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How To Be Sure Your Web Design or Development Project Will Fail: Part 1

By Pete Czech

How To Be Sure Your Web Design or Development Project Will Fail: Part 1New Possibilities Group

One of the common scenarios we see here at the New Possibilities Group is when a prospective client comes our way after undertaking their project in a way that leads to…well, less than satisfactory results.

For one reason or another, their project may have been completed in a way that didn’t meet their requirements, didn’t satisfy their expectations, or in some cases, wasn’t finished at all. Most of the time, as we dig into their case, we can see where there were breakdowns. And sadly, it isn’t always on the side of a faulty agency.

Yes, clients make mistakes simply because they don’t know what they don’t know.

During the various phases of a web design or development project, from the sales cycle through to development, there are markers you should look for to avoid the failure of your initiative. You just have to know how to look for them. And you must have an open mind and realize that your approach could be flawed—a problem just as likely as hiring an agency that under-delivers.

With that in mind, I’ve created a list of items that can all but assure that your web design or development project will fail—and some tips on how to avoid that outcome.

As I started writing this post, it occurred to me that failures happen in two places.

First, during the sales cycle. This largely exists because of the nature of procuring services and the nature of salespeople who say “yes” to everything. The second area projects blow up is during the actual design and development phases.

So rather than flood you with one giant blog post about both scenarios, we’ll be splitting the topic into two posts over two weeks. This week, we’ll focus on how you can assure your project will fail with a flawed sales and procurement process.

And with that, let’s get into the reasons why.

Procurement By Cost Only

I put this first because the cliché “pennywise and pound foolish” has no more applicable a venue than the world of web development. I’ve written many posts about pricing, including this post just a few weeks ago that explains the various types of agencies and how they price.

Rather than dig into why things cost what they do, I want to focus on why procuring based on cost alone is the most flawed methodology you can use when acquiring creative or technical services.

The primary reason it doesn’t work is because these services are based on ingenuity and creativity, not simply outputs. Your web developer isn’t a factory worker—they are a creative resource. The lower the cost of your development or design partner, in almost all cases, the lower their ability to contribute constructive feedback and creative ideas.

Remember: Thought leaders and industry experts aren’t cheap.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking that’s just a blanket statement with no real reasoning or backup. But you need only read that post where we detail the types of agencies to start to understand why this is true. Based on the structure of the different types of entities, it is nearly impossible for you to always be assured you will work with a senior practitioner capable of filling in the blanks for you.

As we reviewed in that post, an offshore team is an output-based relationship—you tell them precisely what to do and they do it (sometimes not well!). They won’t fill in the blanks you’ve missed, nor will they contribute ideas or concepts to make your project or product better. Likewise, freelancers are much more cost-effective, but the risk they present makes them an unwise choice.

I frequently look back at some of the development deals we’ve lost to other parties. I check back with those clients often in the months following their decision. The failure rate amongst those who chose the cheapest bidder is astoundingly high. Oftentimes, those clients come back to us to finish or rebuild the job, costing them more than they had ever originally intended to spend.

A better alternative to price shopping is risk shopping. Shop for the vendors who can best mitigate your risk of losing everything you put into the project. Talk to references; carefully read through their portfolio and case studies. You are seeking a good level of confidence not only in their abilities, but also in their personality and quality of work.

Oftentimes, proper due diligence will result in the awareness that price should, at best, be a secondary consideration. Risk avoidance should always be your number-one determining factor in hiring an agency to complete your project. And as price goes up, risk typically decreases.

Asking for Spec Work

For some reason, people just assume that creative agencies will work for free to win business. And the worst part is, many agencies will do this out of desperation.

So, how on Earth did this practice begin?

The origins are the old world of advertising. Think Don Draper from Mad Men. Large agencies bid on work with the biggest corporations who were expecting spec work, or renditions of campaigns, at the first pitch. This practice kept breathing and eventually funneled down to smaller agencies as well. While agencies are now revolting against this practice (see this video), there are still many that are participating and providing free creative during the pitch process.

I want to make something clear about web design and development: Nothing produced as “spec work” within the digital world is bespoke. It’s never made for you. Most likely, it’s taken off the shelf or repurposed from previous clients anyway. And digital is where you NEED custom attention. Conversion rates, user performance, site performance, goals and objectives—these all vary from project to project, so the idea that something made for free to win business will accomplish any goal other than buttering you up is absurd.

Furthermore, today, the best agencies are niche practitioners. They are busy. There would never be a time they would produce spec work because they know better. The agencies that say “yes,” as I mentioned above, are the desperate players dying for business. Some may say that those folks work the hardest. I tend to think that they are desperate because of the quality of their abilities.

