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Case Study

Solving a Complex Design Problem With Simplicity

 

Editor's note:  Building an e-commerce Web site is a complicated task and we at WWWiz are hoping to demystify the process a bit by presenting case studies written by professionals in the industry. Here is the first in an occasional series; this one written by Alan Graham of Orange-based PageMasters Internet Group. Inquire at writers@wwwiz.com for case study submission guidelines.

 

We were approached by an independent marketing consultant to completely redesign the Web site for a brick-and-mortar supplier of high-end desktop computer systems, servers and rugged portables to government agencies.

The company–we'll call it by a fictitious name, AVS Outfitters–had unique e-commerce needs. Their sales are exclusively business-to-business and, in fact, specific to government agencies that work on an annual contract basis.

            At the time, AVS was under contract with five agencies. Renewal time for one of the biggest contracts, a large state board of education, was only eight weeks after we signed on. The board of education had stated that the new contract would only be awarded to a company that offered online ordering, tracking and fulfillment.

            To sweeten the deal with us, AVS offered a bonus for timely completion that was equivalent to 20% of the contract amount.

            It was an extremely complex project. The computer system and accessory prices established by contract were not uniform from one agency to the next. Thus the database had to have multiple product tables, one for each agency, with all except one referencing the same product numbers and system specifications. The exception was an agency that retires the entire list of product numbers at the end of a contract year and establishes new product numbers for every item, even if the specifications have not changed. So a special table had to be created to accommodate this exception.

            Under the brick-and-mortar business model by which AVS operated before contacting us, nearly 150 pages of spreadsheets were incorporated into each annual contract, with each spreadsheet specifying in detail a particular computer system or accessory that would be available at the specified price for the following 12-month period.

            The contents of these spreadsheets had to be imported into the database tables we created, but it was not a straightforward import process because many of the spreadsheet cells had been used for titles, column headers and the like, which had to be deleted by hand. Even then, a follow-up comparison had to be made, item-by-item, between the finished shopping cart and the spreadsheets.

            The original specification was provided in the form of hand-drawn diagrams of how each page would be laid out. Included in the specification were secure logins and passwords for the various agencies and the ability of each to track their orders, purchase orders and shipments through the entire sales process.

As sometimes happens, non-technical personnel drew up this specification at a time when the IT department was occupied with on-site server installations and Local Area Network configurations 3,000 miles away. Hence, the preliminary flowcharts that our programming team drew up had to be revised several times before the system was finished.

            Development was proceeding on schedule when, about three weeks into the contract term, AVS's key client informed it of a new contract requirement: the Web site must include a system configurator, that is, a ``build-it-yourself" computer specifier that makes it possible to select every component of the finished computer from a series of drop-down menus and checkboxes–everything from CPU speed, quantity and type of memory, SCSI or Ultra DMA hard drive, right down to the power supply, mouse or trackball, sound card and speakers.

            The system configurator had to emulate or improve on the functionality of the one at http://www.dell.com. At this point, three weeks of development had to be scrapped–everything except the static pages and product tables–and it was back to the drawing board. The Dell system was sophisticated and, like good design in general, looked deceptively simple. There's a lot more ``under the hood" than meets the eye, and you can't just ``view source" like you can with an HTML page to see how they did it.

            Careful study revealed the flow of transactions in such a system, and it was hastily flowcharted and implemented.

            Just to throw another wrench into the works, each system had its own set of  ``default" options that had to have separate part numbers with a price of zero dollars–and a set of ``no item" part numbers with negative prices. For example, the default system included a generic sound card for zero dollars, there was a ``no sound card" part number with a price of minus-18 dollars and a Soundblaster card option for $27. Managing these ``default" and ``no" part numbers in the multiple database tables while keeping all relationships intact was trickier than it appeared at first glance.

            Custom forms had to be created for managing the back end. Also, while the client was getting a T1 line installed on site, it was necessary for the site to be mirrored on their Web server so that their changes to the database could be made locally and uploaded, and the changes also uploaded to the live site, with occasional script changes to reflect the differing IP addresses and paths.

            Some of the security precautions had to be removed at the direction of one of the contracting agencies.

            The account executive put other clients on hold for 2 1/2 weeks while he made sure that the prices and options in the shopping cart conformed to those provided on the spreadsheets. Duplications of certain part numbers were discovered the hard way and weeded out from the database by editing the tables directly.

            The consultant who had introduced us to AVS was simultaneously updating all the company's product sell sheets, which meant that new copy was being written by another outside contractor and new photo shoots were being scheduled and product shots supplied to us as they became available. For those products that did not yet have new sell sheets, it was necessary to use the old copy from the Web site as a placeholder. The new material was added on a rush basis as it arrived. Thus the site could ``go live" without delay and still be integrated with the most current marketing materials.

            Then we found out that the company's colors were being reevaluated! And although the colors didn't change dramatically, it still took time to match the newly selected Pantone color to the nearest ``Web-safe" color and apply that to all the static pages and Cold Fusion templates.

            As the deadline neared, AVS' IT director returned from a grueling tour of on-site installation visits and reviewed what had been done on the Web site project. Needless to say, he had his own opinions on how a number of things should have been handled that had already, in effect, been approved by contract staff. Several of his criticisms–mostly minor ones–were validated and corrected. Fortunately, having our lead programmer explain the logic behind the process to him easily cleared all of the major points up.

            As the deadline approached, the question was never whether we would deliver a system that worked as well as Dell's, but whether we would rescue that big contract from the jaws of defeat and earn our bonus.

Thousands of dollars were riding on our ability to meet the deadline. And, as you may have guessed, you wouldn't be reading this story if we had fallen short. With just a day or two to spare, the system was demonstrated to the satisfaction of the key agency and approved–with a laundry list of cosmetic changes–to go live.

The site is live today and, thanks to good documentation and training, has been maintained internally by AVS technical staff ever since. They have asked us to protect the confidentiality of their relationships by not disclosing actual names, hence we can't give you the URL of the Web site. However, for other systems we have subsequently developed with a similar or greater level of sophistication–while appearing simple–please browse to http://www.partsbuy.com, an auto parts site offering seven levels of drill-down until a single exact match is found, and http://www.hardmoneydirect.com, a site that brings together lenders, brokers, and borrowers with serious credit problems.

 

PageMasters Internet Group is a full-service Web design and development company based in Orange, Calif. Visit them at www.pagemasters.com.

 

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