The melon cart at the side of the internet freeway

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MelonheadHere’s the scenario…you’re a business owner and in the last year or two you have spent a lot of money on your new eCommerce website so that you can sell your great products online. The problem you have now discovered is that nobody is actually stopping at your website to browse and purchase your great products. In real world terms it’s the equivalent of setting up a melon cart to sell melons at the side of the freeway and all those cars with potential customers in them whizzing by as they speed on to the next town.

So where did it all go wrong? When you hired a web developer to do your website for you did you know exactly what it was you were getting? How can you tell who will do the right job for your business when there is a danger you are being “blinded by science”. A lot of web developers will sell you on their own “featured” capabilities when you should be looking at whether their particular expertise is going to be of benefit to your own eCommerce capabilities.

Let’s look at the two sides for a minute. Firstly, from a web developer/consultant’s point of view, when we are assessing whether we are going to go into business with a new client we establish from the outset if the right “fit” is there, and not just from our side of things.

Amongst the questions we would ask might be:

  • Why should this project exist, and what problems are you trying to solve?
  • What are your business objectives and where would you like your business to be when this project is completed?
  • Can you give us a snapshot of where your business currently fits in with this sector?
  • Who are your customers?
  • Is this a new type of project for your company? Have you done it before?
  • Do you have budget? Is it ring fenced?
  • When do you want to start? What are your deadlines?
  • Are you the owner (main decision maker) of the project?
  • How did you hear about us?
  • Is our product actually right for you?
  • Are you talking to any other firms?

If it turns out that we don’t feel the “fit” is right on this particular occasion, then we would refer them on to someone else that we feel may be more suitable.

So, from your standpoint, if you are (or want to be) an eCommerce business person, when you are looking to ascertain whether a certain web developer/consultant is suitable for you, if you are not being asked questions similar to the above then you should be a little wary.

Looking at the broader picture, how do you know what type of web developer you need for your eCommerce business? In our experience, a lot of people think that all web developers are the same, that the only way you can usually differentiate them is by price and convenience. Let’s start by debunking that myth, and compare it to buying a car. Price and convenience may matter to some people, but if you are as serious about your driving experience as you are about the growth and success of your online business then you wouldn’t be just considering price and convenience with your car purchase. The difference between the various types of web developers is similar to the differences between the various types of cars, and if you choose the wrong type of developer then you can irrevocably undermine any chance of your online business succeeding.

So, how to choose?

For most eCommerce businesses; if your proposed development is small enough, you might consider hiring an individual developer. If that’s the case then what you want is a technical designer who has a really good understanding of graphic design. If your challenge is larger or more complex and you are hiring a team then (copywriters and specialist coders notwithstanding) these are the type of people you definitely want involved with the team. The UX expert (a User Interface designer). They should be able to design the information framework/user flow, which is basically the journey a customer will take through a website from initial arrival to the point where they complete their purchase. An example of this is the design of a functional sales funnel – the “ideal” process you intend your customers to experience as they go from Prospect to Lead to Customer to Repeat Buyer. The style of the website is completely irrelevant at this point, that all comes later on. It should make a lot more sense to have an effective information framework/user flow in place before your graphic designer comes along to dress it with branding, colour, typeface, photography etc.

We’ve noticed that in general there are two unfortunately common approaches to website development that often lead to unsatisfactory results.

  1. A Website Owner hires a graphic designer to design their website, who develops a beautiful set of design proofs which are then handed over to technicians to be built. This approach can work very well, especially in an information giving context, e.g. in a brochure-ware website, where no online sales take place. However, a lot of eCommerce website owners also take this approach, and in their case their website tends to resemble a really fine looking house built on foundations of sand. Very pretty to look at but won’t generate much sales.
  2. A Website Owner requires a website that is functional, that needs to actually do something. What they really need is a UX designer (a User Interface designer) to design the information framework/user flow. The UX designer would have the technical knowledge that would allow the website framework to be handed over to a builder, then a graphic designer and in some cases a copywriter to complete the job. However some business owners just hire a straightforward coding technical person who can build a website that doesn’t look great but at least it “works” from a technical viewpoint. It doesn’t have a user flow so invariably they then need to hire a UX designer to come in and work on the site after the technical side of things are done and even then they may need a graphic designer to finish it off.

Most peoples’ ambitions for their website is for it to be perceived as convenient, basically a sales channel that is a website. It doesn’t have a front door that needs to be locked at night, or restrictive opening times, or floors that need to be swept, and it’s perceived as an easy path to making sales. In theory, the whole world is your potential customer.

As many business owners don’t really understand the various website developing roles outlined above, many of them hire a website designer without the necessary skills because they are cheap and the phrase “you get what you pay for” can come back to haunt them further down the. Cheap “jobbing” website designers aren’t usually trained in either UX design or graphic design so what you end up with is a cheap looking and ineffective website. You are now the website owner with the melon cart at the side of the internet freeway when you could be developing a destination department store that people perceive as having an inherent value through ease of use and convenience.

An online store should really be more dynamic than peoples perception of what it is. People think that they don’t have to worry about a sales funnel. But if you think about how inefficiently websites can work – it’s generally accepted that 3% is a really good conversion rate – imagine if you were converting at 10%? To get to a figure like that you need to be really on your game, to be producing compelling brand messaging and making something that possesses a friction free sales environment. You won’t get that by making sure it is dominated visually by YOUR favourite colour, or by deciding that you want to talk about yourself rather than your products. It’s the difference between being user centric and not.

As the decision maker choosing which website designer to work with; one of the key things is to find somebody who takes the time to get a clear understanding of what YOUR products, YOUR customers and YOUR business are all about, someone who understands how to achieve YOUR business objectives. This should not be a “cookie-cutter” solution, but unfortunately many business owners are unaware of the depth of engagement with a business that a web designer needs to achieve to successfully develop an eCommerce website.

At the end of the day it’s just common sense. Cheap developers cannot engage with your business and spend the time getting to know your products and customers as they cannot survive in business if they do all that research. They depend on fast hassle free turnover of jobs. They want to put your project on the production line and fit it with as many off-the-shelf solutions as possible – whether they fit or not!

The quiet life of the melon seller who watches the world pass him by might suit some, but if you want to go places you need to move into the fast lane and compete.

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