PATHWAYS - Volume 8, Number 4 - Nov 1996

Focus: The Internet and Business

The Internet is a rapidly growing medium for businesses to conduct business communications, marketing, and public relations. The most popular Internet protocol is the World Wide Web. Virtually every major U.S. corporation has at least one site on the "Web." The uses to which enterprises have put websites are diverse, and new ones appear daily. The following table lists a few.

Typical Business Uses of the Internet

  • Corporate news bulletins, events calendars, corporate performance reports
  • E-mail, file transfer, teleconferencing
  • Financial securities sales and investments
  • Identification of new customers
  • Job competency testing
  • Library of intellectual assets
  • Mail order and direct marketing
  • Products/services advertising
  • Research questionnaires and polls
  • Security surveillance systems (using slow-scan video)
  • Staff briefings
  • Test administration, scoring, and recordkeeping
  • Training delivery and administration
  • Training and documentation distribution

In the At Issue section, we offer ideas on how to create the content for a website. We are purposely avoiding technical and configuration issues associated with a website; instead, we offer ideas for getting started right and provide tips for good website design.

John C. Wills, President

AT ISSUE: Creating an Effective Website

We'll assume, here, that you have heard a good deal about the Internet, have seen it for yourself, and are considering how you might use it within your own business. We'll further assume that you will be involved, in some capacity, in the creation of the content to be delivered via your organization's website.

The following graphic identifies the key stages your organization is likely to go through in developing a website. It also lists key steps for each stage. Each step is then described in more detail.

Stage 1: Get Started Right

Before you start creating a website for your organization, it is critical that you develop a strategic objective for the site that is agreed upon by all key players. This is the only way to avoid false starts and dissatisfaction with the end product. The following steps will help ensure success.

Step 1 - Determine Executive Sponsor Goals

We're defining "executive sponsor" here as a key executive who wants an Internet presence, has the authority to commit resources, and has influence with potential stakeholders across the organization. What is her/his broad goal for the site? To register a better presence than key competitors? To identify new markets? To create public goodwill for the organization?

Step 2 - Identify Stakeholders and Their Objectives

Identify people of influence in the organization who will be affected by the success of the website if the Executive Sponsor's goals are to be realized. These will almost certainly be key stakeholders. For instance, if the Executive Sponsor wants to increase market share, the VP of Sales (or a key representative such as a regional sales manager) is likely to be an important stakeholder.

In building your stakeholder team, you may also want to look for people in the organization who are already knowledgeable users of the Internet. They can help the team with the next step.

Step 3 - Learn All You Can About the Web

Experience what is possible by taking some time (one or two days is not excessive) to explore the Web. See how other organizations are using the facility. Look at your competitors' sites, but also look at business sites seemingly unrelated to your own business. Encourage other stakeholders in your organization to do the same. Share with each other the websites you find particularly interesting and appealing. Also note techniques that turn you off.

Be sure you understand basic website design principles. If possible, visit a few of the same sites using different browsers, computers, and platforms and notice the variations in what you see. The contents of the following box explain some of the critical basics that lead to these viewing differences.

Internet is Document-based/Viewer Controlled
The Web treats screen displays as scrollable documents, even if they contain graphics, audio, or video. Don't assume other viewers see the same layout, colors, typeface, or even amount per screen that you see on your browser.

  • Various browsers display the screen arrangement differently. A few early browsers, still in use, do not permit graphics display. Some early browsers center all graphics; others place them all flush-left.

  • The viewer has significant control over the appearance of screens. Most popular browsers permit the viewer to vary the type size and font, prescribe screen width, adjust viewable area, change font colors, etc.

  • In theory, the Internet is platform independent. In reality, a website is likely to appear somewhat different, depending on the platform. For example, unless carefully selected and tested, colors that work well on a PC platform may be dark and muddy on a Macintosh monitor (or vice versa).

Step 4 - Identify Potential Uses

In seeking possible uses of the Web that might benefit your organization, you may wish to refer back to the table in the Focus section to trigger some ideas, but don't let it limit your imagination. Every day, organizations find new ways to use the Web. Encourage the team to brainstorm first, then narrow its focus to no more than three potential applications.

Step 5 - Reach Consensus

Avoid the temptation to create a site that is all things to all people. Working with the other stakeholders, reach agreement regarding the one website purpose for your organization with the highest business potential, keeping in mind the Executive Sponsor's broad goals for the site. This is probably the single most critical task to accomplish before your team begins creating the website.

If it is absolutely necessary to accomplish more than one purpose, consider creating two small, discrete but interlinked sites, each dedicated to a specific purpose. This is far preferable to creating a single site so complex the viewer has to drill down through a maze of screens and menus.

Step 6 -Obtain Executive Sponsor Agreement

Present the team's ideas to the Executive Sponsor to gain acceptance. If possible, It can help to show her/him existing websites that have incorporated some of your ideas.

