David Clarke is CEO and Co-Founder of BGT Partners, a 2011 and 2010 Ad Age Best Place to Work in the U.S. BGT creates interactive marketing and technology solutions for global corporations that strengthen brands, develop more engaging relationships and transform businesses.

It’s time to take tablet design seriously and evaluate how your brand’s web presence caters to tablet consumers. As usual, Apple is the primary driver behind tablet growth, and the new iPad is yet again redefining the tablet experience and pushing the boundaries of how we use the web.

But what does it mean for your web presence? Below are three ways for your brand to excel in the tablet revolution so you don’t get left behind.


1. Prepare Your Site to Go “Beyond HD”


Just as the demand for high-definition technology forced broadcasters to convert their shows, the new iPad may force brands to make their websites retina display-friendly. With the new iPad, your site is not going to look the same as it did before. The original and second-generation iPads both have a screen resolution of 1024 x 768, but the new iPad’s resolution of 2048 x 1536 is double that in both directions.

The retina display’s pixel density is so high that your eye is unable to distinguish individual pixels. And with a 44% better color saturation than before, coupled with A5X quad-core graphics, images on your site will pop off the screen and be crisper and sharper at any size. Existing apps will be updated automatically, and they will look better, but as Tim Cook stated during the unveiling, “If a developer takes a little bit of time, they can do little things that are mind-blowing.”

What does this mean for your brand?

To really take advantage of the retina display, brands need to put more emphasis on high-quality imagery, colors and overall attention to design details. Let’s face it — a poor design will make you look even worse in HD, while high-resolution imagery and a broader range of colors will ensure your site stands out.


2. Prepare for Voice- and Gesture-Controlled Interfaces


New iPad
Do you remember the movie Minority Report? It featured Tom Cruise swinging his hands and using his voice to control a computer screen. This was fiction 10 years ago, but voice- and gesture-controlled interactions are rapidly moving from fantasy to reality. Gesture-controlled video game systems like Nintendo’s Wii and the Xbox Kinect have been hugely successful, and LG recently came out with a voice- and gesture-controlled TV. That’s not to mention the splash that Siri made in the mobile world.

Although the new iPad doesn’t include Siri, it does include a voice dictation feature. However, voice- and gesture-enabled websites are bound to be a key part of the future web experience. In fact, Apple recently filed for a patent called the “Three-Dimensional Imaging and Display System,” hinting that the company is exploring gesture-controlled interactions.

What does this mean for your brand?

Well for now, Siri only works with a few of the iPhone’s built-in apps (email, search, calendar, etc.), but just imagine what will happen when Apple opens Siri up to third-party developers. Brands will be able to create Siri-friendly apps (for mobile and tablet) to allow customers to use their voices to carry out mundane tasks, such as paying your electric bill or transferring money from one account to another. To prepare yourself, focus on your key customers and their most important tasks and consider how your current apps can be improved through voice-controlled interactions.


3. The New iPad Is a Tipping Point for Tablets


New iPad Resolution
With the explosive growth of tablets and mobile, people are accessing the web on an increasing array of devices, and your consumers are now expecting your site to work equally well on their desktop, smartphone and tablet. But how do you accommodate for this when there are hundreds of different devices and screen resolutions? Creating separate sites for each device on the market can be expensive and difficult to manage, as the landscape is constantly changing.

What does this mean for your brand?

A smart approach to this challenge is implementing responsive web design, which utilizes one set of code to display content effectively across all devices. Gone are the days of creating entirely separate websites in parallel desktop and mobile versions. Now you can construct an extremely flexible website to handle multiple environments.

A responsive design responds to the user’s behavior and environment based on screen size, platform and orientation. As the user switches from a laptop to iPad, the website will automatically switch to accommodate for resolution, image size and scripting abilities. Essentially, your site will scale to whatever device your customer is using.


In Summary


Before you do anything, start with a thorough audit of how your current website performs on the new iPad. Look at imagery, colors, fonts and overall opportunities to improve the visual experience. Next, start the planning process to integrate voice and gesture-controlled interactions into your site — this is the future of tablets. Finally, convert your site design to one that’s responsive so it can be viewed optimally on every device in the market, starting with a tablet.

Follow these steps and your brand will not only be “beyond HD,” but will also excel in the tablet revolution.

 

The New iPad Details Hit Apple.com

The new 9.7-inch iPad has 2048 x 1536-pixel retina display, 5-megapixel camera (with the same optics sensor from the iPhone 4S) and 1080p video recording. It is available March 16 in black and white, powered by A5X chip (with quad-core graphics) and supports 4G LTE networks. It’s 9.4 millimeters thick and 1.4 pounds.

Wi-Fi only iPads cost $499 for 16 GB, $599 32 GB and $699 for 64 GB, while 4G versions cost $629 for 16 GB, $729 32 GB and $829 for 64 GB. Pre-orders start today, and the devices will be in stores March 16 in these 10 countries: U.S., UK, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, France, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia.

Credit: Apple.com

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Dallas Lawrence is the chief global digital strategist for Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s leading public relations and communications firms. He is a Mashable contributor on emerging media trends, online reputation management and digital issue advocacy. You can connect with him on Twitter @dallaslawrence.

If an individual or activist group broke into an organization’s office, raided confidential materials and then burned the building to the ground, local, state and federal officials would have swarmed the crime scene in an all out effort to bring the perpetrators to justice for an act of terrorism. Meanwhile, savvy online audiences and members of the media almost dismissively refer to the online versions of these raiders as “hacktivists,” conjuring up images of harmless school kids having fun pushing the boundaries of online security.

As we saw this morning with the Susan G. Komen Foundation website hack -– and again as “Anonymous Brazil” signaled they had successfully “taken down” the website of Brazil’s largest state bank — these groups are anything but harmless. One study from 2011 identified the average financial impact of these types of breaches to be just north of $7 million per incident.

SEE ALSO: 6 Tips for Handling Breaking Crises on Twitter

Whether you are a respected non-profit with a decades-long track record, or a state-owned financial institution in Latin America, organizations must diligently prepare for inevitable online intrusions and the challenging communications demands that result. There are four key considerations for organizations seeking to retain credibility and confidence as trusted stewards of information before and after a breach.


1. Think Ahead and Anticipate


The best offense is often the best defense — and this is certainly true in the online security game. Every organization involved in any form of data (online contributions, email petitions, online sales, social gaming, employee data, etc) is vulnerable to attack. Smart organizations are using their pre-hack peacetime wisely to invest in a forensics security assessment and to address identified weaknesses. In addition to the technical diligence, organizations must ensure their corporate communications, IT and legal teams understand who will be responsible for managing breaches and have a well planned rapid response crisis program in place.


