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This report describes the design of a website intended to fulfil a business need for real estate sales and rentals. The report covers the business case for the project, the requirements and the design of the system. The system has been designed using contemporary methods for good system design, and using current commercially available software.

The system has been designed for the Saudi Arabian market and is very different from existing websites that are specific to a particular real estate company.  As such, there are no similar websites that could provide a basis for comparison. However, it is possible to consider other sites that provide a similar service in different business areas and in different parts of the world. The report examines the business case, the structure and design principles of the site.    

The real estate business is highly competitive. Every business in this field has to work hard to obtain and maintain competitive advantage. In this area of business, reducing prices of the property sold or rented is not really an option. If it were to happen, sellers would not be happy to list their properties with the business. Also, the revenue generated would be reduced, as it is usually a proportion of the selling price. Instead, businesses have to look at other areas to improve. One way of doing this is to improve marketing to ensure that they reach the widest possible customer base.

Another is to minimise costs associated with the marketing, selling and processing activities. The purpose of this website is to provide clients with a cheaper and better alternative to promoting their offerings. This is achieved by removing the need for them to develop and maintain their own websites. Also, grouping offerings together has benefits for potential customers. Instead of having to travel to different places or visit many different websites, they can reduce the effort involved by visiting this one site.

The business case for the company sponsoring development is clear. They can offer a new, technologically contemporary method of providing a marketing method to potential clients. By marketing the potential cost reductions and improvements to market presence, the sponsoring company has a solid case to provide to those potential clients.

To enjoy the potential benefits of the project, the system must be cost effective to develop and to maintain. This can be promoted by using industry standard methods to develop the site and to improve maintainability. Also, the use of commercial off the shelf development software reduces costs, because many of the functions required are already embedded in available systems. This includes systems such as SQL Server, Apache and third party content editing software. Because such systems are prevalent throughout the industry, there is a large pool of programmers available for development and maintenance. This reduces the need for an individual programmer with exceptional skills to manage the system. Such individuals can demand a high price for their services, whereas most programmers are constrained by the market. This allows the system to be developed and maintained despite personnel changes.

Minimising costs are essential not only to real estate operators but also to those companies offering their services in the industry. Since cost is critical, this makes the system more affordable to a wider client base. This in turn improves the business case for the system and, if it can be sold to more clients, the unit price reduces which again makes the case even better. Since the product is effectively singular, this means that maintenance is minimised. There is no need to provide updates to the customer; all the changes can be made at the development site and all customers will automatically benefit. However, this approach does require that the system is capable of managing many concurrent users and transactions.

Much of the report relates theory derived from literature to the design of the specific website under consideration. This section introduces the general principles that have been used in the design as building block for the discussion that follows in the later sections. The principles of software design have been discussed in academic literature since the first days of computing. They have evolved substantially over time and in many cases there have been a trend towards developing principles that are applicable to all, or at least most, software systems. It appears to be recognised that a common set of principles that become standards can help designers to develop systems that are robust, easily maintainable and recognisable to users, while retaining the capability to allow designers to express their individual creative styles.

Internationally recognised standards such as ISO 9241 (BSI, 1998), which addresses user interface design, and the ISO seven layer model (Comer, 2009), which addresses separation of functionality are both examples of this. These models are not by any means mandatory for software developers, but adherence to their general principles can make software interface design, persistence design and communications more easily maintainable and can therefore reduce the through-life costs of a software system (Jones, 2007). Systematic design processes can also be used to enhance the development process (Maciasczek, 2007). The proposed design of the system adheres to these principles. This is discussed in the rest of the report.

The benefits that a website can provide includes the ability for the users to update data in real-time. In the context of the real estate industry it is possible for the user to update changes in prices or even offers very quickly. In the event that a property is in high demand and multiple people are interested in it a website can facilitate a bidding war. Furthermore, the availability of a website to provide information greatly decreases the need for the real estate firm to disseminate the information via other means. For instance it can rely on more compact advertising such as flyers and ads on other webpages that direct the interested party to the website instead of having to convey as much information as possible via the advertisement and possibly overwhelming the recipient with information that he does not actually need.

