UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 994 April 5, 2013

Killed at Launch

:
A complete disregard for user experience leads to drastic action

This actually happened. An e-commerce website had been designed and developed. Launch had been initiated, and it was abruptly taken offline in mid-air.

I became involved with this project just as the website was launching and advised the decommissioning. This was not a comfortable position for me to take with my new client: advising them to shut down their site.

Pulling it offline was an even more difficult decision for the owner. After all, this was not my client’s hobby. They were expecting this website to provide them with a living.

This project was a typical e-commerce site with one significance difference: the site hosted multiple stores (under a single domain), with a similar look and feel for each. The stores were managed individually, but offered products for sale through a common shopping cart.

It should go without saying that the complexity of the design, development, and deployment almost surpasses comprehension. Creating a “multi-vendor” website is a savagely nontrivial task.

The original quote my new client had recieved from their vendor was a measly $10,000 (a website of this magnitude typically costs in the range of $75-100K). When all was said and done, the final cost jumped to over $25,000. How could the initial estimate be so far off (two times)? This simple answer is that the scope of the project was never properly defined, and gross mismanagement completely ignored front-end and back-end users.

Management Mayhem

It takes many skillsets to build, deploy, and manage modern websites: project management, graphic design (creative), software engineering, software development, usability testers, website beta test management, marketing, and client management.

As I see it, the cause of most website failures is little or no project management. "No need to define and manage, lets just build something and see what becomes of the website," seems to go the thinking.

The customer in this case learned after the project failure just how blindly they’d gone into site design and how poorly the project was managed. When I asked what happened, the details came pouring out:

  • "There was never a roadmap for the website's design, form, fit, and function."
  • "Page layout design wireframes were never defined and presented to us for review and acceptance."
  • "There was no formal project acceptance criteria provided."
  • "We did not know enough about the design an development process to have any doubts regarding the website vendor's abilities."
  • "We were an experiment for our website vendor."
  • "They learned how manage website development from our project."
  • "During the sixteen months of the project lifecycle, there were many organization changes."
  • "The deploy environment was basically launch the website and see what happens."
  • "We did not know any better, as website development deployment was new to us."

There had been no bridge between the website customer to the vendor's creative staff. The customer tried to develop "crude" graphics to show them the desired look and feel for website. The customer was the designer.

I find the statements from my beleaguered client chilling. Plenty of them give reason enough for website shutdown decisions prior to launch.

A Ruined Experience

As I mentioned earlier, this website was to provide multi-vendor ecommerce services, where vendors could set up a their own unique shop identities and publish products—including photos—linked to them. This capability required an easy to use content management system. The website was neither alpha or beta tested with users. Instead it was fully launched as a means of testing.

Furthermore, the shopping cart had to hold product orders form multiple vendors. The ordering system had to process orders and notify multiple vendors for product shipment. The website vendor's answer was to use the free and open source CMS Joomla an add-on module called the IXXO Multivendor Shopping Cart designed for guru-level IT personnel, not the casual user.

Pity the poor vendor, thrown through pages on Joomla component pages with weird names like: Banner, D-Mack Recommend Friends, Jumi, and LyftenBloggi.

The site owner tried to support about six early adaptor vendors though the UX nightmare, but they hadn’t seen the content management and multivendor shopping cart administrative pages prior to launch. After more than two weeks of attempting to support early adaptor vendors, things were going nowhere: pulling the website offline was the only solution I could see.

How The?

How did this happen? The one and only website software developer was young and inexperienced. He selected the Joomla and IXXO software for without discussing it with anyone, including the website customer. The website vendor was a creative-centric enterprise with low experience in software development and a void of UX and usability skills.

The form, fit, and function of the entire website—particularly the content management, multivendor shopping, and the customer interaction—was not shared with the website customer. Sixteen months of design and development more than $25,000 wasted, to say nothing of the lost market opportunity.