2. Say Something


In the immediate aftermath of an attack, the lack of information can cause severe organizational paralysis. This paralysis hampers communications efforts, ultimately allowing external forces to shape the lens through which a response is viewed.

Identifying immediately what you know for certain and what you don’t know is critical. For example, organizations need to be prepared to address questions and concerns about the security of the system. Even though an activist may hijack a site to make a political point, it highlights a deeper potential for vulnerability that must be addressed.

Importantly, saying something does not mean saying everything. The rush to respond can have equally devastating consequences for the ill-informed and unprepared. Communicating what you know for certain and what you are doing to investigate — and even what you are still trying to determine — demonstrates responsiveness and transparency to stakeholders that rightly feel equally violated by the breach. Creating a direct response channel for those exposed — via an online registration system or a 24/7 call center — is another important sign of responsiveness. Total silence creates a vacuum of frustration that antagonists are only too happy to fill.


3. Know the Law


Every single state in the Union has separate reporting rules and regulations for what constitutes personally identifiable information (PII). These rules also govern when organizations that have been the victim of a breach must notify the public. Attempting to unravel this multi-state patchwork for the first time with your stakeholders, the media and law enforcement officials all demanding answers can be crippling.

Ensure that your team understands the regulations in each state — and country — you operate in, and make sure your compliance team is fully integrated with your communications team. Often, you will not be the arbiter of when to go public with news of your breach. The worst thing an organization can do from a reputational standpoint is to allow the narrative to shift from being the victim of an attack to the villain who failed to notify and protect those individuals whose data may have been compromised.


4. Remember, You’re Not Alone


In almost every case of online breaches, the “victims” number in the thousands — if not millions. It is not just the organization that has been violated, it is every employee whose social security number may have been exposed, every charitable donor who supported a cause, every business partner that shared data and every consumer who purchased a product. Keep these important groups informed and at the forefront of your communications efforts. They can be powerful advocates. Engaging quickly with local and federal law enforcement officials shows transparency and responsiveness — don’t be afraid to tell that story of cooperation.


In 2012, data will continue to emerge as the new form of global currency, and hacking will continue its evolution as the new face of popular protest. The fundamental reality for every business or organization is that everyone is now in the business of data — and its protection.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, tomhoryn

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The Spark of Genius Series highlights a unique feature of startups and is made possible by Microsoft BizSpark. If you would like to have your startup considered for inclusion, please see the details here.

QuipolName: Quipol

Quick Pitch: Quipol is a web application that makes creating and embedding polls on blogs easy.

Genius Idea: Quipol allows bloggers to get feedback from their audiences with a super simple and customizable polling template.


If Quipol were an ice cream flavor, it would be vanilla. It’s delicious by itself, but meant to be individualized by each person. Instead of sprinkles, nuts and hot fudge, however, Quipol customization allows for video, pictures and comments.

Think of Quipols as quick polls — extremely pared down versions of online polls (see right). Each poll displays one question with thumbs-up and thumbs-down options. A comments section encourages chatter.

The idea behind Quipol is to make customizable polls as simple and elegant as possible, Max Yoder, the 23-year-old entrepreneur behind the new web application, tells Mashable.

“I think of traditional polls as a hunched-over half ape,” Yoder said.

Yoder believes Quipol’s two answer options aren’t as limiting as you would think because they encourage bloggers to be creative with their question wording. Plus, they force readers to go with their gut and not be wishy-washy with their answers.

Yoder started developing the poll application eight months ago and tested the prototype with the groups that Quipol was meant for — fashion bloggers, avid Tumblr users, political bloggers, entertainment bloggers and tech bloggers. Forbes Magazine was one of the biggest early adopters. But Quipol was made for anyone to use — the average blogger who wants to get feedback about issues they care about.

Looking ahead, the goal for Quipol as a company is to keep the partnerships coming. Quipol is viewed by many as a company that does one thing very well, and big companies and small businesses use its product so they don’t have to write out and upkeep a polling dock.

“Building kind of a pared down poll will guide the ship,” Yoder said. “We will be here for you for all development, resources and upkeep.”

SEE ALSO: HOW TO: Poll Consumers on Facebook

There are many polling software products for online audiences. Toluna also lets users add videos and pictures to polls; Micropoll doesn’t require registration to create polls and PollDaddy gives users access to surveys, polls and quizzes on various platforms including e-mail and Twitter.

Yoder’s goal for the end of the year is to gain 25,000 users and really improve the product based on continued user feedback. People can already sign in for free with their Facebook or Twitter to embed their own polls. There is also a new video element where they can add a YouTube video directly into a poll (see video below). They can be as creative with the pared-down poll as they want.


Series Supported by Microsoft BizSpark


Microsoft BizSpark

The Spark of Genius Series highlights a unique feature of startups and is made possible by Microsoft BizSpark, a startup program that gives you three-year access to the latest Microsoft development tools, as well as connecting you to a nationwide network of investors and incubators. There are no upfront costs, so if your business is privately owned, less than three years old, and generates less than U.S.$1 million in annual revenue, you can sign up today.

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Daniel Alves is the design director for the small business web design division at the digital marketing and web design company 352 Media Group.

If you read the business news that followed Black Friday and Cyber Monday, you would remember that this year’s online holiday shopping season was predicted to be the biggest in history. Many reported that online sales were up a whopping 16% compared to 2010.

However, despite these impressive trends, ecommerce websites only convert 1-4% of their leads, on average. On the other hand, some of the best ecommerce websites convert upward of 15% of their visitors. So how do they do it?

While there are many factors that go into creating conversions, one thing is certain: Great ecommerce websites successfully connect a user to a product with a system that is efficient, easy and fun.

When designing your ecommerce website, keep in mind there are three basic steps in an online shopping experience. First, a user must find the product she wants. Second, you must showcase the product well. Third, you need to seal the deal with a seamless checkout process. Read on for more details.


1. Finding the Product


Believe it or not, the biggest reason why a shopper won’t buy something on a given website is not due to its price, your customer service, or a lack of buyer’s intent. Surprisingly, the biggest reason ecommerce websites fail is because shoppers can’t find what they are looking for.

So, why is it so hard for websites to guide users to their desired products? The key to understanding this phenomenon is understanding your users.

Great web design has the ability to cater to different user needs in a unified user interface. For the users who know exactly what they are looking for, your job is to help them find their desired product in as few steps as possible. Some users might need more hand-holding, while others just want to casually browse. Each type of shopper presents unique challenges, as well as unique opportunities.

