Last week, when we began our analysis on why web design or development projects fail, we focused on mistakes made during the sales process. In my experience, that is definitely where the majority of mistakes are made. Procuring digital creative services, whether they be for design or development (and occasionally marketing services), is difficult to say the least.
But that’s just half the battle. After you settle on a partner, you need to manage the project, too. And that’s where a whole new host of issues can arise.
In part two of this series, we’ll be focusing on what issues are most prevalent during the actual implementation phase of your project, and how you can work to avoid these common pitfalls.
Not Watching Carefully Enough
This seems like it should be a no-brainer, right? Who would procure digital services that ultimately will result in tens of thousands of dollars spent, and not keep an eye on the project?
Sadly, many people fail to carefully monitor the progress of their project, resulting in a mess.
So what can you do to ensure you are properly engaged throughout the project?
First of all, you need to understand who is accountable for what. On your side, is there a single point of contact that is engaged on a regular basis with your agency? Having one person within your company to manage the project is essential to maintaining a smooth communication methodology between parties.
That one person should set expectations with the agency about ongoing communication. We recommend that the agency project manager and the client contact engage in regular meetings—at least weekly—to discuss updates and progress.
Also, it’s essential that you, as the client, monitor the updates provided to you. The agency should have a documented project plan that articulates the phases of your project. Your job is to make sure they stick to that plan, and if there are delays or you get sidetracked, understand why.
Managing a project is, in many ways, all about managing expectations. If you have no expectations at all, it’s hard to know how things are going and if/when they take a left turn. Take a meticulous approach to managing your project internally and hold your agency accountable for keeping you informed in addition to staying on track themselves.
Some clients do well to hire an intermediary, if no such single point of contact is available or qualified within your company. This is smart, especially for larger organizations with complicated political structures (which we’ll get into in a moment). If you feel that there is no one logical person that can organize the project internally, there are many consultants you can bring on board to facilitate that role. If the difference between failure and success is filling this missing role, then the expense will be well worth it.
Every company or organization works differently, not just in terms of corporate structure, but also in terms of culture and communication. Internal politics is the leading cause of distress during a digital production project. The best way to avoid this is to prepare in advance by setting expectations within your company in terms of project success, failure, and accountability.
All too often, we see politics cause a project to completely collapse from the inside. One scenario is management by committee. Unfortunately, this happens all the time—frequently with non-profits, but even more so with for-profit companies who have an overactive board or executive suite. Going back to our previous point, it’s essential to organize internally and give one person the trust and power to make decisions about the project.
But that too comes with a balance! That person must be empowered to make decisions, but they also have to be on the same page with management.
This is a careful balance that’s difficult to maintain. We’ve seen companies that do a great job of assigning the role to someone, only to have that person not maintain internal communication. In one instance, we completed a project that was slated for deployment, but upper management had never seen the work in progress once! The list of changes they requested caused massive budget overruns and delays. This is a worst-case scenario that, with proper internal management, could have been avoided.
Another issue is when internal politics are simply too ingrained in the company culture to be avoided. Design by committee, as I alluded to earlier, is a surefire way to either have a project implode or take massive amounts of time.
At NPG, we built an informational website for a certain government entity (federal) that was managed by a “design committee.” The committee met once a month. We would send back revised designs shortly after their monthly meeting feedback, and the project would then wait until the next meeting to commence again. The informational website—which was not terribly complex, mind you—took 13 months to complete, when really it could have been done in 8 weeks or less.
How do you prevent these scenarios? First, as stated, assign a point person. But make sure they are clear on their responsibilities and what they’re accountable for. Make sure that this point person keeps all internal stakeholders up to date on progress. Secondly, make sure everyone is on the same page about the project, requirements, and expected outcome.
This is why we give all new clients a needs assessment to keep everyone on the same page. You can do this internally before you even select an agency. Clarity and honesty is the best way to make sure politics play a smaller part in your project outcome.
Unwillingness to Make a Decision
Call it stage fright, but we see this at all levels of the management ladder.
It isn’t necessarily a junior person managing a project who has trouble making a decision. In fact, more often than not, it’s the opposite—it’s a senior player who simply can’t decide what they want, and it results in the project falling apart.
The best way to avoid this is to study the nature of digital projects. The fact is, every digital property is a work in progress. This means there is no such thing as a “completed” website, app, or marketing plan.
The best philosophy to have with these types of projects is to know that done is better than perfect. And done can be redone and made better over time. Unlike physical construction, digital projects can be revised and improved in the future in response to metrics and new needs or challenges. This gives you a massive grey area in making a decision. The only risk is that your changes will require you to start over, which is actually a rare occurrence in the digital world.
