When speaking to friends who work in different sectors recently, it became apparent that their view of eCommerce and the on-line world is pretty shallow.
They see web sites as basically nothing more than a bunch of pretty pictures, designed, developed and operated by a troupe of digital interactive artists, shuffling about in un-ironed clothes with hair pointing in all directions and an iPod blocking any attempt at conversation.
Frankly I was a bit offended.
Design skills are necessary for sure, but if I were looking for a partner to help design, build and support an eCommerce site, I’d want someone with experience of running large-scale sites taking over £1M each day, an understanding of enterprise systems integration issues (SOA), solid commercial skills and a good grasp of the sector I’m operating in.
Where your average accounting, payroll or CRM system is concerned, change is often considered a bad thing. In strategic terms these are ‘operational’ systems where change is minimised wherever possible to reduce risk and keep a lid on costs. The life expectancy of such a system is often around the 8 to 12 year mark – although we know that some will become entrenched and live for 20 years or more as successive IT managers on 4 year job-change cycles duck the issue of replacing them for fear they’ll lose their job, reputation and future if it all goes a bit pear shaped on their watch.
But web sites are a bit different. To remain competitive they acquire new features on a frequent basis and are more akin to living breathing things in that they evolve in response to market developments. For websites, change is constant and there isn’t the luxury of a fixed quarterly or even biannual release cycle favoured by centralised IT departments. The outcome is that large scale eCommerce sites have a complex code base with multiple code streams requiring outstanding configuration management skills.
The systems infrastructure is intricate too. Managing peak load intra day and shifting demand throughout the year isn’t a trivial task. Frequently a dozen or more application servers will be required. And web servers, database servers, firewalls, routers, load balancers, etc. And they all need configuring and monitoring to make sure the site is up and stays up because – in financial terms – a site outage may be equivalent to shutting the doors on ten or more physical outlets. Now that’s the kind of thing that gets the CEO’s attention!
Integration wise, whether an eCommerce site is small or large there is a significant amount of ‘plumbing’ required to integrate with back-end systems and third parties. Data about products, pricing, offers, discounts and stock positions has to be sourced from somewhere. Orders need to be sent to fulfilment systems. Then we have to consider fraud detection, payment gateway integration (not forgetting 3D secure), image hosting, address verification, and mapping services too. We shouldn’t forget the bunch of data feeds required for affiliates and price comparison sites either. Or email and SMS communications.
I could go on with Web 2.0, social shopping, product reviews, RSS feeds, blogs, Google checkout, etc. but you’ve got the idea now, right? All of this integration work requires traditional Systems Analysis skills as well a detailed understanding of contemporary IT architectures and approaches such as Service Orientation. Experience suggests the more third party integration is required on a project, the more risky it is because of the dependencies involved. I’d want people that have done this before, lots of times and in the large.
In addition to the technical, there is also much to be gained from a partner that understands the business sector too. Any hard-fought for trust engendered by your website will either be reinforced or smashed to bits when the delivery promise made on the website is kept or not by the fulfilment operation that follows, so an understanding of the reality of the distribution centre and store environments is key to providing realistic information to on-line customers. A second site with separate branding probably means different packaging to be used in the DC. Is there physically room for another bench? How will the packers know which brand the order relates to? And let’s face it, Retail is a seasonal business and if you’re not ready for the Xmas peak, January is a lousy time to be looking for alternative employment as nobody has budget until April.
So sure, design and designers are important; an understanding of the psychology of the purchasing process and translation of that into slick browse and checkout processes will undoubtedly do wonderful things to conversion rates. But all in all eCommerce is a whole lot more complicated than pretty pictures.
I just wish my friends could see the big picture.