  • The Power Shopper: Power Shoppers know exactly what they want, have sophisticated shopping strategies, and don’t want to waste time casually perusing your website. For these shoppers, your first priority is to provide them with an awesome search bar so they can type exactly what they want. In terms of design, you want to make sure your search bar is large and presented with enough contrast so it’s easily visible. Per conventions, place it in the top-right of your website and make sure it is consistent across the entire website.

    As for functionality, it’s pretty much expected that your search bar should provide suggestions as you type. This allows your shoppers to type a few characters and be presented with potential choices, without having to type out the product’s entire name. This auto-complete feature can also be leveraged to cross-market products related to the product users are looking for. If you do include these suggestions, make sure to clearly label them as suggestions, not actual results of the search.

  • The Recreational Shopper: If you’re not a recreational shopper, you probably know one. This type of shopper would prefer to spend an entire afternoon at the mall casually exploring any store that piques his curiosity. They don’t see shopping as a means to an end; they’re shopping for the experience.

    While these shoppers are more likely to jump ship and not purchase from you, they provide an incredible opportunity, due to their tendency to be more adventurous and impulsive in their shopping habits. Because these shoppers respond to visual cues, you need to wow them with dynamite photography, featured item showcases, unbeatable deals and the occasional unique surprise.

    Don’t worry, you don’t have to blow your marketing budget with a tricked out homepage to lure in shoppers. In fact, some of the best ecommerce websites accomplish an eye-catching and entertaining storefront with simple and creative techniques. A popular women’s clothing website, Free People, shows off a traditional model spread, but presents a simple, unique twist when you move your mouse over one of the images.

  • The Reluctant Shopper: This type of shopper is generally uncomfortable and nervous about shopping online. She is typically less tech-savvy and needs more guidance throughout the entire shopping experience. One of her biggest concerns is privacy and security; therefore, she responds well to promising statements of trust and customer service. Because online shoppers cannot physically touch the item they are buying, promoting return and refund policies greatly increases the likelihood they will do business with you.

    For finding products, these shoppers benefit greatly from gift guides or “Shopping Wizards:” The customer answers a few pre-qualifying questions, and the site provides suggestions that suit her particular needs.


2. Showcasing the Product


Once a shopper zeroes-in on a product, the conversion clock starts ticking. Your number-one goal at this point is to get the user to add the item to his shopping cart. While there are several different ways to arrange a product detail page, several important components will help retain shopper interest and make him more likely to commit to a purchase.

  • Photos: Humans are visual creatures and high-quality photography is the key to showcasing your product. If you can only give them one photo, make sure the product has a distraction-free, neutral-colored background. If you do show your product in a lifestyle-oriented setting, make sure the product is overtly emphasized, so as not to confuse the shopper and take attention away from the product.

    If your design doesn’t allow you to display the photo at such a large size, make sure you give shoppers the option to view the photo in a modal window. Don’t offer them a zoom tool that limits them to a small quadrant of the photo. There’s no reason to not display a large photo in its entirety.

  • Price: Price is perhaps the biggest reason why a shopper will abandon your website and look elsewhere. While determining prices is outside the scope of this article, you can do a few things to help sweeten the deal. First, display the price boldly and clearly. Don’t make users register or add the item to their carts before showing them the price. This will certainly annoy users and cause them to leave in droves. If your price is discounted from the suggested retail price, show them the discount because everybody likes to know you are giving them a deal.
  • Reviews: Social influences have a profound effect on our shopping behaviors. You can tout the virtues of your product with fancy and elaborate prose, but shoppers won’t believe one word of it until it’s been confirmed by an independent customer. While positive reviews will motivate users to take the plunge and purchase an item, negative reviews give you a unique opportunity to either make product changes or respond to customer concerns publicly. This open and proactive approach to giving and receiving feedback ultimately gives your website more credibility, which translates into loyal customers and repeat sales.
  • Add to Cart: Because your call-to-action entices the user to click on the “Add to Cart” button, you must give plenty of attention to optimizing it for conversions. Try the following tips to increase your conversion rate.

    Use the words “Add to Cart.” This may seem like a no-brainer, but shoppers can either be apprehensive about the commitment of “Buy Now” or confused when they see “Add to Bag.” The convention of the words “Add to Cart” is non-committal, and leaves them comfortable to keep on shopping. It’s your most important button, so don’t hide it. Use bold colors that contrast well with your design and attract attention. Try choosing a color that is not used anywhere else in the design to really set it apart. By making the button plainly visible, shoppers won’t have to wonder how to add items to their shopping carts. Any time spent searching for the “Add to Cart” button is time in which the shopper will reconsider her motivation to purchase.

    When your shopper clicks on the “Add to Cart” button, make sure to show her some indication that the item has been added to the cart. Don’t take her to the shopping cart. If you take her away from the product page and force her to the shopping cart, you lose the opportunity to cross-sell, and the user will be less likely to keep shopping.

  • Related Products:Offering shoppers suggestions gives you the opportunity to feature items they wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise. Some shoppers might not be savvy in searching, but are more likely to wander through your website based on the suggestions they receive. Because the biggest reason for a lack of conversion on ecommerce websites is not being able to find the desired product, this feature gives you the unique opportunity to customize the products your customers see based on their browsing history.
  • Deals: Without a doubt, shoppers are responsive to deals and promotions, and the king of all deals is free shipping. Marketing guru Seth Godin dedicated a whole chapter of his book Free Prize Inside! to Amazon’s success with its free shipping model. In order to offer this and still make a profit, make a minimum purchase amount, but don’t make it too high. A minimum purchase amount will encourage shoppers to spend a little bit more just to get free shipping.

3. Sealing the Deal


So, you’ve gotten your shopper to add a cornucopia of products to his shopping cart, but it’s not time to break out the bubbly yet. One of the biggest hurdles a shopper must overcome is the often plagued and cumbersome checkout process, beautifully portrayed in this video.

While shopping is fun, spending money isn’t. Your job is to get customers through the payment as quickly and painlessly as possible. I’ll offer some helpful tips.

  • One-page checkouts increase conversions. Long forms with many steps require the browser to load a new page, proving detrimental to a shopper’s patience. One A/B Split Test study determined an improvement of more than 20% when users were able to checkout with one click of the submit button.
  • Provide instant chat. A study by BoldChat found that 76% of shoppers want to have instant access to a customer service rep during the checkout process. Instant chat not only lets you help your users with technical problems, but it also allows you to encourage them to complete their order.
  • Follow up. If you’ve been keen enough to capture a customer’s email address in the first steps of the checkout process, you have a unique ability to recover a lost sale if she decides to jump ship.
  • Don’t require registration. A Forrester Research study found that requiring users to register before checking out decreases ecommerce conversions by a staggering 23%. While registering users is a great tool for identifying repeat shoppers and making the checkout process more streamlined, make this an optional step. Also, consider using Facebook Connect or other social media sign-in widgets. These tools allow shoppers to register with your site without having to create a unique account.
  • Use cookies. A cookie is a small amount of information a website puts in a user’s web browser so that it can remember something about him/her at a later time. You can leverage this simple tool to remember a user’s shopping cart or shopping history, so when they do visit your website again, they can pick up where they left off.

