Building the Business Game Plan
Published on December 29, 2001
Process: either you love it or you hate it.
Rarely do you find those in-the-middle-of-the-road when it comes to process in web design. One-size-fits-all? Some say yes and others say no. ISO9001, CMM (Capability Maturity Model), RUP (Rational Unified Process), and SPICE (Software Process Improvement and Capability dEtermination) are too big and cost too much to implement. They are often seen as "all-or-nothing," which leads to mindless and useless process improvement efforts.
In case you're wondering where UML (Unified Modeling Language) is - it is not a process model. It is a language for specifying, constructing, visualizing, and documenting the artifacts of a software-intensive system and is process-independent.
You may already have a process in place. Processes are about how you set up the "play" for each project: how you take on a new client and gather the client's needs. How you develop to meet those needs. How your team communicates with the client's team. How you pass the ball to the client. For sports fans, a process is like a game plan and sometimes you follow it to the letter. At other times, you improvise.
Why have processes and continuously work to improve and manage them? When requirements are not documented and communicated, then the likelihood that they will be misinterpreted is unnecessarily high.
Even if everyone speaks the same language on a project, the departments involved assume and understand things differently from their own unique perspective. Documented requirements and processes ensure smooth hand-off between functions (design, development, editorial, marketing, business, and so forth).
Bob Godfrey, President of NIA Creative, says, "There has to be a process. We're fanatical about this: time lines, milestones, project management, and so on." NIA Creative, a web design group, with 32 employees, uses its Intranet to document and assist its processes. All project information goes on the Intranet, which is accessed by sales personnel, project managers, and designers. Another positive facet of the company's process is its daily Traffic Review Meeting, which ensures that the lines of communications continue flowing.
"Survival. Without a process for getting projects done in a timely and efficient manner, we'd be toast. Also, our clients appreciate our methods because they get results," says Sean Carton of Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
Client management, client education, and consultant education are big areas that many projects overlook. Right off the bat, client and consultant should communicate, and agree on the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved in the project. The client educates the consultant on her business, goals, and customer needs.
Communication ensures that the consultant understands and manages the clients' expectations, and keeps focus on the clients' business goals. Clients' eyes are bigger than their budgets when it comes to dreaming up their web site. It's their webdev shop that has the unenviable task of bringing them back to Earth, of defining the realities associated with what they can or cannot do while still achieving a compromise between quality and budget. Most importantly, the consultant can help the client explore what user behaviors are important to the web aspect of their business.
Don't proceed with designing until you've ascertained those user behaviors; that knowledge needs to be applied in order for the site to succeed!
Are you worried that processes stifle creativity? To the contrary, Clean Design, Inc.'s Interactive Media Manager, Bill Campbell says, "Creativity rules here. Creativity loves process and structure (with a day off once in a while). It's been our mantra from day one."
Concerned that processes slow you down? "From experience what has worked with us is having a solid, well-thought-out process that is transparent to our clients. That means that we don't get bogged down in the nuances and bureaucracy of the process itself, but use it to have an organized plan of attack for each project," says James Baker of wddg.
Spooky Scope Creep
Process is not without its imperfections. Process-oriented companies still run into scope creep — the adding of requirements not in the original plan. Carton says, "I don't think we've ever not had scope creep! No matter how tightly you define requirements and checkpoints, the fact of the matter is that things change. New ideas arise, situations shift, priorities get re-defined. The trick is to keep close tabs on hours and deliverables and then modify the contract to reflect the new realities. We never say, "We can't do that." We say, "We'd love to do that...and here's how much it'll cost.""
Bill Campbell believes that two things cause scope creep:
- lack of a clearly written project definition; and
- failure to identify the decision-makers who will approve the project milestones for the client.
Someone from marketing, sales, or [fill in the blank with a department] will always throw a wrench into the project. The best you can do is anticipate it and plan for it. Add some cushioning into your timeline to protect yourself from scope creep.
"We handle it with a smile and a revised contract," says Carton.
Where to Begin???
Start by creating a one-page document outlining your task for a project from beginning to end. For each major step, list what needs accomplishing, the tasks involved, and the expected results. A Web design project usually covers requirements, project timeline, architecture, technical architecture, technical design, design review, development, testing, production, and project closure.
A process should be short, to the point, easy to read and useful. What are the major phases for a project? Again, the phases vary by organization. To give you an idea, I've seen the following:
- Requirements > Design, Development > Testing > Implementation > Production
- Define > Develop > Testing > Production > Launch
- Define Requirements > Create Site Structure > Visual Design > Production > Maintenance
Carton Donofrio Partner's process, based on WebRX:
- Marketing Goals & Plan Review > Audience Analysis > Traffic Analysis > Content Analysis > Transaction Analysis > Technical Assessment > Web Search Position Analysis > Success Metrics
Clean Design's process:
- Planning Phase > Approval > Design Phase > Approval > Programming Phase > Approval
- Engagement > Discovery > Elaboration > Development > Production > Deployment
- Discovery > Architect > Create > Implement > Cultivate
You don't have to start from scratch. In fact, wddg's Baker says, "Our process is based on a liberal interpretation of the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) five step process. Two of our founders originally worked at PWC, so when we originally worked on developing our process, we adapted what we were most familiar with."
The purpose of laying out the project phases is to give you a high level screen shot for how the project flows from one component to the next.
For each phase, document what needs to be accomplished, identifying when task(s) are complete, and what the results should be before moving to the next phase.
It gives you, your team, and your client a point of reference to keep everyone on the same page and moving in the right direction. Large documented processes don't mean well-defined or better processes unless you're effectively utilizing every documented process. Keep it simple and useful. To boot, the client will be impressed that you are prepared, organized, and have structure surrounding your projects.