You can take that risk if you want, but don’t be surprised if you end up being a victim of our point above: a failed project.

Commoditizing Creativity

This is a pretty natural thing for buyers to do. Shopping for anything is about comparisons. What car gets better gas mileage? What airline has the more comfortable seats? Making comparisons is very easy in many different procurement situations. Even with home improvement contractors, it’s easier to compare because ultimately, they are all utilizing the same tools and the end result is similar (though quality is an issue).

Digital services are so much different. The variables each agency can use to produce results can differ tremendously. Every agency and every staff member can contribute different ideas, concepts, and creative solutions. And the results can vary.

Whether you have a Ford or a Maserati, you’ll get from point A to point B. Same with airline seats. Those products are more about the experience. But web development has a diverse spectrum of possible results, ranging from complete failure to astounding success. With such a wide range of possible outcomes, it is insane to attempt to commoditize the vendors you are interviewing. You must dig deeper and dig into ROI as opposed to cash output.

How you do this depends on what your business is. A start-up will evaluate things differently than a lead-generation company, for example. What the calculation is will depend on your business and your goals. A good agency will help you figure out what that ROI looks like. They will ask you pointed questions, such as what success looks like and what core metrics you will be concerned about.

If your agency isn’t asking these questions, then your risk is immediately increasing.

While comparisons are natural, fight your instincts to commoditize all agencies as being the same, and dig deeper. Don’t be distracted by hourly rates or even initial project costs. Dig into ongoing maintenance costs, license fees, and unknown variables that can affect you later. Then look and see how your agency has helped others achieve ROI. Were they successful?

Bad Preparation & No Architecture/Planning

If you are a client of NPG reading this post, you can literally hear my voice reading this section to you, I’m sure!

The best way to assure project failure is to not have a plan going in.

Now, I’m sure you are nodding your head in agreement because you too have a plan, right? But even when people tell me they have a project brief, it almost never suffices to serve as a document that can guide the actual development project.

We’ve spoken in this blog, in webinars, and in our videos about how important project discovery and architecture is. It is absolutely essential that you have a detailed specification BEFORE undertaking a development project. The risk you bear without this level of preparation is too much of a burden on your company, your budget, and your reputation.

Any reputable agency should encourage or REQUIRE you to do a discovery process.

Of course, this is not a free service—no agency would provide it for free because of the time-consuming nature of conducting a discovery project and producing findings. But the money is well-spent considering that the specification you receive will be the foundation of any development deal you pursue with the agency (or any other agency for that matter), in addition to all the other benefits, which we have covered numerous times in our blog.

One note on discovery: If you are doing any sort of custom work, whether it be design, development, or even marketing services, and the agency you are talking to can tell you a price without conducting discovery, one of two things will happen. Either they will underestimate to deliver you an agreeable price, only to come back later looking for additional budget, which is never a great scenario. Or they will lack the understanding to make your project a success.

A thorough process of discovery mitigates all of those risks and allows you and your agency to be in agreement from day one in regards to the scope of work. Again, if your agency doesn’t perform this service, you should run to the nearest exit.

Not Researching Technology

Never before have there been so many technologies available to develop and scale web applications and websites. The advent of mobile devices has ushered in this new era, which has complicated front-end technology by making the requirements more complex and by offering more possible solutions. Every agency you talk to will have their own suggestions on how to do things, usually based on their preferences. Ultimately, it is your job to vet those technologies and find any future roadblocks ahead of time.

The first thing you can do is to ask your agency what THREE technology solutions they recommend, and why. Then, ask them for examples they’ve completed utilizing each one. This reduces the risk that the agency is a one-stop shop only specializing in one technology and applying it to all customers regardless of if the fit is correct.

Another thing you can do is during the sales process: Ask about the negatives of the platform they recommend. Obviously, almost every technology solution has some negatives associated with it. You want to be able to see that they are not drinking the Kool-Aid with respects to their recommendations.

Finally, almost all the technologies available have massive amounts of documentation. You should read it yourself and make a judgment about what will work best for you by your estimate. Many technologies are trendy, coming into vogue quickly and losing the interest of the community just as fast. Knowing what those systems are may help you avoid making a hasty decision.

Your biggest concern in doing research should be longevity—what system will last you the longest with the most reasonable upkeep? What systems have the fewest updates and massive upgrades (meaning you’ll have lower maintenance costs)?

All of your due diligence can and will save you time and money later.

Project Discovery - New Possibilities Group

Next Week

This week, we focused on how to avoid a disastrous project during the sales cycle. Next week, we’ll dig into how you can manage your project after it has already begun, avoiding common pitfalls that can occur after you break ground. I’ll see you then!

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