Selling online is as much an art as it is a science. You need the creative prowess of both a marketing and design genius to attract customers, and the keen eye of a usability guru to make conversions happen. However, implementing the suggestions provided above should help increase your conversion rate, and lead to happy and satisfied customers.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, MarsBars

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What do you do after your site grows to 800 million users and expands to 1 trillion pageviews per month? Why, plan a $100 billion IPO, of course!

Going public is clearly the biggest thing on tap for Facebook in 2012, but the world’s most populated social network and its users have a lot to look forward to over the coming year. From the maturation of Mark Zuckerberg as a leader to Facebook’s growth as a media platform to a looming collision with the world’s biggest tech companies, 2012 is poised to be one of the most important years in the company’s short history.

Read on for our predictions for Facebook’s upcoming year, and be sure to add your ideas in the comments.


The IPO


It’s safe to say that Facebook’s long-rumored IPO will be the biggest public offering of 2012. It could also potentially be the biggest of the current decade, if rumors of a reported $100 billion valuation and $10 billion raise are accurate. That would put Facebook in the top-three American IPOs for highest amounts raised.

Of course, an astronomical target does not mean a guaranteed blockbuster IPO for Facebook. Zynga’s unspectacular debut on the public markets in December has some investor’s worried that social media IPOs will generate less enthusiasm going forward, and that could affect Facebook in 2012. “It’s a very telltale sign of how people feel about social media IPOs in general,” Jeffrey Sica, owner of Sica Wealth Management in Morristown, N.J., told Mashable. “[Investors] have become very shortsighted. There’s a lot of fear in the market right now.”

Furthermore, today’s tech companies are raising larger rounds of private money more frequently before going to IPO, and are allowing private investors to trade shares prior to going public. That’s adding up to less opportunity for public investors once the offering hits the market. This is another reason why there was lower-than-expected interest from retail investors for Zynga, and could also be indicative of a lackluster future debut for Facebook, which has raised a whopping $2.3 billion from private investors.

It’s unclear what this trend of raising mega-sized rounds of private equity means for public capital markets long term. However, it is clear that entrepreneurs and early employees of the few tech companies attracting this sort of attention are reaping the benefits. And aftermarket stock sales have allowed some early employees and investors to cash in, pre-IPO. Facebook has already minted a number of on-paper billionaires that way. If the company’s IPO in 2012 is as successful at the rumored $100 billion valuation, Reuter’s estimates that Facebook will be home to at least 1,000 new millionaires.


The Next Steve Jobs?


Shortly after Apple’s iconic co-founder Steve Jobs died in October, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook profile, “Steve, thank you for being a mentor and a friend. Thanks for showing that what you build can change the world. I will miss you.”

Mashable executive editor Adam Ostrow wrote following Jobs’s death, “Although Apple and Facebook have had a contentious relationship, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between Jobs and Zuckerberg, both of whom dropped out of college and founded their iconic companies in their early twenties.”

Indeed, even before Jobs died, there was a sense that his retirement from Apple as CEO was a symbolic passing of the mantle to unofficial Innovator in Chief in Silicon Valley, and to the tech world in general. But to whom? Many pundits have prognosticated on that question and the answer usually comes down to one of four choices: someone we haven’t heard of yet, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg.

When people ask, “Who is the next Steve Jobs?” they mean, from where will the next giant of the tech industry emerge? Who will be the next larger-than-life figure to drive innovation in tech, design and business for the next few decades? It might not necessarily be anyone from the current crop of big company tech CEOs, but of the candidates, a good case could be made for Zuckerberg. That has a lot less to do with Zuckerberg’s potential as a Jobs impersonator (though he is getting better at channeling Jobs’ confidence on stage), and more to do with his place among the next generation’s influencers.

Zuckerberg’s performance at the f8 Developer Conference this year, which included an on-stage lampooning from Saturday Night Live star Andy Samberg, illustrates Zuckberg’s generational advantage. Even though he clearly tries to match Steve Jobs’s charisma, his style is clearly not a one-to-one emulation — and that’s okay. In fact, that’s exactly why Zuckerberg might be the next Jobs: He understands his consumers in ways that competitors have yet to grasp, and that edge has helped him to win the innovation war in social networking thus far.


Facebook vs. The World


Facebook has been on a collision course with the world’s biggest tech companies for a long time, and that could all come to a head in 2012.

The company will fight Apple in the mobile space, where a focus on HTML5 and a recent acquisition of mobile platform developer Strobe (makers of SproutCore) is positioning Facebook to be a powerhouse in the mobile space, ideally by delivering a rich user experience across hardware platforms. One big advantage Facebook can offer that other platforms can’t? Massive amounts of social data and one of the biggest installed user bases on the planet.

Facebook will fight Amazon and eBay in the consumer space, with the continued expansion of Facebook Credits, which are already being used to sell all sorts of digital content, from in-game items to movie downloads. For now, Credits can’t be used in the purchase or sale of physical goods, but as retailers like Amazon expand their footprint into digital, they’ll start start to bump into Facebook. And Facebook credits are already sold in stores. Therefore, using them for physical purchases might not be far behind, especially as they get added to mobile payment systems.

And they’ll fight Google on virtually all fronts. Both Facebook and Google are advertising-driven businesses, but Facebook’s revenue is a drop in the bucket compared to Google’s. That could significantly start to change in 2012, as Facebook rolls out new ad formats and more agencies shift traditional media buys to online advertising. Yet Facebook does face an uphill battle when it comes to convincing big brands to pay for advertising products when they’re accustomed to free Facebook Pages .


Facebook Becomes the Media


Somewhat lost amidst Facebook’s new Timeline buzz, three other developments in 2011 fueled Facebook’s aspiration to become the destination for all media. First, Facebook launched an update to its Open Graph protocol called Gestures, which essentially allows users to [verb] any [noun]. Or in other words, websites are no longer constrained to just allowing users to Like items. Now users can read, watch, listen or perform any other action around the web.

Second, Facebook launched a new Subscribe feature, allowing users to let fans follow their public updates. The Subscribe button is now available for websites too. This can help Subscribe users promote their Facebook presence on their site while allowing site visitors to seamlessly connect with their Facebook updates.

