10 Common Problems Web Developers Encounter

After spending a few years developing websites both big and small, certain patterns seem to have revealed themselves. Over time, you adapt to these issues and forget about them, but the reality is other people will encounter these problems in due course. For that reason, I thought a quick treatise of these common problems was called for.

Considering the same challenges crop up again and again for everyone in web development, it’s interesting to note that different people come up with different solutions to the same issue. The context often defines what an appropriate solution is, so what works for one business may not work for another. Obviously, I can only talk about strategies I myself have used, or ones suggested to me by my peers (nb. there may be other solutions I haven’t considered).

Without further delay, let’s have a look at some challenges, and more importantly, some solutions:

1. Content issues – this happens when a customer either takes too long to supply their content, or what they do supply is amateurish or lacklustre. The most common way I deal with this is to use some place-holder text, with the intent of having the client say “hey, that’s not my text”; this can prompt them to put in their correct content. Another trick is to use a questionnaire to illicit responses from the client. This can be used as the basis for writing rudimentary content (e.g. “what does your company do?”, “who are your customers?” etc). A technique I have used in the past is to turn off pages which are empty (e.g. client: “where’s my press releases page?”, developer: “the page hides itself if there is no text on it”). I recall reading an article some time back which suggested getting a copywriter involved from the start of the project. Having someone work closely with the client at an early stage is a good method for ensuring copy is ready prior to launch.

2. Delays in obtaining the company logo or graphics files – it’s pretty hard to start on a website when you don’t have the client’s logo. Often this is just a case of getting the client to contact their graphic designer to get you the files you need. This isn’t a major issue, but it can cause a small delay which is unnecessary. All you have to do is give the client forewarning that this material is required. This is why one of the questions I have on my Needs Analysis form is “is your logo & branding material ready?”

3. Vague feedback and indecisiveness – this is a situation which can result in not only delays, but rework which isn’t billed for. This really boils down to ineffective communication. A classic example of vague feedback is “I don’t like the design” (a more helpful version would be something like “the design doesn’t communicate the fun and relaxed nature of our company”). The evil brother of vague feedback is indecisiveness, or when a client is unwilling to make a firm decision on how something should be. With vague feedback, patients is the remedy. Some would say it’s a matter of ‘educating the client’, I find that term to be somewhat condescending. If I get feedback like “I don’t like the design”, I would respond with “what in particular don’t you like?” or “can you be a bit more specific, I need more detail in order to get your design right” (the response depends on the client’s personality, understanding the DISC model helps). In the case of indecisiveness, if it’s related to a feature, I will make it an option in the admin module (e.g. an option to show a group of company logos horizontally or vertically). With this approach, the client can set it whichever way they want.

4. Scope creep – the bane of a developer’s existence. This topic alone could span many pages, however I will try keep it simple. Scope creep occurs when a client asks for features which weren’t originally agreed upon. This can be problematic as it can cause delivery dates to shift and displace other work, it can introduce new bugs in established features, and impact on momentum. Some people take a hard line on this matter, suggesting that you should just say ‘No’ to the client. I have a personal philosophy which goes like this “there is no such thing as no, it’s yes – and this is how much it’s going to cost”. At the end of the day, it’s about business, if a client is willing to pay for the work, it’s simply a matter of project management and version control. One technique I use when developing large web applications is to group features together into a ‘mini-spec’. These features would be added to the system after launch and thus constitute a point upgrade (i.e. v1 ;rarr; v1.1). A good suggestion I have also seen is to create a cost-to-benefit spreadsheet in consultation with the client, that way they can prioritize and understand added costs.

5. Undescriptive bug reports – client: “the system crashed” or “the system is buggy”, developer (thinking to himself): “gee, thanks for all the information”. Explaining to a person that a bug can’t be fixed unless they give more detail usually solves this problem. When logging a bug, it’s essential that the person says where the bug occurred, and gives step-by-step instructions on what they did when the bug appeared. If a client knows how to take screenshots and annotate them, even better.

6. Deposits, pricing and payment problems – not taking a deposit when working with a new client is unprofessional and exposes you to unnecessary risk. However, deposits aren’t as much of an issue when dealing with long standing clients. Having a good pricing structure for small projects is also important (e.g. projects under $5,000). A good general structure is 20% deposit, 70% milestone payment when most of the work is done, and the final 10% when the client signs off. The 10% final payment is very helpful in situations where a project stalls for whatever reason. There is also the issue of clients saying “but another developer said they could do it cheaper”. In such a situation, you need to demonstrate the value you bring to the table above and beyond your competitors (e.g. quicker development time, face-to-face meetings as often as required, etc). Another major problem is clients that don’t pay their bills on time. The majority of clients are reasonable business people and will respond positively to a courteous reminder, for example: “hi Tom, just a friendly reminder, have you had a chance to pay the last invoice I sent? It was due one week ago. I would appreciate if you could pay this invoice as soon as possible. Let me know if you need to discuss it. Thank you” – will there still be people that attempt to take advantage of you? Of course, but you’d be surprised how far good manners will get you in the business world.

7. Project malaise and uncommitted stake-holders – this can bring a project to a grinding holt, quite literally. It occurs when a client loses interest in their own project or decides to focus their energies elsewhere (usually on more pressing areas of their business). There may be times when this is understandable, for instance if a client is about to launch a new product or needs to spend time on ‘disaster recovery’. I don’t have a sure-fire solution for this problem, other then being proactive (e.g. get on the phone, communicate). If you have the time and inclination, you can take onboard tasks which were originally assigned to the client (e.g. communicating with the graphic designer directly to get graphics files). That said, you have to be careful not to pressure the client too much, this can actually cause something of a backlash. At the end of the day, it’s up to the client if they want to stall their project. If you have a good payment structure in place, you won’t be unfairly penalized for the delay in project progress.

