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Hypergene MediaBlog » 5 lessons learned from Footnote

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Tuesday, 16 Jan 2007

5 lessons learned from Footnote

After doing my fair share of preaching on this blog for the last five years, I (Chris) now have firsthand knowledge of at least one thing a few days after Footnote.com’s launch:

On the web you don’t control your message, but you’re welcome participate in the conversation you’ve started.

Given that you will be Dugg or Slashdotted or bubble to the top of Delicious for a few moments, how do you put your best, uh, foot forward?


1. Make sure it’ll play in Paducah

At Footnote, we travel around the country several times a year to put simple prototypes (paper or working) in front of likely customers. We borrow a lot of techniques used in rapid contextual inquiry to see whether we have an idea that people want or if we’re just enamored with ourselves.

We’ve jokingly referred to these “van trips” as the “home invasion tour.” That’s because we show up at a persons house with 6 to 8 other stake holders - designers, marketers, developers and a senior executive or two.

The meetings last about an hour and a half.  One moderates, one transcribes and the others quietly jot notes.

On the ride to the next visit, we do an intense debrief and compile the person’s objections and justifications for using the product. We want bad news early because we can do something about itv without have to rewrite a line of code.

image

2. Be a Beta hater

While it’s tempting and trendy to stamp “beta” all over your site, it’s a bad idea for at least two reasons:

1. Most people have no idea what “beta” means. We’ve asked.

2. Good sites are always improving - so why suggest that you plan to stop one day?


3. Identify the core functionality that defines your story

You don’t have to launch with every bell and whistle. If you have something that’s truly interesting, people should be able to see that immediately.

The best piece of writing advice given to me came from an editor at The Detroit News. She told me to “kill your darlings.”

Submitting your beloved web project to that is difficult, but it’s also a liberating. It forces you to spend energy on what’s important and question everything else.

And on the web, you rarely have to kill anything - just put them on spreadsheet of upcoming features. The weak ones will atrophy and die soon enough.

One word of caution: If you believe your site is not ready to launch because there’s a cool new AJAX doohickey missing, then you might want to rethink things.


4. Make sure it works

Do you have a list of scenarios and features that must work flawlessly before you can launch? If not how will you know when you’re ready?

Buy a lot of pizza and pass those key scenarios out to every employee and/or relative and test. Log every discrepancy.

At one point last week, the office felt more like in the control room at NASA, though it still smelled like an Italian restaurant:
“Commerce systems? Go!”
“Viewer? Go!”
“800-number? 800-number?”

Over time your site will grow steadily but the nature of the web is one prone to flash crowds. Have the hardware or contingency plan to deal with that. Though we received some decent spikes from Digg and Delicious, traffic maxed at only 1/10th of our capacity.


5. Don’t launch a new site within minutes of a major press release

We made changes just before we launched Footnote.com last Wednesday as the National Archives made their announcement.

While there were not any real problems, we didn’t give ourselves much room to correct them if there had.

Posted on Jan 16, 2007 | 12:00 am EST
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