What's the best time to plan your website?

When’s the best time to start your business website plan?

Having a website plan for your business is the most important way to guarantee your success. So when should you start the planning process?

The answer is at the very beginning.

That seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? At the beginning means:

  • Before designers
  • Before developers
  • Before search engine optimizers
  • Before any social or paid marketing teams

The real planning for your website should begin in-house and requires the business (client if you’re an agency/freelancer) to do the initial work. To understand why you need to think about the core principles behind the reasons for creating a Website Plan.

For any business, there are numerous questions you need to resolve?

  • How do we get the best return on investment?
  • Who are we trying to serve?
  • What are their needs?
  • Are you offering something that meet those needs?
  • How can you best deliver on it?

These address issues that aren’t technical, nor visual. You don’t need a website designer to help you determine what business is about.

If you follow the process in our Complete Website Planning Guide, you will develop these topics into a plan that you can then use to get the most out of your teams.

A common approach from agencies is to include a scoping component to their quote so that they can get the contract first. The flaw in this approach is that you have both committed to a fee based on unknown factors.

That’s like getting a flat rate to build a three-bedroom house without the blueprints and inclusions list. Not all three-bedroom houses are alike.

There are many risks in this method:

  1. You pay more than you need to
  2. You don’t pay enough, and you won’t get everything you need (see the next point)
  3. The scope you get could be steered to match the amount you’ve already committed to
  4. You’ll end up in unresolvable arguments about the gap between what you think you’re getting and what you get
  5. The agency/developer commits to something less than what you want, meaning they either have to charge more or don’t deliver on what you want

The best practice for everyone should be to demand that there’s a quality briefing process done before any contract is signed. Any website contract should include everything that will be delivered, and only what you agreed to.

Any business owner or executive running the project should be able to review the website plan, that the contract is based on, and check off everything that you asked for has been built.

Why doesn’t this happen? Time and Cost.

It takes time to get your plan built and that costs money, either the cost of your time or the cost of paying to have it done for you.

In my website development business, we quote and deliver website plans (scopes) for a fee, before quoting on the development work. The plan should also be able to be used to get competitive quotes from other developers. The charge for our expertise ensures our clients get a website scoping document that’s independent of needing us to deliver it.

The moment you think you need a new website is the best time to start planning. You don’t need to be a technical person or even a marketing specialist. The key to your business having a better website is you investing the time (and money) to detail what your business needs and then getting the experts to help deliver it and enhance it.

 

Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

Shouldn’t my designers be doing this?

The website planning process outlined in my book can appear that it’s an all or nothing approach to planning. 

I indeed think the owners of the web property need to be heavily invested in the planning process and take the lead on a large portion of it. 

That view comes from many years of watching site owners hand over all responsibility to other agencies and us. I firmly believe it to be true that no one else can make the most important decisions about the way the site should work.

That doesn’t mean though that the site owners and key stakeholders have to necessarily be experts in each individual skill that makes up the planning, design and development process.

Asked on twitter: 

I can understand why those on the client side might feel challenged, lacking expertise and know-how on specialised tasks. Some of these tasks are used daily by those of us in the web industry. While we might think they are simple, many feel them outside their capabilities.

So how to resolve the paradox; be more involved in the entire process yet don’t do all the steps?

Firstly the core of the website planning process is not about who does the task but rather ensuring the job gets done. 

In my agency, we often deal with new prospective clients who have neither the time, skill or inclination to do the scoping process themselves.

When they agree that it needs doing and the value in doing it, we undertake to run the full scoping process. We become the team who run the process and are responsible for delivering the outcome, a complete scoping document. 

In this circumstance;

  • we will prepare the templates, conduct the workshops and present the written documentation back for review, feedback and alterations by the client. 
  • We sill step through the process of ensuring we have created a goal-driven objective, before working through site mapping and functional specifications.
  • We work through each likely page on the site with them, discussing the possible functionality and drawing out from the client what it is they expect from that part of the website.

This is the real reason behind the entire process, to get to the actual expectations and requirements ahead of any development.

We take on board all pre-existing content, in all its forms, and use it as part of the process, not the mechanism to define the project. Existing sites, content and other materials were made with different objectives in mind and can cause unintended influence.