Gathering the Specs
When you communicate with the client to gather the requirements for the project, you ask two types of questions: business-related and aesthetic.
Business questions define the purpose of the web site, its goals, target audience, likely audience behaviors, and what the client wants to accomplish with it.
Aesthetic questions address the style, content, look, and feel of the Web site.
Too often, the client isn't satisfied until she sees the pretty Web site with things to click on, which can make the requirements gathering the most challenging part of a project. Heather Hesketh, CEO of hesketh.com, explains, "A successful project is more than a pretty thing to click on or a whiz bang application. A successful project adds value to your organization. If a project doesn't add value to your organization, then you shouldn't spend the time and money in executing it."
Hold a brainstorming meeting or provide the client with a requirements template for completing prior to a meeting. The latter approach is advantageous because it gives the client time to think through the project over a period of time rather than in a meeting with a limited timeframe.
[Editor's note: the Tutorial published in June 2001 focuses more on the responsibilities of the consultant, but suggests many of the concepts that are addressed by a requirements template.]
Godfrey explains that some clients need a little extra help in clarifying marketing goals, and other clients need no guidance at all. Once having worked through the goals, NIA Creative's process involves writing the proposal with a preliminary timeline and budget, gathering as much knowledge as they can from the client to build a draft information architecture, and holding a series of client meetings to ensure consensus and avoid surprises on both sides.
When you receive the requirements template from the client, review it and document questions to prepare for your meeting. If the review reveals questions that can be asked on the requirements template itself, update the template and save time on a future project.
When the next project starts, you'll have the template to help you recall the basic questions you ask when gathering requirements and you may come up with more to add. Rinse, lather, repeat. This is continuous process improvement. That isn't too bad, is it?
Processes are meant to be flexible and adaptable. Clean Design's Campbell says of process, "Change it to fit you and your client. Change it to fit your projects. Like a marriage, your process takes work and needs to be flexible. Each client is different and has different ways of operating. A firm that forces their process on their client without their input might as well start looking for a new client."
The End, Damn it, The End!
Everyone agrees that hardest part of a project apart from gathering requirements is bringing the project to its conclusion - long after everyone has gotten tired, excitement has waned, deadlines have continually moved back, and new projects are stealing your attention.
To avoid "ending-avoidance," Campbell advises, "Stay with it. Think about how cool this thing was in the beginning, during development, and how cool it will be when it is live. That hasn't changed. Your excitement is contagious." Hold onto your memories of your initial excitement.
Carton Donofrio handles ending-avoidance by including in the contract that content acquisition and project management are billed on weekly retainers, while aspects of the project that are more easily given a metric (architecture, programming, design) are billed on a fixed-price basis. This approach protects all parties by providing a financial incentive to finish the project.
"By tying time and cost together, it's in the client's best interest to get the project done in the most efficient way possible. We benefit because we know how to allocate internal resources to a job over a particular period of time rather than having zombie projects that shuffle along aimlessly forever," Carton explains.
One More Time
Are you still not convinced you should have a process in place? Carton believes all web design firms should have them in place. He says, "Because the only thing of value we provide is generated by that gray stuff that lives between our ears. It's intellectual property, smarts, and service that are our 'products.' If you don't have a way of standardizing those products or know how to charge for them, you're going to lose money and go out of business, guaranteed."
Hesketh says, "Process allows you to execute a project more repeatably. It helps mitigate risk for you and your client. It defines roles. It defines the path to take to define and reach goals. It ensures that the entire team knows what to expect and when, so that it doesn't matter which group from your company works on a project, you're still putting out the same high quality product. For us it allows us to codify our lessons learned. After each project, we have a sunset meeting, where we talk about what went right (and how to repeat it) and what went wrong (and how to avoid it). These lessons are then fed back into the processes that we all use. Having everyone using the same process allows us to refine it more effectively."
Nothing demands inflexible processes. Baker explains that wddg follows the process closely for large projects, but for smaller projects they reduce the level of detail focused on the discovery phase.
Baker says, "Having a process will save you from being abused by your clients -- it outlines rules for the relationship that everyone can agree on ahead of time. In our process we limit the number of revisions that initial comps can go through to three rounds. While this may seem limiting to the client, we do this for a number of reasons. By having a process that limits this, you can keep the project moving in a more orderly fashion, and keep your sanity!"
For the single-person design shop, processes can help the sole designer remember what to do for each project and avoid forgetting steps. It doesn't have to be a bunch of documents, templates, and deliverables. It can consist of just a requirements template and a layout of the major tasks to be completed for each project, for example, Storyboarding > Approvals > Design > Approvals > Test > Go Live > Maintenance Training. Make it the game plan and adjust when needed.
Godfrey says, "(I) can't imagine how they'd survive without processes. You've got to get things done on time and you've got to get the creative and the architecture right. This is relatively complex stuff, particularly as clients are frequently not well prepared. Client management is a huge part of this."
While in a huddle, the team discusses the play and when they're going to move. 40 -- 30 -- 44 -- Hut -- hut -- hike! If nothing else, communicate - communicate - communicate. Avoid potentially disastrous assumptions... by communicating.
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Meryl K. Evans, content maven, is a WaSP member even though she's far from being a WASP. The content maven writes a column for PC Today and blogs for the Web Design Reference Guide at InformIT. Meryl provides the home for the CSS Collection and she's the editor of Professional Services Journal, meryl's notes :: the newsletter as well as other newsletters, so tell all your friends, families and animals to subscribe. Her ancient blog keeps cluckin' since its arrival on the web in 2000.