Third, Facebook offered an update to the News Feed called Ticker, that serves as a real-time feed of activity away from Facebook. Taken in tandem, these updates indicate Facebook’s growing desire to be to discovery what Google is to search — that is, the market leader for the new dominant form of currency on the web. In the previous decade, the link was the main way to pass information around on the Internet. Google figured out how to harness that information and turn it into a highly useful search engine. In today’s social media-driven world, the link is being replaced by the social recommendation (and more broadly, by the social action), and Facebook is attempting to build a discovery engine around that idea.

In other words, Facebook isn’t going to be a creator of media, but it will be the ultimate curator.


The Future of Timeline


Of course, that hoopla for Timeline was warranted. Facebook’s radical redesign of the profile page marked a huge departure from the traditional design, which in spite of numerous changes and updates, had maintained the same basic UI concept since Facebook launched.

The new Timeline is about storytelling. “Timeline is the story of your life,” said Zuckerberg at the f8 Conference. It’s a “new way to express who you are.”

That, of course, gets to the heart of Facebook’s oft-stated goal to make the world “more open and connected.” Here is a new profile that encourages you to share even more about your life by documenting and organizing everything you do. (Not coincidentally, that also plays right into Facebook’s advertising-fueled business model.)

What happens to Timeline in 2012 would be as difficult to predict as Timeline itself would have been this time last year, but it’s safe to assume that Facebook’s recent acquisition of Gowalla will have an impact on the future of the site’s profile design. With Gowalla, Facebook acquired a team of designers and developers that had created an unquestionably beautiful location-based social network with the stated purpose of helping users document their travel (both locally and abroad). Put another way, Gowalla was made for telling stories about the places you went.

Facebook didn’t specifically acquire the technology behind Gowalla, but it did say that it was “sure that the inspiration behind Gowalla will make its way into Facebook over time.” Smart money is that parts of that “inspiration” will find its way into Facebook as improvements to the storytelling functionality of Facebook Timeline and Facebook’s mobile applications.

Special thanks to Brian Carter, author of “The Like Economy,” who helped me codify my thoughts about the future of Facebook.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, Oxford, Flickr, Andrew Feinberg, Kewei SHANG

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One of the most common misconceptions about director/architect-level designers is they do less work (produce fewer wireframes, specifications, etc.) than junior-level designers. In fact, their work is more complex than people initially imagine when starting out in the field. You have to balance many ideas, requirements, and people, and have to make independent decisions that will cost thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars. The buck stops with you. This is a level of responsibility you have to endure, if not enjoy, to thrive in higher-level design.

When I was an entry-level designer, I would be handed various interaction design problems and asked for a solution. I would then present three or four solutions to my immediate managers and be done until the next such request. I was always curious what happened after I handed it off. I came to realize that there were several more handoffs, each getting more precise and more fierce as it moved up the chain of command. Different teams would have to get involved, then team leaders, then finally stakeholders, each giving opinions on changes, personal ideas, and ways to try and cut costs. The balancing act that you must do for that is beyond the scope of this article, but I will try to help you deliver the best possible solution you can.

This article is an overview of how to deliver completed designs to other teams or stakeholders in the highest levels of design. I am not going to explain details of design process, because you likely have one of your own, your team’s, or your company’s. I’ll specifically tackle how to walk into a large meeting to present deliverables and get the best reception possible.

I should also add that my experience is with large corporations, such as Microsoft and Apple. How I present ideas to colleagues may be very different than how a vendor or a design agency would present an idea. My strategies for delivering designs are meant to influence a set of peers to maintain the best possible experience for the user. Your focus should be entirely on what’s best for the customer.


Share Documents in Advance


Include all relevant documents including the specifications, executive summary, UX testing materials and, if possible, other requirements that stakeholders have given you. If they want to read before the meeting, you should facilitate that in every manner possible. Air out your dirty laundry, include links to past specs and meeting notes if applicable.

The importance of this step is to help them prepare for the meeting. It’s bad form or just bad judgment to introduce a new idea or direction in a large meeting without proper warning. The initial kneejerk reaction will most likely be negative. Resistance to change is inherent. It’s better to give them as much preparation material as possible to facilitate a speedier meeting. You’ll be able to presume understanding of the concepts or reference the materials you have sent out during the meeting with more confidence. I like to include past UX testing findings with notations. This lets me speak directly about the customers’ needs when discussing solutions: “As you can see, six out of seven customers were searching for a way to do X. This pushed us to design a solution for X.” Also remember at the beginning of the meeting to make sure everyone got the materials and to ask if anyone had any questions.

Some examples of documents that I have given out prior to meetings:

  • UX findings, executive-level summaries (two to three sentences discussing the results of an entire testing round)
  • Excerpts from books describing certain design ideas or thoughts (one in particular I have given out several times is Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice)
  • Links to or wireframes of past designs and findings, or conclusions gotten from those designs
  • Links to TED talks (Barry Schwartz gives a great one)
  • HTML/Flash/WPF prototypes in a ZIP so they can play with them before they see them in your presentation
  • Sketches or drawings of past designs
  • Links to specific points in videos of UX Testing for particular quotes

Know Your Colleagues


Be familiar with each of the personalities in the room, and why are each of them has been invited to the presentation. Determine the roles of each member and make a mental note of the history your design team has had with them. Try to anticipate what each person might challenge you with. Think through questions that each may ask and try to determine if there will be any “gotcha” moments beforehand.

At Microsoft, from my recollection, approximately 50% of the employees have a title that’s some variation of “program manager,” or PM. This is a very general job title and can represent so many different types of roles. The PMs I usually came into contact with were software PMs, whose job is to watch the money. They keep track of the timelines, the budget, and generally keep an eye on all the different teams working on a particular feature set. They ensure everyone is working as hard as they can and that we finish on time and on budget.

When presenting to a group of PMs and developers a significant change to current thinking or process, the reactions will be varied. Many things are on the minds of the participants, including timeline, amount of code, impact on the customer, impact of the footprint (memory or cycles), etc. The developers may invite the challenge of trying to come up with something ingenious to solve the problem of developing your solution, but the PMs may want to keep resource utilization to a minimum. Conversely, the developers might not want to get that deep into the code for something they see as arbitrary and unnecessary because it will have a low customer impact, while the PMs push for more “wow” moments. This is why it’s important to understand where each of the meeting participants is coming from. If one of the PMs is constantly fretting about deadlines, be prepared to speak directly to how your designs will actually affect the deadline.


Do Your Homework


Are there any academic papers relevant to your designs? Have you checked ACM? Developers and PMs react positively to peer-reviewed academic papers given as support for design decisions. Being able to cite testing results or give specific examples from an academic paper is worth its weight in gold.

