When we’re working with a new client, I always ask how their last website rollout went. A valid question when embarking on a redesign, right? More often than not, the response is merely a look. A look that makes it all too clear that it didn't go well. And while every website project has it’s own unique tale, the story behind the look often includes a late launch, many cooks in the kitchen and a lot of heartache. After going through that once, most want to play smarter the next time around.
Website planning is a key part of the process whether you are working on a large redesign, or making updates to a website that’s up and running. If this project is your baby, you're judged based on whether the project is done on time and on schedule. This is totally do-able. It just requires avoiding some mis-steps that can through your project off course.
Beginning without clear goals in placeDecision-making isn’t easy. Often, the more subjective the topic the more drawn out that choice can become. To make the decision-process more efficient, it’s helpful to establish goals for the website up front.
Are you building a new company to stand out in the market place? Then keep that point of differentiation top of mind with every choice you make. Is this project filling a technical need, such as allowing better integration with back-end systems? Then maybe it’s not necessary to hold off until that new logo has been established. Specific goals in will help keep everyone on track while evaluating options and determining the right path to take.
Not pulling stakeholders into the process earlyIn any project, the work really begins when you are picking the team. You’ll have captains that will be leading the project, the players who will be executing each move, and the owners who have a vested interest in the project’s success. Each role views the project through a unique lens. The captain wants to ensure they deliver on promises in regards to time, budget and function. Players are looking for a website that will make make their day-to-day work easier. Owners are focused on the business. This could be leadership who wants to ensure that the vision of the organization is accurately captured on the website, or a product manager who needs to ensure there is ample opportunity to promote and highlight their line.
Because this group of owners may work at a high level and be less familiar with the process of building a website, they are often more removed in the early stages. However, this can put the project at risk. New initiatives may be discussed at an executive level that could have a major impact on the direction of the project. Or someone on the product team may feel strongly about the design and site architecture after those elements have already been finalized.
Not managing the feedback processScenario: you send final approval of the messaging to senior legal counsel, and this person is now pushing back on photography selection. Lesson: determine who has a say on what up front.
When the legal team is reviewing the website we want to make sure that they are solely focused on ensuring that the project complies with legal needs and standards of the business. In other words, we may not need the legal team to provide input on marketing related decisions such as the design. As the human resources manager reviews the website, their focus should be on the careers section, rather than product pages. A best practice to gather feedback is to pull everyone in the room together, and remind the team of their individual focus up front to keep the discussion on track.
Skipping the risk management planRisk management plans don’t sound fun. I can appreciate why we’d rather not bother. Personally, I love a good chart—but it’s not everyone’s thing, and I get that. But it’s actually really helpful. If you don’t know what a risk management plan is, it’s essentially a document that outlines each thing that could throw the project off, how likely it is to happen, how big of a deal it would be if it did, and what the team can do to avoid it. You’re putting out there all those little things that will keep you up at night, so that it keeps everyone up at night together.
For instance, are you trying to integrate a new fulfillment system into the website? That’s important for everyone to appreciate. I’d rank the likelihood of that impacting the project as high, and it’s usually not a small issue. There are ways to manage it though. You could determine a drop dead date for the new system to be set up and for the technical requirements to be defined. So now when the project is delayed, you aren’t the person who launched the website late you can be the person that said, “I told you so!” Just try not to rub it in.
Waiting to put meetings on the calendarAs soon as you have the milestones set and a website schedule in hand, you might as well put all those meetings on the books. It can be tempting to hold off until things are a little bit further along because you know that things may shift, but if you've done your due diligence to create a solid schedule that's realistic, it's better to err on the safe side. We all joke how difficult it can be to get a lot of folks in the room at one time, not to mention finding a room to meet in. So go ahead and set up all those meetings well in advance. Whether it's a conference call or an in-person meeting, get them on the calendar so that you don't lose additional time just trying to set something up.
Not planning for custom contentRemember when you put that RFP together, reviewed pricing and decided on a partner? Most likely those proposals had a few caveats or the partner gave you a range, right? That's because there are certain things that can't priced so early in the process. For instance, if you are looking for support to develop the language on your website the scope for that work will be more clear once the site map and the content needs are further along. Likewise, as you begin to define the structure of the website and page-by-page needs, you might determine that custom visuals or photography would tell the story a bit better.
If you want to avoid delays to your project, the trick is to overestimate the time you need for content development. Also, go ahead and identify who’ll do the work and establish a placeholder for the time needed in the schedule so that your planned launch date doesn’t become a cruel joke.
Underestimating time for internal workIf you're a business that is working with an an outside partner to develop your website, it's easy to fall into the trap of believing they are doing the bulk of the work. That belief often leads down a dangerous path—allowing more time for your partner than your internal team. Your team has lots to do. Rounding up business plans, and marketing assets, technical documentation and internal approvals takes more time than you might expect.
Similarly, if you are an agency that is collaborating with an external development team, it's easy to mistakenly create a schedule that doesn’t allow sufficient time for the agency and developer to review as a group before sharing with the end client.
All this is to say, be realistic. Building consensus is rarely speedy.
Sloppy testingSo we're in the final stretch. The developer has built the website, your content is in place and the soft launch is coming up. You're in testing mode. For some, this just entails sharing the website with a few colleagues, poking around the site a bit, and declaring it ready to launch. Eeps. Don’t do that. Instead, start with a list of use cases. For instance, an e-commerce site may have one-off buyers, account buyers, and bulk shipment buyers.
The testing team should involve everyone that is involved internally with the fulfillment process to ensure every system is in synch. The team should include the captains, players and owners that have been along for the ride, but also some new folks that can lend a fresh set of eyes to the website. As we all know after you've looked at this website for the past several months it's easy to miss things. What you don't want to happen is to stumble on an obvious issue right after launch.
Skimming over the CMSTowards the end of the process the developers have been pretty busy, while the website owner has been able to catch their breath a bit. It’s nice having those big design and strategy decisions behind us. The focus has turned to promoting this new website and all eyes are on the launch. The admin tool (typically referred to as a content management system, or CMS) is an important aspect of the project that is often overlooked. This is the system your team will be using day-to-day to keep your website up to date. You want this system to be intuitive. So be sure to review the setup and really understand it. This also helps down the road, when the hard launch has come and gone and you’ve got some changes to make.
Not allowing any wiggle roomYou just got a schedule from your web development team. It likely includes the usual suspect of milestones. (Smashing Magazine published a great article on the topic of web development process and milestones a while back.) You look at the bottom and there’s a date. The glorious day that this project will be done and your site will launch. Now, you could take that date and make it the start date for your marketing campaign and tell your boss and all the stakeholders that this will be the date we go live! But if I were you, I’d add some wiggle room. Things always come up.
Make sure there are two dates at the bottom of that pretty schedule. One is the soft launch, which is when the website will be live but we are keeping it on the down low just to make sure everything is in order. The second date is the hard launch. This is the date when we can start that big email and digital marketing campaign. One other word for the wise - don’t make either of those dates a Friday. Because you don’t want to get that call on Saturday morning that something is off. Believe me.
So now you are ready to develop that schedule and get this project rollin’. You and your team can get this website up and running and get back to business, without a hitch.