Suggestions for Building a Successful Business Website

Per usual, I’ve been surfing the web. Here are some frustrations I have with some business sites:

  • Items Are Out of Date. Sometimes when browsing a site I will see information about events that have long since expired. This information is not pertinent, and tells the user that you don’t keep your information up to date. What does that say about your business? If you aren’t detail oriented in your website, how are you when it comes to making your products or fulfilling your services? It might also be harder to see upcoming events if there are bunch of past events in the way. I don’t care about the last six months of wine tastings, I care about the next three weeks.
  • Your site is missing information. Quick! I need your phone number! Wait, I’m driving to your office, but I forget your exact address. You’d be surprised how many times I have looked for the address of business and been unable to find on their website. Sometimes Google Maps will be able to help me, but not always. The most important and common questions should be the easiest to find. If you are a consumer facing business, you should have your address and phone number in the footer of every page on your site. You should also have a contact page, containing the same information.
  • You assume a level of interest/knowledge I don’t possess. You are most successful Fencing gym in the bay area when it comes to split match foil saber fighting. One problem, I’m new to fencing, and I just want to learn. I have no idea what split match foil saber fighting is (t’s made up for the purpose of this post). Yeah, it’s nice that you are the best at it, but what I really want to know is how to get started. What classes are appropriate for me? Your claim is a little like boasting, and not relevant to me. If you HAVE to use technical vocabulary put references to the terms so I can understand it. Along those lines:
  • Relevant information is hidden. When putting together your web site, spend some time considering the user classes that will visit your site. If you are looking for new business, listing your products and services and how people can buy them should be the first thing on your page. If you are creating a site for people that are already a part of your business, then maybe technical terms are okay. If you are trying to get both, optimize for new people coming to your business. Once people are convinced you are amazing, they will spend the time click another link to get to their content.
  • There are still pages under construction. One of my favorite companies is guilty of this. I swear by my Field Notes, but their website has a page called “The Sheet Team” which has been in a state of non-completion for as long as the site has been up. If the page isn’t ready, don’t post it. Don’t put in a place holder, don’t leave more clutter on the site. You might get one chance at your users’ attention, capitalize on it.

This isn’t the end all list to designing a business website, but is a list of some concerns I have with a lot of sites I visit. Even if you are successful with your website, you might be more successful by fixing the problems above. Remember, your competitors are always trying to improve, you should too. In this world where technology is only expanding, making sure your website is up to snuff is an important part of running a successful business.

Best Payment Form I’ve Seen

I purchased the MacHeist bundle today. If you’re not familiar with it, its a collection of Mac Apps that this group puts together and sells rediculously cheap. I spent 20 bucks, only for one app that I really wanted (Flow by Extend Mac).

Regardless, this post is not about that bundle. It’s about my checkout experience. It was amazing. Textbook UI for checkout. Here’s a screenshot of the payment section:

Lets talk about what they did right here. Firstly, they allow you to pick between Credit Card and Paypal. Note, they don’t make you select which type of credit card you are using. They only support Visa and Mastercard, and they can use the digits of the card to determine which you are using, so they don’t need you to provide that information.

Next two fields are standard, “Name on Card” is easy is enough to figure out and if you don’t you know where to find your credit card number, you’ve got bigger problems.

Next is the expiration date. Lets talk about what makes this field so great. Firstly, they list both the month number and the name. This is very clear. It shows you that you are talking about months and displays the context in relation to the month number. The key here is that they number is first. This means that if your browser supports it, you can start typing with the field selected and get straight to the month number. Also note how this field is a two digit number? Add clarity as the numbers will align in the pull down.

Next is the security code, they have a little credit card graphic to indicate where to find your code. Very helpful.

Next you move on to the address information. There is a clear separation between the Credit Card info and the address info. Breaking forms up makes them easier to parse. None of this information is overly hard, but large blocks of form fields can be intimidating.

All in all, this is the best online checkout experience I’ve had for some time.

Percentage of Mac Use by University of Virginia Students

Daring Fireball has a link to the a study of the computer statistics for the student body of the University of Virginia. You can find the article here. The most interesting chart for me is the last one about the number of Macintosh users versus Windows users. The table is interesting, but I would also like to see the percentage of user population, not just the hard numbers. So here is the same data put in percentage of user base using Mac OS and Windows.

