For a vast number of retail businesses an E-commerce application as part of their website (if not the primary function) is essential. It is very difficult, however, to understand if a development team is capable from a customer’s point of view. The problem with E-commerce development and programming in general is the majority of people don’t have a good knowledge of it, thus, it is very difficult to spot when developers are ‘bluffing’ or whether they can actually deliver what you need. To this end we have gathered together a quick 10 questions that might help you get a feel for your development team.
1. Do they use off-the-shelf or existing Applications?
The ‘yes’ or ‘no’ part of this answer is almost unimportant. You need to look at their attitude within the given answer. There is a naive viewpoint in some companies that off-the-shelf software has no place in the industry. However, can you imagine commissioning a new application identical to Microsoft Word?
Of course not. Sometimes, if the off the shelf software is suitable for the requirements, then it is a viable solution. On the other hand, some companies only use off the shelf software with cosmetic changes – which is not suitable for customers who genuinely need individual tailored applications. Your development team should be aware of the associated costs involved with both off-the-shelf and bespoke systems and should not overlook the possibility of merging the two.
2. What development platforms or languages do they offer?
If you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. If a company only has expertise in one programming language or platform, then regardless of suitability – they solve problems using those tools. If your business needs don’t already dictate a specific platform or language then ask what choices they can offer, how suitable they are and what the associated costs are with each technology
3. What Development Processes do they use?
Depending on who you ask, software development (including the development of E-commerce websites, shopping carts and online applications) is either an art, science or engineering discipline. Regardless of which approach a company takes, the processes they use and the process management they employ is very important. You wouldn’t build a house without a project manager and architect drawings; neither should you trust your project to a company who don’t have good project management and application design techniques in place.
4. How are changes in requirements handled?
In every development, requirements will change. This is a certainty. The original specification you wanted will have a flaw, or you will think of a new feature that means the flow of the shopping system or some other feature needs to change. Every seasoned development team expects requirements to change.
It is not enough for a team to expect requirements to change; they have to be able to manage those requirements. There are numerous ways to deal with requirement changes, however, it is essential that at a bare minimum all requirement changes are documented, agreed and development schedules are re-evaluated.
5. How do they deal with features they haven’t implemented before?
This is tied into the first point; some companies don’t actually produce their own applications. If they don’t know an application that can perform a task, they might simply say they cannot do it. A good company will offer potential solutions, perhaps after some research, explaining any risks and costs associated even for features they have never considered before. A flat answer of “That can’t be done” is rarely a good sign.
6. How do they test E-commerce Applications?
At the end of the day it is your reputation at risk if there is a fault in your E-commerce system. How exactly do the developers plan to test your application? There is a great debate in testing methodologies, although, one fundamental concept is agreed “Test early, test often”. Your developers should be able to detail a method of testing individual parts of the application as they are produced along with an overall test plan for the integrated system.
7. Are the development team knowledgeable in SEO?
There is little point having a brilliant E-commerce website if no customers are finding it. Web applications must be developed with best SEO practises in mind so that search engines can index all of your vital product and content pages. Will your application generate compliant XHTML and CSS and have relevant keyword content and placement? Or, in the worst case scenario, can your application generate duplicate content which might risk you being penalised in the major search engines?
8. Payment Systems
How many payment gateways are they familiar with? Can your developer integrate with the payment system you wanted or the one specified by your bank? Can they help you take a variety of payment types? This is a fundamental business issue, if your target age have access to credit cards and paypal, then you may well need multiple payment options in your shopping cart.
9. Content Management System (CMS)
Content Management Systems come in all shapes and forms and the term is often abused. Nearly every ‘one man’ design shop can offer a CMS now. First of all ask yourself – do I need a CMS? Do you want to change content on the website yourself? If the answer is yes, which it often is, how functional is the CMS? Some of the worst efforts will require you to learn the HTML code behind web pages!
This is going to sound a little counter-intuitive, but does your development team budget for support? If they don’t, you may well have problems. It sounds great when a company says sure just phone us if you have problems and we’ll fix it. Remember you have to be realistic and so does the development company. They can’t afford to spend hours a day supporting multiple clients. They should be able to budget for and provide a schedule of support to ensure that when you need an issue fixed, it gets fixed and not left in a ‘client changes queue’ for weeks.