At the stage of writing the functional specifications page by page, I find that very simplistic wireframing compliments this. Yes, I am very familiar with wireframing, so I find that easier to do. 

If we are working on the scoping for the client, then we would create wireframes in conjunction with the functionality of that page and present them for discussion. 

That works well, but not everyone can afford to engage the full process like that. 

So can you, or should you, put it off and get someone else to do it? 

I see no reason why not, and many design companies will want to handle the wireframing process. 

If someone else is doing that piece of work, they need to be briefed fully. In my response to Alex, I mentioned that not all design people are necessarily using high-level UX expertise when wireframing. They may merely be doing initial structural documents.

That means they aren’t necessarily bringing anything extra to the process. That isn’t true of all designers much as it is true many clients are more than capable of creating initial wireframes for their projects.

You do not need to be creating the finished product. The process is to inform everyone of your intention. 

When you go to hire a design and development team, the scope should be agnostic to the solution. It shouldn’t be designed in a particular way because the agency prefers that style or the CMS they use delivers it that way.

You should welcome their input in each area of the scope. Whether they have an idea for functionality, you would never have thought of or a suggested improvement in the layout that is the reason you use experts to help you.

The critical issue is that in many projects, so little of the intention of the owners of the project get onto paper. The agency then does the grunt work, and they often can’t bring all their best creativity to bear because they are merely doing the weed work. 

Or they are trying to deliver something more significant than budgeted because of misunderstandings.

You can use all sorts of people at each stage. Copywriters, UX experts, graphic designers, programmers and users all have valuable input as do others.

It isn’t about who does the task; it’s all about who owns the process and making sure they have a plan.

Why wire framing is so important to the design process

In The Complete Website Planning Guide I outline what a wireframe is and the confusion that many people get, particularly on the client side, with wireframes.

A wireframe isn’t a prototype or a design; typically it doesn’t use colour or images, and mostly will only use some actual content.

When you see a drawing/image, which looks like the outline below you know you are talking about wireframes.

A good website plan needs the written needs, such as goals, audience and business absolutes. On top of these it needs to have page-by-page requirements, or specifications that outline how each page should function.

Importantly I wrote `how each page should function` not `how each page should be designed`.

When talking of design typically people are referring to the visual design process that happens when your web design team provide you designs to review and approve.

With our planning process, we are actually designing your site, in a broader context. By planning to the level we discuss in the book we are doing more than just visual design, we are designing the result we want and how we want to achieve it.

Wireframes become an incredibly important part of the design process.

Wireframes help you in the following ways:

  • Get you to focus on pages individually
  • Force you to consider how you will use media on the pages
  • Make you think about how you will achieve the goals of this page, what calls to actions, how to present the content
  • Get you thinking about the uniqueness of each page
  • Make you consider both mobile and desktop forms before any visual design work is completed

Sitting down with a piece of paper and drawing out a page without colour or imagery, is still one of the best ways to think clearly about functionality.

  • What did we want the user to do on this page?
  • How will they do that?
  • Where on the page will that action sit? Will it be a button, a link, a form or something else?
  • Will there be other elements around it, how will it sit in relation to other content or media?
  • What happens when they take that action?
  • How much of the screen will they be seeing?

When you look at most sites that have used an off-the-shelf theme you can see that the layouts are typically generic apart from several key pages. Home pages and top level service or product pages get design treatment, but inner pages are all fairly standard.

Even the better pages in these designs were designed by someone to meet their purpose not necessarily yours.

This results in people shoe-horning content into existing objects and page layouts, to suit the visual design.

In our method, you bring to any visual design process a well thought out, pre-debated set of guidelines and requirements on how you want each page to behave and function.

Yes it is slower, and requires much more input. Like anything good though, that’s just what you need to do to get a better result.

On all the developments where budget or client demands have cut out key steps in a project, the one that hurts the project the most is the wire framing step.

If you don’t wireframe your site before it’s being designed or built then you’re going to either spend a lot more time paying your designer to change things or you are going to get a site that misses the mark for what you need.

You don’t need software to do it, although there are great tools like Balsamiq and others that make it easy to wireframe. You can use pencil and paper

Most wireframe projects I do start on paper and migrate to Balsamiq later.

