack of experience on both sides leads to confusion, bad definition of what is to be achieved, and delays from both. If either side is experienced then they are sensitised to risks so they can foresee what may happen and take early action to remedy the emerging problem. The clients still have the upper hand so experience within the clients is actually more important because they can initiate action far more easily than the developer.

Here's an article by skyje in January 2011 where he describes 12 Tips for Hiring and Working with your Web Design Company, and the second part about Working with your Web Design Company. In some of the points he emphasises the actions that the client needs to take such as having a good grasp of what they want from the website i.e. the specifications, not causing delays and being prompt with payments if the milestones are reached. That's the experience I was talking about.

Perhaps inexperience is evident in the plea from Dawer on the Graphic Design forum. He wants to know if he can get an upfront payment back from his developer now he has concerns about their work.

At the other end of the client-spend scale, earlier this month the politicalpress group despaired of the sums of money spent on the development of government websites. The figures should make your eyes smart unless you're one of 'those' companies developing them.

The premise is that the figures themselves point to an abuse of developer/client relationship. The expression taken for a ride comes to mind.

But instead of depressing you with such examples as the general news is so glum too, cheer yourselves up by looking at the self-proclaimed World's Worst Website and take heart that despite rooky relationships with your clients, you are doing some things right! Show it to your clients too!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Sticky fingers

I remember a story about the Disney EPCOT theme park in Florida (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow ... a dream of Walt's back in the 1960s) about touch screens. There were some interactive touch screens in the facility and they were popular with visitors. One interesting side effect was that every screen at EPCOT, whether interactive or not, was covered with smudgy fingerprints at the end of the day. What lodged in my mind about this is that touch screens and people go together.

OK, you are probably saying, surely it's gesture-based interfaces that are important now rather than touch screens, and they allow you to stand back. This is a fair point, and the Minority Report kind of remote swipe gesture approach, which now shows up in several TV drama strands such as CSI Miami and NCIS Las Vegas, certainly looks fun; but it lacks the precision of a touch screen and is more like throwing things around the room. There are situations where a big touch interface would seem ideal, such as 'you are here' location maps in museums and even cities.

If you've never seen this kind of thing, here's an example from 2008 ... although MIT was prototyping this kind of thing in the Put that There project in 1979. This is G-Speak from Oblong Industries.

Touch screens go back to the light pen interfaces of early computing. They could be easy to implement (you could even get one for the 8-bit BBC Micro in the 1980s) and easy to program. Detecting a finger touching a screen is more difficult. Early examples used infrared beams shooting across the screen from the surrounding bezel. What we now see relies on electronics detecting the presence of a finger on the display ... the so-called touch current ... using a conductive but transparent layer.

There's an interesting story on Wired UK at the moment, GeekDad's daughter reimagines interactive TV, where the writer's 16 month-old daughter really likes the touch interface on her (yes her) iPad. She's a fan of CBeebies In the Night Garden and one evening tried to drag a character from the iPad screen onto her bed ... and was frustrated when it didn't work.

Here's another telling quote
Our TV screen, fridge door and bathroom mirror are all testament to this, upon which her toddler-sized sticky-fingered smears (or should they be gestures?) give a real insight into the way in which these devices and appliances could instead be more intuitively manipulated.
In the metaphorical vehicle in which the family is driving towards the future of interactive technolgy, the kids are sitting in the back shouting 'Are we there yet?'.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Time, cost, quality variations in Project Management

The traditional project management mantra has related to the time, cost, quality triangle where the project manager controls these variables as well as possible according to the defined scope of the project. But there are variations as we've noted where quality can equal 'scope', 'cost' can be substituted by 'assets/resources' or an extra consideration of 'customer satisfaction' is added.

Are there other variations that have crept in now? Well, you may come across 'quality' being swapped for 'functionality' – that would make sense to us in the iMedia arena. See Spottydog's Project Management web site for more on this approach.

Then the Project Management Blog March 2011 expands the core 3 to 8! Scope, time, cost, quality, human resources, risk, procurement and communication. That certainly should make us think carefully as to whether we should expand our thinking.

Then, although a bit dated in our terms, as the paper is 2007, Roger Atkinson covers interesting ground in his plea for a re-assessment of what he calls the iron triangle to take account of other factors such as 'stakeholder benefits'.

So although the core terms may change the principles remain the same. A project manager will be held responsible for the successful outcome of a project not just in terms of delivering the project on time and within budget but also the satisfaction of the client and (for us particularly), the users. What terms does your company use? Do they cover all these aspects? It seems that we did in our last Managing Interactive Media book, and that the trends we projected still remain true.

Happy project management!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Are website gremlins ‘black swans’?

Well, no they aren’t strictly – but what are black swans? Now, this is an interesting project management concept from IT. Black swans in project management terms are catastrophic risks that happen rarely but when they do, they have dire consequences.

We have used IT project management concepts of risk management in the past as the closest to our field of developing iMedia. The classic risk management assessment asks you to assess the risks to your project, starting with the most frequent and important, so that you control these away in the course of the project by various means. But, black swans would appear low on the traditional assessment, if at all. They are low probability but high impact. They are rare in threatening the business and if and when they do occur, humans have tended to sorted them out onerously. However if the technical system is not designed to deal with them and people come to rely on the systems, it can be too late once someone recognises what is going on. Also, the consequences to the business can be compounded by other factors happening at the same time that have nothing to do with the software.

Take a good look at the BBC Technology article on Black Swans earlier this week, where Auto Windscreens is cited as having been the second largest company of its type in the UK but after trying to implement a new IT system, it went into administration in February.

We have the story and the bubble as salient lessons in our sector – hope you’re all old enough to know about those! The article centres on research from Oxford Uni investigating massive IT project budget over-runs and the causes. Perhaps we should be thinking black swans too? Upgrades (for example) can be a big problem for shared hosting, since updating a web or database server on a system where they are shared by hundreds of different web sites risks some of them being broken by the changes. Unfortunately this results in shared hosting continuing to run using out-of-date software, including missing out of security patches.

And the website gremlins? This is a common concept where small changes to a site can have radical and unforeseen consequences. We’re quite used to the idea that any change must be checked out thoroughly and that it can have unforeseen impacts. Most of us rely on systematic testing to check out any changes, I imagine. But where non-professionals are building and repairing sites often for themselves, these gremlins cause lots of angst and can affect business badly too. Here are some examples to bring a smile to your faces – unless you recognise some of the consequences!
  • P9 forum has a classic rant – a bit old, but amusing nevertheless (I like the boffinus notaclueii).
  • Cast Fireplaces saw a change in customer behaviour when their website developed gremlins.
  • Smart Telecom aren’t immune either as a rant on their Broadband Customer Support thread shows
Look out for ‘Black Swans’ now!