Article first published on Think Vitamin.
The ‘cool’ web world is awash with HTML5 and CSS3 articles at the moment, everyone’s talking about them and creating ever more impressive flashing, moving and mind-boggling experiments – from the buzz created you’d think it’s something that all of us need to learn about and adopt quickly for fear of being left behind.
However with the web world being unique in that new ‘inventions’ are released and used without going through the age-old process of rigorous testing, is it time to air a word of commercial caution to those delivering websites and web applications for clients whose businesses may depend on them, or embrace the opportunity to speed up the momentum and support for what is inevitably the next evolutionary step in our industry – and if so – how do you go about spending the time learning and implementing new technology while remaining commercially competitive?
Why the digital world is different
I’m assuming most of you have seen Dragon’s Den or America’s Inventor where an entrepreneur pitches a new business or invention idea to a panel of venture capitalists in the hope they will gain an investment, TV shows like these have brought the traditional process of taking a product or service to market into our homes and it goes something like this:
- Smart businessperson, or crazy Doc Brown-esque inventor, come up with a new business or invention idea (we’ll refer to both as a “gizmo” from here on in)
- Market research is performed to assess potential demand, target audience and competition for new gizmo
- Gizmo gains funding from third-party
- Funding is used to develop the gizmo further through a series of closely scrutinized testing and feedback loops
- Once the gizmo has been refined and tested by a wide variety of sources it’s ready and the marketing and distribution begins
- The gizmo is finally released to the public
The key difference between this traditional process and new technologies, like HTML5 and CSS3, is that they’re not individual ‘things’ that can be fully tested before being released. This means the minute a device or browser semi-supports a new technology it’s jumped upon by web designers and developers and being used on real client projects the next day, and it’s this paradigm shift that both drives our web world forward at an ever increasing rate, but also causes commercial dilemmas and problems for digital freelancers, agencies and clients alike.
So what exactly is the commercial dilemma?
The commercial dilemma of HTML5 and CSS3
The dilemma is simple to articulate and difficult to solve, with only some devices and browsers supporting some of HTML5 and CSS3 in the foreseeable future, and of those that do, not all supporting all of the same elements as each other, from a commercial perspective, what approach should a digital professional or agency take when deciding if, when and how to use these new technologies and how does it affect their project and clients…
OMG Shut up you can use it all now!
The countless articles on HTML5 and CSS3 can be chronologically categorised as follows:
- What you’ll be able to do with HTML5 and CSS3
- Which devices and browsers support which elements
- Experimental demos showing the capabilities
- How you can use it all now before it’s supported
All four categories of articles are fantastic and it really shows how amazing the people in our little world really are by how they creatively push the boundaries and overcome limitations of slower-moving device and browser manufacturers, but the commercial dilemma is most evident in the fourth category.
These articles focus on using things like HTML5 Boilerplate and Modernizr to allow the development of websites and web applications that use HTML5 and CSS3 elements where possible and degrade gracefully or facilitate progressive enhancement, for those that don’t currently provide support ñ and this is all great, except when it comes to the commercial reality of production time, now and in the future.
The fact of the matter is it currently takes more time to implement these solutions than to not, and unless you’re a world-class front-end developer or agency with enough cash in the bank to allow for this additional time, this can cause you a commercial problem… how do you stay on top of the game while remaining competitive and in profit?
Sensible approaches to adopting new technologies
By sensible I mean learning and using new technologies like HTML5 and CSS3 in ways that are appropriate and minimise risk for you and your clients. The following advice may sound like common sense to some of you, but because the web world is different there are many out there that are using new technologies on real-world projects with perhaps more enthusiasm for the effect rather than healthy cash flow.
So what approaches and strategies can you take that balance the need to stay current, and the time this takes, with the need for commercial competitiveness?