I realize that “done is better than perfect” is a difficult argument for the project point person to make to their boss, board, or business owner. The fix for that roadblock is to know that from day one, it’s the reality. And be sure to make it known that this philosophy must guide their decisions during the sales and production cycle.
If educated on the idea before they are placed in the thick of the process, most managers appreciate the approach of building, deploying, learning, and improving.
Inability to Take Advice
I’m treading on dangerous ground here, I know it…
One major issue we often see is the client who is unwilling to listen to a professional opinion. This happens in nearly every client/vendor relationship, whether it be with a home builder, doctor, or a digital agency.
The old saying is that the customer is always right, but honestly, this isn’t always the case.
Our philosophy of the sales and production cycle is one of making it a consultative process. We educate as we sell, and we expand on that as we build out digital solutions. During that time, the client will be getting a lot of input and feedback on their project.
Of course, we would never expect 100% of our advice to be taken 100% of the time, but clients must be willing to accept and acknowledge their shortcomings so we can help them overcome them.
The role of any agency—and a role we take very seriously—is to augment the team you already have in place. That means we take our knowledge and experience and combine it with your team’s expertise in your business. As such, that combination requires a constant balance between digital best practices and what your business requirements may be.
Again, no one is right 100% of the time. But by that same token, no one should toss aside all advice when hiring a team of professionals.
Ultimately, all decisions come down to the client—and we respect that. But it’s important to understand why you hired us in the first place: for our expertise. We won’t recommend things unless we’ve already considered the risks and negatives for your particular situation. The best thing to do is to listen to our input as opposed to treat our team as human user interfaces for Photoshop!
No Plan for Content
This is a major consideration that is too often treated as an afterthought. Everything you build, whether it’s an app or an informational website, needs a certain amount of content to start.
For informational websites, that’s a no-brainer. Your site needs content to describe your company, services, experience, etc. Yet all too often, clients building these types of sites fail to properly prepare and, mere days before deployment, are still writing copy and burning the midnight oil to integrate it onto their pages.
For applications, it’s a bit subtler, but it’s still an issue. SaaS applications, portals, and even mobile apps have content requirements, too. The content placed within applications really drives the usability of the application. In addition, other requirements such as emails that are sent on user signup, forgotten passwords, etc., as well as help and customer service areas, need to be completed prior to deployment.
So how do you fix not having a plan?
It’s simple: create one.
For informational sites, we work with customers to assemble a flowchart of pages required before the project begins. This way, the customer is aware of what the content requirements are, and they can work on writing it while the site is being built.
For applications, building a plan is a bit more difficult, as the application design will dictate the specifics of the content requirements. On those types of projects, it’s important to work in tandem with your development team to create content as it is needed so it can be quickly integrated for testing purposes.
Not Planning for Pivots and Unknowns
We strive for 100% accuracy in all bids and budget recommendations. To do this, as we reviewed in part one of this blog series, we engage in a thorough discovery and planning session.
However, it is still possible that after commencing with your project, a change that you didn’t predict comes about. Maybe you come up with new ideas and want to augment the original scope. As an agency, it’s something we are used to, and it happens to the majority of projects. What’s frustrating is when customer assumes that since we are already in the midst of the project, they can just add on these features for free.
Now, this isn’t just a self-serving point wherein I’m going to complain about scope creep. But it is a serious problem that can derail the relationship between client and vendor.
Again, remember that our job as an agency is to properly uncover the entire project during the discovery phase. We completely understand that scope creep is a normal occurrence—all we ask is for you to realize this as well. New ideas are unavoidable, and since projects take time, changes are likely to occur while they are in progress.
Many projects fail because the agency and client simply didn’t set expectations for changes and additional features at the onset of the project, resulting in disagreements during the production phase as new ideas emerge. As I said, you can mitigate much of this risk during the sales process with proper discovery. But you must also be prepared to augment your budget if new ideas or concepts come to mind.
We recommend that clients plan for a 10- 15% overage budget to be safe. That way, the decision to add features or augment functionality won’t be a deal breaker for you and won’t strain the relationship with your vendor later.
Neither a client nor an agency appreciates having a project blow up in their face. There is equal loss of valuable time and money on both sides when it happens. This series was intended to spotlight the key reasons why projects implode and to increase your chances of avoiding them.
You can mitigate most of your risk during the sales process by making sure that everyone on both sides of the table fully understands what the project is going to entail—and by putting procedures in place to deal with overages and hiccups if they should arise.
And remember: Being an active client who is engaged and aware can help prevent failure by helping recognize and addressing issues before they snowball out of control.