E-commerce is rarely "simple"

A few days ago, we received an enquiry from a potential client asking for a "simple" e-commerce site. It reminded me of a previous project which started out as a simple site but ended up being one of the biggest sites we've ever built.

This got me thinking about how, as purchasers explaining our requirements to suppliers, we have a tendency to simplify our needs. And, as suppliers, we need effective project managment and interview skills to get the full picture.

Here's a typical scenario. A meeting between a client and a developer to discuss requirements for a new e-commerce site.

CLIENT: Can you tell me how much it will cost to build a site with a simple shopping cart?

DEVELOPER: No problems. Did you have any special requirements for your shop?

CLIENT: I sell widgets. I just need an area to manage products and prices and on the front end customers should have simple shopping cart functionality like adding products to a cart and check out via Paypal. We generally use Australia Post for deliveries. How much will that cost?

At this point in the conversation a lot of developers/sales people will offer up a general cost for simple e-commerce development using their system of choice, discuss options for design and layout, sign a contract and get to work. However, things are rarely as simple as they seem. This is how an effective Project Manager would continue with the conversation.

DEVELOPER: OK. That sounds easy enough. Tell me about your customers. Who buys your widgets?

CLIENT: Most of our sales are direct to the public. We also sell to some wholesale clients.

DEVELOPER: So you'll have at least 2 levels of pricing for your product? A wholesale price and a retail price?

CLIENT: Kind of... Wholesale customers get discounts based on the size of their order. It can vary from 10% to 30% off.

DEVELOPER: OK. This means you'll need the ability to specify shopper groups, assign customers to different groups and specify quantity based pricing specific to each group?

CLIENT: Yeeeeeessss. I thought this would be included in an e-commerce system.

DEVELOPER: Well... Yes. But, not as part of a "simple" e-commerce site.  Tell me, do you offer quantity discounts only to wholesale customers or do your regular customers also get discounts for large orders?

CLIENT: We don't offer discounts to the public. But, we do offer free shipping for orders over a certain level. Smaller orders fit in 3kg or 5kg Express Post bags. Larger orders are boxed up and sent using Parcel Post. Anything over 20kg we ship via our courier service.

DEVELOPER: We have plugins for our ecommerce systems that allow you to base your shipping costs on, quantity, weight, a percentage of the total price, or interface directly with the Australia Post API. It sounds like you may need a combination of these.

CLIENT: Yes. We also offer free shipping for orders over $500.

Notice how quickly the conversation has moved from Product Pricing to Shipping? Need to get back on track.

DEVELOPER: OK. I think it might be best if we come back to this item and create a separate document for shipping requirements. Let's get back to your product pricing. You mentioned wholesale discounts varied based on the size of the order. Is the size based on the quantity, weight or price?

CLIENT: It's based on the total order price. The weight can change because the red widgets are a little lighter?

DEVELOPER: Red widgets?

CLIENT: The red widgets are a little lighter, even though they cost more. They are made with a different material.

DEVELOPER (scratches his head with his pen): So, your products will need definable attributes, like colour? And, the pricing will vary based on the color selected, quantity purchased and shopper group discounts? That's going to be quite difficult to manage. We will need to put some time and thought into designing the interface so it's easy and intuitive for you to manage. It's going to require quite a bit of coding and testing.

CLIENT: Oh, OK. I assumed this would all be standard.

DEVELOPER: Aaaaaah. No.

The above dialogue is entirely fictional but in no way untrue. At Joomstore, our proposals are often higher than other developers simply because we take the time to discover what's involved.

We also take on a lot of fix ups and recovery jobs where clients have been left with unfinished, or completely inadequate sites because previous developers didn't have a proper understanding of the requirements. If this happens it's not the clients fault. The developer should have asked the right questions and been diligent overcoming the oversimplification which plaque most RFPs.

It's common for purchasers to oversimplify their requirements. We are all guilty of this. It's not just web clients. It occurs in many industries and usually we don't even realise we are doing it. Like the person buying a new car - "I just need something to get from A to B". But, of course, their needs are much greater than this.

This occurs for a number of reasons.

  1. People over simplify because they lack understanding or knowledge. This is totally understandable. We can't expect every customer to have an understanding of the web design/development process and software involved.
  2. They don't yet know exactly what they want. Sometimes it's careful questioning about a topic that highlights aspects that haven't been given any thought.
  3. Too many assumptions. This is the biggest issue. The client assumes that features are included by default. The developer assumes the client has mentioned everything that's required.
  4. Cost. Perhaps, even subconsciously, we oversimplify to avoid being over charged.

What ever the reason, the responsibility of questioning and digging deeper to determine the full needs of a client is the responsibility of the Project Manager. Every project should include adequate documentation to ensure both the client and developer are on the same page. Potential clients (if you're reading this) should be as forthcoming as possible and plan ahead. We always recommend potential clients write a detailed brief before speaking to developers. It helps developers to understand what's involved but it also helps clients understand what they actually need.

john-pitchers-avatar smAbout John Pitchers

John Pitchers is co-founder and lead developer at Joomstore where his primary role is the design and development of Joomla websites. He is also the developer of the FocalPoint maps extension for Joomla. John has been building CMS based web sites since 2004, originally working with Mambo before it forked into Joomla. When not writing PHP, Javascript or CSS you'll find John carving up the hills around Baldivis on his longboard (long before Walter Mitty made it famous).

Find out more about John on his About.me page and . Follow John on Twitter.

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