Be just one click away with Skype

If you thought IM (Instant Messaging) was just for teens, think again. The worst thing you can do is slip off a client’s communication radar. So just how do you reconnect? Here’s how the power of Skype keeps you just one click away from your clients, and how that helps you do business better.

You’ve seen your kids chatting with their friends via MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and other than the fleeting thought that they might be inadvertently chatting with some weirdo your own age, you don’t give it too much thought. Thing is, your kids are running rings around you when it comes to staying in touch!

We humans love to communicate; our power of speech is testimony to that. Sadly, when it comes to business, we tend to erect barriers, limiting the scope of our communications to purely business topics, leaving the personal stuff to one side. Thing is, when we do that, we neglect a genuine opportunity to becomes friends with the very people paying us the money our businesses need to survive.

Sure, not all clients want a deeper relationship, certainly not one beyond the professional relationship you already have with them. But in addition to missing out on a more personal connection, we’re also just not there for them.

Where I come from, there’s an old adage: out of sight, out of mind. And this is also a truism in some respects. Think of the number of times you’ve hit a brick wall with something and you’re struggling to figure out what to do next. Wouldn’t it be better to have people on hand to give you the help you need?

That’s why I use Skype, so I’m always just a click away for my clients.

The power of Skype for businesses

Skype (or which ever IM software you’re most comfortable with) is sort of like having a mobile phone on your computer — you can make voice calls for free through your broadband connection, as well as sending text messages and files.

I use Skype as an adjunct to my email, when a client and myself are collaborating on a project, or just thrashing out ideas, and we need to be communicating in real time. Then, if we need to send something more formal, we use email.

I can’t tell you how many times a client has sent me a chat message on Skype about something they’re struggling with and I’ve been on hand to help them out, instantly. Sometimes, I’m helping them with things not core to what I do, but I either find a way to help them myself, or I connect them with someone else who does.

Every time you help out, you build on that ephemeral yet immensely valuable business currency called trust. You also demonstrate just how valuable you can be, which is not to be underestimated.

Don’t expect every client to take you up when you ask them to install Skype, or some other IM software. But the more that do, you’ll seldom be out of sight, or far from their minds.


Just what is a standard website anyway?

“So how do you charge for a standard website?” is a very common question, one which has no simple answer. Why? Because I’ve never developed two websites that are the same.

There’s no doubting the similarity of some, in terms of the number of web pages, or the type of pages, but because my involvement in any given project can vary, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to what I do.

Sometimes, I’m required to provide the design and artwork, whereas other times, that part of the project might have been done by another design agency.

Sometimes the copy (text) and the photography is supplied, whereas other times I’m required to assist in the copywriting and sourcing the photography.

There are parallels with the print world; no two brochures are the same. How many pages? What stock of paper? How many colours? Any special colours? Is the copy supplied? Is the photography supplied? How many prints do you want? The list goes on.

There are those that offer a one-size-fits-all approach. I don’t. Every company is different and thusly, their needs are different. The upshot is that I’m more expensive than some of my rivals. But it also means my clients get a better quality service, specific to their needs, not my own, or for the benefit of my own convenience.

Once we move away from corporate websites and into more specialized services, like websites that the client can manage themselves, such as a Content Management System (often referred to a CMS), or a web application, then things become even more specific.

But what does this mean for you and your business? Simple! Everything is taken into consideration and together we build a strategy that’s exactly the right fit for your business.


Why buzzwords, jargon and acronyms are business buzzkill

The web design industry is awash with buzzwords. For most businesses, buzzwords are a big turn off. Ask yourself this: why should any business care about CSS, mashups, XHTML, PHP, Ajax, flash mobbing, or the lamentable Web 2.0?

I think you know the answer to that one. For most businesses, the web and all its many attendant acronyms, jargon and buzzwords are complicated enough as it is — no business ever really wanted a website:

“No one who paid to have a website developed actually wanted a website; they want the web to help them promote their business. I’m going to help you promote your business on the web, make money over the web, and measure what you’re doing on the web.”

