Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Interactive Design Requires IT Solution Architectures

In the world of online, interactive design, it’s not always clear when the business/interaction designing ends and the IT development begins – or for that matter, how much development is really needed. Even though the project plan might be very clear, governance requirements of the Enterprise IT environment can drive a chicken-or-egg scenario.

While you can’t really finalize the detailed IT design and specifications until the visual design, functional requirements and information architecture are complete…these elements do need to be informed very early and often by some concrete IT direction and constraints in order to be realistic and actually capable of meeting the business requirements. IT investments to support your project also need to be confirmed as early as possible (for example if a new CMS platform is needed), since the lead time for approving, paying, installing, configuring and training activities associated with the new HW/SW may take as long as the entire project was originally planned.

However, choosing IT products too far in advance of detailed requirements approval might result in extra cost and serious system or function incompatibilities. The need for balance between evolving project requirements and the pressure to make the right IT investments and use them appropriately can be mitigated through methodical IT Solution Architecture practices.

An IT Solution Architecture is essentially an abstraction, or a model, of all the IT-related elements that need to be implemented together to meet business requirements within the IT investment context, including the resources that deliver or use the IT-related elements. Think of a traditional “CONOPS” (Concept of Operations) with an “IT Architecture and Plan” overlay, that meets the Interactive Design objectives. This model takes shape very early in the business solution dialogue, conforming to any Enterprise Architecture models that may be available, and evolves as the solution requirements become more detailed – both influencing the requirements and reflecting them. The model can be represented in many ways, for example through illustrations, process flows, checklists, inventories or documented approaches.

This model is then communicated and used, as the business-to-system requirements are completed, to create the technical requirements, finalize IT asset and service investments and to plan the overall detailed design/build/test/deploy phases.
The Solution Architecture guides more detailed development of the domain-specific technical, system and process architectures - for example the overall security, data, integration and storage architectures. It helps the project maintain traceability from the ultimate technical designs, back not only to the business requirements, but to the guiding IT investment context and Enterprise Architecture. This traceability provides risk mitigation to both the project and its overall investment program, and helps ensure a successful testing phase.

Typically as an unintended benefit, use of a Solution Architecture may also improve the overall collaboration and knowledge-sharing environment of the project.

Therefore, the path from Interactive Design to an implemented, successful IT Solution is considerably more efficient and likely more successful at meeting business requirements if a Solution Architecture is involved, preferably managed by an IT Solution Architect with considerable experience in current system architectures and standards, IT systems engineering and interactive IT solutions.

Find out more about Interactive Design and IT Solution Architectures at Navigation Arts, an Interactive Design and Information Architecture solution consulting firm in McLean, VA.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What's the Scope of Internet Marketing - the Elevator Speech

A few times recently I've been asked to very plainly explain Internet Marketing/Interactive Marketing, why it's so much better than buying magazine ads, and whether it's really helpful. Here are the basic talking points:

  • Internet Marketing means promoting and advertising your business through all the Internet channels your customers might use, like your website, other websites, email and social media (i.e. Facebook and Twitter).
  • Most businesses have an Internet website, really nice ones, but that’s not enough - it should also be highlighted appropriately, for customers to discover…a beautiful storefront in a dark alley attracts no customers.
  • One way to highlight your website and business is by placing references or advertisements (i.e. “banner ads”, “articles”, “backlinks”, “coupons”, “infomercials”, etc.) on other websites – but only on websites that will most likely send valuable customers to you. There are many choices to consider, both free and paid, and the links or ads need to be well-designed (both the audio/visual and written elements).
  • Another way is through Internet search engines, like Google and Yahoo. Your customers can use many types of search engines online to find you. These services will highlight your business through their search results, in 2 ways – by paid advertisements (i.e. “Pay Per Click”, or “PPC”), or if your website is very popular and relevant for the search term. To be highlighted successfully, your website, and any online content you create that points back to it, must be “Search Engine Optimized” (SEO).
  • A third way for customers to find your business on the Internet, is through “earned media”. This means other people on the Internet are voluntarily writing about and sharing great feedback about your business, to their readers, friends and family. This is done on social media like blogs, bookmarking services, Facebook, Twitter, etc. There are many ways to engage and convince others to start online conversations about your products and services – leading to more interested and ultimately paying customers.
  • Other ways to market your business on the Internet include using games, applications, videos, podcasts…there are many ways to do this, but not all may be appropriate or within your budget.
  • Be sure to focus marketing first on websites you own - optimizing content on 3rd-party websites and relying on social media for advertising is a temporal proposition - these sites can quickly go away, and your material be lost.
  • Internet Marketing includes the “conversion” – i.e., your website must be designed to not only attract people, but convince them to act or buy your product.
  • If done right, they’ll come back for more, and tell others about it.
  • Most Internet Marketing is much less expensive and reaches more people in your target demographic than traditional media, including TV and magazines. It also lasts longer, and can be accessed not only through personal computers, but through cellphones, GPS devices, electronic billboards, game consoles and digital TVs.
  • Internet Marketing can also be tracked and analyzed in great detail – unlike traditional advertising (i.e. how many people saw your ad in a magazine, and called you as a result?). This means your return-on-investment (ROI) can be significantly higher. At a lower total-cost-of-ownership (TCO). More customers for less money.
  • In order to achieve best value, however, your Internet Marketing must be tracked, reported and analyzed correctly – since user activity and competing information changes so quickly on the Internet. Your own reputation and brand must also be monitored on a regular basis, to be quickly alerted regarding negative impacts to you, your business or product. Negative information can be spread quickly by employees, competitors, customers or other reviewers.
  • Your Internet Marketing campaigns should also be integrated with your other marketing and advertising campaigns, in content, execution, budget and reporting. Use phone numbers in online and offline ads that can be tracked via online voice services, for example.
  • Your competition is already on the Internet – and if they’re using effective Internet Marketing, they are very quickly gaining an advantage that’s not easily overcome.
  • Your customers are also already on the Internet, especially the younger ones. If they’re not, they soon will be.
  • To take full advantage of all the Internet Marketing techniques available, in a way that is best suited to your business, professional Internet Marketing services are recommended – especially services from a well-established, technically-current media and marketing firm. This is particularly true for local businesses – a DC local media and marketing firm or larger, national interactive marketing and web design firm will know best the conditions affecting your local Internet Marketing.

So that's the basic elevator pitch script - but there's obviously a lot more, at much greater levels of detail, that will come into play for large, complex online marketing initiatives across thousands of online "channels". Most, however, will want to start with the very basics, which will include SEO of your own website.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Art and Architecture of the Interactive User Experience in DC

Very recently I've changed gears a bit to focus much more, on a daily basis, on the "Front End" of the Business Information Management lifecycle - at DC's Navigation Arts, "Architects of the User Experience".

In all digital interactive implementations (i.e. websites and digital applications), a great deal of artistry and intellectual insight is required to fully understand and create a compelling interactive design (both the creative components and information architecture, or navigation) that satisfies both users and investors. As well, a significant amount of communication and translation is needed to successfully implement the design across the required media channels and on top of the supporting IT infrastructure - compliant with business and IT investment constraints.

Many times this translation, between users/designers and the IT "back end" ecosystem (including vendors and 3rd-party service providers) is not much more than a "toss over the wall", subject to significant misunderstandings, inefficiencies, deployment and investment risks.

Where considerable process re-engineering and inclusion of automated services is necessary, a mature engineering lifecycle (we'll assume SOA-influenced) typically takes advantage of process modeling, service definitions and use cases to inform the technical requirements process. The technical requirements will therefore include models of the system, compliant with architecture standards, from perspectives including data and content, technologies and IT management, information-flows and interfaces, organization and roles, and automated processes, workflows and reusable services. These models stand a good chance of adequately reflecting traceable and testable business requirements, while properly orienting and informing the IT designers and developers.

Where the outcome is purely an exercise in web content presentation and interaction strategy, heavily focused on information-sharing vs. data processing, the visual design/information architecture translation to IT requirements tends to end at the WCM model - which very often is the proprietary model of the WCM COTS vendor.

However, if the information needs of the users, intended to be satisfied through the new web design/information architecture, outgrow the native WCM capabilities (in terms of features, scaling or data management) - additional and early "interactive architecture models" are required to inform the supporting IT requirements and design staff, AND translate these additional requirements back to the business investors. These additional models might extend or enhance the information management model fulfilled in part by the WCM tooling, to include additional datastores and sources, media channel interfaces, and perhaps other legacy data management infrastructure. More investment needed, therefore, for IT elements that no one outside of the IT department fully understands.

This is truly, in today's very fragmented, open source-oriented, multi-platform world of the interactive digital user experience, where much more guidance, many more standards and cost-effective modeling tool options are required - to assist in the project-driven translation of user requirements from Art to Architecture.