Managing Your Web Development Project

by Jennifer Beever, Marketing Consultant
Copyright New Incite, All Rights Reserved

After a recent talk I gave on Internet marketing, several people approached me and asked how to go about getting a web site designed. I realized that many business owners don’t understand what it really takes to design and develop a web site. This article outlines the steps required and gives tips and techniques for how to get the project done on time.

Whether you are developing a site from scratch or updating an existing site, the same steps apply. First, you need to identify your site’s objectives and requirements. Second, you need to select the right web developer. Third, you need to create a project plan. Finally, you’re ready to execute the plan.

Some will say that the uninitiated should start with a knowledgeable web developer before writing their requirements, because they don’t know what their requirements are! I believe businesses should start by defining their web site objectives and requirements in keeping with their larger marketing plan, and then allow the site scope to expand or contract based on budget and on feedback from a knowledgeable developer. The third step, the project plan, will define the scope that both you and the web developer agree upon.

I. Identify Site Objectives/Requirements

In defining your site’s objectives, step back to your marketing plan. What is your marketing situation or strategy? How can your web site complement the strategy? For example, if your product or service is new and your marketing serves to educate your marketplace, the web site should educate visitors. If you are in a mature marketplace with many competitors, your web site should serve to differentiate your product or service from your competitors.

Who is your visitor? What is their demographic profile — are you hoping to attract potential clients in your local area? Nationwide? Worldwide? What is your customer profile — teenagers who like sports? Senior business professionals? Freelance software programmers? What experience do you want visitors to your site to have — fun? Education? Is it product-oriented? Information-oriented?

Outline the type of content you’d like to include on the site. Use a whiteboard, a flip chart, or a program on your desktop that creates hierarchical charts (MS PowerPoint, Visio) to do this. Start by drawing a rectangle at the top. This will be the home page. Write a few notes about the content here. Remember, less is more when it comes to text on web sites! On your home page, present statements that grab the visitor and menu options that provide links to more extensive information on subsequent pages.

From the home page, list the categories of information visitors may want to see. Examples include Products or Services, Customer Testimonials or Case Studies, News and/or Press Releases, Articles, Resources and Links (to other sites), About Us, and Contact Us. Your web site chart should look like the chart below.

From the chart, you can easily see how many web pages you will require. This is important information for web developers, as some provide quotes based on the number of pages a site will have. According to web developer Stephen Pogostin, of Dynamic Media, “Most pre-packaged deals have page limits, so knowing how many you need will give you a better idea of your options. For example, I recently saw an IBM.com commercial offering web sites for $499, but the price included only three pages.”

Look at competitor and other sites on the web. Make note of features you do and don’t like. Examples include menu styles, text styles, graphics, animation of text or graphics, navigation, etc. Bookmark the pages you like to show to web developers. Now, with your requirements, your chart, and your list of selected web site examples, you are ready to find a web developer and start work!

II. Select a Web Developer

As you start your project, find at least three good potential web developers and first inquire as to their interest level and ability. From the initial inquiry, you should send out a request for proposal to all three and use their responses to select the best one. As many businesses have had the misfortune to find out in the past few years, the quality of web developers varies tremendously. There are three main areas of web developer quality: responsiveness, technical capability, and design ability.

Your first clue on quality is how the web developer responds to your initial inquiry. I recently sent a high-level request for proposal (via email) to three web developers, two of whom I had done projects with. One said they were working on the proposal but never got back to me. One responded very pleasantly within a few days with a ballpark estimate and some standard information about how they work. The third first immediately acknowledged my request, and within a matter of days provided a detailed response. In the response, they not only provided an estimate, but they also provided some great ideas that were unsolicited and proof of their responsiveness and interest!

Some web developers create sites with the same technology time after time. A good developer will use technology appropriately for each site, and if they don’t know a certain technique or utility, they learn it! To test for technical ability, you need to look at sites the developer has done. Look for use of animation (flash technology, etc.), innovative navigation (cascading menus, etc), use of audio and visual where appropriate.

Not many web developers are strong graphic designers, and not many graphic designers are strong web programmers. Again, look at the sites a web developer has already done. Is there a good balance between graphics, text, photography, etc.? Are the sites appealing for the type of audience they serve? Is there good use of color? Do the graphics look new and custom, or are they standard web buttons and clip art?

