Smaller Steps for Greater Speedback to overview
Has relaunching become a thing of the past? Iterative digital media development is on a steady rise. Developing “step by step” offers important advantages. More reliability in resource planning for instance. More efficiency in resource deployment. Reduced expenses for documentation. And, most importantly, more user-friendliness for websites and apps.
The speed and scope of change in our living and working environments is overwhelming. People, products, services and media struggle to adapt. Businesses are challenged to update on an almost daily basis the ways they produce, coordinate and communicate. Under these conditions, keeping the initiative takes huge efforts, but there is no alternative. Acting beats reacting. Almost always, and especially in marketing.
Strategic planning has a tough time handling “moving targets”, and web/app projects with their built-in dynamics are especially difficult to nail down. Markets, technologies, trends, user behaviour – all important parameters are in permanent flow. The children of this revolution don´t get devoured, they get stressed out: Those who start a complex project design these days can safely expect their work to gather visible dust before it even goes online, and that it will be way behind “state-of-art” before the first meaningful evaluations are in.
Predicting digital progress beyond the short-time horizon has become next to impossible. This casts a long shadow on the conventional logic of relaunching. Rethinking websites in four- to seven-year intervals burdens concept and design with anticipating the unpredictable and building projects on at least shaky, and often completely untenable, assumptions.
Follow the Giants
Those who monitored big international websites like amazon.com, apple.com or CNN.com over the years often remarked on the absence of significant changes. It would be a huge mistake, though, to assume that development of design and functionalities simply did not happen, on the contrary. From “behind the curtain”, the Big Ones have kept introducing something new almost every day – bit by bit, tiny change by tiny change, update by update.
The merits of such discreet evolution become obvious when we consider the millions of users who are familiar with those portals and their navigation logic. A vast majority of these users would find revolutionary change disruptive and irritating. Still, they do tolerate the continuous flow of small, piecemeal evolutionary adaptions. Furthermore, a comprehensive relaunch of an e-commerce platform like Amazon.com would, for all practical purposes, present the company with a task of unmanageable size and complexity, involving severe risks for its current and future business. Even relaunches of a more realistic scale tend to compromise capacities on the organizational level, blocking project teams for months on end, while “live” operations all but come to a standstill. All in all, “disruptive change” has decisive drawbacks, especially when compared to a development path marked by one small improvement after the other, the so-called iterative approach.
The term “iterative” derives from software development. It describes projects which abandon the traditional “waterfall model”, take one planned project step after the other instead, and approach realization in numerous small cycles (“iterations”). They let solutions grow organically, based on permanent revisions. Their underlying concepts thrive as work in progress. Development never ends, yet every step helps the project to meet defined goals. What used to be a project has become a process.
Iterative website or app management needs size to make sense, but note that “size” is not necessarily defined by a project’s budget, rather by its importance for the success of the business it serves. If a website or app is success-critical for sales, service and/or brand, a permanent optimization process is the approach of choice for businesses of every size from quite small to outright huge. Temporary services like, e.g., campaign microsites are exceptions here, but in practice they are, more often than not, part of the overall solution anyway.
Those considering an iterative approach have to lay a sound groundwork, providing the necessary organizational and technological resources. Many businesses have already done their homework in this respect, running enterprise-level content management or e-shop systems. Web analytics, monitoring and survey tools are becoming inceasingly important as well, providing important information and decision support regarding micro strategies.
In planning, a clear difference must be made between subprojects and permanent development. Sub projects and permanent iterations are both “evolutionary” development lines. Both follow a greater digital strategy which defines goals without going into project details. Yet there are important organizational differences: Iterations are the many tiny improvements in, e.g., the behaviour of navigation elements, the postioning of teasers or the structure of a shopping cart. These iteration produce permanent improvement from inside, with the necessary ressources continuously at work and separate budgeting of single steps unnecessary.
On the other hand, subprojects are development steps which introduce new services to a website or app. Implementing a corporate TV channel may serve as an example. Like whole umbrella projects, such subprojects call for a defined timeframe and a dedicated budget.
Always up to Date
An incremental, “agile” approach provides clients with lean solutions. Early prototyping helps to identify and fix bugs. It also helps to avoid misinterpretations of abstract system and performance specifications. Ideas and suggestions can be seized at all project stages. Permanent evaluations and live A/B tests replace opinion with hard facts in the many small decisions during an iterative process. Agency cooperation is also fact-based here and follows routines which shorten reaction times, bring more precision into consulting and help to delegate additional responsibility to the agency.
In short, all resources are focussed on making a good thing better instead of replacing something old with something new. The iterative approach means that the continuous improvement of websites and apps is now “business as usual”, with services always up-to-date and optimized.