The Last Mile

The last mile is a sort of euphemism that covers the complexity and expensive of the final step in getting a deliverable to a client. The origin of this comes from telecommunications companies (or possibly electric companies) where running large eletrical cables between major hubs across a country would be simpler and less expensive then getting the lines from each hub out to the individual customer, which might require thousands, even millions of individual cables to be run.

I was thinking on web development a bit the other day and I thought this might work as a metaphor for web development.

We spend the time developing a layout structure, an information architecture. We figure out what pieces of information belong where and when everything feels right we move into developing the means to convey this organized information to the viewer.

This means that allows the user to access and process the information is our “last mile”. This is our presentation, typically focused on visual design (but not always!). It’s the point where you decide what your logo should look like, what color scheme your website will use, and what technologies you’ll use to deliver the information.

The technologies for delivering the information include basic HTML, Flash, web services, RSS or similar type feeds, audio (podcasts), images, video clips, PowerPoint presentations, Word Documents, and printed pieces like books or posters.

It seems this “last mile” is what usually proves to be the most expensive and the most time consuming. This is why I think the metaphor fits well.

I think there are ways to help simplify and save in some parts of this process. Stick to the medium you know (web), focus on consistency of presentation (single template), don’t create lots of little different things that each need to be maintained ( podcasts, wiki, forums, video blogs, etc..) otherwise you’re going to create too much work for yourself and risk losing focus. Limit the number of people making decisions (less time spent in meetings, more time spent developing).

But at the same time, can a strict HTML and text site really engage users in a manner that’s going to keep them focused on your information? In a perfect world, yes. And I think in a lot of applications basic text/html works very well and is very maintainable.

However that will never always be the case. You will have times where you need something extra. Were you, say, a college campus, you’ll need things like a campus tour, photography of the campus, perhaps video or audio presentations to put a human face or voice to the information and give the prospective student a real sense of what the campus is about.

Take a family member or friend you’re quite fond of. What do you think would better convey the personality of that person: a page of text or a video clip of that person? It’s the video clip. Unless you’ve got good copy copywriters chances are you won’t be able to convey the feeling and personality with text alone.

At the same time, you don’t want to unnecessarily complicate your “last mile”. These extra pieces of technology to convey information aren’t always needed. Take for example a financial report for a given company. Do you really care about the personality of the company or how the information is presented more than the actual numbers? Chances are you’re only after the numbers, in which case a simple text/html page is the best means to convey your information.

So what about gray areas? Maybe a family run store where personality is part of the “brand” you want to convey. Well perhaps some photos of people in the story, a sense of what the store sells, and maybe even some sort of video intro from the owner. Do you need podcasts or a blog? Probably not.

With a little understanding of what the information that you want to convey is, who your audience is, and the tools at your disposal, you should be able to balance between conveying your information and keeping your site from becoming unnecessarily complicated.

The big caveat before I finish is to recognize accessibility issues. Your video won’t work for someone who is blind. Your audio won’t work for someone who is deaf. That doesn’t mean these options are no longer viable, it simply means you need to either provide alternatives for those populations or ignore them and risk alienating them.

A small audio or video clip that supplements an existing page of text probably doesn’t need to be transcribed for the blind since the content of the text should convey the same message. However a 30 minute video that details your business’ services, with no other available content that provides as much depth into those services, would absolutely require some sort of alternative be it a transcription of the video or a companion text piece.

Things to think about in the philosophy of developing for the web.


One thought on “The Last Mile

  1. “can a strict HTML and text site really engage users in a manner that’s going to keep them focused on your information? In a perfect world, yes. And I think in a lot of applications basic text/html works very well and is very maintainable.”

    I’m based in Asia, and practically ALL the locally designed sites seem aimed at teenagers. They all consist of dozens of animated images flashing and flickering.

    No subtlety, no variety, and a complete turn-off for a serious browser.

    Even the national newspaper websites tread this path.

    There’s plenty of work for you over here Eric! :)

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