The fourth constraint: What your developer isn’t telling you.

Posted February 16, 2016 in by

SoftwareDev_icon1_mainWe’re all familiar with the age-old challenge in project management: balancing cost, timeline and quality. This also holds true for many digital marketing projects but changes significantly with websites and apps. Development projects swap “quality” for “features,” as SOWs instead itemize required pages and functionality. Quality is still important, but project management shifts focus to delivering this feature set on budget and timeline. This is where potential risk and future costs can go unnoticed, though—technical details obscure development quality from the everyday person. For that reason, this article could have also been titled “Why Cheaper Websites (or Apps) Cost More.”

Development is the culmination of literally thousands of coding decisions made over the course of a project. The number of details hidden “under the hood” of a web or app project is staggering. Sure, it looks great, but how reliable is the end result? Have all the bugs been worked out? Is it fast for all users, and does it work across all devices? Can it be easily updated going forward? Can new functionality be added without significant rework? Are there any security risks? The answers lie in the quality of the development process.

With websites and apps, quality becomes a hidden fourth lever no one really talks about. Short on time? Even the best-intentioned developer can begin to jettison best practices. Code just until it works, minimize testing, skip commenting (brief notes developers add in the code to explain confusing sections to aid in readability and make future updates quicker), ignore performance, neglect security. … The list goes on. The cumulative effect of just a few shortcuts, however, can impact total cost of ownership: post-launch bug fixes, lost revenue due to lackluster SEO, increased complexity of making even basic updates and reduced longevity as updates eventually require an overhaul. It may sound fatalistic, but how many of us have heard horror stories about websites that are only a year or two old? Slow sites, updates taking increasingly more effort, poor mobile experience, out-of-date plugins can’t be updated, even sites being hacked. Before you know it, it’s back to square one for a rebuild.

While it sounds like the only solution for a reliable outcome is to spend more, an experienced agency can significantly reduce this cost. The key to this efficiency is making development best practices a habit rather than special exercises. The quality of an Ervin & Smith development project has these benefits:

  • Reliability – Solutions are built considering all use cases, rather than a surprise edge case breaking the site. For example, a blog template may look good in development, but what happens when someone posts with an unexpectedly long title? Is it displayed correctly, or does it run off the page or wrap incorrectly? Specific to WordPress, the decision to use a plugin is balanced with the desire not to reinvent the wheel with the need to select reputable and stable plugins. Minor functionality is integrated into the core theme rather than seeking additional one-off plugins.
  • Security – Creating a secure product requires additional consideration, as websites and apps are not inherently secure. Experience with proper development practices, though, allows security best practices to be applied throughout a project rather than reactive, post-launch efforts. With WordPress sites, one of the easiest ways to maintain a secure site is to ensure that core and plugin updates are applied regularly (see below, Upgradability).
  • Performance – A slow site now has direct costs: reducing SEO performance and subsequent organic traffic, increasing bounce rate, and increasing IT infrastructure costs. Building a fast website or app during initial efforts is cheaper than retrofitting performance fixes post-launch.
  • Mobile – Mobile support is more than just making sure the site is readable on a phone. It’s about the entire mobile experience. How do the needs of mobile users differ from desktop users? Can mobile users find what they need quickly? Does the site work well with touch input? How does the site load with slower cellular connections?
  • Compatibility – Another way of thinking about compatibility is “audience reach.” How many customers are missing out if your site or app only works on some browsers or devices? Attention to compatibility during development paired with a rigorous QA process ensures your website or app is working its hardest.
  • Maintainability – Well-organized and commented code extends the lifespan of a website or app. Without a conscious effort toward clean programming, tens of thousands of lines of code can quickly become chaotic. Known as “spaghetti code,” it requires increasingly more effort to perform even basic updates. Sloppy code can also require rebuilding from scratch before it would otherwise be necessary for other business reasons (rebranding, new initiatives, etc.).
  • Upgradability – A site built on standards maximizes interoperability with future updates. This benefit allows new features and content to be added easily, as well as issue-free updates with WordPress core and plugin updates.
  • Manageability – Different than upgradeability and maintainability, manageability relates to the effort necessary for clients to make routine changes to their sites. If financial details need to be updated, can a single spreadsheet be uploaded to the site, or is it a laborious data entry process? Does a copy change need to occur on every page, or is there a single spot to make the change globally?

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