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The business owner’s guide to web development strategy

Most business owners probably think that developing a new website is a task that requires external resource and delegation of management. I don’t disagree with that per se, creating a new website is a complex project that requires care and attention to be a success. It may well prove challenging for an MD to get fully involved, either from a time or marketing knowledge point of view. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a crucial responsibility as the project owner, a role you may well have to fulfil. To abrogate your duty to that  ownership is to do the success of your website – and ultimately your business – a huge disservice. So here are 10 key points to help you be an effective project owner in two areas, firstly what to do during a major web development project and secondly in the months or years between those projects.

Be the guardian of what it achieves, not what it looks like

This is the single best piece of advice I can give you. It goes to the heart of understanding project ownership as opposed to creative direction. Your website is not for you. It doesn’t matter whether you personally love it. It’s for your audience and it only matters whether it fulfils their needs. The single biggest mistake business owners make is to get caught up in whether the aesthetics of their website please them. If you can rein in that desire and instead focus on what this website will achieve for you then it will massively benefit the outcome. Those positive business outcomes are your customer’s understanding of your offering, the generation of leads and a completed sale.

Asking the design team to explain why they believe that design will generate leads is a much better question than asking them why that button is on the right just because you like it on the left.

As always, Mike Monteiro dispenses fantastic wisdom on this subject, so if you need a second opinion…

Understand the process not just the result

There is a detailed level of understanding around the methodology of your web development project that can (and should) be left to whoever is going to manage the project and give it their day-to-day attention. As the business owner that probably shouldn’t be you but you are still needed for approval of key milestones.

It’s going to help those crucial sign offs go smoothly if you at least know why you’re being asked for that approval and where it’s taking the project.

That means having a basic grounding in the type of methodology being used and there are two usual approaches. The waterfall methodology is the more traditional approach, which seeks to create a complete plan and scope of work for the project at the very beginning. It means everyone has certainty about what is going to be produced, but it requires a long planning phase and its rigidity means any new ideas or changes you request during the project are going to have immediate budget consequences. A lot of clients like this approach at the outset but find it frustrating and limiting as they go.

The agile methodology allows much greater flexibility for ideas to develop as the project continues and it may well give you the best result. This method involves boiling down the requirements to their simplest purpose, often described as minimum viable product, and then iterating in small, controlled phases to refine the essentials and add other desirable elements. It’s still possible to create a budget for this type of project but ultimately there is no fixed specification at the outset so it requires a good degree of trust to work this way as you don’t describe the finished product at the outset when you commit to begin spending money.

It’s crucial that the project owner understands the top line advantages and disadvantages of the chosen methodology and is ok with the associated limitations. If not and you begin to resist following the methodology during the project, then it’s inevitable you’re going to compromise its success.

Complete prerequisite tasks

I’m always harping on about why briefing your project team properly is so vital to success. But before you can do that, there’s a checklist that often throws up big questions. Have you ensured you’re happy with your branding? Do you know what your customers’ perception of your business is at this point in time? And if you’ve got that insight have you done anything to shape the story you want to tell now, so you can communicate how it’s changed from the last time you developed your website?

Ask yourself, as the project owner, have I made sure that we are absolutely ready to make this investment? If you can’t answer that with certainty then it’s imperative you get some advice before you start burning through the creative budget.

Be clear on your own delivery requirements

Following on from the earlier point about understanding the process, it’s inevitable that you back up the creative work you’ve commissioned by being clear on what you need to provide to your agency and when. If you’re really committed to success then perhaps you’ll also be brave enough to let them advise you on whether what you’ve provided is good enough. There are thousands of websites out there with a very nice design filled with horrendous images and dull words because the client was so busy looking at what the agency was delivering that they forgot to quality control what they were delivering.

Balance time versus quality

There is one quirk of website development projects which, after 15 years, I still can’t believe crops up as often as it does. This is the desire of clients to prioritise the launch date of their website over the quality of the finished product. I’ve been in many project kickoff meetings where  the client has, without prior discussion, announced that the site needs to be launched by a certain date because there is an industry event they’re attending and they’ve decided they want to show it off. Why are the people attending that event more important than the people who are going to use the website every day for the next three to five years?

