Lay a Web site foundation before you start to build

Dilbert's pointy-haired boss suddenly appears at your desk and says, "I want a
World Wide Web page for the unit. Make it interesting and just as impressive as the others
on the agency server."


First try pinching yourself to wake up. But if it's real and not a nightmare, what do
you do?


Don't go out first thing and buy a lot of hardware and software to build a Web site.
Tools can come later. Instead, find out why he wants a Web page in the first place.


Is it to serve customers? Publish documents? Collect more hits than any other page?
Highlight his coiffure? If you don't know what the goal is, you risk--probably
guarantee--disappointing your management and frustrating yourself.


Of course, discovering the real goal can be like finding water in the desert. No one in
a position of importance will admit to wanting his or her own version of the I-love-me
management gallery that resides on most Web sites.


Denial is an art form in bureaucracies, so one quickly learns how to please managers
without putting them in the awkward position of telling you what they really want.


Other Web sites seem determined to provide citizens with a detailed civics lesson on
the organizational layout of the entire agency.


The average customer visits an agency Web site for answers about a requirement, benefit
or program. An organizational chart orgy appeals to lobbyists and trade associations, but
customers get quickly frustrated by the lengthy titles, grand organization names and
expansive but ambiguous mission statements.


However, management mug shots, organization charts and mission statements are staples
of bureaucratic life, and the agency Web site is no exception. How you present them
depends on the goal of the Web site. But if customer service is the primary objective, try
to keep the administrative details discreetly to one side.


Typically, you start your Web site by gathering up a bunch of documents and converting
them to Hypertext Markup Language. While management is eager to act, get their agreement
that a program office can put their documents on the Web site without additional review.


Getting approval for already published documents is a waste of time. You'll spend more
time explaining to newbies what the Web is than you will working on the Web site. As the
late Adm. Grace Hopper said, "It's easier to ask forgiveness than ask
permission."


With luck, you'll discover that you have a collection of several hundred documents. The
challenge is to organize the collection.


If your goal is singular and your audience homogeneous, the task can be fairly
straightforward.


If there are multiple goals and several different audiences, you may need to devise an
organizing principle for each goal and audience. A Web site for a national park requires
different views of the same information for tourists, ecologists, park employees and
hunters, for whom a warning might state, "Cross the park boundary, and you are
toast."


What kind of skills are needed to build a Web site? The Web is not your typical
information technology application. The whole world can drop by at any time and see what's
there and comment on it.


It is under constant development; there really is no point to those little yellow
construction signs. I don't recall visiting a site that announced that it was completed,
and I'd be suspicious of its information if no one was updating it.


Who and what skills do you need on your Web site team? Because a Web site is more like
a video than a magazine, many of the roles are borrowed from Hollywood and Madison Avenue.


For example, the producer identifies, develops and organizes the content. She ensures
the content is accurate, timely and organized. Without a producer, you have a pile of
attractive electrons, not a Web site.


The engineer tends to the hardware, system software, Web server, database server,
security, statistics and all things technical. Without an engineer, your server will
crash, get hacked, become obsolete or run like molasses. Nice looking content is worthless
if you can't deliver it.


The designer does the artwork, layout and composition of the pages. Without a designer,
your pages could be plain, boring or tedious to navigate.


Moreover, eye candy can be the key to gaining support from pointy-haired managers and
getting lots of hits from customers.


These three people may actually be one person wearing multiple hats. Or each could be a
team of people. But omit one and your site will suffer.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.


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