Web Site Life Cycles and Maintenance
WEB SITE LIFE CYCLES AND MAINTENANCE
Similar to any piece of software, Web sites follow a series of phases in their so-called "usable lives." For e-commerce sites, the nature of those lives is also changing based on increasingly nuanced marketing objectives laid out for them. A typical site life cycle starts with basic planning and design, and ends with up-keep and administration. Below are some of the most common steps:
- Planning and requirements gathering
- Preliminary design and specification
- Detailed design and coding
- Testing and revision
- Maintenance and upgrades
From this list, you might assume that the planning through launching steps consume the most time and resources; for many sites, however, maintenance and regular updates are central to their effectiveness and receive ample attention. The best life cycle plans take into account the site's ongoing maintenance needs after the initial launch. One estimate is that maintenance requires about 20 percent of the initial development costs. Web users, much like newspaper or magazine readers, often expect continually refreshed content. Ultimately, if the business needs for the site—like driving traffic and generating sales—change considerably over time, the site may require a redesign and relaunch. Ideally, life cycle planning also considers market and technology signals that suggest when a site's useful life is limited.
Web watchers commonly cite an evolutionary path for the kinds of sites companies launch. The first and simplest of these are called brochureware, essentially static non-interactive pages that are posted once and then left alone. The next stage is more like a magazine or small online community, providing basic interaction and periodic updates, while more advanced sites incorporate interactive applications, perhaps for online transactions or other customer needs. The most sophisticated sites are a complicated, user-specific conglomeration of content and applications originating in diverse locations and presented as a seamless yet dynamic interface.
While these models can help place you on a general continuum, keeping your site current can mean many different things depending on your content, your clients, your competitors. Certainly, on a national news site, visitors expect the content to be refreshed every few hours, if not minutes. For a local news site, that standard might be slwoed to include just daily updates. Some Web consultants recommend that smaller sites be updated at least once a quarter in order to maintain a sense of fresh content and keep the site's visual material current. Others say monthly or weekly is more appropriate. With some exceptions, sites that haven't had a graphic overhaul within one to two years may be perceived by end-users as looking outdated due to technology changes.
One way to organize updates and maintenance activity is to create a maintenance plan. There is no set form the plan should take, but some get fairly formal and lead to content management systems. Either way, the purpose is to begin serious thinking about the ongoing requirements of operating the site. The requirements may be technical, such as how to support increasing traffic loads, or strategic, such as how to make the site the top performer in its category—and keep it there. Planning also needs to account for logistical issues like personnel hours needed to maintain the site.
More elaborate sites usually have back-end maintenance tools built in so that content specialists at the company, say, marketing staff, can readily change text and images in predefined places on the site without requiring a programmer's intervention. These content management systems store site information in databases and often include a user interface customized for the particular needs of the company. They also provide support for advanced problems like version control, ensuring there is clear documentation of what is the currently approved content versus previous content or work in progress.
Not all maintenance is aimed at making sites more complex, however. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Flash and other multimedia technologies gained sway, many well-funded sites rushed to include bits of animation and sound. No doubt some visitors were impressed with their technical prowess, but many Web users insist on practical, useful features instead of those that merely waste time and clog bandwidth. Some of the largest sites have learned to design their sites "down," focusing on the quality and efficiency of the user experience. This movement includes a heavy emphasis on intuitive user interfaces and simple, informative designs. The idea is to hone the site for the particular needs of its main visitors—and possibly customize it for each one.
As with site development and hosting, maintenance and life cycle management can be outsourced to specialty firms. Often, if an outside team develops the site, they will include a bid for ongoing maintenance as well. Many Web consultants believe outsourcing is a wise approach because it greatly increases the likelihood the work will get done. Often times, specialists also have skills and inside knowledge that allows them to do a better job than a company could do on its own.
Of course, some maintenance is more technical in nature and, as such, doesn't involve content or currency. A common problem, with small sites in particular, may occur up when the site operator assumes it will work continuously without interruption. As server addresses and other system features change, the site may become saddled with broken links and haphazard functions. Browser upgrades can change the way pages display and functions execute, as well. Web site operators need methods of keeping their services up and the existing functions working. Along with third-party service vendors, developers can create testing and monitoring tools for making sure the site is operating properly.
Dougherty, Alicia. "Rich Content Keeps Customers Coming Back for More." Denver Business Journal, May 25, 2001.
Sandlin, Eileen F. "It's Maintenance Time." Detroiter, September 2001.
"Website Redesign—Knowing When It's Time." American Salesman, June 2002.