Make sure you use wire frames in your planning and designing process!

Plan to delight the users

This week I read a blog from Seth Godin called The minimum viable audience which resonated with me and the goals and audience section inside my Planning Guide.

He talks about focussing in on the smallest group that could sustain you in your work.  And if you could pick them who would you choose. If you only had them and had to delight them to keep them, what you do to improve your service or product?

When I am working with people to  create a plan on their new project, I always go on about the audience and the goals. Probably a bit too much but it’s important.

We extrapolate that out and try to make it more than just pieces of information in a document. When you know who it is you seek to serve, and what their problems are you can look in unique an interesting ways on how to be different.

Being different isn’t a design thing. It is NOT about finding some new gimmick that others are using to put on your site.

Different is about not just following what others are doing blindly because you think it is the correct thing to do.

We have a closed Facebook group for people who have purchased a copy of the Complete Website Planning Guide and most weeks I post videos about ways to tackle problems like this. We have an interesting community there and I’d love you to join in and discuss topics like this or your own.

Purchase either the ebook or printed version and it’s free to join (follow the link below).

In the meantime stand back and think about how you could delight the people who will be using the website you are working on, not your client, but their clients.

You will probably find you come up with some wacky ideas, which might work. You won’t know unless you raise them.

The Danger Of Scoping After Contract Acceptance

Ideally creating a scope of works for a web project would be done before entering into a design and development contract for the work.

For many clients they want a simplified process, choosing a developer and moving forward in the project. Agencies and developers often are happy to get work in this way and take on the responsibility deliberately or accidentally of the scope.

Whether its budget driven, relationship driven or timeline driven this method is common, as are the problems that can come from it.

So what problems can it create?

The problems are similar to any project that doesn’t have a clear set of specifications, however when a contract has already been entered into for a set price, the parties are taking on some assumptions that aren’t necessarily correct.

For example, the client will be assuming that the price is all inclusive, that they have agreed on a price for the site they have in their mind. They assume that the scope is just a formality to moving through the project and often don’t realise what it entails.

A developer on the other hand has made an assumption that they understood from pre-quote meetings that they have a great handle on what the client wants and their quote covers everything they want and some contingencies so that they can make a profit on this project.

What could go wrong:

  • Assumptions invariably aren’t facts
  • Misunderstandings
  • Miscommunication
  • Budget blowouts for the client
  • Conversely losses for the developer having to build more than they quoted for
  • Timeline blow outs
  • Unhappiness

Even if each of these issues is resolved during the process you will invariably find at least one of the parties involved has a sour taste in their mouth afterwards.

No one sets out to have that as an end result.

How to fix the problem?

The easiest answer is to say, scope the project first then quote second.

And that is an ideal scenario. That process allows for time to be spent on getting a quality scope assuming the client is willing to spend time and money on the process.

However if that workflow isn’t going to work for your business then it’s important to understand what goes wrong and how you can fix it. Making one or two small adjustments to your process could save you a lot of heartache and money.

Process Change 1: Make it an Estimate not  QUOTE

If your process requires you to offer a price first then scope after project acceptance, make your quote an estimate.

Change your terms and quotes so that they provide an estimate based on the best shared knowledge provided by the client however during the scoping phase you will review and update the estimate based on their requests and requirements.

You can also note and allow for them to remove items or add more depending on the estimate.

Note. I’ve used this process in the past and we have actually reduced an estimate when a significant assumption we had made was removed from a scope. Not only did this delight the client that they wouldn’t need to spend as much on their site it also built massive trust with them about how we conduct our business.

If you lock yourself into a fixed price with no ‘out’ clauses then no matter how well you do the next steps you will always have some projects that you lose out on. If you don’t know how big something is there’s no way you can truly quote that project.

Process Change 2: It’s all about the detail

Even if you offer the scoping service at a minimal cost, your process should be to spend as much time as possible at this stage.

Why? Using the old carpenters expression, ‘measure twice, cut once.” It is the same with your web work, the actual cost of reworking code, and design can be much higher than the cost of a few more hours scoping.

It’s likely your salesperson, analyst or business manager is the person involved in the scoping. They are most likely salaried and not people who produce income for your business.