Year Percentage Windows Percentage Mac Percentage Other
1997 92.51 6.60 0.89
1998 94.26 3.22 2.52
1999 94.96 3.51 1.53
2000 96.39 2.80 0.81
2001 96.24 2.85 0.91
2002 94.86 3.55 1.59
2003 95.68 4.03 2.90
2004 89.20 8.26 2.53
2005 86.38 12.97 0.65
2006 80.28 19.59 0.13
2007 73.05 26.66 0.29
2008 62.28 37.46 0.26

While the table is interesting its hard to really see the trends. The Bar charts at the original site are useful, but I found a line chart much more conclusive. It cleary shows the trend of macintosh percentage as it climbs. If you’re a fan of Windows, this might be a little disheartening as it very clearly demonstrates that while Macintosh use is on the rise, Windows use is on a significant downturn.

Windows and Mac Percentage at UVA

Facebook Is Losing It’s Fun

Today I decided to create a Facebook account as woodside’s cheerleading coach. The benefit of this account is that it keeps its distance from my personal Facebook network, but still allows me to create events and groups for Woodside cheerleading. Anyway, I wanted my name to “Coach Zack”. Facebook rejected the name. So I tried to create ‘Zachary “Coach” Cohen’, again, Facebook automatically rejected it.

Now I have been a big Facebook fan in the past, but of recent, I’m more dissapointed with them. I feel like they have started to remove the “fun” aspect of the application. Facebook used to be more about the network, and it is has turned into almost a twitter status message board. I’ve gone from checking Facebook twice a day, to checkign it once a week, if I get an email.

Please Facebook, bring the fun back.


Apple’s iLife is TOO Good

In an amazing post on Daring Fireball John Gruber quotes the technology directory for a public school in Massachusetts:

However, even iLife has its drawbacks in an educational setting. It simply hands so much to the students that they struggle with software (whether Windows, Linux, or even pro-level software on the Mac) that isn’t so brilliantly plug and play. Yes, iLife rocks in many ways, but the level of spoonfeeding it encourages actually makes me think twice about using it widely, especially at the high school level.

To which Gruber responds

So the problem with Apple’s iLife apps is that they’re too good, and kids never learn that they need to struggle with technical issues before using software to express themselves creatively.

I agree with Gruber. However, I don’t think we should limit the discussion to just creative Apps. Modern day software is built on complexity. A consultant at my company once said that if we made the software too easy to use, then the consultants would be out of work; our product wouldn’t sell because it would to be too easy to use. I don’t necessarily agree with the argument, but the fear is common, and not unique to my current company.

Would easier software put people out of work?

I don’t think so. I think it would change the focus. If we started designing our software with a greater attention to user experience, the access time could be spent on further improving that experience, instead of support calls. Apple’s iLife wasn’t easy to create. Each of the apps has had millions of reviews, UI meetings, discussions, arguments and refinements. This wondrous amount of work has lead to an incredibly intuitive suite of tools. It would be fantastic if we could switch our focus (as an industry), from simply providing more tools, to providing better tools. Perhaps than our software will “too easy” for them to teach in school.

How is Palm Going to Mess up the Palm Pre?

Palm has recently announced its first really new product in years, the Palm Pre. To be fair, the product is actually quite compelling. It runs a on its webOS, a cool new operating system that allows you to use a bunch of different applications at once.

[… the history …]

My father is a business guy. He has been in retail since before I was born. When I was a young child he carried around a Filofax with hundreds of business cards, This (almost) little booklet was my father’s life. He couldn’t survive without it. Wherever he went, the Filofax went. As technology improved my dad found the Palm. I believe his first Palm Pilot was a Palm III. Overnight he converted his Filofax to the Palm Pilot. As the years wore on I became a fan. I bought a Handspring Visor, and used it to keep my contacts organized, tried to keep a calendar, and maybe played the occasional game.

Then I got frustrated with Palm. They began to cease innovation. The Palm V, might have been the best palm over. Over the years we have heard rumors of a new Palm OS. One built on Linux, but the promises kept coming, without any products. The applications for the Palm became outdated. I moved away from the Palm, even trying the Sharp Zaurus, a Linux based PDA that promised easier development and a better product.

None of them really got me hooked. They were too big, too bulky, too much for me carry around on the average day. My PDA was a toy that I’d take with me if I felt like it.