Many people ask if a web developer must be in their local area and available for face-to-face meetings. I don’t believe this is a requirement if the developer is responsive via email and has the right experience. Requiring a local developer limits your ability to select someone with the right experience.

At the least, you should talk to a potential developer over the phone before committing to working with them. It will help build good communications before you get started. Get an understanding of when and where the work takes place so that when you request a change at 7 AM, you know that your developer may not implement it until 10 AM because they are on a different schedule or in a different time zone. Find out how many projects they work on at once so you’ll know how much undivided attention you will or won’t get.

Ask all three web developers to review your objectives, outline, and the web sites or features that you like and provide a written (email is fine!) estimate for developing your web site. Make sure you find out what program the site will be developed in (MS Frontpage, Dreamweaver, NetObjects Fusion, etc.). Do your homework on each of the programs proposed; each one has its own limitations and advantages. Some specific questions to ask might be, “Can text be laid out on each web page in any format or are you restricted to a basic style?” Also, “How will each page print: with graphics?”

If you have a specific deadline, let the developer know. Even better, create milestones (or ask the developer to) and have the developer commit to dates for each. Milestones might include:

  1. Develop 2-3 rough design ideas
  2. Choose a design direction
  3. Finalize the design
  4. Provide final copy, graphics, and photography to developer
  5. Alpha version available for client review and testing
  6. Make revisions
  7. Beta version available for client and select reviewer testing
  8. Make final revisions/fixes
  9. Go live!

III. Create and Manage the Project Plan

When you select your web developer, don’t expect to sit back and “let it happen.” You need to be involved every step of the way. Use the milestones you created in the selection process to manage your plan. Create a timeline and make every effort to stick to the dates. Make sure that your web developer “owns” the same dates you do.

The most critical step for a business having a web site developed is number four. Many web sites are “dead in the water” for weeks, sometimes months, because the site owner does not provide content on time. Finalize your content as much as possible before providing it to the developer. Sure, there will be a few words to tweak or sentences that just don’t sound right when you see them on-line. But stay away from total revises after you give your content to the developer.

One way to avoid delays is to ask your developer to review your content before they load it on the site. Because you have shared your web plan and objectives with the web developer, they can comment on the tone of the content (does it match your objective?) and on the length (remember, less is more!). Another way to avoid delays is to get a web content specialist or an experienced web copywriter to write or edit your content.

Once the text is loaded and the site is ready to look at on-line, your developer can keep it in a test location so that no one sees a partial web site. You and your developer should test every link and option on the site to ensure that it is working. A good developer should test every feature on the site and make sure it is working before it is turned over to you. Make this a key part of the plan, and your web developer will be more aware of his or her responsibility for quality.

Once it appears to you that everything works, ask some trusted friends and colleagues to test your site. Provide them with a script for testing based on what you expect site visitors to experience. You will be surprised at the additional things they might find. Web developer Stephen Pogostin says, “Depending on the complexity of the site, ask others to perform three or four specific tasks, such as filling out a form or ordering an item. This can help reveal interface weaknesses on a complex design much faster.”

When your site is done, announce it in a fun and exciting way. Send out postcards that extend a graphic or text theme from your site. Send a message in a bottle or a fortune cookie with your web address. If you liked your experience with your web developer, engage them on a monthly basis to maintain and update your site, including adding press releases, articles, and new technology as it becomes available.

With good communications, clear objectives, realistic expectations, a written plan with milestones, and a little give and take, web development doesn’t have to be a great mystery. Creating a new site or updating your existing site can be a good experience that results in a web site you are proud of and one that gets results for your business.

Author Jennifer Beever is a marketing consultant and founder of New Incite Marketing Analysis and Design. New Incite is the outsource marketing resource for growing businesses. The company provides marketing planning, implementation, results tracking and organizational development services for its clients. Contact Jennifer at 818-347-4248 or by email.

This article may be reprinted with permission of the author. Please contact Jennifer Beever at 818-347-4248 or by email for permission. Proper acknowledgement of the author, including name, company, and contact information, must be made with use.