It’s as if project owners have heard that IT and web projects always run over so creating a hard deadline of their choosing is the antidote to this. Well that’s not the solution.

Prioritising the launch date over quality is a disastrous way to run a web project. For one it creates stress in the team who then rush and make mistakes. It’s also a surefire way to kill the morale of the creative people working on the project. They immediately sense that you have a “just get it done” attitude, won’t really appreciate the craft they want to bring to the work and don’t really understand value of the work as a whole. I’m not saying be laissez-faire with deadlines, there should be a responsible attitude from all sides to completing work on time. But delays are inevitable (the client often creates them) and when that happens, maintain focus on the success that the website needs to achieve and make that alone the sacrosanct priority.

Share the responsibility for testing well

Testing websites is a largely tedious job. No one enjoys it. But, like most things, there is an easy way and a hard way to do it. As the project owner you’ll make your team’s life much harder if you are lazy and just send out the demo site link to other senior stakeholders or peers asking for unstructured, subjective feedback. You’ll slow down your agency if you send that feedback in dribs and drabs over many emails. This area is a real test of an agency/client relationship, clients who are organised and methodical are loved by their agencies, which is usually very useful if you do happen to want a couple of amends made which are strictly change requests not faults. If the agency knows you aren’t troublesome at the testing phase you’ll get those small things done for free. If you’re known to be a time sink, then you’ll be getting a bill for every change, no matter how small. If you don’t know how to perform your UAT (user acceptance testing) on the website, don’t stick your head in the sand and do a bad job, ask for advice!

Once your website has launched, don’t relax, this is just the beginning!

Create a post-launch web development roadmap

However successful your website is at launch, chances are you will want to extend it in the future to stay competitive. That might be new functionality, new templates to display different information, or new data that you want to bring into the website from another source. This always creates some degree of risk, it’s a change to the website that was not considered when it was originally built. A good example is use of the plugins that power functionality in sites using the WordPress CMS. These plugins are built by different people all over the world and conflicts between them are not uncommon. If you can share with your agency all your possible future requirements, both concrete and tentative, you’ll allow the experts to help you spot a possible knock-on issue and develop around it first time.

Ensure the website is synced with your marketing strategy

Given a website might take three to six months to create it’s not uncommon for marketing requirements to have changed between the website project’s inception and launch. If you’ve briefed well and talked about all the types of marketing you do then hopefully you’ll have covered this in the short-term, but at some point post launch this is going to become a necessity. Roleplaying some “what if” scenarios is very useful. Such as:

“What if our sales took a hit and we needed to try an aggressive PPC campaign to give us a boost? Given we don’t normally run PPC ads, has our website got a template that would work as an effective PPC landing page?”

Your website plays a role in a great deal of your digital marketing, whether it’s PPC, data capture for email, driving people to engage with you on social channels or as the information repository for content marketing. See this as another of those prerequisite tasks we talked about earlier!

Insist on good housekeeping

There are lots of mundane but important tasks that keep a website in good shape. Backups, small updates to functionality, good content management practises (like not letting the CMS become a dumping ground for hundreds of images). These small things have both a performance aspect and also a risk management aspect. Either way, they’re a potentially big future problem that need never occur. You just need to be sure someone understands the details and has ownership of completing tasks regularly.

Look at the thing occasionally!

I’m not suggesting you immerse yourself in the world of Google Analytics. Get someone to do that for you. But, last but not least, do make sure every once in a while you look at your website with fresh eyes and ask yourself if the viewing and reading experience is what you expect as a shop window for your business. If you’re detail-oriented you may look at the website so often that you become blind to the overall feel of it because you’re always checking some tiny detail . Or, more likely, you don’t have a reason to look at it very often at all and you forget that it needs care in the same way your premises and your staff do. Check out this blog by Ross Coombes for an excellent description of why this is important. Whatever role your website plays in your business, the above list are things that will affect 99% of websites at some point. Forewarned is forearmed!

At Agency Interface we help brands work effectively with digital agencies.

We do this by helping our clients understand the fundamentals of modern digital web design and marketing and helping them work with the creative community who can make it happen. Our success is measured in the time and money that our clients save in getting the right people doing the right work and taking away guesswork, frustration, miscommunication and wasted time. Chat to us today to find out more about how we can help your brand.