Whenever I speak with a potential new client, one of the first questions I ask is what their desired time frame is for the project at hand. Typically, the answers I receive vary. Some companies are in a rush to meet a hard deadline, such as a tradeshow, product announcement, or similar. Others have no particular time frame in mind but want to focus on getting a project started and underway. And, sometimes clients have an arbitrary timeline set for no particular reason. No matter what the thinking is behind a time frame that they set, it’s shocking how often clients come with plans that are not realistic and are surprised to hear they may already be too late to complete their project on time.
I find that this issue arises often around Labor Day in the United States. Lots of companies are back in the swing of things, hoping for a strong end of the year finish. Vacations are (sadly) over, kids are back to school, and businesses focus on how they can revamp their digital presence by the end of the year or shortly thereafter. However, by the time Labor Day rolls around, it may already be too late to meet that time frame. The fact is, the process of crafting digital projects takes longer than most people predict. One reason for this is that the process of creating digital assets such as websites and applications is typically undervalued by management and those who are setting the deadlines.
Summarizing the Digital Creative Process
The best way to articulate why time frames are often undervalued and underestimated is by highlighting what the creative process entails. Using the example of a website redesign, the process typically will involve the following stages:
- Procurement: The finding, vetting, and hiring of a digital agency.
- Discovery: The initial research and architecture phase where the agency works with the client to understand their current situation and desired future state.
- Design: The creative process, designing the user interface for the new project.
- Development: The building of designs into functional, usable interfaces.
- Content Migration & Creation: The population of the project with content whether newly created or migrated from the old platform.
- Deployment: Unleashing your project on the world.
As you can imagine, the above steps can take time... How much time depends on a variety of factors, but one thing is almost always guaranteed: people underestimate the amount of time they need to commit to each of the above phases. And, each phase can result in catastrophic outcomes if they are rushed, undervalued or not properly thought through. It starts in the first phase: if you do not take your time to vet, research and properly perform due diligence when hiring an agency, you are creating problems for yourself from day one. If you do not spend time with the agency to onboard them via a discovery process, you are doing yourself a disservice. The entire success of your project is determined by design: how well do you build an interface that users can interact with? So many clients are quick to accept an off-the-shelf theme or template instead of actually crafting a solution that would work best for them. When it comes to development, so many times we see clients in a rush, willing to defer key functionality until later. Finally, dare I mention how many customers completely ignore content migration, creation and the steps to a seamless deployment until the eleventh hour.
The process of ensuring success in a digital project is time-consuming requires focus and attention, and all too often is rushed for a time frame that may be based on no solid reasoning at all.
Time Frames & Reality
With the above process defined, I wanted to highlight some of my thoughts, observations and suggestions about time frames, and how to create one that is realistic, well defined and reasonable for both your agency and your internal team.
Beware Arbitrary Timelines
As I mentioned above, arbitrary time frames are something that we run into on an all-too-regular basis. I’m not against setting goals – it’s important to keep a line of sight on where you are going. What I am against is the setting of meaningless, arbitrary deadlines that cause people to make bad decisions, cut corners, and derail their project for no solid reason.
Arbitrary deadlines are often set by those above you. Management may come into work the first day after Labor Day and proclaim they want a new website by January 1st. This sets into motion a series of events to achieve that goal – after all, no employee wants to let management down. But, given that the total time frame from Labor Day to New Years is, give or take, 120 days, the project will be under pressure from day one. Inevitably, decisions will have to be made to achieve the desired end date, and those decisions usually result in deterioration of the quality of the project in one way or another.
If you are presented with an arbitrary deadline and you know you’ll be under pressure to achieve the deadline, I find it’s always best to present options to those setting the deadline which has actual, achievable milestones. So, you may present management with three ways to complete the project, wherein you know the first option isn’t desirable, the middle option is manageable and the last option is the ultimate, best-in-class scenario. Then, present the realistic time frames to management so they can see how long it will take to achieve the best versus the, well, not-so-great outcomes. Given the choice, they will probably acquiesce to your request for more time so as to achieve a positive outcome. You want to minimize the comparisons - by presenting options you are showing that you have multiple solutions to their problem, and they can then compare those solutions against their desired outcomes thus taking pressure off of you. It works, folks... Try it!
Do you have an ACTUAL fixed timeline? Focus on what you can get done.
What if your deadline isn’t arbitrary? What if you know you absolutely HAVE to get a project done by a certain date? In this case, if your time frame is aggressive, you need to focus on what you can achieve by that date, and what can be put off until a subsequent phase.
Digital projects are always going to be undergoing changes and improvements. Unlike physical construction, in the digital world, the motto “Done is better than perfect” is applicable and desirable as a guiding force through a project. You can always make things better, provided you created a stable foundation. With this said, if you know you are up against a deadline that is immovable, work to create a list of items you absolutely need to achieve, and then a list of items you can defer until a subsequent phase. By doing this, you can highlight the most important items on your list that will drive the most impact by the desired end date.