Enter the mobile phone. Even before the Filofax my father had a cell phone. As technology got smaller, PDAs began to morph with mobile phones. There have been a bunch of operating systems for these phones: Palm OS, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Sony Erickson, etc. Finally I could get by with one device. The first phone that really allowed me to do this was my T-Mobile Sidekick. Yeah, it was big, but it wasn’t overly expensive and it allowed me to do everything I really wanted/needed to do, minus playing MP3s.

[… Back to the (almost) present …]

A few years ago Apple announced the iPhone, and the players in the market were pretty sure that Apple was not going to be a major player in the mobile phone space. Mostly, I refer to this Daring Fireball article. They were a little taken back with the amount of demand for the iPhone when it came it. Still, Apple kept very rigid control over the applications on the device, and many thought that Apple wouldn’t allow developers to mess with their device. Over time, Apple rolled out a development platform, and the App Store. Now there are thousands of additional applications for the iPhone and it the second most popular handset in the market.

Welcome to today. Palm is finally announcing their next OS, along with a new phone. The comical part for me is that the new Palm OS looks surprisingly similar to the iPhone OS, with gestures and other iPhone innovations. There are a couple of Palm innovations that look appealing:

  • Cards allow you to have multiple instances of the same Application running at the same time instead of “Save as Draft and come back later” mentality of the iPhone
  • Better integration with Facebook and other web partners, allowing you get personal photos from their partners
  • Multiple Calendar systems: Google Calendar and my personal calendar on one device, and allowing you to block out time in each

Despite the interesting features of the Pre, I still think it isn’t going to work. One of the lines in their introduction video is “We Developed the Pre for the developers” (paraphrased). See, I’m really excited about the Pre from a developers perspective. How many typical users have 3 different calendaring systems? How many professionals use Facebook for contact photos? The thing that Apple does well is design a product for the consumers. Remember, while developers might buy your phone, they aren’t going to develop just for other developers. The money is in the consumer market.

With all this in mind, I’m still excited to see what the Pre can deliver. I’m keeping my hope in check, because I’ve seen Palm falter in the past.

Yahoo’s Not Dead Yet: Start Wearing Purple

Yahoo! just launched a new advertising campaign, Start Wearing Purple. I have to admit that, while I’m not normally swayed by “go visit this web page” advertising, I was very eager to check it out, and I wasn’t disappointed. Its a flash based web page that talks about the color that has been with Yahoo since is original foundation. It talks about the story behind the company, why purple is so important and lists ton of facts, such as which star wars character’s light saber was purple.

This advertising campaign is a very interesting. It is effective because it is fun, simple, energetic and personal. If you check out the commercial it is full of people ordinary people (who I assume work for Yahoo) singing along to an energetic song. Its new and exciting. Other Ad campaigns like Apple, or the new Microsoft Ads, are either getting redudent or simply unenergetic.

Now I am an Apple fan, but even I will admit that running the same Ad campaign for 3 years doesn’t always work. The jokes are new, but the premise is the same, and honestly, I would like to see them change the format a bit.

Yahoos Ad seems fresh, and I think it is a good idea for a good campaign, with a simple premise: start wearing purple. Now, they aren’t saying that everyone wearing purple is a Yahoo person, but that Yahoo people wear purple. Purple is a very powerful color. In ancient times Purple was a sign of royalty or divinity, due to the fact that it was one of the most expensive dies to find. Now, by quirk of fate, Yahoo ended up with Purple walls instead of Gray walls (you can read about this at their site).

The nobility and history of the color aside, the premise for the campaign is simple. It doesn’t take too much effort to wear purple. Not everyone has a purple shirt, so it is somewhat unique. Obtaining a purple shirt isn’t overly difficult either. Again, the notion is simple. People respond to simple.

Yahoo’s problem is that they aren’t keeping with the simple mentality of their campaign. They are moving too quickly, and bundling too much unrelated marketing with the simple, yet wonderful premise of wearing purple. Along with the launch of the start wearing purple campaign, they have started working “Purple Pedals”, a project which follows the life of a bike by taking geo tagged images and uploading them to flickr. Interesting concept, but what exactly does it have to do with purple? The bike is purple? That’s not enough for me. The connection is too weak.