Stage 2: Create the Design

The purpose of Stage 2 is to design a partial website prototype that will demonstrate the navigational and design features of your site and help you test and sell them. Here are some tips for each step of the process.

Step 1 - Design the Navigational Structure

If you can accomplish your purpose with a single-level menu, that is ideal. Two menu levels are also easy for the viewers to track. But, if the viewer must navigate beyond three levels to reach a topic, your structure is probably too complex or you are trying to accomplish too much with a single site.

Be sure viewers have a means for recognizing what menu options they have already visited and which they have not. This can be done by changing the color of each option selected, graying it out, or by other visual alteration.

Step 2 - Build and Test a Prototype

You can build a skeleton website and put it on the Net for internal testing. The prototype may contain one complete section, such as the homepage, plus headings and dummy copy for other sections. This makes it easy for stakeholders, regardless of their location, to review the prototype and react to navigational and other design features. You will also probably want to include some sample graphic treatments. However, stakeholder reviewers should discourage those uninvolved from visiting the prototype site.

At minimum, test your prototype website on the two most popular platforms'-the PC and the Macintosh. You should also view it on a variety of the most popular browsers and a variety of monitors, including lap-top LCD displays and moderately-priced monitors, if you anticipate those will be used by the clients you wish to attract.

Once you have general agreement on the prototype design elements, you are ready for...

Stage 3: Build the Site

With your prototype, you are already well under way. You're design team will probably be accomplishing Steps 1 and 2 of this stage somewhat concurrently.

Step 1 - Create the Copy

If you plan to use existing organizational literature, assume from the outset that it will need to be restructured and rewritten. In rewrites, focus on what the viewer is likely to want from your site, not on mere facts about your organization. As much as possible, write as though answering viewer questions, not about your organization.

Many of the principles that result in good print design also apply to website design:

If you plan to use the website to distribute your organization's publications (white papers, newsletters, product data sheets, etc.) there are some special design considerations. Split up long documents the viewer is likely to want to print or download into meaningful sections. (Each section becomes a subfile.) Then the viewer has the option of printing the entire document or only certain sections.

Step 2 - Create and Insert Graphics, Audio, Video

World Wide Web users expect graphics. The Internet is viewed as a visual (and increasingly, audio and video) medium. Nevertheless, your message should drive graphics and media selection, not the other way around. Keep the following in mind:

Consider the platforms your intended audiences are likely to be using. The more "bells and whistles" you incorporate, the more potential clients you may lock out. There are more net users who do not have audio and video capability than users who do. Naturally, this will change over time, but you can also upgrade your website over time.

Step 3 -Test the Site

There are two diametrically opposed viewpoints with regard to testing and releasing websites to the public:

Your organization's business philosophy will dictate which strategy you use. Regardless, it is a good idea to ask a few outsiders whose judgement you trust (loyal clients, business associates in other organizations) to visit the site and give you constructive feedback.

Stage 4: Publicize Your Site

You can use search engine automation to "broadcast" your site, but traditional techniques often get faster results. (Some of the most popular search engines are Yahoo, Lycos, Magellan, and InfoSeek. There are literally dozens of others.)

Step 1 - Submit the Site to Selected Search Engine Companies

To help potential clients find your site, you need to understand how Internet search engines work. The classification algorithms search engines use vary, and each search engine"spider" uses different methods for identifying new websites. Check out search engine HELP pages to learn more about each one's specific methods.

Here are some general tips for ensuring clients are able to find your site when using search engines:

Step 2 - Use Focused Advertising

For fastest results, don't rely just on search engines. Promote your site in ads, newsletters, mailed announcements, and new/revised marketing literature.

Websites for Training and Documentation

Many organizations are experimenting with the Internet as an alternative way of delivering some of the training and documentation they now provide in more traditional ways.

Projects now exist to perform interactive testing, test scoring, and reporting. Some organizations now use the Internet's mail and file transfer capabilities to distribute courseware and maintain student enrollment/completion data. There are even attempts to provide Internet-based, interactive training, as well as other forms of distance learning. (Refer to the Volume 8, #2 issue of Pathways for more on the topic of distance learning.)

Organizations are also looking at the Net as a facility for distributing product documentation.

Concluding Comments

Creating an effective, useful website is a non-trivial task. If website design is peripheral to your areas of expertise, but you have been tasked with developing a website for your organization, you may want to consider seeking expert help.

Van O. Wright, Ph.D.

ęCopyright 1996 FLI, Incorporated
FLI, Incorporated authorizes you to copy documents published on the FLI, Incorporated World Wide Web site for use within your organization only. When you copy documents, in whole or in part, you agree that any copy you make (printed or electronic) shall contain an attribution of its source and retain all copyright and other proprietary notices contained therein. All other rights reserved.