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Part Four: Web Design

How to make sure your site is ready for launch Add to ...

Mike Freeman recalls a client company that thought it knew what its users wanted – until it brought its website to an advisory board that “tore the site apart.”

The client had made assumptions about how its users would interact with the site, and what features they would find valuable – without actually testing to see if those assumptions were true, says Mr. Freeman, the user experience director at design and development company 76design, with offices in both Toronto and Ottawa.

“A lot of times,” Mr. Freeman says, “your base assumption isn’t actually what the market wants.”

The process leading up to a successful website launch can be arduous, and the final weeks can require a significant amount of time and attention.

It’s easy to get discouraged, especially after staring at the same site for months on end, something that Josh Dunford, founder of Vancouver-based design and interactive firm Burnkit, refers to as “page fatigue.”

But that attention and care can make all the difference between you finding a bug before launch, and users finding it after.

“Even though you’ve gone through this long process and you’re ready to go live, just take that extra effort to make sure it’s great,” Mr. Dunford says.

For most clients, holding a small test before launch – often referred to as a beta – is a must. And a beta is just one of many things you can do to ensure your site is ready for a successful launch.

Code must be validated, bugs must be found, and the final product should be measured against the concept developed at the start.

“It’s always good to take a look back at the project plan and assess what’s been created,” Mr. Dunford says. “Make sure all the objectives have been realized and the content is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”

This is especially important as things change throughout the design and development process – and they will change.

“When you really think about it, a website is never finished,” Mr. Freeman says.

Instead, a successful launch is just the first step in a long process – but one that it is important to go smoothly. Here are some ways to make sure that a site is ready for launch.

Banish bugs

Holding an open or closed beta isn’t only useful for tracking usability issues with potential users, but also is a good opportunity to look for bugs.

“We’ll ask a restricted number of people to do multiple tests as they would use the site normally,” explains Isabelle Swiderski, creative director at Vancouver-based design and typography house Seven25. “Then, usually ,we do an open beta. So again, a larger group of regular users would be asked to use the site.”

Not only does this offer the benefit of more eyes probing every page and pixel of your site, but it can provide valuable feedback from less experienced or more savvy users who may interact with the site in a way you never expected.

“I’ll make sure forms work as a normal user would,” says Ryan Knuth, 76design’s quality assurance specialist, “but then I’ll also look at other ways that people could use them incorrectly, and see how the system reacts to it.”

For example, a website might have a form that requires an e-mail, but doesn’t check to see whether submitted data follows the standard address@company.com format. At the very least, users could submit fake data. At the worst, it could be a security vulnerability – which Mr. Knuth will test for as well.

Mr. Dunford suggests setting up a collaborative environment with clients where found bugs can be tracked. This can be as simple as a shared document in Google Docs, where both parties can watch in real-time as bugs are discovered, and hopefully, fixed.

The compatibility conundrum

While today’s Web browsers do a much better job of adhering to modern Internet standards – thanks, in no small part, to the increased proliferation of Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome – it’s not always easy to ensure a site shows up correctly across myriad devices and platforms.

For example, when Mr. Dunford’s company was hired to redesignthe online presence of Sony’s PlayStation brand, it had to code HTML newsletters in such a way that they would work correctly in the old version of the Lotus Notes e-mail client used by Sony executives.

To help with code validation and cross-compatibility diagnosis, Mr. Knuth uses a number of tools, including a paid piece of software called SortSite.

“It does HTML and CSS validation. It also takes a look at accessibility, and some usability,” he explains. “It may be able to pick up on something that could cause a problem in IE6 but not in IE7.”

But one of the best tools, according to Mr. Knuth, actually comes from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is where HTML and CSS Web standards are actually defined. The benefit of using W3C’s tool for code validation, being free, is that he knows it will always be up to date.

Audience analytics

While a closed or open beta can be a good way to validate assumptions and track bugs beforehand, nothing beats placing a site at the whims of its audience. Tracking that audience can be especially helpful.

Mr. Dunford says it’s crucial that analytics be set up on a site at launch if they aren’t already, and goals for usage and activity be set.

“If people are spending more time in a section that surprised you, maybe you want to make some adjustments to that section to make the most of that traffic,” he suggests.

Just one caveat: Make sure to exclude yourself from the data.

“When I’m testing a website, if I have to check something out live, I might hit a page 50 times, which would skew the result,” Mr. Knuth cautions. This is easy to overlook, so he’s careful to add both his IP address and those of his clients to an analytics blacklist.

Special to The Globe and Mail

An earlier online version of this story incorrectly attributed some quotes to Mr. Freeman instead of to Mr. Knuth. This online version has been corrected.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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