Customer Interface: Velvet Glove

How to convince distributed developers that the only limit is not their imaginations.

You were the first person to create a Web site for your company. It was fun. You were the first to promote the Web within your company. It was important. Now you are the first to be responsible for the other people in your company who have created their own Web pages. It is daunting.

Remember how you felt when the Web was new, exciting and mercurial? Your job required that you be equal parts technical savant, graphic artist and psychic visionary. The objective went from maintaining the status quo to intentionally stretching the envelope–first into a tube, then into a wormhole. You were leading the way by being the outlaw.

Now that you’re at the top of the heap, you’re responsible for managing the work of distributed Web developers. They are intent on blowing away tradition and customs to create the new, the unorthodox, the next insanely great thing–just like you were. Now it’s your job to keep them in line.

When product managers from the far-flung edges of the company create brochures, direct mail pieces or magazine ads, it’s unlikely the results will look alike. And there’s no reason they should. The people who might buy a Kenmore washing machine don’t expect the ads to look the same as those for Craftsman tools. Besides, those ads show up in different publications or are mailed to different people. Why should they be similar?

On the other hand, when people come to a Web site, they see all of your products under the same roof. And while those products may be positioned very differently, your pages should include elements to help the consumer recognize that their parentage is the same. A ThinkPad is not the same as an AS/400 is not the same as an S/390, but there should be no question that they all come from IBM.

Your job is to create the high-level, common look of the site. The size and placement of the logo, the color scheme and the general layout of the pages will tell visitors they are still spending time with your company and haven’t drifted off to the home of a dealer, distributor or cooperative marketing partner.

Celebrate Similarity

Once Web visitors have finally figured out what to expect at the bottom of every page, don’t pull the rug out from under them by allowing different divisions to create their own toolbars. Establish a standard set of buttons or a standard implementation of a frame for the index and apply it across the board.

We are discovering that the power and glory of the Web is its ability to deal with a marketplace of one. Toward that end, you should address people in Japan differently from the way you address them in Norway. But there needs to be corporate standards and filters to ensure that brand equity is not frittered away and that loose translations don’t embarrass the company or confuse the customer. If the division that makes modems insists on a button bar that is distinctly different from that of the group developing mobile phones, where and how do you draw the line? How do you impose and enforce your corporate perspective?

The World Wide Web Consortium, which is forever trying to adopt standards to keep up with a changing marketplace, has incorporated style sheets into the finally recognized HTML 3.2. But even if your authoring tools don’t incorporate style sheets as a technical feature, you should adopt the philosophy behind them. Your company’s style sheet should include those elements that are dictated by the corporate communications department. How should the logo be used? What is the standard, checked, sanitized and approved description of the company? What is the corporate color scheme? Add to that consistent navigational devices, and you’re off to a good start.

Follow up the imposed corporate standards with corporate guidelines. Suggest helpful techniques or procedures that worked for you when you were inventing the wheel. Recommend common look-and-feel widgets. And then bring out the carrot and the stick.
Of Sticks and Carrots

Of course the size, shape and power of the stick is up to you. Each company deals with threats, demotions and terminations in its own way. Nevertheless, you must have something you can wield over the recalcitrant. In some cases, it’s tight control of the server. No approval? No hosting. In more distributed organizations, your leverage might be the ability to reach into a server from afar and remove offending pages. It might be the ability to leave a mark in somebody’s Permanent Record. Or it might be as simple as, “Remove that link from your home page to our home page or you’re fired.”

Whatever the penalty, it must have behind it the force of someone sufficiently high up to have power over remote miscreants.

But the stick will get you only so far. If you want people to do what you say and bend to your rules, you’ve also got to plant some really good carrots.

To start with, appeal to common sense. The corporation needs to look like one entity to the outside world; users will be able to navigate better and so on. Then make them some offers they can’t refuse, beginning with all the wonderful things that will happen if they use common tools for page development. The most obvious benefits, of course, are training and support. A central team can get to know the products well enough to teach and run a help desk. Developers in individual business can get up and running faster and won’t have to face hours on hold trying to reach manufacturers. The central team can critique dozens of products rather than each business unit doing the Comdex Crawl.

Furthermore, the approved toolset will create pages and graphics in approved formats. As a result, Web work can go live faster. And approved tools and file formats will become doubly valuable when combined with approved procedures. Rather than threaten that the wrong tools and processes will spell certain death, demonstrate how the proper tools and procedures will promote pages into prompt production.

The Fastest Carrot on the Web

Your average content provider is under the gun: New material must be posted fast and frequently. When marketing department creatives hold a brainstorming session, they want to show off their brilliance immediately. Your job is to show them how–if they use the standard look and feel as well as the recommended tools and procedures–their content will hit the Web at the speed of light. Then add the clincher: Web-based workflow.

No marketing department–or any other department for that matter–is going to turn down an automated Web content hosting process. Write your copy, tweak your graphics, drag your files over to this browser and drop them in the approval bucket. If it’s easier and faster to use the tools and follow the rules, they’d be fools not to do so.

A horse in the wild runs free but is of no value to the farmer or rancher. The horse tethered to a stake cannot run at all and will soon lose its spirit, then its health. But the horse in a corral has enough room to run without running away. Divisional, departmental and business-line page authors and content creators must be treated the same way. Give them enough freedom to express themselves and represent their products without tying them to a stake. But don’t leave them entirely to their own devices.