It’s also worth investigating whether there is any company history that might bear on your work if this is an ongoing version of a product with significant development history. Has this particular solution been tried before and failed? If it did fail, be prepared to speak to that history and how your solution is different and an improvement. Be specific. Have all raw notes, summaries, and findings from user testing ready to go. Be prepared to deep dive into the results as much as you need to be. Be able to cite specific testing answers if need be; more times than not, it’s very useful. I have found that when PMs or developers don’t want to do a particular piece of a design—perhaps because of the number of hours it will take or its perceived risk to the stability of the build—they will hammer it incessantly, challenging the thought process, the reasoning, or the design process. These concerns are easier to respond to when you have user testing results ready at hand, and have organized them in a way that anticipates how you might need to use them to respond to concerns.

When you start designing a particular feature or add-on to a product, remember that you are not the first. There should be a massive amount of documentation on why the designers got to the point you are at now. If you were designing for Microsoft Office Help, for example, you would not expect to go in fresh. There is a massive amount of documentation, designs, test results, and other political/corporate decisions that went into where it lies.

Before presenting some new and interesting feature or add-on, always make sure that you have researched the history behind it first. Talk to some of the senior people; do they have any recollection of that particular feature ever being introduced? Can they recall any unwritten corporate decisions, legal problems, or technical issues that led to its currently not being implemented? Research the idea or feature to the best of your ability to help prepare yourself for speaking to why it should be implemented now if it wasn’t in the past.


Understand the Technical and Engineering Requirements


If you don’t quite understand why engineers cannot implement a particular requirement, ask questions. Generally, you will find a dev or two who loves helping with and learning about design. It is very helpful to have an ally in the development team, someone you can confer with, bounce ideas off of, or get good development advice from. In my experience, there is always at least one developer who is more design savvy than a normal developer. Relationships with this type of person are invaluable in the design process. Feed your designs to your design-savvy developer for feedback on the complexity of implementing the designs how it would affect the product technically.

Be friendly with developers. They are not your enemy (most of the time). Developers are fearful of designers’ ability to create thousands of lines of code with a simple sketch. So instead of approaching your design work simply from a designer’s standpoint, approach it as someone who would also have to build it. Whatever you get approved, someone is going to have to labor over to actually implement.

Be precise and be exact if your aim is to get full sign-off on a design. If you don’t get this detailed in your review, expect to have to do another review when you do. Do not go into a meeting and describe a “slow animation that sweeps from the left;” do go into a meeting and say, “The animation begins and lasts for 0.3 seconds, and here are four slides, from 0 to 0.1 to 0.2 to 0.3 and the resting state at 0.4.” But even this isn’t enough. Make sure you have talked to a developer first to see if this can even be implemented in the manner that you want it to be.

Understand the overall system ramifications of your design are beyond the scope of this article, but I would suggest you gain a familiarity with all the workings of your particular application or solution have on whatever system it may be running on. This includes, but it not limited to, the variables that are changing hands, the memory load, the machine cycles, the net connections, etc. Try to understand as much as you possibly can before asking the next level of stakeholders. What is the effect on the rest of the application or experience? You don’t want the entire experience to pay a tax (in whatever machination that may come in the form of) for a small feature that it shouldn’t have to pay.


Conducting the Meeting


At the start of the meeting, explain the goals for the meeting and what you want everyone to get from it. What you’d ideally like is universal buy-in and strong approval for your design so it can get sent to production, but if you don’t get that, don’t freak out. If you do get rejected, try to understand everything you can about why you got rejected. What were the specific points that supported their criticism? Can you fix them? Take critique well. Remember that arriving at a solution is not easy, especially when you’re working with larger and more complex systems. You may get approval for 90% of the design, but stakeholders might request tweaks or different variations on particular details. This is the easy part. Tweak or do these variations in quantity—three or four of each—and present them to a smaller audience, sometimes only the dissenters. This should help you get to the next level. Iteration is part of the process. I have personally gone through 8-10 design iterations on a particular feature before I finally got approval. Don’t think of it as 20% rejection, think of it as 80% approval!

Some additional tips for running the presentation:

  1. Try to keep questions until the end of the presentation, remembering to leave ample time for questions and challenges. Depending on how radical, new, or complex your solution is, be prepared to spend a larger portion of the meeting receiving and responding to feedback.
  2. If you get challenged, ask questions. Try to understand exactly what they are saying and understand their reasoning. Also try to make sure everyone else in the room understands it. This is very important if you need to explain the challenge to your team after the meeting.
  3. Answer direct questions directly. If you do not know the answer, say, “I’ll find out and get back to you.” Then get back to them with an answer soon after the meeting.
  4. Answer direct challenges directly with all relevant documentation. If you don’t have it, do not try to persuade them with vague answers. Tell them what you have, why you made the decision, and let it stand on its own two feet. Do not get defensive beyond reason. If something is challenged, explain how you got there and let it rest. Do not repeat yourself (this is rule #1, as repeating yourself will make others feel talked-down to). Do not defend the solution like it is you personally. Do not fumble for answers. If you can’t answer the challenge directly, respond with “I’ll find out for you.” Letting feedback get to you personally is unprofessional. You are not an artist delivering a masterpiece.
  5. You may encounter unreasonable challenges and you can get “edge-cased to death,” which is what I call it when people try to kill things with the most unreasonable of problems. I also call this the “one-armed man in Uganda” challenge. I actually had someone bring up a one-armed man in Uganda as a possible customer and therefore we needed to think of him when designing a solution. This can be extremely frustrating, but if you have critically thought-out your design beforehand, you will be prepared.
  6. Though you may feel you have answered someone’s question or challenge completely, ask the person if he feels you’ve completely answered his question. Just because you think it answered it does not mean you have.
  7. Be transparent about the entire process you took getting to the design. Have slides ready showing testing subjects, iterations, sketches, and any other materials that you may have collected along the way.
  8. Address problems with the design honestly. Be transparent about all the things that have given you headaches over the course of the project. Helping people understand the journey you’ve been on helps them respect the destination all the more.
  9. Talk about the user or the customer directly. Your job is to ensure the user has a great experience, not to make the developers happy. As you move up the ladder of stakeholders, you will find a common trait: they all care what customers think. Speaking directly to how designs affect customers will keep the conversation rooted in your sole purpose, to make the customer happy on all levels.

Always remember to do what is best for the user. You aren’t there to make your colleagues happy or sad. In the end, you all have the same goal. You all want to make the customers happy and create a piece of software that you are proud of. This can be one of the hardest parts of working in the UX field. Trying to be a voice for the user’s point of view in decision-making. Senior colleagues will all have their own ideas what is best, so use the user’s perspective as an objective frame of reference for responding to them. Don’t explain things in terms of your own opinion; rather, speak in terms of the user. Don’t say, “I picked this because it was a cool design;” instead say, “We chose this design because it tested amazingly well with current/future/target customers.”


