Broke-Down Process: Web Projects' Fatal Flaw

Jason Pamental // April 2016

Here at Isovera, the team has worked with a lot of partners and clients over the years, and have seen a lot of common areas that get overlooked time and time again. These things are probably pretty familiar—like a site structure that doesn’t allow for ‘just one more menu item’, or content not structured in a way to allow that one crucial feature to be implemented. Since my background is focused more on that kind of strategy and design, it’s a natural fit for my role here to help address just these kinds of issues.

Even after 20 years, the typical agency approach of creating an interactive site, application or product is often set up to fail
Waterfall I: Niagara Falls by Leon Overweel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Don’t get me wrong; there are certainly some very talented, more ‘digitally minded’ agencies that tackle both design and development. But not every company can or should try. Some agencies are more branding/identity focused, and some digital shops are more focused on implementation. And that’s OK. More than that, it’s probably necessary. After all, really great digital projects are pretty complex endeavors.

So what’s broken?

Unfortunately, almost all of it. A fairly typical engagement goes like this:

  • Agency talks to Client about the project

  • Agency reviews internally to assess fit and scope

  • Agency develops estimate, leaving a placeholder for ‘development’

  • Agency will (sometimes) speak to a prospective Development Partner to get a ballpark estimate for ‘a site about this big that does stuff like this and that’—otherwise they just guess based on past projects

  • Development Partner reviews the vaguery and hand-waving, develops a rough estimate (and if they’re smart, doubles or triples it), and gives that number back to the agency

  • Agency says “we already promised it would only cost 2/3’s of that, can you make that work?”

  • Development Partner cringes, crosses out a few steps, and says OK

  • Agency gets approval

  • Agency conducts discovery and design work

  • Agency is late

  • Agency delivers ‘final approved and comprehensive design’ to Development Partner two weeks before launch

  • Panic ensues

    • 17% of what’s designed can’t be built

    • 29% of what’s needed to be built is never fully designed or thought through

    • Another 12% get’s pushed off to ‘Phase 2’ due to time constraints

  • Client is left with an outcome that is less-than-promised, and has no visibility or understanding of the issues that led to the outcome

While this is undoubtedly a tongue-in-cheek description, I’m sure you can relate to at least a portion of what’s been set out. The sad part is that with a few shifts in how and when partners overlap and interact, nearly all these issues can be solved. Even better: all of the little change orders, missed functionality, edge cases and design ambiguity can get uncovered and resolved much earlier in the process.

Let’s imagine a better way; a way in which we at Isovera are putting into practice a little more with every project. Let’s begin at the beginning..

Agency talks to Client about the project

…and has a project manager and developer from the Development Partner in the meeting. This decreases the likelihood important details get lost in translation, and increases opportunity for greater collaboration and innovative ideas when both design and development perspectives align.

Agency develops estimate

…in collaboration with the Development Partner, discussing the features and functionality in order to arrive at the most comprehensive and honest estimate. The Client gets a realistic budget with less likelihood of scope creep ballooning the final number two or three times higher, and the Agency doesn’t have to play guessing games in order to win the work in the first place.

Agency conducts discovery

…with the Development Partner in the room. Perspectives focused on aesthetics and user experience might miss opportunities to create more efficient workflows, just as those focused solely on implementation might miss the chance to more closely align functionality with natural user behavior.

and design work

…happens in close collaboration with developers who can provide input on both ease/difficulty of implementation and opportunities to add functionality the designer may not have imagined possible. And while we’re on the subject of design, it’s worth noting this likely involves disciplines like Information Architecture, User Experience, and Content Strategy in addition to the more purely visual. It’s certainly been my experience that these are prime trouble spots.

Many agencies are better equipped for the aesthetic than the more structural aspects of design, and fail to allow for this crucial work during the design phase. It’s not necessarily the case that it should fall to the Development Partner to sort these things out, but it does require real thought and care. How well does the structure of the site bridge user understanding and technical feasibility? Is the content for the product page is structured in a way that can be managed easily by the client and marked up in a way to match the intended design? Without that thought and care, the likelihood of a successful project is increasingly dim. Bringing a focus on design and user experience, we are expanding our efforts to be better partners for both agencies and clients alike.

Happier endings

Now it’s certainly true that even with the collaboration outlined above, there will still be potential for delays, and some features, functionality or design will inevitably end up coming after initial launch. But at least it will be a coordinated decision that delivers the most value for the client and its customers, while leaving a sensible path forward. Clients and partners alike need to understand that it’s exceedingly rare that a site or product is ‘done.’ Rather, it’s better to plan a continuum, focusing on chunks of work that deliver real substance and value. When there’s clear value attached to each bit of work, everyone benefits and it’s more likely to succeed in the long run.

Above all, it’s crucial to understand it’s not about more development time, but stretching out the overlap and using that time more effectively, ensuring we see those challenges and opportunities in time for us as a team to address them in the most efficient and innovative way. Ultimately this will deliver greater value and better outcomes all around.

What’s your take? We’ve had a lot of success with this kind of approach but are always looking to learn what’s worked for others. We look forward to hearing from you!

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