If you are a freelancer doing everything all time costs you but the principle remains true.

Getting the specifications clear, and agreed on, up front will avoid all the issues later on.

Taking three extra hours to get the client in agreement on what will be built could save you hours of frustration with them later, late nights trying to squeeze in extra fixes when the project now overlaps with others, and possibly less third-party contractor costs.

It’s worth it.

Focus on the detail, detail is what hurts all projects.

It can be tempting once the project is underway to go through the scoping step in a simplified format. Everyone is energised to get designs underway and meet deadlines. What can easily happen is that the scoping phase done during the project isn’t as thorough as something done seperately.

It can suffer from:

  1. Lost communication
  2. Lack of Understanding
  3. Lack of attention
  4. Lack of detail

[ 1 ] Lost communication

When we communicate there are lots of assumptions being made on both sides of that communication. Typically in a briefing process there are a number of meetings, calls and emails that might happen prior to the project commencement or in the early stages of the project.

How do you test your assumptions?
Do all of these get stored in a document or project tool?
Do both sides clarify them, agree on them and note any variances?

Resolution:

  • See the next section on Understanding to clarify assumptions.
  • Ensure all communication affecting the project are noted in the project tools or document
  • Ensure that both parties have a method to accept these changes
  • Promptly deal with each one.

[ 2 ] Understanding

Sometimes it is as simple as two people being unable to communicate on the same level. Not a technical level but in a way that is understood equally.

When we communicate we explain through the filters that our brain has, from our own experiences and understandings, and we assume that the person we are communicating with has the same filters.

Anyone that has sent a beautiful document using an unique font to someone without the same fonts will understand how both people viewing it see something completely different. This is one reason that PDFs came to be so useful to us, they enabled all parties to see the document/s as they were produced.

Web projects suffer from this problem often, either side jumps to the conclusion they understand from within their own frames of reference or experience and that then becomes how they understand the issue will be dealt with.

Seek first to understand then to be understood.

Habit 5 in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of highly effective people is a great method to handle this issue.

A great example is when discussing design. The client might say to your designer “I would like a modern design with lots of flat elements.

In such an example the designer can say, “Great, I get that, we can do that.” And they lock that one in the notes and move on.

A better approach is to acknowledge that and then bring up examples of that in front of the client and get them to clarify what they actually like. Working through example sites, or designs, and getting to understand what ‘their modern’ or ‘their flat’ is, instead of your understanding of the same thing, helps to alleviate you heading down the wrong path.

Resolution:

  • Clarify each requirement with specifics, including examples to ensure you’re hearing what the client is actually saying and not just the words they said
  • Document it, with example images if required so that there is no ambiguity for either team later in the project acceptance phase.
  • Ensure the client approves these documents and examples

[ 3 ] Lack of attention

Lack of attention is related to points 2 and 4. Attention is often in short supply these days, with everyone busy. A significant web project takes up a lot of the key stakeholders time. For the development team they already factor that in, they know they will be busy day in day out on the project.

Most clients say they understand they will be needed, however their business doesn’t stop for them just because they have taken on this new site project. They often don’t advise you of upcoming deadlines in their own work, holidays, key staff absences due to business matters.

Invariably these all impact on you the development team, but in regards to this topic, their work stresses can mean they will give you approvals or feedback which hasn’t had their fullest attention.

They’re working on an assumption that they can fix it later with you.

Resolution:

  • Written approvals throughout the project
  • Clear communication of the impact of approvals. E.g. An approved design can’t be changed within the scope of work, any changes after approval will incur out-of-scope costs.

[ 4 ] Lack of detail

Detail is often missed between steps. It is often left out of scoping documents or quoting documents because it simply hasn’t been raised.

It can be because the client doesn’t have time or doesn’t want to pay for the detail, but rest assured someone always pays for the detail.

Or the lack of it.

The only way to improve the detail in a project is time, time to sit and discuss each item, time to document it and make sure the other person understands it. An experienced project manager or analyst will be needed to ask the questions that draw out all the detail, but mostly it takes time. Invariably time equates to money so short budgets mean being short on details.