WYNIWYG (What You Need Is What You Get)

My job essentially involves me either fixing something someone else broke, or me making a better box of tricks. If something is broken, I’ll try and fix it the best way I can without it costing my client a small fortune. If that fails, I’ll make a better version. It’s that simple.

The only time I will mention any kind of industry jargon is when I absolutely have to and there’s no alternative. The vast majority of my clients really don’t care how I do what I do, so long as I do it cost effectively, efficiently and as quickly as possible.

All good business is about good communication; talking complex concepts through in simple analogies and terms. The moment technicalities creep into the conversation, the door is opened to fear, uncertainty and doubt.

“Is that going to be expensive?”

“That sounds really complicated!”

“But I thought you’d be handling that for me?”

These are the kind of questions and exclamations that need to be addressed head on.

Needs versus Features

If someone tries to convince you to have a really slick animation or video on the front page of your website, ask them how that benefits you and will all your visitors be able to see it, and if not, what will they see instead.

If someone tries to convince you to have your entire website redesigned, built using a load of technologies you’ve never heard of before, ask them how that benefits your visitors, yourself and your sales & marketing activities.

If someone tells you they can get you onto Google’s first search page, ask them how, when, with which web pages, for what keywords, are their methods ethical, for how much, and for how long.

Each of these scenarios have more wrong answers than right. Each scenario could easily cost you considerable sums of money with very little obvious return for your investment. Each scenario can easily involve you being sold a feature dressed up to look like a need.

Don’t get me wrong, slick animations and redesigned websites all have their place, but being blinded by buzzwords, jargon and features in needs’ clothing does not a business strategy maketh.


Adobe versus web usability and common sense

Adobe’s website is a good example of bad web usability. I discovered this for myself only last week. If you thought buying software from Adobe would be easy, you might want to think again.

Since buying their main rival Macromedia, Adobe have a huge collection of software for creative businesses like Octane. I represent their target audience, and as a web designer and developer, people like me have very high standards indeed. So we expect very high standards from Adobe.

The most profound genius is that borne of precise observation. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must have been only too aware of this as the attraction for his most famous yet personally disliked character Sherlock Holmes grew.

Sadly for Adobe, their website offers an exceptionally bad experience for people like me. Clearly demonstrating that the simple act of observing how people do things and then anticipating their next actions is neither art, science or practice for Adobe. Instead, they’ve made the purchasing experience as difficult as possible.

As big as Adobe are, I have to wonder how many sales they lose each week because of their appalling sales funnel. Only recently did a story emerge of a “$300 million button”, highlighting the perils of a bad shopping experience. Adobe’s problems are much more than a simple button fix — the entire purchasing experience is broken from the very beginning to the very end.

So you thought buying software from Adobe would be easy, right?

Because I’m from England, I use their .co.uk website, which then re-directs to their .com/uk/ address. Clearly we can see that the Adobe website is aware of where I’m visiting from, yes?

I’m interested in buying Adobe’s Creative Suite. Adobe’s home page seems neat enough, but this is a superficial appearance. The first thing I notice is that there’s no one Creative Suite, there are in fact four variations. So which Creative Suite is right for me?

the Adobe home page

And how do I decide? I clicked the: “Learn more” button, only to discover that there are actually six different Creative Suite collections; Design Premium, Design Standard, Web Premium, Web Standard, Production Premium and Master Collection. Rather surprisingly, this page doesn’t really offer any more information than the last.

I’m reminded of my first visit to the US back in 1996. During an eight week college exchange program to Northridge in Los Angeles, we paid a visit to a book store in Santa Monica. Downstairs was a cafe where people could sit and read through some of the books they’re considering buying, or the ones they’d just bought.

I decided to buy a coffee. And, not knowing any better I asked for a coffee. As the words tripped off my tongue, I saw behind the assistant a huge collection of coffee bean bags all sat in neat little square shelf boxes. I’m talking about hundreds of varieties of coffee. Needless to say, the assistant and I laughed.

Adobe, Microsoft: don’t make me think!

I now remember how I felt that day and someone must feel when trying to buy Microsoft Windows and discovering there isn’t just one version of Windows, but seven.

I’m being forced to make a decision about a product I clearly know very little about, and the paucity of information isn’t helping me make that decision. Sometimes, thinking isn’t automatically a good thing.