How to Never Do This

Bad UX, front-end and back-end, can kill a website. There are finer points (don’t deploy general-purpose software modules for a narrow purpose to save time or money), but more crucially, the client needs to be involved from day one.

Engage a full team of website deployment project members, covering all of the disciplines required. Above all else, have a full-time, experienced UX professional available on the website development team. You can’t start a user experience review two weeks before launch.

If you ever hear anyone asking, “Hey, can you look over this website? We are just about ready to launch,” be very afraid.

 

Image of rocket launch courtesy Shutterstock.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Pete Mackie is a software developer and publisher who founded his first company, Seaquest Software, some thirty years ago. It is still going strong.

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Comments

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@MARS
re: "...how do you get these 100K-250K projects without a team of devs, marketing people, usability testers, etc?"
The answer is you cannot and should not attempt large projects without a team of multiple skill set disciplines. Your question, is a worthy one deserving some comments. I apologize for only providing general top-level comments as fully answering your question could end up being a few book chapters. First realize that a large project is 80% define, design (both creative and development approach), project management, pre and post client acceptance, UX, and testing, et al. With the remaining 20% resource requirements being the actual code development and debug. This should right away tell you that kind of resources you need on your team for large website projects. Googling phrases like "web development structure" and "web development roles" will help you here. You need team members that you know and trust both from the aspects of skill set competence and business ethics. The latter being the most important. I would suggest starting with smaller website projects by teaming up with one or two other project members. This will generate revenue while you achieve-—and sometimes loose for lack of delivery-—team members you are 100% comfortable with for even larger projects. You must be willing to take on the team leadership here to be to glue that keeps the growing team bound together. Realize that others are in your boat of being a "lone eagle" designer or developer and want to be a website dev team member without the burden of team leadership that are just shy enough not to speak up. You seek these lonely "lone eagles" by asking around in any ways that you can come up with such as forums, blogs, and open source projects. Social networks like Twitter and Linkedin are good places to advertise that you are looking for website project team members. No of this will happen overnight, you have to work hard at this and demonstrate leadership.

re: "....there is so much competition for clients that want impossible results on shoe-strings budgets."
MARS, it appears that you already know enough to avoid these these types of clients. For other readers here, I emphasize that you want to avoid those, "We want a compelling web site without spending much money," situations regardless of how hungry you are for work. These work relationships almost always end up to to be, "I wish that I had said no to this job."

re: "...or you have to be able to fool some company that you have the skills to do it."
Fooling the client will just dig a deeper and agonizing hole for you to climb out of, after you and/or you client realize that you will not be able to deliver on time, on budget. Furthermore, these situations can rather quickly turn litigious for lack of non-delivery of functionality. So don't ever think about trying this approach.

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This was a very eye-opening article for me. I've been a web designer for nearly 10 years, and in the last 5 years i've been coding HTML/CSS. Only now am i learning Jquery but it's much easier for me than before. The point for me is trying to answer a question that has alluded me for a long time and that is, how do you get these 100K-250K projects without a team of devs, marketing people, usability testers, etc? I'm guessing you just don't, or you have to be able to fool some company that you have the skills to do it. That's why there is so much competition for clients that want impossible results on shoe-strings budgets. How does one get on a team of with other skilled people and go after these larger contracts. I'm 34 years old and i still haven't found the right people to work with so have settled at being a lone freelancer. I'm wondering if i'll ever get the chance to work for high profile clients or with the right team to build beautiful applications that have the budgets to do user tests and build products closely with the client, where i understand the full circle or gamut of what it takes to Define, Research, Strategize, Prototype, test, Build out, Test again and just repeat that process to prove quantitative growth based on doing things right and therefore increasing the teams value proposition.

I hate trading hours for work and deeply need to be challenged. I love to design and do UX but i'm hoping someone can give me direction as to how to build a group and what to consider when going after big contracts. I haven't given up and that's important to me but i'm hoping someday i hit the right avenues and join the elite of UX designers with a strong team that only takes on a few, interesting and high paying contracts a year.

Thanks for letting me rant:)

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Great article.

