Why did we do this project in the first place?

I often find that when you work with a single business stakeholder things can be clean, neat, well thought out and align with the main goals. If everything isn’t dialed in, it is usually pretty easy to get the conversation on track and get things focused. The Challenge happens when you have a room full of business stakeholders. You’ll find that things aren’t always so clean because the solution that works for one part of the business doesn’t always work for another. The more departments that get involved, the more your goals get diluted and the more flexible your solution will have to be. Now throw a global, direct to consumer business in the mix and you are almost always going to have to make exceptions and build the system to the lowest common denominator, or build completely different systems across the regions. In these instances, you need to make sure you clearly define the purpose of a project and the goals of that project before you embark so you can keep everyone focused and limit the amount of time spent spinning on the project. When you do get a chance to work with the stakeholders, make sure that every request that they make or every decision that they are going to make aligns back to the main objective of the project.

I had worked on a guided shopping tool for a brand that sells widgets. We had a great working relationship with the vendor of the guided shopping tool. They were going out of their way to accommodate our needs agreeing to all kinds of custom development and exceptions in the contact because they wanted to launch a large US based global brand. We worked with the business to identify how they wanted it to work and, although we were speaking to the customer using our internal categorizations, the system still made sense. We were able to associate products in groupings that made it a little easier for the customer to explore different styles of widgets. We worked through all of the development and launched a test environment so everyone could see the system work. As more and more business stakeholders saw the system work, I started to get more and more feedback that it wasn’t quite right so we went back to redefine the experience. The business stakeholders started to want the guided shopping experience to go from a system that would help new customers understand our product offering and find a style that they like, into a system that would allow the customer to browse every widget we offered, all 2,500 SKUs in one experience. I started to explain that a guided shopping tool wasn’t intended to do that. Guided shopping was intended to allow customers to align our product offering to their style through different means depending on the customer’s mind set. The product team manufactured products based off of categories by widget function. If customers shopped for widgets based off of these categories it would be no problem at all but most customers buy widgets based off of fashion and style as opposed to function. The eComm team was trying to make customer understand these groupings and they made no sense to the customer. Additionally, the widgets were all set up as mutually exclusive to these groups but customers didn’t look at them that way. Just because a widget has technologies in it that make it ideal for playing sports doesn’t mean that a couch potato wouldn’t want that widget because they like the way it looked on them when they jump in the truck to go pick up some burgers from the drive-through. There should be a differentiation between the categories that product teams build products to and the categories that marketing sells products by. On top of this, business wanted customers to be able to navigating through the experience by color which is not a sound strategy. If the customer wants to browse widgets by category, color, or any of the other filterable attributes that the product is categorized by in the online store they can just navigate through the online store.

The eComm needed to divide the product offering based off the profiles of the customers that were buying those widgets. If there are widgets that fall into multiple categories because different segments liked them then they should live in both. Then we needed to pick a categorization that each of those segments would align or relate to. As an example, if you pick cities or music genres or socio-economic labels that people can relate to and then put the widgets that fit that demographic into those categories your guided shopping experience would be doing what it was built for. So if your market research found that your customers associate themselves to being urban, suburban, country, small town, beach city, tropical beach…then you could categorize your product based off of how customers, who were new to your products pictured themselves. Or if your product markets more closely aligned with Rock, Country, Indie, Pop, Hip Hop, Classical…You could create groupings around those so when a user goes into the classical category it would list all of the widgets that our demographic research showed were purchased by the profile who listens to classical music.

Project managers should always challenge the business stakeholders to make sure that the right tools, strategies and projects are being implemented with the right goals and KPIs in mind. It is the project manager’s job to understand the tools and the end goal that the business is looking to achieve to make sure they align. PMs need to guide the business to get the best implementation possible from the technologies available otherwise you end up with a product that doesn’t meet the initial request.

What Do We Do With All This Data?

analyticsDo you have an analytics strategy? Analytics can help inform every web project, but only if you know what to look for. There is a huge difference between “analytics” and an “analyst’s report”. Far too many times they are used synonymously but the truth is, data ≠ analytics.

Data needs to be interpreted in order to become analytics and in order to do that, you need an analyst with some good insights. I have seen far too many reports that have interesting data, but there really isn’t any strategy or actionable insight that comes from the data. Data can be used for so much more than just determining if you are up or down over yesterday, last week, last month, last year… A component of analytics covers those details but data by itself does not tell the whole story. A good analyst will know what story needs to be told, they will figure out what information needs to be pulled and how to compile an accurate depiction of what is happening. Most of the time, there will be holes in the data, but a good analyst will look elsewhere to fill in the holes and come up with a conclusion based off of the data that they are able to pull. A good analyst will be able to collate data from multiple sources to support their conclusion, but a great analyst will adjust their conclusion when the data is pointing in a different direction. Analysts don’t always have to be right. The great ones will lead you in the right direction but come up with alternate recommendations if their initial thoughts are proven wrong by the data. Analysts will work with the business to understand what what Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) should be defined and then determine the best way to collect, parse or consolidate data to tell an accurate story of what is happening and how the business might be able to make adjustments to move the metrics in a favorable direction. You should include your analysts when you are in the planning phases of a project so they can define the KPIs and make sure the metrics that need to be measured are tagged.

