Specialized Website Strategy and Support for Creative Entrepreneurs

Conquering The Illusion of Communication

George Bernard Shaw once said that,

“the single biggest problem in communication
is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Developing a Website is complex, multifaceted, non-linear process with intricate technical requirements. Projects like these introduce many problems of communication to abound.

Communication Breakdowns

As Shaw observed, communications fail not so much because of what is said or not said, but because of what is presumed to have been understood. These kinds of assumptions can derail communication in even the simplest of conversations. Even more so when we try to communicate about abstract and complex subjects—particularly when we’re unfamiliar with the terminology of the subject. Confusion increases all the more if we add multiple participants to a conversation. And when communication unfolds over long stretches of time, forgetfulness can introduce further distortions, causing even more gaps and problems of communication to occur.

Website projects are particularly vulnerable to illusions of communication.

For clients, designers, and developers to effectively communicate throughout a website development project much care needs to be given to the process. Unfortunately, quite often, web development processes not only fail in this effort, sometimes they introduce even more confusion.

How to Conquer the Illusion of Communication

There are two ways that HOLTER Strategic addresses problems of communication and minimizes their impact on our projects. One is somewhat unique to our firm, the other is something any project team could potentially adopt.

Leveraging Experience

The first solution to this problem is leveraging experience. And this aspect can’t be provided by any development process no matter how well crafted.

Expertise and experience on projects with very similar problems of communication can bring far more value to a project than the most consistently run and perfectly maintained formal process. Experts become experts because they continually focus on the same problem until they can start to see patterns and anticipate needs before they occur. That’s why experts are so valuable: for leading complex projects where communication must be clear, and on projects where they must anticipate which solutions have implications that the team may not be able to connect to the final product. The expert needs to know exactly what the client doesn’t know, and can’t be expected to know.

Very few creative firms have the discipline to stay focused on one area of expertise and repeat projects with very similar requirements. Designers and programmers are more inclined to pursue new concepts and the latest technologies. They’d rather not repeat the same kinds of projects over and over again. But the only way to gain expertise is through repetition. This is one reason why HOLTER Strategic focuses websites for creative entrepreneurs.

Expertise is a better alternative to even the tightest processes, with the most highly skilled resources. Of course expertise, with a tight process, and highly skilled resources is better still. And so in addition to providing expertise, we also provide an effective process.

A Better Process Suited to Website Projects

At some point in a planning process you have to put pen to paper—or code to screen. Whether you’re building software or a house you have to workup blueprints before you build.

And this creates the main problems of communication with website plans across large teams. What form of documentation works best to confirm and establish these important plans? In website development those tend to be technical specifications and wireframes. Between website designers and developers these kinds of documents are very effective at defining project specifications. But are they as effective for client teams? Not so much.

Let’s think about a website as if it were a physical building, whose planning would start with blueprints. An architect, engineer, and contractor can look at a set of blueprints, and due to their professional training and experience, they can readily extrapolate from those plans to imagine the final product. As a buyer, though I might be able to get the gist of the plan from a set of blueprints, my ability to fully imagine the final product is much more limited.

But going back to our construction illustration, what if a buyer could view a virtual 3D model of a completed house instead of a blueprint? Or better yet, what if they could walk through a fully built model home? That would remove almost all uncertainty.

So what is that equivalent form of communication in website development?

A Model Website Prototype

If a model home is the ideal way to present a house, why not build a model website? Rather than static wireframes that rely on symbolic representations of page navigation and content elements, why not actually build out an actual website? In the same way that walking through a model home, moving from room to room, opening closets, checking windows, standing on the floors, gives us a real feel for the house, so to does clicking through an actual website, rolling over the menus, scrolling down the pages, clicking on the links, provide a concrete understanding about this complex and multifaceted structure.

Back in 1999, when I first began using web-based prototypes rather than printed wireframes, we had to manually build them with Dreamweaver. It was quite a time investment to build an actual website rather than sketch wireframes. But when we saw how much better our clients grasped the details of our prototypes compared to the frequent illusions of communication we’d experienced with wireframes, the effort was worth it. Eventually, we built our own prototyping system to improve our efficiency in building these models.

Today, CMS platforms make building web-based prototypes much easier. We developed our prototyping platform using WordPress, a specialized theme with helpful plugins, and some other components that enable us to rapidly produce website prototypes. From the first steps of information architecture, all the way through the planning stages, we present each iteration as a fully functioning website. And since we focus on websites for creative entrepreneurs, our repeated experience enables us to anticipate many of the specific needs our clients will have, such that we’ve pre-built certain repeated content types and functions, making our prototypes even more detailed and efficient.

One way we keep the prototyping process efficient is by making them visually generic. They are mostly black and white representations of content which, if you were to print the page, would actually look a lot like a wireframe. Keeping the aesthetics generic also helps clients to focus on the core content, structure, and functionality without getting distracted by design issues that come later in the process. But though wireframes and prototypes both have the same look and feel, the experience of reviewing a clickable, scrollable, model website, in a browser, delivers a much better feel for how the final site will function and flow.

This small difference in presentation enables deeper observations and elicits greater understanding from the client teams. A clickable model also reveals flaws more effectively. Some ideas sound good conceptually, when we talk vaguely about a site, but when experiencing the real thing we realize we may need to rethink them. Prototypes also elicit new ideas, options that simply did not, and probably could not, occur to a team until they are experienced on the website. And since prototypes are built so early in the process, these new ideas can often be integrated without impacting the budget or schedule.

I don’t want to suggest that we don’t still experience some illusions of communication, but through web-based prototyping we drastically reduce them. Ultimately what matters is the final website, not how we get there. But if we want to end up with the best possible site, that serves the interests of all stakeholders—and most importantly the people who will use it—we must conquer the illusions of communication that get in the way, and pave the way for effective communication.