Good project management is so vital to web development projects for both developer and customer.

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@Ren

re: I'm curious about how the company decided on their developer. What was the company's process in selecting a third party designer and developer?

The company selected their website development service provider based on two parameters:

1. The website company owner had frequently driven by the service provider's
neighborhood storefront for a couple of years. Assumption was, albeit naive, that
if the service provider enterprise had be around for awhile that it must be a legitimate
a website service provider business.
2. The low price quoted by the service provider to the potential website customer.

The website service provider price quoted could have been 1) low ball to get the job or 2) inexperience of the service provider in designing (the internal business logic code), developing, and deploying a multi-vendor e-commerce website. I suspect the later, but have no basis fact per my opinion.

My article briefly mentions required skill sets—there are many—necessary to define, design, develop a website. Creative types do not want to deal with software development. Software Developers do not want to burdened with providing beautiful look-and-feel websites.

We have website service providers founded by Creative types where software development takes a second fiddle in terms of available resources and allowable project influence. The flip site is a website service provider founded by Software Developer types where there is a lack of available Creative resources thus with little or no website end result outcome influence.

While these two discipline groups will socially join and bind based on a work related environment, neither whats to hear about or deal with the other groups issues and work requirements. Team to team "don't bother me, I'm (we're) busy" is frequently the day to day mantra.

I observe that there is only a small percentage of website service providers who will provide you with a well balanced—equal influence—team of Creative and Software Development resources. Certainly, though, something that you should look for in selecting a website service provider. Need I to say, "check for available and professionally strong UX resources too"? Above all else, a good website UX can make the difference between the succes or failure of a newly launched website.

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"If you ever hear anyone asking, “Hey, can you look over this website? We are just about ready to launch,” be very afraid." - Fantastic!

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I worked on a project where I tried to push the launch abort button and got overruled and it was a disaster. Sometimes not having a website can be a better UX than having a bad website.

The site should have provided users with account info for a major telco, but the "throw designs over the wall" production process to an outsourced team meant that 6 months of user testing with prototypes were rendered useless by unbelievably poor execution.

At least it's fun to look back and laugh now.

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I'm curious about how the company decided on their developer. What was the company's process in selecting a third party designer and developer?

I've heard this same story all too often before and your analysis is correct in bringing up the faults with mismanagement, poor communication, and too-late testing.

But many times, the company itself had made bad decisions in the first step of choosing a partner to work on the development and should take full responsibility for the substandard work that resulted. Instead of investing in an agency or small design/development company with experience in project management and the type of complex CMS they needed, they opted instead for the cheapest choice possible: an individual with no experience or an overseas company with no project manager or a work ethic that centers on line-by-line requirements.

Honestly, what could they have expected with a $10k bid on a project that size??? Already, that low price should have shot off red flags left and right.

Ben Franklin said it best: "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten."

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Following is just FYI, because the issue has been raised in this forum by some of you:

Information Week Commentary "Why Tech Projects Fail: 5 Unspoken Reasons"
http://www.informationweek.com/global-cio/interviews/why-tech-projects-fail-5-unspoken-reason/240152282

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@Russell

re: This is all too common and usually comes down to very bad management decisions

Yeah, for sure. I enjoyed your dumb and dumber project failure story. I could write a text book full of project failures after 50 years of being involved with high-tech projects.

What continues to amaze me is that I seem the same scenario project failure scripts with each new generation of project managers, CTOs, CIOs, and CEOs.

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@Zagnut

re: Could this be THE Pete Mackie from my Atari 800 / ANALOG / Antic Magazine days?!!!!

Sorry no. My 50 year plus high-tech work career, first in electronics, then 35 yeas for software development and publishing has been based from Portland, Oregon USA.

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Could this be THE Pete Mackie from my Atari 800 / ANALOG / Antic Magazine days?!!!!