Use new technology where commercially appropriate
This isn’t just applicable to HTML5 and CSS but to web development in general, and although it seems so obvious, I still see many young, but also experienced people in our industry just itching to use the latest and greatest thing on the next project, but I don’t blame them, this is their passion in life and without their enthusiasm and excitement we would never have progressed as far as we have and so quickly, but to every Ying, there must be a Yang and in the digital business world the Yang is commercial reality (often present in the form of a Digital Project Manager or Director) and that is a ‘fun killer’ to some, but business survival to others.
So what’s the answer to this riddle? Simple, one reason to use new technology is if it will benefit the project or account from a financial perspective. This financial perspective can be tangible on multiple plains that affect the commercial decision, but below are a few examples that could influence a decision to use new technology:
- Creates a better user experience – so much so that it should yield a return on investment for the client (and the digital agency in the long-run) by increasing usage and thus the revenue from the project
- Brand awareness – through early adoption can be used as a way to increase return on new technology implementation investment because, if done well, people will promote your new site or application as a showcase for the new technology, thus gaining more positive exposure for your brand as a forward-thinking and pioneering company
- Enables client’s internal strategy – Currently, many companies are starting to think seriously about their internal and external digital infrastructures and a big part of this is a move to equip staff with modern devices, such as iPhones and iPads, which would be used on a daily basis to interact with internal systems such as Intranets, CRMs and Stock Systems
- Enables client’s external strategy – Some clients are also now thinking about making changes to their external services, such as public-facing websites and applications, so that the issue of ‘when to go mobile’ becomes less of a hurdle / big project than it will in two or three years
- Target audience/platform – If the primary, or majority, of people that will use the website or application, will be using ‘modern’ browsers or devices then it is commercially justifiable to deliver something that will offer the optimal user experience and functionality that takes advantages of technology advances
The important point here is make informed commercial decisions on when to use new technology and when to not, ensuring at all times that it’s use is not only beneficial to the end-user but also financially viable to your client and yourself before considering committing to the production and management hours it will require.
Ok so that’s the client-focus sorted, but what about your own plans for the future?
Alignment with your company strategy
As well as carefully considering your client’s strategies it’s also important to factor in your own plans in terms of where you’re aiming to be in the future when making decisions on spending the time adopting and implementing new technologies, after all, while you’re not learning your competitors may just be, and starting to grab all the new business in your area while you’re left lagging behind in the cold.
For example, you may be working on, or pitching for, several projects that would not necessarily benefit from new technology use, however, your company strategy includes plans around increasing work in the mobile arena, how do you use these current projects and new business opportunities in order to help you achieve steps towards your strategic goals?
There are three answers; either work out a way that new technology could in fact benefit your client and then explain (sell) it to them in order to get paid, or, decide to invest non-billable time in using the new technology on these projects with the full acceptance the client hasn’t asked for it and so may not keep it, but the knowledge gained cannot be un-learnt and can be used on more appropriate projects in the future.
The third answer is to actually invest time to adopt new technologies on an internal project, such as the company website. This has many advantages in that it can be used as a real testing ground with minimal risk, but the disadvantage that it’s unlikely to deliver an immediate return on investment.
However, as with the first two options, what’s learnt cannot be un-learnt and so using the internal time to develop new technology competencies is not wasted time, plus if thought about carefully internal work should always try to be revenue building in some way, for example, developing a modern device version of your company website should not only make your website more accessible but also be able to act as a showpiece you can show clients as demonstrations of expertise in new technologies and contextualising any sales patter you provide about desktop to mobile browser strategies.
Of course, there are articles floating around, like Andy Clarke’s “Ignorance is Bliss” that encourages you to use new technology on a client project without telling them:
“Often when I talk or write about using progressive CSS, people ask me, “How do you convince clients to let you work that way? What’s your secret?” Secret? I tell them what they need to know, on a need-to-know basis.”Andy Clarke
But this is something I do not advocate at all and could land you in hot water in my opinion.
Always be honest with clients
Ok, so Andy Clarke’s post is from 2009, but I’m still hearing and seeing this attitude today and I don’t believe it has to be that way and just adds an element of risk to the project and your relationship with the client.
