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Automating routine business processes

Summary: Web applications are programs that use user input to customize your Web pages.

These Web-based programs can save you time and money by automating repetitive business tasks that you now do by hand.

This article describes several examples of Web applications and lists the six most important questions to ask about any Web application.

What is a Web application?

Most Web pages are "static," which means that they don't change, no matter who is viewing them or why. These sites offer one-way, one-size-fits-all communication, just like the printed brochures they've been modeled on. There's an alternative.

With the help of HTML forms, databases, and programming languages, a Web page can respond to a specific user's needs. These tools allow your Web site to receive data, manipulate it, save it for later use, and display it.

When a program using these tools runs on your Web server and responds to user input, it's called a "Web application." The "user" can be you, your employees, or your customers.

Some examples of Web applications include shopping carts, search programs, blogs, online email services such as Hotmail, Web photo storage services, and online banking services. But there are many more possibilities.

Almost any task repeated over and over by your business could be made into a Web application. As you might expect, some tasks are easier to automate than others. Choose those routine business processes which can be turned into Web applications easily for a reasonable cost, and those which will return significant profits or savings.

Let's look at four Web applications for examples of what is possible.

Encourage Web site visitors to contact you

What can you do to make it easy for visitors to contact you?

Some Web sites simply show visitors an email address. This approach depends on the visitor having access to an "email client" (such as Outlook Express) on the computer they're using. Anyone using a computer they don't own may be unable to send an email. This is especially true of people using computers at work, libraries, or other public locations. Although it is important to provide an email address, this alone won't ensure that visitors can contact you.

Many Web sites use commonly available "formmail" programs which collect data from an HTML form and then email the information to you. These programs use your Web server to send the email, so visitors can contact you even if they don't have access to an email client. Unfortunately, formmail programs are susceptible to hacker attacks and abuse by spammers. To avoid these security threats, it is important to use a more secure program, one adapted to your specific needs.

This site's contact page is a good example of a this kind of Web application, as shown below.

The contact page from this site, showing the program responding to a user error.

When a visitor submits their contact data, the program checks the information to be sure it's complete. In this case the user has forgotten to include the area code with their phone number, so the program has asked them to correct the problem.

Add temporary announcements to your Web site

If you have many employees, or employees in different locations, it may be difficult to get general announcements to them. If your employees use the Internet regularly, one solution is to add an announcement feature to your Web site.

Or you might want to post messages to your customers to highlight new staff members, sales, or new additions to the site. An announcement Web application would make this very easy for you to do.

An announcement Web application allows you to write, edit, or delete messages which would then be displayed immediately on your Web site. You simply type ordinary text on an editing page, such as the one shown below. The program takes care of encoding the data for the browser and storing it on the Web server. Current announcement data is added to pages whenever a visitor requests a page from the site.

Example of a Web application that allows site owner to add temporary announcements to their Web site

Current announcements appear in the right column. Site owner can add, edit, or delete announcements in the larger left column.

As you can see in the example above, this site uses two sets of messages: one set of messages for customers, shown on customer-oriented pages, and another for staff. On staff-oriented pages, employees see both sets of announcements so they'll be aware of what customers are being told.

Collect job applications online

Sending printed employment applications to prospective employees is time-consuming. And since many of them will be handwritten, you'll struggle to read them. Even then, you can't be sure that applicants will fill in all the blanks.

Web-based job applications simplify all of that for you. The applicant simply goes to the Web page that holds the form, fills it out, and submits it to your Web server. The program can check to be sure that all required fields (blanks) are filled in and can even do rudimentary validity tests on phone numbers and email addresses.

The program can either send the job application to you by email in an easy-to-read format or save the data in a database. Saving the information in a database would allow you to sort the data, print lists, or view it in a spreadsheet program.

Make signing up for events easy

Do you sponsor events?

Publicizing events, keeping track of sign-ups and creating participant rosters is easier if you let a Web application do the detail work for you.

When you offer a new event, you can easily update the information. The new event information will appear immediately on the Web site. A visitor will click on the event they want to attend, add their name and contact information, and submit the form.

The program will then verify that all required fields have been completed, test the email address to be sure it's valid, and send a copy to both the site owner and the visitor by email, as shown below.

Example of confirmation email visitor receives after signing up for an event

After signing up, the visitor and site owner both receive an email similar to this, although the print won't be so small!

The Web application could also be designed to save the data to a database, which would make printing rosters and keeping track of customers very easy.

Guidelines for automating tasks

Most automated business applications use HTML forms to receive input from the user. To turn visitors into clients, your Web applications—and these forms—must be designed to meet the users' needs.

The six most important questions to ask about any Web application

  1. Does this application add value for your Web site's users? Looking cool isn't enough. If features don't help users meet their goals, you'll be wasting your money. Of course, depending on the situation, the "users" might be you, your employees, or your customers.
  2. Is the form easy for users to understand and fill out? The easier it is for users to understand and complete your form, the more likely you'll get good data. The layout of the form, its labels and instructions are all important details.
  3. Does the form ask for essential information only? This is a privacy issue. If your forms ask for information that isn't obviously needed for the task at hand, visitors may not trust you. Distrustful visitors are likely to leave your site or provide false information.
  4. Does the application ensure that required fields (blanks in a form) are filled in? A good program will check for missing data and, if necessary, tell the user which fields must still be completed.
  5. Does the application display help, reassurance, and confirmation? When users fill in a form, they may need help with how to answer the questions. They may also need reassurance about your integrity, your customer satisfaction policies, and the security of their data. At the end of the interaction, they'll definitely want confirmation that the correct data was successfully processed, so your application should show them the data again.
  6. Is it easy for you to review and work with the responses from your Web site? The data visitors type into HTML forms can be emailed to you, but it may be more efficient to store the information directly in a database. This would allow you to sort the data automatically, create lists of names, print tables, etc.

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