Website project planning for clients and why it’s so scary
By DEREK NEUTS, MS
One of the most significant issues that I repeatedly see when working with web development clients is the inability to determine a project’s scope and budget. More often than not, clients have a concept of what they want to see as the result of work performed, but a website business goal hasn’t been thought through, leaving decisions being made in an impromptu fashion based on emotionally-charged events that took place before requesting services. Those emotional triggers, unfortunately, tend to be related to feeling “ripped off” due to paying for either a poorly performing developer or service agency that didn’t listen, thus failed to meet their needs. These experiences can reflect poorly on the profession as a whole and make life more difficult for the next developer, which can leave them feeling as though they have something to prove to the new client, when in fact they don’t. In actuality, the client needs self-educate on the business culture and practices in the web development field if they are going to seek proposals or solicit developers. If this doesn’t happen, they’re just throwing good money after bad. Due to this, I think it’s essential to narrowly highlight some of the pitfalls associated with these topics and provide some guidance on how to have a more realistic mental picture (or assessment) of what one wants out of a project, as well as what degree of resources to allocate. Resources, in this sense, could refer to time, content creation or management, an appropriate budget, and personnel, for starters.
First, there are no reliable “right” answers on how to handle any of the aspects that I’ll discuss in this article, but there are common sense judgments and best practices that come with experience and a contextual understanding of a project, and its inherent needs. Also, every project is going to be different, as it as a personality of its own and will require a personalized touch, not a grid, template, or one-size-fits-all trick methodology. Lastly, web development mythology has no basis in reality when it comes to project planning, such as rumors, pop-culture facts, and uninformed opinions surrounding project scope, resources, costs, and time needed for completion. I’ve heard many myths over the past year, and I’m sure I’ll continue to hear even more over the next several. For example, if anyone ever offers to complete an entire website from start to finish within 30-days or less, walk away. I’m entirely serious because they are not only forgetting crucial steps, but they’re not considering your business model, nor are they able to pay attention to essential details at that pace. More than likely, you’re getting a template and being charged for full development time (hourly or project-based) as that’s their business model, whether you agree with the ethics of it or not. These are predators who have been trained to provide quick turnarounds and re-use most elements of prior projects to complete yours in astronomical time. In the end, you’ll end up hiring someone else and having it redeveloped.
A brief dive into project scope for web development
Project scope in web development is similar in nature to the characteristics of project scopes across a multitude of other business cultures, yet can be very narrowly focused for this field (depending on the needs of the project). For example, when you’re working on a proposal with a potential web developer that you’re seeking to hire, their business style and prior experience will dictate how the breadth and depth of the work to be performed are laid out on paper. Traditionally, developers want to keep the language of these documents clear, transparent, and definitive, as well as necessarily brief. Development companies may have in-house or contracted project managers who can also write these documents and present them to you for review and negotiation. However, be cautious with project managers disguised as sales, because their end-goal is to close your deal at all costs. With my own company, for example, I write the contracts and handle all project management (for now) as the work is steady enough not to warrant additional persons handling my documents. I like it that way, and I feel that this provides clients with a more personal touch with contract changes sometimes being made on the fly.
When possible, the details in the project scope are modeled from the overview (big picture) with developmental milestones (mini-tasks used to reach the bigger goals), using them as a marker along the way. Budgets can also be outlined, along with the phases, for a clean breakdown for the client. While software development may have extraordinarily clear descriptions, deliverables, exclusions, and also include product scope (which is different from project scope, as it defines a tangible deliverable, such as an app), web development can potentially be more of an enigma to describe in terms of the overall final project deliverable and the journey that will be taken to get there. Websites are marketing products, part of the marketing process, and there are many gray areas when attempting to describe them as it’s a deliverable that’s subject to often enormous amounts of directional change between start and finish. Perspectives can change, attitudes can waver, and upgrades in technology or methods can potentially slow projects down, and these eventualities should be accounted for in the project proposal. Websites employ a great deal of problem-solving, creativity, and various methods to accomplish an end-goal, so getting there on paper and what happens in real life can be two distinct contrasts.
A good relationship between yourself and your developer is required to survive most web projects, as well as an understanding that a proposal is nothing more than a paper version of your short-term relationship and needs in exchange for professional services. If you don’t click and communicate well initially, then both parties should reconsider engaging in services altogether, and there’s nothing wrong with that professionally, just don’t use it as an excuse for selection when you fail to compromise on negotiations, otherwise you’ll go without a developer for a long period of time. Relationships in business, like any relationship, come with compromise. A majority of problems in a project can arise when one or both parties fail to effectively communicate with one another, which can escalate to feelings of distrust and a further desire for project abandonment. While things may look good on paper, it’s still a relationship, and it has to be managed as such. Also, if a client is being difficult right from the beginning, and looks at this new relationship as a customer-servant relationship instead of a professional or peer-to-peer connection, the client may find their quote doubled to make the short-term stress of taking on the project worth the developer’s time (yes, this happens). Alternatively, as stated in one of my earlier articles, the client may just be declined at the onset or dumped shortly after the engagement when the brief honeymoon period has ended.