Closing the Meeting


Go over what you have agreed upon and ensure it’s clear. Give action items with dates to everyone who needs them. If someone assigns you an action item but says they need to find something first, call that out; if they don’t find that something, you shouldn’t be responsible for the action item. Schedule meetings immediately following other dates and action items. Your job is to get this through to production. Your job is not complete until it is.


Aftermath


Discuss the meeting with teammates who were not available to attend. When discussing challenges that were brought up, give them the best representation possible rather than being dismissive of them or making straw men of opposing arguments.


An Unspoken Truth


This piece of advice I have saved for the end is generally not talked about in senior level/corporate design circles, but it I think one of the most crucial aspects of getting approval for a design. I think it was best said by a very respected designer and dear friend of mine (who shall remain nameless): “The best way to get a design approved is to let them think it’s their idea.”

I cannot emphasize this enough. By leaving strategic holes in your design and allowing others to come up with conclusions or obvious fillers, it reinforces their own personal stake in the design. This will get them personally involved in the approval process as one of your biggest advocates, since they’ll equate defense of your ideas with defense of their own. This whole idea is rather sketchy, so use it with caution. You will be giving up some ownership of your design, but in the end remember your goal is to make the best experience for the user. It’s about them, not us.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, Yuri Arcurs, Flickr, poolie

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Daniel Alves is the design director for the small business web design division at the digital marketing and web design company, 352 Media Group.

If you’re like most business owners, getting leads online is the main reason you created a website in the first place. Sure, you may have a stellar SEO campaign, a beautiful design and an über low bounce rate, but without a well-planned contact strategy, you can’t turn those pageviews into conversions.

Online conversions aren’t just for ecommerce websites. In fact, most businesses use their websites to initiate one-on-one conversations. By personally engaging a contact, you are more likely to turn that contact into a customer. So, what’s the trick?

First, you need to understand that most people don’t want to give their phone numbers or email addresses to yet another website — the thought of spam is horrifying. And it’s not just privacy hawks who shy away from contact forms; most websites only achieve a 2-3% conversion rate. Furthermore, people don’t want to have to worry about waiting for a return phone call to address their problems or questions. They want to get the answers they need with as little effort as possible.

Follow these nine tips to make your website design and customer service more approachable, and thus, gain the trust of more customers.


Go with the Flow


Website usability is built on convention. Follow tried and true design strategies to ensure that your users can move through your site as easily as possible. Remember, the less effort, the better.

  • Use the words “Contact Us.” It may sound boring or generic, but the phrase works. (There’s a reason exit signs don’t use the words “leave” or “depart.”) People don’t read your site — they scan — and they’ve been trained over time to instantly recognize those two words.
  • Place contact info and phone number at the top, right corner of the page, where it’s expected. Also, make sure to include your phone number as an HTML, not an image. That way, a mobile user can tap the phone number link and launch into a call immediately. When mobile browsing eclipses desktop browsing in two years, nearly everyone will need that instant access. While you open yourself up to potential spamming, the benefits certainly outweigh the risks.

Make It Easy


A user must already overcome an internal battle in order to share her personal contact information. Your job is to remove as many obstacles as possible so that she makes the leap.

  • Keep contact forms simple. While it may help to get a full profile of your visitor by asking pre-qualifying questions, it can be very intimidating for that user. Ask for as little information as possible and require only that person’s name and email address. If you seek other information, such as phone number and address, make it optional.
  • Create one-column form fields for quick contact. It helps to put form labels directly above form fields. Usability studies show that users who filled out these types of forms saved time by only having to move their eyes vertically, not laterally.
  • Don’t be afraid of large input boxes. While considered a design trend, large input boxes are not only more fun to fill out, but also force you to limit the number of fields on a contact form.
  • Give visitors a clear action button. Because people read from left to right and top to bottom, place the final action button in the lower-right of the form. Give the button plenty of weight with a standout color.

Be Reassuring


Trust goes a long way with online clients. People fear that their contact information will get dumped into a huge database that marketers can access at will. By making your contact form unique, fun and reassuring, your user will know there’s a human on the receiving end and, therefore, be more likely to share.

  • Have some fun. Nothing eases people’s worries better than good humor. Why not spice up your contact form with some personality? Not only will it give your users a laugh, but it will also make your contact page more human. Consider a witty introduction or quirky photo.
  • Make a promise. Tell your users that their information is safe, that you won’t share it with any third party. Place this promise right next to the submit button; that way they’ll experience a nice aftertaste upon opting in.

Offer Instant Chat


Instant chat has been around for quite some time, but has traditionally only been used by the customer service departments of large Internet companies. Now, many low-cost services enable your users to reach you instantly wherever you are.

  • The future is instant. Perhaps the lowest website threshold is instant chat. It requires the user to supply little, if any, personal information and allows you to provide quick and personal customer service. Consider giving one of these services a chance.
  • LiveChat: Unlike other services, LiveChat offers a range of innovative features and third-party integration modules. You can use Facebook to gain access to your users’ social media profiles, Skype to elevate the chat into a phone call and Join.Me to perform a screen share. LiveChat also offers a free trial that makes trying this service a no-brainer.
    Olark: Another promising contender, Olark features a beautiful and seamless user experience, great reporting tools, CRM and Helpdesk integration, and it works with just about any IM client. Plus, you can live chat with a customer straight from your mobile phone. While not as feature-rich as some of its competitors, Olark is an efficient and inexpensive solution that fills the needs of most businesses.

How has your company improved its contact forms and its customer service? Has it strengthened your business? Please share in the comments below.

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Brett Miller is the president of Custom Software by Preston (CSP). For more than 10 years, CSP has impressed clients with highly effective software solutions and teams of multi-talented software engineers.

It might seem obvious, but effectively communicating your project needs to software developers is more than just important. It could actually mean the difference between a project that achieves its objectives and one that does not.

Having an idea in mind and being able to discuss it intelligently isn’t always enough to efficiently communicate all the critical nuances and required details. I strongly recommend that clients produce a requirements document to facilitate agreement among stakeholders, and in turn, to communicate that information to members of the development team.

SEE ALSO: HOW TO: Hire a Designer or Developer

Below are some techniques and exercises that can be used to help you document the vision for your software project.  Chances are you’ll discover new details and potentials that you hadn’t even considered before.

The good news is that you can’t do this wrong.  The key to success is to take the time to thoroughly dig into your thoughts, identify vital details and pinpoint the scenarios you need to account for. Spending the time to be thorough at this juncture could end up saving many hours of development, which translates into fewer headaches and lower costs.
 