8. Dealing with third parties or vendors – adding a third party to the project introduces risk because your power to influence outcomes diminishes. Not only has an additional communication channel been added, but so have potential bottlenecks. Take for example a fully-fledged ecommerce enabled website. Here we have three additional third parties which need to be dealt with during the course of the project:
1) the client’s bank has to be consulted with to setup an Internet Merchant Account,
2) a SSL provider has to be contacted to setup a certificate to allow for secure shopping, and
3) a credit card gateway provider has to be involved to provide credit card clearing facilities.

There’s a lot of potential for hold-ups there. The best answer for dealing with third parties is to get in early; arrange things which you have less control over towards the start of the project, before they are needed.

9. Best practice advice being ignored – for some people no amount of logic or statistics will satisfy them, they just want it their way (e.g. “there doesn’t need to be a home page” or “i want scrolling red text at the top of my page”). In situations where the request flies in the face of best practice standards, I say the following and then get on with the work: “my professional recommendation is… but it’s up to you how you would like it”. I am a firm believer that the customer is always right. That includes them having the right to make choices which diminish the effectiveness of their product. Some developers have a hard time ‘doing the wrong thing’ on a client’s project, but if it isn’t immoral or unethical – get over it.

10. “I want something like Facebook, how much?” – this is an all too common request, any developer worth his salt will have the warning bells go off early when they hear something like this. It may not be Facebook or Amazon which they want cloned, it can be any leading website with majority market share. The other tell-tale sign is a ridiculously low budget. Many developers will outright turn down these kinds of projects as they see it as a waste of their time (nb. the client may be ‘fishing’ for free system analysis consultation). Answering the ‘how much’ question can be dealt with by providing a ball-park estimate with a wide variance, for example: “the project could cost between $10,000 and $20,000, I can only provide you with a fixed price once a specification is written”. This brings us to another important strategy to weed out the time wasters. Have the client pay for the creation of a functional specification before agreeing on the final cost of the project.

I would have liked to cover some of these points in more detail, but this article is really meant as a brief treatment of commonly encountered problems. There have also been many other important items left off the list, so don’t be surprised if you see a sequel to this article in future.

Special thanks goes to the people of Stack Overflow forum for their valuable input.

Small Business Web Development

Small business web development is something which unfortunately even to this day is rarely understood. There are two main schools of thought which surround it – those small business owners who look for the designer who has created the most attractive and professional websites in the past and those who want a website to get results.

I would suggest that as a small business owner you should be looking for a web developer who possesses the second skill. I don’t necessarily mean to find a developer who makes *ugly* sites, but it is important that you consider how you are going to benefit from your website before you start building it.

In other words you need ot start with the end in mind. Too many small business owners and web developers themselves focus firstly on making an attractive website with a real “wow” factor. Then they sit down to try and figure out how to market it effectively so that you actually get the end result you’re looking for – more customers or clients for your business without having to spend an arm and a leg to get them.

As I’m sure you can imagine, not only is this backwards but can also lead to frustration. So for best results, start out with the end in mind.

You need to find a professional in the realm of small business web development who specializes in building websites that get results – rather than just look nice. Find someone who knows how to design a site so that it will draw potential customers from the search engines each day and it won’t be too long before you start to notice some significant improvements in your profits as a result.

Web Development De-Mystified

You know you need a site, or maybe that the one created in 2002 isn’t serving your purposes anymore. Now it’s 2010, we’re steadily approaching Web 3.0 (even though no one is exactly sure what that is) and suddenly there are literally gazillions of options available. Really. That’s the technical term. Gazillions.

Where to start?

The answer to that question might be where not to start. As a web developer with 12 years experience building and maintaining so many sites I’ve lost count, I feel fairly qualified to give advice. My first word of advice is don’t use your web hosting company’s free site builder tool. While I can’t honestly speak for ALL of them, I can speak for MOST of them and they’re usually poopy. (Again, that’s the technical term.)

Why? Because they’re cookie cutter technologies that usually don’t have decent SEO (search engine optimization) functions built in, the templates are often straight out of the 90’s and when it comes time to build a REAL website, you will likely have to scrap everything you’ve done. That’s because these proprietary systems are often quite unfriendly when it comes to how they write code — they don’t play well with others. I’ve had to rebuild quite a few sites from clients who started out with one of these free template sites and let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty.

The second major piece of advice is don’t use Flash. Unless you want a site that’s like a big fancy store that people can peer through the windows but no one can enter, don’t use this Google-prohibitive technology. While Google claims to be able to read the content inside Flash movies, they simply cannot be optimized for search results in any meaningful way.

Finally, the third and final suggestion for today (carpal tunnel is setting in)… find a human being to work with. Yes, there are other types of free awesome wow that’s totally amazing site building thingies online, but chances are, if you find someone to actually talk to, you’ll get a lot more out of it, for what should be, but are not always, obvious reasons. Simply put, web designers are humans with real experience. They can recommend new technologies to you faster than you can find them on your own, they have tons of experience working with other clients and will often see hidden opportunities available to your business than you’d ever dream of.

So the conclusion is, robotic free template site junk = bad. Real human beings that might cost more but deliver beyond your expectations = good.