Examples of deadlines that are immovable are typically new product announcements, trade shows, acquisitions or mergers, or other events that are of a high level of interest to management or a milestone to the company as a whole. When evaluating your list of desired features for the initial launch, keep in mind why you are working towards this deadline and use that reasoning as a guide to determine what you do and do not need by the end date. If your company is announcing a branding refresh at a company event, focus on the design work your company needs, but defer other items that can wait. As an example, don’t lose much sleep reworking content in tertiary areas of your site, or reformatting blog posts from the old site to the new. Focus on the heavy lifting and make an action plan for what tasks you want to accomplish post-launch. It’ll reduce your stress and give you direction after deployment so you can continue improving your website even after the initial deadline has passed.
Custom anything takes longer
Remember that any project that requires customization, whether it be design or development, will take longer than those that can be facilitated with off-the-shelf solutions. I’m a fan of custom design and custom development – I believe that a custom designed website, application and company branding sets your firm apart from the competition. However, the process of creating customized assets for your organization cannot be accelerated without a loss of quality, consistency or functionality.
Many customers think they can redesign a website in a matter of a month, and push the new site live. They forget the above process: custom design starts with a blank canvas, it proceeds through a series of revisions and then results in an end design. Only then can development begin. Development has its own series of challenges such as quality assurance, multi-device capability… And this is just for an informational website.
The process for custom anything is time-consuming but ultimately worth the effort. When planning your project, consider the process we laid out in our above example and work that into your time frames and proposed milestones. You’ll alleviate much of your stress around the project by properly planning and allowing the creative process to take place.
One final note about custom design and time frames, if I may… Tight time frames typically are at the detriment of the client, not always the agency. Agencies can work fast – we can design assets quickly and send them to you for review within a relatively short period of time. However, taking the time to properly vet the designs sent to you, internally reviewing, and sending back appropriate feedback is important. Don’t rush through this crucial step to preserve a time frame that in the grand scheme of things doesn’t mean much to the success of your business.
Allow for QA, Revisions, and gotchas
As I had alluded to in the above point, you need to allow time for your team to process and generate feedback for all design revisions sent to you. This is so important that it needs to really be addressed by itself because all-too-often clients are not properly prepared for this step. The preparation required centers a bit more around internal politics and team coordination, rather than any technical nor design preparedness. To properly interface with an outside agency, it’s important that your team is properly organized. We usually recommend that a client has a single point person, someone assigned to handle the back and forth communication with the agency doing the work. This point person should handle all design deliverables and distribute to the internal team. Then, they should be charged with aggregating all feedback, determining what feedback is in line with company objectives, and communicate back to the agency the key feedback, takeaways, and recommendations.
Design by committee doesn’t work very well, and having a team of folks on the client side communicating with the agency can result in miscommunication, missed deadlines and poor work product. Properly building a team on your side to manage the project will enable you to streamline your approval process, thus minimizing time lost via extra revisions, design tweaks, and unnecessary communication.
The takeaway from this point is twofold. First, prepare your team accordingly for efficient communication and approvals, and plan for the time it takes within your organization for these steps to actually take place. When properly planned, this structure will ensure no time is lost during this essential stage of the creative process.
Plan for Unknowns
One time I had a call with a client where I asked him if he could predict any unknowns that may come up on his side during a project. His reply was something along the lines of “Well, then they wouldn’t be unknowns”. Touché.
You can’t predict the unpredictable. But you can build time and budget into your planning to account for them. Remember whenever you set a time frame to give yourself an allowance for those pesky items that seemingly come out of nowhere… Technical hiccups, business processes you overlooked, legal issues that require attention, or skeletons in the closet that seem to unveil themselves at the least convenient of times. I can’t really say with any accuracy how much you should pad your time frames for unknowns, but, it should definitely be a percentage of your total project time.
While we recommend all clients pad their time frames and budget’s accordingly, let me give you a secret in agency management… Don’t tell us. Always let the agency work on the assumption that your time frame is set in stone. You’ll drive better performance and we’ll work on more creative and cost-effective solutions.
As I stated earlier, having a time frame and expectation for the completion of your project is essential. No one wants to work in a goalless state. However, ask yourself the following questions with regards to your chosen time frame:
- Is it reasonable? Is your time frame something that will allow you the time and resources to actually deliver a quality product?
- Is it necessary? Is this some arbitrary deadline or is there an actual reason why you need to complete the project in this period of time?
- Have you planned for unknowns? Have you padded your schedule and budget to remove any stresses later when the inevitable unknowns rear their ugly heads?
Hopefully, these questions and the above tips will help you craft reasonable, achievable goals for your digital projects.