10 Things That Will Make Or Break Your Website

fwa_badge.pngThese are the top 10 things I learned from attending the Future of Web Apps Conference 2006 in San Francisco earlier this month. The summit was hosted by Carson Systems and included speakers like Kevin Rose, Mike Arrington, Mike Davidson, and more. It’s a condensed and aggregated summary of points covered by different speakers throughout the conference that I found most useful.

  1. EASY is the most important feature of any website, web app, or program.
    Discoverability – everything is easy to find, features meant to enhance, not distract – can still be advanced, as long as it’s easy. Recoverability – actions should be without cost (ex: Digg, UnDigg). The web is about fulfilling needs – create things that let people do this as easily as possible. Drive usage. Generate touchpoints for easy spreading – easy to tell friends, relentlessly remove barriers to account signups. Make the website easy to use. Then make it easier.
  2. Visual design and copy are extremely important.
    Your credibility is at stake. Don’t have your coder do xhtml/css. Start with the design, then markup, then develop the backend. Obsess about your copy and how you communicate to your visitors via text to complement how you communicate with your visitors visually. Remove distractions and simplify.
  3. Open up your data as much possible.
    The future is not in owning data. Expose every axis of your data for people to mash up. Get an API and release it out to the wild, but stay conscious of abuse, whether intentional or not (ex: newbie programmers unwittingly making 100 server requests/sec.) Offer an RSS feed for everything on your site.
  4. Test, test, test.
    You can do your best to make educated guesses about what will work, but you will never know unless you create it and then test it. Create goals and measurements to be able to gauge progress. Good example: contrary to previous predictions, it looks like contextual ads don’t work well in RSS feeds. (Branding ads perform better). That was only known after testing. Then again, this may not apply to your niche – test, test, test!
  5. Release features early and often.
    Start with a core set of features (and create plugins on top) – always know your end goals. Don’t offer “me too” features just to to have them – stay true to your core. Small increments show visible progress. If you stay personable and honest and set expectations, people will be a lot more receptive when things break. Ideally your development should be modular, incremental, and well documented to mitigate future problems.
  6. Be special.
    Passion for what you are doing and creating is paramount. If you believe it, do it. Don’t let anyone else tell you that it’s not possible or shouldn’t be done. Create purple cows. Challenge the status quo. Do it against the odds and with little startup money. (Raising too much money can hurt you and make you lose focus.) Prove all your detractors wrong. Passion and a belief in yourself will get you through the rough times.
  7. Don’t be special.
    Use common standards or open source frameworks whenever possible. Don’t reinvent the wheel unnecessarily. Also, try to share user databases, ecommerce systems, and other elements between your projects to prevent siloing.
  8. If you plan on developing a successful webapp, plan for scalability from the ground up.
    Anticipate growth and plan for problems ahead of time. Document everything. If you want a good real-world case study on scalability, check out Inside LiveJournal’s Backend (PDF). Find a top notch hardware partner if you don’t want to deal with the nitty gritty yourself.
  9. Watch, pay attention to, or implement right away:
    1. Microformats (opens up your data easily and contextually)
    2. Adobe Apollo (deploy Rich Internet Applications easily)
    3. Whobar (manage digital identity)
    4. Akismet (stop comment spam)
  10. User generated content and social software trends
    This is a bit of a catchall, but I’d like to list what has been working and not working in the user generated content space.
    1. Not working:
      1. Requiring participation from square 1. Not all users need to participate to generate social value.
      2. Buying communities.
      3. Social networks for the sake of social networks.
      4. Wikipedia consensus model (many people contribute to one idea for the greater good) is not a good model in general and probably cannot be duplicated outside Wikipedia.
    2. Working:
      1. Giving users control, being open to different uses you did not anticipate.
      2. Dunbar principle – segments of under 150 people.
      3. The individual should get value and the organization should derive aggregated value from all the individuals.
      4. Social sites have and need different types of users and each should be motivated/rewarded equally.
      5. Many voices generate emergent order: you can get much value out of all that data.

There was a lot of other really good information and insight that I’ve not covered here. For more in-depth coverage and summary of each speaker’s contributions, check out Allen’s excellent summit notes and recap.

Hopefully by paying attention to these points you will make it to the winners list and void the losers list, next time Paul Scrivens does a roundup.

(Also, thanks to Copyblogger for guidance about writing a better headline.)