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My opinion is that the client is to blame for this fiasco (first place). Typical Zuckerberg scenario. Trying to have success for a penny! Second place is the vendor or better the 'attic developer'. Or he/she is completely ignorant or tried to make some money by fooling the client. Client and Vendor both fooled each other i think. I don't know if the initial quote had all the required stuff in it (bullet list from -details came pouring out- above), but if the client started asking these questions during or at the end of the project, it's pretty sad.

Common sense: Can you build me a car similar to a Porsche 911 TURBO? Yes, i can do this for $10.000,-! (probably won't have an engine, is made of plastic and has no interior).

Asking: Can you build me car similar to a Porsche 911 TURBO, similar engine specifications, same top speed, leather interior, 3 years warranty, etc etc. Yes, i can do this for $ 100.000,-

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This is all too common and usually comes down to very bad management decisions. Of course, it's not just web sites. I have a client who is replacing the system I wrote for them that has been running their company very successfully for 12 years. The new CEO just came in and made a sweeping decision without any knowledge and is now paying $2 million for a new system that does half as much as the current system. No joke. The guy working the install from the new software vendor asked the IT mgr the other day "Why did you buy our system? It only does about half as much as your existing system." It's a LAN-based system and I could have moved it to the web for much less than $1 million. Everybody in the know has been scratching their heads over this one for quite some time and it's all attributable to a shoot-from-the-hip, completely ignorant decision by the new CEO.

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@Phil
re: 25K for a 16 month project? Sounds like an intern scoped it ...

It was not even a an intern. Instead, it was a creative service provider shop who thought they could also provide the software development services too. There was not a software developer on staff when the project was quoted to the client.

Sadly, there are a lot of people in this business who take a couple of terms of HTML coding at that local Community College and think that they are qualified website developers. Work referrals come from a friend of my second cousin.

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25K for a 16 month project? Sounds like an intern scoped it ...

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@DDanny

re: Pete, it is always interesting to hear about failure stories. It seems the client was unrealistic with the budget from the beginning though especially as there were so many customizations needed.

It was not the clients budget. Instead it was the service provider's budget as an estimated, not firm, price quote. The client had very little experience with computers and zero experience with defining an launching an e-commerce web site. The client committed to an contract based on the amount provided by the creative and website, service provider. The client accepted the quoted fee without obtaining other service provider estimates. If you are inexperienced in this field how does one compare and select the proper serviced provider over another if you have no experience in comparing service providers? In this case one might select one with the lowest quote price, which may or may not be the right decision.

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@DJ

re: 75k-100k? You are still way off the mark. This is what one would spend on a microsite, not a multi-vendor commerce storefront.

Yes, I agree. At launch time we were well over the $100K milestone.

We did start with the Magento e-commerce core code base platform, which saved considerable design and development. We extended Magento to support multivendor sellers. I had many developer doubters telling me that it would be a difficult, if not impossible, task to multivendor Magento. We succeeded with this task with less design and development difficulty than I expected. What surprised me the most was that the server-side internal business logic was a moving target for a few months.

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@Geraint

Thanks Pete, interesting article. I know its easy to be wise with hindsight; even so this sort of story scares me. Did they ever launch? What remedial action needed to be taken?

Yes, they did launch some year plus later. Their website has been successful beyond expectations. There was no service provider remedial actions taken, for two reasons:

1. The creative, and to a lesser degree website, service provider was small firm with little or no funds that we could attach.
2. Lawyers are most expensive with little or nothing left for the plaintiff out of any settlement obtained.

Instead, we decided to move beyond the past mistakes and concentrate on a new, starting over, website design and deployment. In retrospect, I can comfortably say that was indeed the right decision.

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Pete, it is always interesting to hear about failure stories. It seems the client was unrealistic with the budget from the beginning though especially as there were so many customisations needed.

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75k-100k? You are still way off the mark. This is what one would spend on a microsite, not a multi-vendor ecommerce storefront.

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Thanks Pete, interesting article. I know its easy to be wise with hindsight; even so this sort of story scares me. Did they ever launch? What remedial action needed to be taken?