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One of the pillars of structural design is Form Follows Function. When developing a web site for small business, nothing could ring truer. Too often, at our first meeting with a small business client we hear, "we want a flash site that will really catch our customers' attention." A website like this may be exactly what you need, but going through a web development planning process may clearly identify a different plan. Taking the time to step through the process will, very likely, save your company time and money. Think Web Application instead of Website
Recently, Microsoft Corp admitted in a AP article that they were loosing business to web based applications. There is good reason for this. Highly effective people need to multi-task, be in more than one place at a time, and meet with clients and vendors outside the office. If all of your important software is on your office desktop you are severly limited in your ability to multi-task. Web based applications help you become superman! You can give a sales presentation for a client in Starbucks, add employee tasking to web based project manager, update your blog from the same location and check your staff's progress on thier work, while you sip down that second cup of mocha. If you can develop the web application mindset, your website potential just grew from a business card to business power tool.

Business Process Review

Before developing requirements, choosing desgins, determining technologies, or anything else, take time to review your business processes. Look at each process and think, "How could our web application improve or replace this process?" Go through this process with an old fashioned pencil and paper, taking notes and sketching out basic information flow. Are there a points in the flow of information where critical decisions could be made "out of the office?" Could the customer reach a point of sale with visiting your physical location? The goal for this step is to identify which business processes can be moved online either, in part, or completly. Don't forget about processes like customer acquistion and customer loyalty building.

Identify Web Based Functionality
No, we are still not to the Requirements step. Your next step is to link the identified business processes to attainable web based functionality. This step leads to the development of specific requirements. The more business process that you decide to move online, the more concern you will need to have for information security and access control. Let's say, for example, you've decided to move inventory control to your web based application. Now you need to think this through from a functionality standpoint. How many employees need access to the inventory control system. Will different levels of access be required? How will this tie in with accounting? Do we want this to trigger product order alerts? The answers to these questions will render the desired functionality for that business process.

Develop Requirements
Your goal here is to develop specific requirements that are grouped by the functions you identified in the previous step. The functions should be prioritized, as well as the requirements list for each of those functions. Let's continue with our inventory control example. To keep it simple let's say you determined that your web application would help with customer acquisition and inventory control.
  • identified Inventory Control Functionality Needed (Example)
    • Direct tie-in to actual sales
    • LIFO Accounting capability
    • Inventory order alerts
    • Allowance for returns
    • Manager Access
  • might yield these specific Requirements
    • Shopping cart to inventory system integration
    • Email and web message inventory alerting system for managers
    • LIFO and FIFO capabilities for possible change of systems
    • Vendor directory
    • Returns management screens
    • Statistical reports for shortages, returns, and shelf life
The more specific your requirements are, the more certain you can be that you will get a useful tool. You would want to go through each of these functionality areas and develop your requirements lists. Once your desired functionality has helped you build your requirements, you can start to map out your actual website or application.

In our next article we will discuss the appropriate time in the planning process to get professional help.