It’s at this point that I realize I have no idea what I need. Sure, I know what I want, but because of the different choices available to be, I don’t know what I need. Since simply asking (or rather looking) for a copy of Adobe’s Creative Suite is pointless, I click on the: “Suite selector” link, to try my luck elsewhere.

The first thing I see is a huge selection of check boxes. I feel my heart sink. Exactly what is: “cross-media design”? And what’s the difference between: “prepare digital images for print” and: “edit digital images”? Or the difference between: “import and organize images” and: “manage a pro photography workflow”?

choose an Adobe Creative Suite by activity

As my heart sinks, my head begins to spin. I don’t even attempt to choose from the check boxes and click on the second tab, to select by product. All I want is Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash. Alas, there is no Creative Suite that includes those three software packages. Instead, I’d have to choose Photoshop Extended, which forces me to choose the Premium and Master versions. I can see a correlation between Premium / Master and extremely expensive.

choose an Adobe Creative Suite by products

My heart sinks further. This isn’t any kind of choice, certainly not the kind of choice I expected to see from Adobe.

OK, let’s say for the sake of argument I was going to buy Adobe Creative Suite 4 Design Premium. I still don’t know what else is in this collection and I still don’t have a clue how much it’s likely to cost me. So I click the illustration of box .. and I click again, only to realize you can’t actually click on the graphic because it’s not a button. I have to click the: “See our recommendations” button below. Is this intuitive? No, it’s not.

The resulting page offers hardly any more information than the last. To learn more, I have to click again. It appears the Web Premium package looks about right, but I don’t want Fireworks, Acrobat or Dreamweaver. Sadly, I have no choice.

Adobe recommendations for the Creative Suite collection

Now I have three buttons to choose from: “Buy”, “Try” and: “Learn more”. I choose the former, because I still don’t know what this lot is going to cost. I’m taken to the Adobe Store, where I’m now being asked to choose which region I’m from. Why? Adobe already know I’m visiting from England.

the Adobe Store

Frustration creeps in. I click on the: “United Kingdom” option, which is right at the bottom of the page. I’m now taken to the Adobe Store proper. Where’s the Web Premium package? That’s right, the very package I chose to buy is not on the store page. Instead, the Adobe website just dumps me onto their main Adobe Store page.

I’m sure Steve Krug would be just thrilled to see his “Don’t make me think!” mantra being shot to pieces by a company like Adobe who really should know better.

At this point, I’ve totally lost patience with Adobe and decide it would be much easier to call their freephone 0800 number. Well, the idea was excellent, sadly for Adobe, their automated call handling system isn’t. After selecting an option, I’m transferred into the ether and the line goes dead. Thinking this might just be me, I try again. Dead. I call from my mobile phone. Dead.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had problems with Adobe. Back in April 2007, I discovered that Adobe Contribute is broken. Worse still, Adobe don’t care that Contribute is broken.

What was it I said about professionalism again?


What is a web application?

A web application is an application that runs on the web via a web browser like Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. You access a web application in exactly the same way you would a regular website; by typing a web address into the address bar of your web browser of choice.

Rather than discuss the wider aspects of more commercial high-end web applications from the likes of Microsoft, SAP or Seibel, I’ll instead concentrate on the general aspects and features, giving you a broader overview of what a web application is.

What’s the difference between web applications and desktop applications?

The most fundamental difference is that you won’t have to install a web application onto your computer — nor will you have to double-click an icon to start it!

There are several key differences between a web application and a desktop application:

  • As mentioned, you’re unlikely to install a web application onto your computer.
  • Because a web application exists (is hosted) on the web, you can access them from almost any location where you have access to an internet connection and a suitable web browser.
  • Most web applications allow for teams of people to work together, sharing the same data & information.
  • Software licenses are often more flexible than their desktop equivalents; modest “per seat” licenses or no license fees at all.

What are the advantages / benefits of a web application?

Certainly from a business perspective, having a web application written specifically for your business means you’re unlikely to be paying for features that you don’t want, as is often the case when you buy off-the-shelf application software like Microsoft Office, for example.

