Features from Meantime IT

Website woes and how to avoid them

Marks and Spencer has spent a reported £150 million on its new website. For that, as our developer Jack declared, you’d expect the store’s poster girl Myleene Klass to be delivering your orders by hand. But not only does Ms Klass not bring you your socks and sweaters, customers are complaining that the website doesn’t deliver on the most basic of functions.

A search for ‘M&S website’ on Google autocompletes as, ‘rubbish,’ ‘awful,’ and ‘problems.’ As Google’s autocomplete is based on the most common searches, this does not bode well. Nor do the stores online sales, which have fallen by eight per cent since the website was launched. Customers are complaining that orders are being delivered to old addresses and payment is being taken for stock which they are subsequently informed is sold out.

Websites and software systems that cost millions and billions but don’t work or don’t deliver what’s expected continue to make the news and we continue to be completely baffled by them. We have a very simple set of golden rules for any website or software system to ensure any problems are kept to an absolute minimum and budgets are contained within reasonable limits.

The first question that should always be asked is, who is your website for? Then ask yourself what they’re using it for and how they’re using it. Focusing on style over substance is setting yourself up to fail, because if it looks good but doesn’t work , the bottom line is you won’t make any money from it.

When you’ve worked all that out, write it down. Create a detailed specification that covers every eventuality and don’t write a single line of code until it’s been agreed between developer and client. If everyone knows what to expect in advance there won’t be any nasty surprises half way down the line. No-one wants the awkward, "We’ve had to write off that £34 million IT project you asked for, it didn’t work. Sorry about that," conversation and, frankly, we’re amazed that they happen at all.

When development is complete, there’s the testing. A decent developer should first test the functionality of the code on a standalone basis and then again in the context of the rest of the development. This end to end testing of the new software, or system testing, should identify any obvious errors and be repeated until everything runs smoothly.

Then, and only then, should the system be released to the client for user acceptance testing. This should incorporate all their business scenarios, from the happy path of a straightforward transaction through to the complexities of stock management and items being returned.

And finally, for larger clients, there might be an operational acceptance test to make sure the whole thing will work in a copy of a live environment. This stage will also allow for large-scale user testing and training; essentially a test run in real time with the staff who’ll be using the new system.

It’s impossible to guarantee 100 per cent perfection 100 per cent of the time; there are external factors that can have an effect on any system such as browser behaviour, aggressive anti-virus software and other individual configuration parameters. However, it’s not only possible to ensure you’ve done all you can to guard against problems, it’s essential. And when you think you’ve done enough, do some more.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, remember that going live with any new software system will have an impact on other areas of operation. A new website (or piece of functionality) isn’t always the be all and end all; its relationships with other areas of the business also need to be considered. If fulfillment and back-office operations aren’t ready for the roll-out of your new e-commerce system, the budget of a Middle East principality won’t rescue you from the subsequent problems.

A decent software company will take this into account and work with you at every stage to make sure every promise is delivered, just as a BMW dealer will deliver you a shiny new car with all your personal specifications in full working order. You wouldn’t expect your engine to come in a box, and IT should be no different.