Let’s Get Started


  • List a few websites you like. Is it the aesthetics or the functionality? Is there something you do not like about any of the websites?
  • List a few competitors. What do you like and not like about their websites?
  • List three adjectives. Give the developer three adjectives to describe the look and feel of the user interface that you would like built — for example, sophisticated, modern and edgy.
  • Input and Output of the application: Identify the information that’s entered into the application, manually or automatically. Also identify the information that the application produces.

Existing Applications


  • Documentation: Wherever possible, gather all the documentation (development codes, executable app, notes, documentation, etc.) and have it available for the developer.
  • Process Detailing: Your developer will need access to a live account to better understanding existing software. Even if the process is currently handled manually, providing details (and examples) on the specifics will give your development team a solid point of reference.

Application Users


  • Planned System Users: Categorize them into types when needing certain application capabilities wherever possible.
  • Features Needed: Describe the major features you want.

Add details to the major features categories identified above:

  • Where is this feature accessed and how is it used?
  • What are the different scenarios of usage, and if this happens, then what else can occur)?
  • Who is the capability designed for?
  • Why do they need to be able to do this?
  • Is this capability optional, due to cost or some other factor?
  • What additional details can you add to the feature list?

    • Internal vs. External: Which project responsibilities will be handled internally instead of having a development team work on it? (examples: drafting requirements, writing verbiage, testing, hosting, marketing, graphic design, etc.)
    • Internal Staff Capabilities: How technical is your staff to use the advanced features of the application?
    • Defining Success: What defines success on this project — affordability, user friendliness, aesthetics, simplicity, information organization or some measured combination of those factors?

    Final Check


    Has everything of importance been identified, categorized and explored in your documentation?

    Seasoned software developers have been through this analysis process many times. Your efforts to produce as much of this information as possible in advance will aid their efforts to reach your project’s goals. Complete this documentation as thoroughly as possible and you will find yourself well on the road to project success.

    Image courtesy of iStockphoto, TommL

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    Brett Miller is the president of Custom Software by Preston (CSP). For more than 10 years, CSP has impressed clients with highly effective software solutions and teams of multi-talented software engineers.

    Remember the old 80/20 rule? The same applies to software development inquiries, as in 20% of sales inquiries result in 80% of new sales volume. The challenge is being able to identify which inquiries will be fruitful, and which will only cost you time and effort.

    Potential clients expect accurate estimates — clearly a reasonable request. For any developer, accurate estimates are a time consuming and challenging task because custom software development and technology are constantly changing, and it’s not the same as buying an off-the-shelf item.

    Even worse, many prospects decide not to move forward with their project at all (with any vendor). It’s not because the bidders did anything wrong, but because the client did not realize the full extent of the commitment required (usually defined by cost).

    I have spent 15 years of my career in software development, both as a freelance developer and as a business owner. That practical experience has taught me to quickly recognize which potential projects are going to move forward and which are just not worth pursuing. There are Seven Axioms I use to help identify the solid opportunities.


    1. Documented Requirements


    If the client took the time to write down what they want, it is a strong indicator that they are serious. Otherwise, you will need to do this for them. Then time and documentation flows back and forth until a project’s parameters are finalized.

    Rule: Lean toward clients who have taken the initiative in identifying and drafting their own software project requirements.


    2. Urgent Need


    This goes right to the heart of the matter. Is software development a logical next step in their growth or does it seem more whimsical/experimental in nature? For example, does the software project tie in to the launch of a new product without which, they might falter?

    Rule: Lean toward projects that have an immediate nature, where the client absolutely needs it done.


    3. Deal With the Decision Makers


    Many times decision makers send underlings to gather the initial project information and specifications. In my experience, information gathering usually results in little else. Decision makers are involved when projects are deemed critical.

    Rule: Lean toward projects where you work directly with the decision makers — the ones who steer the project and identify priorities.


    4. Budgeted Project


    Could anything be more critical than having realistic expectations about the cost of development? Many prospects may have misconceptions about cost, which is further exacerbated by vendors who shy away from early discussion on the subject. Sales professionals consider rough estimates to be an important applied mechanism of the trial close, potentially saving many hours of time and effort.

    Rule: Use rough estimates to measure a client’s continuing interest. You could say something like, “Based on these preliminary estimates, does it make sense for us to take the next step?”


    5. Process and Timeframe


    Questions about the bidding process and timeframe should be addressed up front to uncover internal processes (like board reviews) or external influences (like venture capital availability). If the process seems extensive or the time frame is not well-defined, there is good reason to question if the project will ever happen.

    Rule: Realize that the quality of your work and the accuracy of your estimate will not win the project if their timeframes or processes are inhibited by roadblocks. Lean toward projects that have appropriate funding, immediate need and the attention of decision makers.


    6. How do I Earn the Business?


    Asking about the client’s selection criteria make sense. If they haven’t already done so, they need to think about these things now and you need to know the rules of the game. Their processes and criteria may even play into the overall desirability of the project.

    Rule: Understanding what is required to get the job reveals a lot about what it might be like to have the job. Do you even want to work within the structure and environment the client creates?


    7. Show Me Some Money!


    Your time and expertise has value. It is not that unusual for a potential client to be looking for a free consultation, which may only be used internally (if at all). If possible, ask the client for a small amount to put together the initial requirements and specifications for the project. If they are willing to spend real hard cash on developing the specifications, they are really serious about the project (and you as a potential vendor).

    Rule: Initial project analysis, documentation drafting and identifying deliverables take considerable time and effort. Describe the process to the client and don’t be afraid to ask for payment for these services.


    Sophistication, Process and Specifics


    Legitimately qualified software development opportunities can be summarized in three words: sophistication, process and specifics. You need all three in your approach to the sales cycle and should expect all three in return.

    Sophistication is about the approach to the project, indicating that available information and outcomes have been given thorough consideration upfront. Process relates to both parties understanding the steps and effort it will take to achieve success. Specifics have to do with identifying and sharing the salient properties of all project parameters — before, during, and after the project.

    Approach every potential project with these factors in mind and you will know which ones are worthy of your attention, leading you down the path to a sale.

    Image courtesy of iStockphoto, peepo

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    Weekends at Mashable mean the weekly features roundup is coming at’cha. You ready to rock this list?

    This week, we spent some quality time with Siri, and now we can’t live without her. Then, we moved on to the Motorola Droid Razr, following the past week’s event with Verizon. Curious about our review? Read on. Then skip over to a gallery of rapture photos — or rather, what’s going to happen when the world ends. While you’re waiting for the apocalypse, we suggest you catch up on your reading…


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