A website is now a requirement for good customer service. Without an adequate website customers may be persuaded to choose a different vendor all other factors being equal. The system is designed to operate over the internet to allow partners to access and use the site. This means that the system can use any operating system that supports Internet Protocol (IP). The system will be built using client-server architecture, in line with current best practice. The client side must be easy to use by people who are familiar with computers and the internet, and who are able to work in English. However, because the user may not be particularly skilled in advanced computing, the system must be easy to use for the client side.

The site should have a familiar look and feel to reduce the amount of training required for new users, and should ideally be intuitive for an experienced user of the internet. The purpose of the system is to allow real estate partners to add their contact details and for them to be able to add, manage and delete properties they have for sale or rent. The interface should allow properties to be displayed in an attractive manner, to promote sales. The system should be easy to use and should make existing processes easier to perform. This will save time and reduce costs associated with managing properties for sale.

It has already been decided that the system should be based on the concept of a Content Management System (CMS). The system will comprise of a number of pages that provide the required functionality. This consists of a content editor, which allows data to be introduced into the system, managed during the selling process and deleted once the property is sold or let. There will also be a partners' centre to allow clients to add and manage their contact details and also the property portfolio that they have for sale. The site will feature a contact page, allowing clients to contact the webmaster (administrator) to register complaints, suggestions or enter a request. The system should also include a site map to assist users to understand the site structure and to navigate more easily.

The design of the website should be planned using appropriate methods. Approaches to design include heuristic, think aloud and performance testing (Virzi et al, 1993). User observation of prototypes is another method, suggested by Nadkarni et al (2007). All of these methods can be useful in the design process. Their purpose is to provide a standard method of designing systems for specific types of target users. The current system should be designed on similar lines. It is also important to conform to established Human Computer Interface (HCI) principles for website design.

Dix et al (2004) provide information on such principles. The basic principles can be described by the terms simplicity, structure, consistency and tolerance, as described in many sources. These terms are self-explanatory, with the exception of tolerance. Tolerance means that the system is forgiving when the user enters inappropriate data or navigates in an unusual manner. The aim of such a design is to maintain user loyalty (Tarafdar and Zhang, 2008). It is also important to ensure that the design of the website meets the cultural needs of the target audience (Cyr et al, 2005), which is real estate companies in Saudi Arabia. Individual elements of the system are described in the following sub-sections.

The content editor is a vital part of the system that allows users to enter, edit, manage and delete information. The system will allow the user to edit text, including text content, indentations and alignment. It also provides the user with the ability to insert hyperlinks, still images, video clips, and to create tables and lists based on preset templates. The functionality of the content editor can be separated from its interface, so that it or the interface can be modified without damaging the business processes. This is in line with modern theory as described by Kitajima et al (2005) and many others.

The system will include a page that allows users to contact the webmaster and the management of the sponsoring company. This will allow the user to enter contact information consisting of address, telephone number, fax number, email address and to enter their request in a free text area. The data that needs to be collected for this page is name, email, telephone number and freeform text for the enquiry.

The partners' centre will be the main day-to-day operational core of the system. This is aimed at resellers, who are the target market of the system. This part of the website will be password protected, and once a user has logged on, they will be able to perform a number of discrete tasks. These are detailed in the following sub-sections.

The login process will be based on the user name/password concept. Users will be advised about the requirements for both user name and password. Each user name must be unique, and the requirements for passwords will be supplied to the user. This will include the minimum and maximum length, the mixture of alpha-numeric, capitals and lower case letters, and special characters. Again, the login process can be generated using third-party software that handles the core functionality without requiring nugatory programming effort.

Once users have registered and logged in to the system, they will be able to perform a number of functions. This includes the ability to add/edit/delete contact information, to send a request/complaint/suggestion, to change their password and to manage their current offerings.

The ability to manage offerings will include the capability to add/edit and delete offerings and to populate information about each specific property on offer. Each property will be organised by categories. These include whether the property is available for rent or purchase, and whether it is an apartment, a house, land or another type of property. Other types may include commercial, agricultural, storage and other miscellaneous properties.

In addition to main user functions, the webmaster will be able to perform a number of tasks such as adding, editing and deleting contact information for partners, respond to a submitted request, complaint or suggestion or reset a partner's password.

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