I agree that in some cases this approach will work, and neither client nor users will ‘mind’ if the experience is different on certain browsers or devices, but what if you take this approach and during development or after launch you find out you’re wrong?
More than likely it will be the client that comes to you and it will be in a state of confusion as to why one thing happens in one and not the other, and more importantly why they didn’t know about it given that they’re paying you…
My advice, always be honest with the client. If you want to implement new technology on their project, tell them, and tell them exactly why. If it’s something that will clearly benefit them, explain that to them in their language, return on investment, why it will make them more money. If there’s no clear financial gain, then before you embark on development work, take the time to educate the client on why you want to use new technology that may result in slightly different user experiences and how you intend to do it.
I’m yet to come across a client who reacts negatively to complete honesty when communicated in the right way, and even to the knowledge that you want to use their project in order to advance your own company, this is not a dark secret. All the client will likely care about is if it will impact their project timeline, budget or quality, if it won’t ñ because you won’t be charging for it or extending the timeline to cater for internal work, then you should be all good to go.
Obviously, it should go without saying that you need to choose which clients or pitches to suggest this to, and if you detect strong hesitation at all you should immediately back down, there will be other opportunities (perhaps in the same project) ñ but if the client is right, the education is right and the openness, hence trust, is there, you will probably get a positive reaction and even make the client feel happy about getting something ‘cool’ and ‘cutting edge’ on their web project.
Added value through incremental experiments and metric tracking
Assuming you have found a financially viable way to make the decision to invest time in researching, learning and trying out new technologies, how can you increase this decision’s value beyond simply being able to show peers something cool?
How about adopting a strategy to actually conduct incremental experiments and track the enhanced features you’ve developed against the basic features and against each other? By putting into place some pretty simple A / B testing, using great guides like Smashing Magazine’s Ultimate Guide to A/B Testing, you can not only continue your new technology learning and skill set advancement but start to show how it’s being received in the real world.
If you can combine introducing new enhancements to the user experience using new technologies with tracking key business data on how they’re affecting key business metrics, like conversions, then you’re starting to talk the client’s language, and that’s when they really start to listen.
For example what if you decided to implement new technology on a client’s registration form and thorough tracking and analysis, you could show that the conversion rate was higher on browsers that had the enhanced user experience than that on less-compliant browsers? That could prove a powerful sales argument to your client that they should consider paying you to use workarounds in order to get the non-compliant browsers behaving in the same way, everyone’s a winner!
Finding a way to adopt new technologies in order to keep up with, or ahead of, your competition while ensuring your ability to consistently offer your client’s the best possible solutions, where expertise and experience are not barriers, is one of the most challenging aspects of running a digital business today.
Because the digital world is different to traditional we don’t get as much time to prepare as other industries, yes we get the raft of articles from industry leaders and web celebs, but this isn’t as public and highly exposed as the traditional new gizmo process and so ‘when’ to actually start preparing isn’t as clear and is left to the freelancers and directors out there to decide when the time is right for them.
Admittedly it’s not the right time for everyone at the same time, diving in early is scary and risky but potentially advantageous commercially, waiting too long is lower risk but possibly business crippling as your competitors race ahead snapping up all the new work in that arena, not to mention the more passionate staff members you have who really keep up to date may be attracted away to your competitors, leaving you with a diluted enthusiasm and service offering.
However, when you break it down to its bare essentials, finding a way to adopt new technologies isn’t that much different to expanding your array of services you offer as a company, the only difference is you choose when to create a new service – new web technologies and standards creep up for months then and bang, are right in your face!
After realising the need to keep up, like a new digital service offering, you need to decide how you’re going to keep the company running while you start from scratch on researching and finding ways to spend the internal time required to turn it into an idea to a solid service you can offer and therein lays the challenge that you have to overcome ñ but there are ways.
By carefully and ethically balancing your client’s requirements and relationship, plus being alert to new opportunities, there are several approaches you can take that will benefit your client and your company without breaking the bank.