The key to improving any web implementation is to make sure you have a good analytics strategy but even more so, a great analyst. Make sure your Calls to Action (CTAs) and KPIs are defined throughout the site. Identify the different paths that users can flow through the site and make sure you know what the KPIs on each of the major steps of the funnel are. In order to do this you will have to identify all of the functions that the website is serving for your organization; does it do web sales, marketing, establishing brand? Does it assist in sales and help recruit talent? Does it do all of this and more? Make sure that you define these functions and then define conversion funnels for each of these end goals. Different steps in the conversion funnels will have different purpose and different KPIs. Gary Angel has written a great white paper on this topic called “Functionalism”.

If you look at a typical eCommerce site you may see a sales funnel that looks like this:
Homepage>Category Listing Page>Sub-category Page>Product Detail Page>Shopping Cart>Shipping/Billing info page>Confirmation Page.

In the simplest form of a sales funnel that particular path would have 6 points at which a person can get distracted or leave the site. And that is the simplest form not including going back and forth between categories, adding product to cart, removing product from cart ect. In this 7 step sales funnel your end goals is a sale. That would make the conversion for this funnel a product sale. If you want to improve the sales in this funnel you can’t make a change to the second step and expect to see if your change was an improvement by looking at the sales results over the next few weeks. There are far too many variables at play within each step. Let’s say you are selling shorts in October. You want to increase sales; you have a hunch that if you that if you remove the sub categories you’ll improve sales. So in the original scenario the user goes from homepage>shorts>cargo shorts>blue 5 pocket cargo shorts>cart>checkout…

So you think it would be better to remove one step in the funnel and you do away with the subcategories and delete boardshorts, cargo shorts, walking shorts and compression shorts and lump all the shorts into one big shorts page with 80 different styles on it. In essence you go from a category that has 4 sub-categories that have 20 products each to 1 category with 80 products. If you make the change and your sales improve 5% over the next 2 weeks things went well, right? Maybe not; you can’t really tell by looking at the last step in the funnel. You may have had a decrease in the number of people that went from step 2 to step 3 in the sales funnel, but sales may have still gone up because you had an extraordinarily hot week in the middle of October. You may have negatively impacted sales even though sales went up. Know what your KPIs are for each step in your conversion funnel. Your analyst will be able to collect data specific to each step so you will be able to make assessments at each step. If they can help you improve every step by a couple of percentage points your final conversion rate will go up exponentially.

Additionally, an analyst will know how to segment and parse data to get a better understanding of how the KPIs are performing based off of a desired response and User Experience. I had worked on a project where we implemented heatmaps so we could see what people were clicking on and what they were looking at throughout the website. We implemented the system and started to collect the data. After a few weeks I pulled data to see how people were using a specific page and was happy to see that people were looking at the exact sections of the page that we had hoped. The page worked as designed! People we looking at the product data, spending time reading and interacting with the content and then they were clicking on the button to add to cart. About two weeks later I was sitting with an analyst who was talking about some major adjustments to that page because according to the analytics and heatmap, the page wasn’t serving its intended purpose. I disputed this because what I had seen showed that it was working; people look at content and then buy the product. She showed me that when you segment the users into people who purchase, people who bounce and people who continue on to search for something else, the page wasn’t actually working how we intended. A good analyst will be able to look past the initial data to make sure that they are telling the appropriate story.

Implementing an analytics strategy is tough, especially if your organization doesn’t really understand the intricacies of the different KPIs throughout a sight and don’t really understand what data they need and what reports will help them make improvements. A strong project manager should understand what kind of analytics strategy needs to be implemented and what type of skills an analyst should have to implement it. Building a project plan around implementing an analytics strategy can be tricky, but a strong PM will keep the main goals in mind and not let it get off track.

Not so SCRUM-ptious

What project management methodology do you use? I hear a lot of business owners, who are terrible at planning, throw agile around a lot. I have seen companies retool their development lifecycle for agile, hiring a certified scrum master and setting up a scrum process only to leave a bad taste in their mouths when things don’t go as expected. To get to the root of this you have to understand what each of these processes is and their strengths and weaknesses.

In the end, the development you do needs to meet a specific business need, but you’ll find this difficult if the business owners are unorganized or aren’t able to put together a marketing plan that they can stick to. Many business stake holders think that agile is perfect in these situations because, you know, it’s agile…right?