Yahoo, of recent, has not been producing the greatest technology. Their search has fallen behind Google; their ad program was trumped by Google; their groups, once popular, need a major UI uplift. I’m not ready to give up on Yahoo yet, they have one weapon. They are extremely good at acquiring companies with amazing products. HotJobs is by far the most easy to use job website out there. It’s not overly cluttered, the searches make sense. Usability is key on that site, which is good because people hunting for jobs are normally either pretty stressed or hunting on their free time. Flickr is another powerful product. It’s a simple app for sharing photos. I use it, many of my friends use it, and I tend to log in from time to time to see what my friends are shooting. These are both powerful products that were developed outside of Yahoo and then brought in.

Yahoo needs to recognize what makes these products great, and pass it on to their internal developers. Their CEO just stepped down, and there are continued rumors of a Microsoft buyout, but even in that event, Yahoo needs a better plan on how to unite their products, and make things work. Now, simplicity for users does not mean simplicity for developers. They have their work cut out for them, but if they can see the great talent in these external products, I see no reason they can’t apply to their internal products as well.

Sun Fishworks vs. Apple iPhone

I’m a big apple fan. Everyone knows that. What everyone might not know is that I’m also a Sun fan. When I was younger I worked for an ISP that used Sun boxes. I worked on a few of them in college. I’m not an expert on a Sun box, but I always liked the company and what they stood for, and had no complaints with the systems I used.

Sun has been having a hard time recently. Their stock isn’t doing too well, and they haven’t really released anything too significant or market changing. In a world that was once dominated by the Sun OS, companies like Google have come along and produced massive success using nothing but linux pizza box machines. Sun is in charge of Java, but I’m not sure how they are developing a large enough revenue stream to support their previous infrastructure.

Sun recently released Fishworks, a product designed to be an integrated hardware and software platform. They used this platform to develop an integrated network storage solution. This post explains how they went from the end product idea to the platform design, through product implementation.

I’m not fully aware of what exactly Fishworks is (Network storage isn’t my area of expertise at the moment), but I just thought it was interesting the difference in approach between Fishworks and the iPhone.

These products are completely different. One is a network storage device, the other is a piece of consumer electronics. There are some important similarities:

  • Both Are Major Engineering Projects
  • Both Are Championed By Computer Companies
  • Both Are Intended to Be Sold to Clients
  • Both Are Considered To, Potentially, Be the Future Of Their Company

Within these similarities it is interesting to note how Sun and Apple differ in their product design cycles. Sun releases a product with a bunch of back end architecture, they announce the product, and don’t keep the design a secret. They share a ton of the technical details, open up the design process for anyone to read on the Internet. It is evident that the focus of the product development cycle, that Sun is not just focused on the end product, but also very heavily on the path and technology used to get there.

Apple releases the iPhone, talks about the functionality, and maybe a very high level overview of how the phone is built, but they keep it simple. Only after it is released do they start to think about developers and extensions. Their primary focus is getting the phone right. In contrast to Sun’s focus, their focus is on the end user, not necessarily the path to get there. Their hesitation on developing an iPhone SDK might have somewhat hindered their initial sales.

This is not say that the iPhone is a better built product than the Fishworks machines. I wouldn’t know, I don’t have experience with Fishworks (or anything else in its product class, either). It is just interesting how different companies present their products and focus. I have several semi-random thoughts:

  1. Apple is growing into a new product space. In the recent past Apple has been mostly a consumer product manufacturer, making relatively the same line of products since its inception. The change from Apple Computer to Apple Inc. carries more than just a name change, but a more global product shift. In this new area, Apple is young, Sun is old. Maybe Sun has learned the lesson about the importance of the technology behind a product.
  2. Sun might be too focused on the technology and not enough on their end users. Sun has been spending much of its time working on products like Java and OpenOffice. These projects are important, they help proliferate the name of Sun Microsystems, but they are both open source. They don’t provided direct revenue for Sun. Perhaps Fishworks will be different, maybe it will follow the same path.
  3. There will always be a place in this world for new hardware design. When I graduated college I was convinced that the future would be software based. Hardware would become irrelevant and software would be where the real innovation would happen. Both of the products I’m talking about here are a marriage of fantastic hardware and great software. While the hardware that I used in college is dying, new hardware products are emerging.

