September 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

The Right Staff

Keynote’s Doug van Duyne tells how the right personnel with the right skills make a web site rise above the pack.

What makes great e-commerce sites great? Is it the best tech, the best design, the best ideas? It is all of these, but it is not just them. A missing element as many retailers develop their web strategies and analyze their successes and failures is the people who are behind the tech, design and ideas. What you and your team do to recognize issues and fix them will separate your business from your competition.

E-commerce is maturing now, and the problems faced by today`s site managers are the same ones faced by any industry as it matures: More people are starting to care about things like value, convenience, and ease of use over the novelty of the technology.

Getting the best team

But who comes up with the ideas, creates value, makes the site easier to use, and writes the software? I have spent years managing the development of e-commerce sites, as well as studying e-commerce customers and successful e-businesses and researching and writing The Design of Sites, and I have learned the two most important factors in managing successful e-commerce sites. Customer focus, solid technology, compelling design and an e-commerce site with a great business model all come as a result of bringing together the best team and organizing and managing the team to its fullest potential.

In an effort to grab online market share and not be left behind, companies often take short-cuts when building e-commerce sites-and that extends to building the team as well. It`s understandable. First, e-business managers are a new breed of manager who must be able to understand and manage marketing, design, software and business teams, usually one or two of which are new to them. In addition to having to learn new skills, site delivery schedules handed down from senior management are aggressive if not perennially over-optimistic. This puts pressure on e-business managers to put teams in place for expediency, tapping people with good intentions but without deep e-commerce experience. Most often managers pull people from graphic design, programming and management. Many companies have neglected the required roles of customer experience management, interaction design, information architecture and usability.

The kitchen analogy

Let me give an analogy that will clarify why you need specialists with real-world experience in all the required skill areas. Several years ago, my wife and I started a remodeling project. We brought in a carpenter/designer recommended by our real estate agent. Because we were new to home ownership, we didn`t understand the different skills involved with home building and remodeling. The real estate agent showed us her carpenter/designer`s work, which we liked, so we hired him to draft a design and lay out the scope of work.

When we showed his kitchen design to a true kitchen designer, she suggested changes that radically improved it. The cost of changing the kitchen design at that early stage saved thousands of dollars over changing the design after construction had begun. Hiring experts like the kitchen designer became an important lesson in our remodeling project. We found by employing experts in the distinct fields of architecture, kitchen design, interior design, lighting design, woodworking, cabinetry, marble, etc., we could remodel with a higher level of quality and implement a design that would serve us for many years.

Building a successful e-commerce site is a lot like remodeling a kitchen; there needs to be the right mix of skilled individuals participating in the project. You don`t need the experts on-board 100% of the time, just as you don`t need a full-time architect or a full-time plumber. For many e-commerce sites, you need experts only for different phases during construction. You incorporate the best practices in site design, which include researching, understanding customers` attitudes and behavior, building in enough time in the process to test designs with customers. And you do all that by bringing in the right team members for each role at the right time.

Keeping the balance

Once you`ve got your team in place, the next step is to give these experts enough power in balance with the rest of the team. This goes hand in hand with the first point. The key to managing a successful e-commerce site is to build balance between the groups in the team, where no single group has dominance over others and each contributes its expertise.

Too often I have seen companies that have effectively given engineering or marketing veto power over site decisions, only leading to problematic sites and unhappy customers. This is usually the result of a particular company orientation, either toward marketing, technology, or design. It is up to the e-business manager to understand power in the organization, and give each group in the team the power to make the right choice in balance with the other groups.

Quite often, a particular company organization imbalance leads to a particular kind of e-commerce site. Here are some examples of different kinds of organizational imbalances that can lead to site problems:

— Company-centered organization: Prevalent among Fortune 500 companies, a company-centered organization puts the needs and interests of the company over the customer, going so far as to affect the structure and content of the e-commerce site. These organizations fail to think about what customers need or want, and focus instead on how their own companies are organized, how they talk, and how they operate.

You have probably seen e-commerce sites that mirror corporate structures, where product categories are organized by company division, where each division has its own design, and groups give sparse information about products and services. For example, when a company uses jargon known only to those in the business, I consider it a company-centered organization.

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