Whether web development services are billed at an hourly rate or by an overall project rate after careful deliberation, the project should have milestones (goals) that are tangible and attainable in phases so that both the client and developer can feel forward movement on a project. These benchmarks are quite similar to what’s known as a Work Breakdown Structure that can divide up an end-project vision into digestible chunks that can be mapped out and completed in a logical progression. These milestones and related task breakdowns can be associated with bits of the more detailed project scope descriptions surrounding deliverables, expectations, potential restrictions, and professional boundaries outlined in the proposal document.
A brief dive into project scope for web development
One of the most challenging things for a client to decide is how much they should pay a developer. There are many ways to determine this, from taking bids and gaining insights to average project price, to finding and selecting good developers online and speaking with them individually. There are so many ways to reach a reasonable budget amount that I should write a separate article on this topic. For now, understand that most professionals will charge at least $3,000 for a reliable website that’s been developed either from the ground-up or in a hybrid fashion (i.e., using a framework such as Genesis or Elementor). However, bear in mind that amateurs who have been trained to say the right things, show you the right things, and promise you the right things, those who only use visual builders or subcontract your work without your knowledge will also charge similar prices to professionals. Complete your due-diligence and get interested in the developer you choose by learning more about their style, background, and preferences for building sites. Good conversations like this can go a long way to determining if they have what it takes for your project or if they’re selling you snake oil. Until the barrier to employment in this industry is either raised or standards are somehow enforced, and clients show interest in understanding them even a surface level for the sake of their own business, issues like this will continue to happen.
Regardless of project costs, a few of the most important line items that clients forget when it comes to project planning are:
I’ve spoken prospective clients this year who budgeted large sums of money for the construction of sites, but then failed to scale back their expectations and simply forgot about maintaining a cushion to promote the site and its related services. Budgetary oversights such as this can grind any business venture to a halt, as no one can buy from you if customers don’t know you exist. Of course, web developers routinely get the blame for poor performance on websites that have been delivered, but it’s not always their fault. Business owners need to recognize the need for extraneous expenses, including marketing and advertising budgets, and hold themselves accountable when formulating a game plan for a business website. For example, if one only has $7,500 to spend on a small-to-medium sized website project, then perhaps scaling the construction costs down to $4,500 may be a better route to go, while retaining the leftover $3,000 for some of the expenses I’ve outlined above. It’s not uncommon for site and application builds into the tens of thousands of dollars, with very little spent on marketing, and then the clients get angry that the site isn’t being found or no one knows about the app, as if magically a presence on the web brings customers.
How funds are divided is dependent on the client’s field, the culture within that profession, how they reach their audience, and what they envision as the end-result of the website delivery and its subsequent product or service placement. The developer should be invested in your outcome if they are full-service (many are not), and should be able to wear a business hat and strategize with you, not just sell you on how pretty your site will look once it’s done while shifting focus away from your goals and instead discussing how much you have to spend. If they can’t have an educated conversation with you about what’s really important, then my suggestion would be to find another developer or agency. In this case, working with developers or agencies who provide relevant consulting services on business and marketing can work wonders for small business owners by keeping the project focused and aligned with marketing and advertising goals. It also keeps the website integrated into the business model, which is critical. Don’t be afraid to go into such meetings with a maximum target figure you’re looking to spend and then have open and honest conversations about how you’d like to see that budget divided for maximum effect. Of course, I would recommend allocating another 20% above what you stated, just in case uncertainty comes knocking on your door.
Professional developers will want to know a ballpark funding amount, not because they’ll use it to gauge if the project is worth their time or not, but to think about resources and what would be considered realistic expectations to formulate a plan with an integrated scope of work. Only predatory developers will use your budget figure as a way to use all of it on themselves, and they won’t be concerned about your out-of-pocket expenses, marketing, or ancillary services. Clients often don’t want to open up about these topics, as it’s uncomfortable to talk about money, and trust has to be earned. However, it’s a two-way street, as developers also want to know that you’re serious about your business and that funds are available, so they don’t divert time, energy and staff to formulate a game-plan only not to get paid, or have the project be underfunded or terminated due to a lack of resources.