Why I like the iPhone App Store Model

Much of the popular media these days is dubbing the iPhone App store and Apple’s process as:

After thinking about this for a couple of days, I think that the people writing these claims have some valid points, but I’m actually really in favor of the model Apple has set up with their store. I feel that many of these complaints aren’t actually with the process or the store, but really with the execution of the process.

The process that you must follow to develop for the iPhone is more demanding that most developers are used to. You have to come up with an idea, submit it to Apple, be approved, develop an application and then submit the application to be reviewed by Apple. During any point in this process Apple can choose to reject your application for any arbitrary reason.

Why would Apple require such a process?

Lets start with Apple’s brand image. In 1984, during the Superbowl, Apple introduced the Macintosh with a commercial that said “we are against complete control over, we are the company of rebels.” In an age where big companies were completely dominating the market, Apple was trying to change things up. That is what they did the Macintosh. The message presented in that commercial has resonated through the halls of Apple from that day to today. Joel Spolsky mentions this in his book: Smart & Gets Things Done.

The App Store for the iPhone go against this. They require developers to submit their designs and have them approved before they can start selling them to clients. Apple can look at the code, design or any other aspect of the application and decide to deny them the right to sell their App to the public. Apple is taking control over their device, the opposite message of their original premise with the Macintosh.

But the iPhone isn’t the Macintosh. The Macintosh is a computer that sits on your desk and does a bunch of computing, using custom applications and manipulating data in any way choose. You have the freedom to build your own Apps, customize the machine in any way you want to make it work better for you, with a small set of limitations from Apple.

  1. You buy Apple hardware to use Apple software
  2. Certain components of the operating system are protected from developer manipulation
  3. There is no 3rd rule

That is a large amount of freedom, but if your computer breaks, there is usually someone you call for assistance, either Apple, or the guys who made the software you are having a problem with.

The iPhone is a completely different product. Its a phone replacement. Phones are important, they allow us to communicate. Also the standard for using them is different than a computer. Computers have crashed since the day they were created. It is somewhat expected that the computer you are using will crash and you will have to restart it. You hope you remember to save every once in a while, so not too much of your data is lost (I’m saving this post right now), but crashing is a fact of computing. When was the last time your touch-tone phone crashed?

The expected level of performance for a phone is significantly higher. People use phones to call their family, or the hospital. The process of navigating a phone menu can be tedious and annoying if forced to do it several times. Now cell phones, loose reception, and that is something that a cell carrier has to worry about, but if a phone in the middle of an important phone call needs to restart, we have a concern.

When the team at Apple started to develop the iPhone, I’m nearly positive that one of their top priorities was reliability of the device. Apples goal was to build that phone. As the demand for the iPhone out stripped the supply when it was released, I’m pretty sure Apple itself was surprised by the success this phone made. When people started calling for the ability to produce software for the device, Apple had to rush to put something together. Their first answer was web page based. This solved the initial problem of letting people develop for the phone, but not the bigger issue. Developers wanted to put their Apps on the phone, use the phone information, like contact info, location, other pieces of info that weren’t available to web clients.

So Apple made the SDK, and started building out ways for developers to write software for the iPhone, but they still had to be concerned with the reliability of the device. Again, we can’t have this phone crashing because people install bad software. So, Apple created the process: You submit the App, we review it and test, and make sure it fits with our concerns and then we’ll let you sell it. Heck, we’ll even help you market it through our store. Reliability is now mediated by Apple itself.

Here’s where the problem gets sticky. How does Apple decide which Apps should be allowed through? It needs a process, with a team of people reviewing these Apps, making sure they are safe, and then notifying developers of this process. Okay, so that was one sentence, but it is actually a lot more complicated than that. Many eyes need to see his App before it gets approved or released. That is a ton of work on the part of Apple. This is where the breakdown happened.

My guess, and this is just a guess, is that the amount of people working on this project is: 1) not enough for the amount of apps coming through the door; and 2) too large for people to keep up on which other apps are being approved. That is why some apps that seem to be replicating functionality of other approved apps are rejected. Also, because there are so many Apps coming through the doors to this organization, I would guess that default choice is to reject the Apps for anything small, even has a way to reduce the amount of code the reviewers have look through.

The App Store is still young, though. My guess is that Apple is beginning to see the problem and starting to take steps to mitigate it. It won’t happen over night, and those of you expecting this are dreaming, but in time, I believe it will work out. In the mean time, I’ve a got a portable phone with a high reliability factor.