Resolution:

  • Detail as much about each page, each function as you can
  • Get everyone to sign off on the details
  • Get the client to provide the details when budgets are minimal by providing the entire scope

 

Overall you can ensure that most of your projects go to plan by improving a few things in your processes. The following process flow includes the resolutions listed above in a simplified way that you can use to keep your projects on track.

Process fixes:

  1. Document every discussion or request into one document set
  2. When it’s finalised walk the client through it and make sure they actually understand what the meaning is behind what you have written out.
  3. Give them enough time to review the documentation and provide feedback
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 once you’ve updated any documents
  5. Ensure your terms and conditions (see your legal advisor) include a term that the quote for work and the project is written there then it is not included.
  6. Have a clearly articulated process in your terms and conditions for ‘out of scope’ works and how they get handled
  7. Manage your project so that you uphold those terms.

When you take a firm and professional stance regarding scoping you set a standard that benefits both you and your clients.

If you are the client ask for a process like this and invest the time to ensure it is done this way.

Whether or not the scope is done up front or during the process, if you employ better processes you can help make sure both sides get great results.

What comes first, design or content?

It's a question that comes up a lot. What comes first, the content or the design.

Getting this right has a big impact on the success of your project and the planning stage of your website is the best time to address it.

I discuss what I think is the correct way to handle this question in this video.

Resistance to planning

Why do some people like to plan everything while others prefer flying by the seat of their pants?

In some industries or circumstances having a plan is critical while in others not necessary at all.

Building a house from scratch with out plans is pretty clearly fraught with danger and in most countries not allowed. You can’t get approval to build without a plan.

When you set out to build a website often the ‘plan’ component simple ends up being a summary and a quote, which meets the bosses requirement for sign off. That is, they have an amount they are approving and a general idea of what is coming.

Planning an overseas trip can be done either way, and the dangers are fairly obvious and can be more readily resolved if things go wrong when you just free wheel it.

An issue with software and web development is that the costs of correct wrong decisions or problems that show up part way through the journey can be more than financial. In many cases critical functionality or needs aren’t met and end up being compromised due to timeline and budget issues.

Of course if they have to be shoe-horned in then there are additional costs as well as perhaps they aren’t included as well as they could be if they were thought out first.

Often the reason for skipping over the planning process is simply haste. Professionals will advise taking it slow when it is them giving the advice, and getting the contract or business plan correct before making rash tactical decisions, but those same professionals will want to rush through marketing processes like a website redevelopment as if it was inconsequential.

And yet here we are in 2019 with digital marketing domination most businesses requirements for growth.

Resistance shows up in many areas;

  • resistance to change
  • resistance to new technology
  • resistance to opposite views
  • resistance to the unknown

In some ways resisting planning is natural particularly if the value to it isn’t clear. That’s the job of those of us in the design and development landscape. To explain the value and point out the benefits.

Ultimately if you charge your client to help them plan a new website and create a comprehensive scope document, you will be more likely to win the project for the overall work, the chance of success and them praising you goes up dramatically and you will remove many of the problems that occur during the build process.

Take up the resistance and use it for good!

Everyone needs to plan their next web project, not necessarily in the entirety of the Complete Website Planning book, but each step in that process that can be completed will increase the chances of a successful project.

What type of resistance to planning have you come up against? 

Website Planning Meeting

What are the benefits of building a plan for your website?

If you want to avoid the common mistakes that are made when building a new website then the only way to do that is to create a plan before you do anything else.

Successful businesses all have plans on key parts of their operations.  A business plan, marketing plan, operation plans etc. are all expected items for the management of the business.

While there are many different approaches to business planning, it’s recognised by many that without a plan you have a much higher chance of failure. A common quote is “If you fail to plan then you are planning to fail.”

In the early years of web development, there was little to plan around and little experience to base a plan on. That was well over twenty years ago and we now know a lot more about the things that should make up a website and have a lot more experience.

Websites come in many different sizes and have many different roles and the benefits of spending time up front to plan them depend on the size and type of website you are looking to build.

If you have a one-page landing page that is limited in role and scope then your planning will be minimal, compared to a lead generation site for a medium size services business or an online store.

There is a raft of reasons why you should be developing a proper plan before you engage designers or developers or kick off the project internally, we’ve listed six benefits below that should give you a reason to consider why you should be too.

