April 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Think Ahead

10 steps every web retailer should take to prevent nasty surprises in a site redesign.

Lead Photo

Relaunch it and they will come.

Well, maybe.

As both small and large retailers start to feel the growing pains of a first generation e-commerce site that no longer supports their needs of scalability, interactivity, social media and mobile commerce, they face a complex maze of how to proceed toward a modern site that's content-rich, dynamic and user-friendlyÑand that engages customers in the way a merchant wants.

Here's a 10-step approach to make it through the maze:

Research and planning

1. Determine what your goals are and understand why they're important.

Do you want to improve your users' experience, conversions, site performance or operational productivity? Do you hope to increase agility when it comes to modifying your site's marketing and merchandising campaigns? Do you want to reduce total cost of ownership and drive down I.T., operations and development costs? Are there aspects of marketing and merchandising that should be automated? Take a holistic look at your business and its overarching objectives, then determine how a new or improved online store will fit into those objectives.

2. Define the scope.

Before deciding how a new site will operate with particular features and functions, you must first understand the entire scope of the project. It's good to go with manageable phases, and define the scope of each phase. For example, it's a good idea to shore up web server infrastructure and product databases to enable fast downloads of product images and descriptions before deploying a new content management system to provide more interactive and effective merchandising displays. Careful planning will also allow you to determine if, for example, a legacy system should be left alive for a period of time, structured so that it continues to handle certain functions as the new system phases are completed.

3. Define the business requirements.

Even with a redesign, don't make the mistake of not putting on paper what you require the entire new site to include in terms of features and functionality. Often, retailers will assume that, if they already have an application, such as site search or content management, it will meet the requirements they've set for the revised site. You still must document what you expect this redesigned site to include in every application. A site search and navigation system that's being carried over to a rebuilt site may have worked well in the past, but you need to spell out how you expect it to show product displays in conjunction with a new content management system.

4. Decide on build, buy or outsource.

You can design your own e-commerce platform, license a platform from a vendor or outsource the operation of the e-commerce platform to another company. Outline the strengths and weaknesses of each option. List all your desired functionality and note how each platform performs in each category. If buying an off-the-shelf product, determine what modifications will be needed for it to meet your business needs, such as handling more customer orders per hour or providing the kind of flexibility you want in changing product displays. If it falls short, are you willing to change your business processes to fit the new platform? What is the upfront and recurring costs to support maintenance and upgrades? Often, in order to meet the actual business goals, building a platform would be more cost-effective in the long run, even if costlier at first.

5. Before signing with a vendor, ask questions.

Every detail should be spelled out in a contract. Ask your chosen solution provider these questions to ensure you won't be paying out of pocket down the road:

  • What is included in the implementation bid and set-up fees?
  • What is included in monthly costs?
  • Will all my business requirements stated in the Business Requirement Document be met as part of the bid?
  • What is the performance projection for the new web site?
  • What is the contingency plan to scale the site in case of increased traffic?
  • What is the user flow of the new site?
  • How will I know if the site is successful?

6. Name the key stakeholders.

This is key to ensuring that you know who in your organization and at your vendor represents all areasÑboth functional and technical. You don't want any confusion there. At the very least, be sure to define the following.

  • Who represents each functional area?
  • Who has the ultimate sign-off? Who represents each technical area: database administration, network, application development?
  • who decides on and oversees any special integration areas or third-party tools?
  • Implementation

    7. Set phased milestones based upon scope and requirements, and set milestones and key checkpoints.

    The key to meeting timelines is your readiness. Can you develop the final site requirements, or are you looking for your vendor to do that? The latter may take more time. Find out how easy it will be to integrate with your back-end systems like accounting and inventory management or to provide the data files the e-commerce solution needs. For example, do you need integration with your fulfillment vendors or internal customer relationship management system? Integration is usually the part of the project that is most often scoped incorrectly. Create your own project plan and be realistic.

    8. Test, retest, test again.

    One advantage of a redesign is that you have existing systems in place that you can compare to the new ones you're building. Before implementation, it's important to get an initial idea of how you'll test the final application. If the legacy content management application can be run in parallel with a new one, for instance, you can compare the output of both of them. Depending upon the complexity of the system, determine thresholds such as how quickly you can modify merchandising displays, and compare the results of the new system against the old one. And, identify the person who has ultimate sign-off that the new system achieved the goals you set.

    9. Have a cut-over plan in place.

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