Well, agile is flexible because you are able to redefine targets, goals or priorities through the length of a project, but agile has a very strict and rigid process that needs to be followed or the whole thing could come apart. I like to define sprints based off of how quickly items need to be introduced into the trunk code for either testing or releases. Everything revolves around these sprints and you should be able to set up your teams so you can keep everyone busy within each sprint cycle. If you look at the diagram below, illustrating what everyone should be working on in any given sprint you’ll see you can evenly spread your team across all of the tasks. When you are in Sprint C, different teams will be working on different pieces of all of the surrounding sprints. It is up to the project manager to keep the project teams on task as well as managing the business stakeholders to make sure they are assessing the work done in prior sprints and comparing the priority of the backlog to any shift in organization wide business objectives and any modifications needed from prior deploys to prioritize for future sprints.

agile sprint chart

Now this is an idealized example and the real world is way messier and can’t always fit into these boxes. I have found that agile seems to work best as either a support queue methodology or in a phased project where a business knows they need something, but aren’t sure of the details during project initiation. This will give the project the flexibility to adapt as things are fleshed out in the discovery phases. This can be very tricky though because this is not conducive to strict timelines or budgets.

If you have access to strong account managers and BSAs, the first half of the waterfall process tends to work well. Many times, a strong account manager, BSA or business strategist can help draw out all of the requirements from the business stakeholder as well as helping them define their goals and priorities continually keeping the business focused on them. If you can get through the discovery and definition phases of project, you can often times assess whether you can stick to waterfall or potentially shift to an agile process when you go into development. The key to this is to make sure that you not only prioritize the development by urgency of the features needed, but also, define the items that you know are needed but will benefit from testing in the wild and move those to the earlier sprints so you have time to iterate on these steps as are working them out. You must also plan for the extra time and budget that will be needed to iterate.

If you switch to an agile methodology, the project manager will need to be able to take into account the amount of iterations that will be needed while they are forecasting budget and timeline. If you cannot come up with an estimate for the total amount of budget that is needed, you would benefit from defining the amount of time and resources that you can dedicate to iteration so your project doesn’t spin endlessly. Keep some of the team dedicated to getting through the full scope of the project while some of the team dedicates time to iterating on earlier development. Again, this gets tricky for the project manager who will have to maintain strong communications between the business team and the project team keeping everyone in line and making sure that the iterations stay aligned with the main project goals and don’t negatively impact the core development.

Agile development is great for being able to shift priorities in rapidly evolving industries where market needs shift regularly, but it should not be looked at as a solution to poor planning and marketing strategy. I personally prefer a waterfall approach because everyone knows what the target is but if you don’t have the insight into the work that will need to be completed for a project or you are working in an industry that is constantly shifting I would recommend defining your sprint cycles and doing everything in your power to stick to them. Remember, agile is a process to allow iteration, but there is a process that should be followed.

What is a project manager?

I was having dinner with my family a few years back and there were multiple conversations going on. My brother starts talking about a project to his son and says “talk to Uncle Brian about that. He’s a project manager.” To which my 12 year old nephew looks at me and asks “What’s a project manager?” I thought about it for a second and the only response I could come up with was “…Exactly”.

So what is a project manager and why do I hate them so much? The thing about project managers… most people have the wrong idea about what makes a successful project manager. Most of the people I have talked to are looking for someone who is overly organized and process driven with great date keeping and note taking skills. These are all great and important skills to have and definitely skills to fall back on, but they do not replace problem solving, understanding, a strategic mindset, the ability to foster relationships, drive and flexibility. I can categorize most of the project managers that I have worked with in one of two categories; those focusing on standard PMP practices managing in an unyielding manner and those who don’t really know what they are doing they just run around and follow up on people and tasks and try and force a project to the finish line.

You can manage a project with a strict PMP process but you have to understand the project to know when you need to apply specific tools. From what I have seen, project management process only lives completely in tact in two places, in theory and in projects that end up delivering something that doesn’t exactly meet the business’s needs. In contrast, it should be used to help guide a project and map out all of the pitfalls so that things can be planned and accounted for but retain some flexibility when things don’t go according to plan or complications come up. Now to clarify, strict process can work when you have regimented projects that don’t change much, but when you are implementing a strategic, custom project, you need to have flexibility and know that there are going to be things that aren’t planned for. You have to weigh the overhead of how heavy the process is with how flexible and nimble the business needs the project to be.

The second type of project manager runs projects without understanding the principles of project management so they are almost always over budget and delayed in launch. These PMs are usually good problem solvers but after the project kickoff, they are usually reactionary to everything because nothing is planned or documented. The other thing with a lot of these project managers is they do tend tend to deliver what the business asked for, but it often doesn’t align back to the main business goals and objectives, or it is so customized that maintenance will be an issue throughout the life of the product.

The ideal project manager for web projects has a balance of the two, but also has a vast understanding of the high-level business goals and objectives and a working understanding of marketing strategy. When you mix these elements together in the right amounts you end up with a project manager that can plan a project, remain flexible to problem solve when a project gets a curveball and can also help manage the business team keeping them in check with their requirements to make sure they all align with the goals and objects of the reason the project was kicked off in the first place. I often say that I would rather be a successful project manager than a good project manager. They do exist, you just need to know what to look for.