Assuming you’re having a web application developed for your business, the advantages / benefits of a web application are:

  • When you have a web application developed for your business, your needs are being addressed specifically.
  • By automating key business processes, you and your team can save valuable time.
  • Far greater work capacity, so you can commit to higher work volumes without increasing working time.
  • A web application should help towards reducing data errors, loss and duplication.
  • The potential for much higher efficiency across any / all business processes that have been automated by your web application.
  • A web application will free up valuable computer resources, allowing key staff to work remotely.
  • An increase in the accuracy of data entry and manipulation.
  • Measurable cost savings over time (greater ROI).

There are also a number of differences that can be considered disadvantages:

  • While web application software is now very sophisticated, certain standards that govern the way a web page is assembled and viewed by the web browser means there can be inconsistencies between the different web browsers, in some cases even leading to a web application simply not working at all.
  • Since web applications exist on the web, they may be vulnerable to attacks and exploits that could compromise sensitive commercial databases and customer details.
  • If your internet connection is faltering, or the host is experiencing issues, you may not have fast or complete access to your web application.

Some of these negative factors can be mitigated to some extent, but it is impossible to remove all of the issues completely.

Testing a website or web application

Any website or web application should undergo rigorous testing stages to ensure maximum compatibility with the web standards and the web browsers you anticipate are most likely to be used by your users.

Reducing security issues

When developing a web application, there are number of standard programming methods and guidelines that can significantly reduce the likelihood of a successful intrusion, possibly compromising sensitive data.

What’s a typical web application?

Almost any kind of desktop application can be turned into a web application (given enough storage space and bandwidth), with the addition of the advantages outlined previously.

Typically, web applications for SMEs (Small-to-Medium Sized Enterprises) would be:

  • Job ticketing, auditing, billing and invoicing.
  • A CMS (Content Management System), for managing web pages for a website, or a corporate network.
  • Selling products / services on-line (more often referred to as e-commerce).
  • Managing digital assets like video, audio and photography.
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems.
  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems.

How does a web application work?

The application itself exists on a web server, which is essentially a computer used specifically for hosting (or serving) web pages from websites, or in this instance web applications.

Unlike a website, there are no web pages as such (certainly not in same way as a website), although you will move from one web page to another, those web pages are often virtual, in the sense that they are created instantly for the purposes on a particular task.

A typical web application will:

  • Have a sign-in screen, with accounts for each user, each user in turn may (or may not) have different permissions to access different parts of the web application.
  • Because the principle function of most web applications is to manage data, it is common for the user to be entering data into form fields, or otherwise managing previously entered data.
  • Once the data has been processed in some way, then that data (or digital asset) is often exported out in some other fashion.
  • This manipulation of data may be in the form of reporting, data analysis, generating charts & graphs, or simply saving the data for use in Microsoft Excel, for example.
  • If it is a requirement that the data processing be shared amongst a team of people, it may be a requirement for there to be some form of reporting and annotation, so that each user can explain to or receive reports from other users, relating to their activities.
  • There may also be the need to send reports or other notifications via email from within the web application itself, to a client for approval, as an example.
  • In the vast majority of cases, a web application will save the most if not all of its data to database of some description.

Are web applications cost-effective?

In the short-term, a web application will most likely be an expensive commitment, both for the initial planning stage and the subsequent development of the application itself, but offering a superior ROI (Return On Investment) over the long-term.

Additionally, to ensure that the web application itself meets with the specific requirements of those who’re going to be using it most often, a commensurate commitment of time is required by those parties, to outline their needs in detail to the developer.

In conclusion

As the internet deepens its penetration into our personal and professional lives, permeating our living rooms and our offices, we demand ever more agile and flexible tools.

Also, being on the move is no longer the barrier it once was. With the help of mobile devices like the Apple iPhone, RIMs BlackBerry and other smart phones, we can work from almost anywhere, wirelessly in some cases.

However, all of this flexibility counts for very little if our business requirements are held hostage by inflexible software that doesn’t meet our specific needs.

In time, as the cost of mobile communications continues to fall, coupled with ever more inexpensive software development tools and hosting fees, web applications will become more and more common place in businesses of all sizes — businesses just like yours perhaps?

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