Developing a Strategy for Web DevelopmentDecember 28, 2018
What we cover: Why Developing a Strategy for a Web Development Project is crucial for its success.
All too commonly, many businesses commission a website to be built before articulating a clear strategy. They approach a web development firm with a clear set of specifications in mind, often based on some other site they have seen. Overcome with bells, whistles and other fancy features, they come to the web firm, and say, “see all these cool features on (competitor’s) website? I want that” without being able to explain specifically why they want them beyond the fact that they are shiny.
Many web development firms will happily take on the job as the client presented it to them, and simply create everything exactly as the client requested. A set statement of work is created, with clear timelines, the job is completed, the client has a site, the agency gets paid, everyone is happy…. for now.
However a month later, the client realizes that nothing is happening with their site. They got everything they paid for, but customers are not appearing, or there is no engagement on the site. The stats show that people visit the site, but then leave after clicking on a page or two. All of those great features that were created are being left unused. Worse, maybe the project went way over budget and consumers hate their site and start complaining about it publicly (which, as we all know, is extremely common).
How did this happen?
The project was begun without without any clearly defined strategy. The client knew what it thought it wanted, but was likely unclear to the development firm, or even themselves, to what it is that they wanted to achieve. They said they wanted a site. They got a site.
In most cases, there are a set of needs or desires driving a company or organization, but these may not be clearly explained (or even fully understood) by the client. They may want to sell their products directly to the consumer or client, or to engage their users, but may be unclear as to how to do it. Many companies or organizations want to provide a service, without establishing a clear path toward achieving that goal. While there may have been a “strategy” (lower case) for how the site would be built, there was no “Strategy” (upper-case) for what it is they wanted to achieve.
Without a clearly defined strategy, there are often no guideposts for identifying whether a feature is needed or not. In some cases a site can grow too large and it start to lose focus. In this situation, halfway through the design, the client suddenly sees another shiny feature on another site that they covet. The development team has no clear directions regarding priorities, so features C and D, or even feature X get added without thought of the overall goal. This is what is known as “scope creep.” With no clearly defined strategy and coordination between the client and the development firm, the project can become a Frankenstein’s monster, serving every purpose except the most important ones.
Professional development firms will typically use a method called the Software Development Life Cycle, or SDLC. There are many different methodologies that exist within SDLC. You may have heard of some of them: Agile, Waterfall, Rapid Application Deployment, and others. While there is a wide level of variability in these styles, they all include some common features.
The parts of SDLC include the following:
For the purpose of this article we will be focusing on the first two stages: “Planning” and “Defining,” and most importantly, the first. Many companies and firms only pay lip-service to this stage, and jump forward into the “defining” stage.
The “Defining” stage focuses on creating all of the specifications; it is a list of the requirements of the project. The result is a Software Requirement Specification, or SRS. As mentioned earlier, clients may show up at the development firm with a list of these all ready to go. Starting with phase 2 may seem like a good idea if serious research has been done before arriving at the firm, however, in reality it rarely works out well this way; so it is a good idea to start here.
The Importance of Strategy & Planning
For almost every project, spending a large amount of time working on the planning phase is highly recommended. Before creating a project definition or what parts of a project need to be built, it is extremely important to define the plan. This means not the goal of what it is you want built, but the goal that you wish this project to actually accomplish.
Developing a Strategy involves including the following questions and pieces.
What is the overall goal for your project?
Do you want to attract more customers? Do you want to define a new product? Are you creating a new community? What is your expected return for your investment? If it is a business site, is there a plan for generating profit out of your site? Even if the site is not-for-profit, do you have a plan for the site to pay for itself? A surprisingly common problem for many clients is that they have not adequately thought this through. Unless these are vanity projects, a clear goal should be defined before any other step.
What is the the landscape or topography?
Are there any other sites that exist that already provide this service? How many are there? Is your product attempting to fill a new niche, or is it attempting to compete with other companies? If so, how much competition is there? Do you have a clear idea on how you plan to overcome this? In other words, in heavily saturated markets, a unique selling point may be necessary. We’ve all heard clients say things like “I want to be just like Uber, but on steroids.” Is this a realistic goal? Can you actually compete?
Who is your market, and what do they want?
Far too often a company enters the marketplace thinking only about their own desires and wants: to sell more products, to bring in more people, to achieve success. However to do this, it is important not only to determine whether there’s any interest out there, but in what way? Do consumers actually want your product? Is it something they need, or is it something they might want if they were only aware of it? This piece is also extremely important during the design stage. User-centric thinking is something that can have a dramatic impact on the success of a site and dangerous for any business that chooses to ignore it. Make sure you understand how people want to be treated on your site. Be careful about not scaring your users away. For instance, “I want noise and videos to come out of a site as soon as I reach it” said pretty much nobody ever. Accessibility may also be a very important thing. For instance, do you have users who are likely to be using slow connections? This is extremely important when considering features on a site.
Involve the Technical Specialists in the planning stages
In the process, it’s a good idea to bring in the technological experts before beginning any project specification stage. Many design firms leave this up to the marketing or sales folks, but they do so at both their own peril as well as the client’s. Many clients, particularly those with limited technological knowledge may not fully understand the details of what it is they are requesting. Sometimes a client will ask for things that may to them may seem “easy,” but are in fact very complicated and may take far more work hours to complete than originally thought. The payoff for these features or bells and whistles on the site may not be as high as the expense of creating them. Alternately, sometimes a client may not know that something that they hadn’t even considered due to an assumed expense is more easily implemented than they had thought. Many excellent web development firms have individuals with strong knowledge of new technologies and can suggest features which may have a strong payoff for little up-front investment.
You may believe you have the best idea for a website ever conceived. You are certain is going to be successful if you get it going. However, the overused quote from Field of Dreams: “If you build it they will come” is largely a fantasy. If you do not have a clear strategy before launching a new web development project, you may end up spending your hard-earned money in the wrong way. A good strategy before creating your project requirement documents is a great way of making sure you are giving yourself the best chance.