 

6 reasons why should you plan your website:

 

1 -  Save Money.

In order to have a website built, there are some steps you need to go through.  If you are using a 3rd-party team then you will most likely be wanting to get a quote for the project.

Most quotes will have some clauses that highlight anything outside the specifications quoted on will cost you additional fees.

This is fairly normal but where the problems arise is in determining what constitutes ‘the specifications’.

If you have an extremely detailed brief (the plan) then you are going to be more likely to be the one that isn’t out of pocket if the quote doesn’t cover the work. If you are the one that provided a loose guide and some general notes and it wasn’t covered in the quote then you could be paying handsomely for the additions.

Some agencies will include a scoping cost in the front part of the quote with an estimate for the rest, which will then fluctuate based on what you request during the scoping process.

The problem for you is you have committed to this team now and that cost isn’t known until you have done whatever scoping options they provide.  In this example, you will have a limited number of agency hours to provide the brief which could result in not getting all the detail either.

If there is no scoping process and you provide a substandard brief then the chances of you getting additional charges are high, or alternatively, there will be corners cut so the developers don’t lose money.

Either way, it costs you money in the long run.

If you are using an in-house team it costs you in lost opportunity and resources every extra day the project runs over.

2 – Save Time

For all the reasons above, time and money are closely related.  Every change or mistake in the build of your site costs time.  Momentum gets lost; teams get frustrated and lose their enthusiasm for the project.

Like taking a road trip when you know where you are going you are able to take the most efficient route to get there.

Creating a website plan (scope) is like Abraham Lincoln’s quote on cutting a tree;

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.”

By sharpening the axe of what you actually need in putting it down in detail you save yourself the time of ‘cutting through the work’ in quicker time and less backwards work in the project.

3 – Solves Many Design Issues

A lot of web projects start with the design before anything else. While the design is very important, the best design is made with knowledge of all parts of the end product.These include content, goals, the intention of the thing being designed and it functions in the greater product.

If you haven’t made critical decisions about what it is you want your website to do, and the role each page and object within those pages then you are going to create many design problems.

You will also be asking designers to make you something out of thin air. Don’t be surprised if they end up giving you something that looks surprisingly like a similar business. Without your guidance and a clear plan, they will be looking at your competitors for ideas.

This is also why picking a theme before you know what you want ends up creating a substandard product.

When you are clear about your needs your designers will be able to create you something that you love because it will be the visual representation of what you have already agreed on what you wanted.

4 – Better Results.

If you don’t know which port you are heading to any wind is a good wind.  While you might choose a ‘pretty’ design and get a site built that is aesthetically pleasing if you don’t engineer it for your actual needs the chances of success are slim, but more importantly they are being left to chance.

If you want more leads then you need to plan your site for that purpose, if you want people on your site to call you and not email then again there’s a method to do that. If you have products to sell or need to improve support response times each of these has specific needs for your business.

Like a business growth plan, if you want specific results then you need a map on how to get to those results.

When you create a website scope that addresses the results you want and lays out a clear method to get them then the team you choose to deliver that will be more easily able to produce it.

5 -  Avoid Disappointment

There is nothing as deflating from a development team than to hear from a client “it’s not what I expected” or “it doesn’t do what I wanted it to do.”

The issue with not providing a clear and detailed expectation map to your developers means that you are more likely to end up with those feelings about your web project.

This comes from you not getting out of your head what you really want, and assuming you’ve provided enough ‘verbal’ guidance or that they should understand these things are expected.

Don’t be that person.

Commit to being reasonable and creating a guide to what you want and need so that you won’t experience disappointment and your business won’t suffer.

6 – Ensure Your Business Gets What It Needs

As with avoiding disappointment and getting better results, by spending time planning what you want, learning how to do that better and committing it to paper so that others can understand it is the only way to get a website that will work for your business.

It’s your business so give your business website the attention and process it deserves so that you can improve your results and warrant the ongoing investment you are putting into it.

These six reasons are important reasons but not the only reasons for creating a website development plan.

You don’t build a house without blueprints nor should you build your next website without blueprints.

Take the time to create a plan and you’ll notice the difference.