the hidden costs of web development

July 15, 2018

Unless you’ve been through the process of designing and developing a website, most of the journey will be a learning experience for you and your team. In addition to learning about usability, accessibility, personas, content authoring, and many other aspects of a project, you’re also going to learn what it’s like to work with the agency you’ve selected. Being able to anticipate the hidden costs of website development will keep the project within your budget and within your timeline.

I once worked for a business owner who had a poignant picture hanging on the wall of his office. The picture was taken of two moored boats in a harbor. The first boat, a small dinghy with an outboard motor, had the name “Original Contract” stenciled on the rear. It was tethered to a much larger yacht featuring the name “Change Order” in matching font. The photo served as a humorous reminder that strategic businesses are always on the lookout for opportunities to grow accounts and maximize revenue.

Change orders are a necessary tool within any service based industry. They provide both parties with an opportunity to be flexible while in the middle of a fixed price project. While there may be a small number of web developers who are deceptive in their scoping, most agencies will provide an honest scope of work within the original contract and will make an earnest attempt to complete the work without the need for a change order. This can easily be verified by calling an agency’s references and asking if their project was completed on time and within budget. What’s more difficult is predicting where the project will present alluring opportunities to spend more money or where you may become forced to spend more because of your own team’s actions (or inactions).

Having some insight into where website projects typically have hidden costs can help you limit budget increases to times where you want to spend the money, instead of times where you feel trapped behind unexpected costs.

Five areas where the hidden website costs can appear.

1) Timing

The gotcha:
A key deliverable needs approval to keep the project on schedule but you can’t get time with the CEO for 2 weeks for a blessing. Pushing out the schedule causes the agency to burn additional resources.

How to prevent it:
Timing is going to be a constant threat throughout the entire project. While agencies will typically be flexible the first few times a date needs to bump, there’s a limit to that flexibility and they’re eventually going to issue a change order. When finalizing an agency selection, ask them for a list of key meetings and deliverables. Check key meeting dates against your team’s calendar and also ask what the expected turn-around is for approvals. Having “same day” approval cycles is not practical, especially if you have multiple tiers of stakeholders who need to give feedback. Additionally, make sure that there is a project manager assigned on both sides and that both of these person’s responsibilities include reporting on timeline threats.

2) Information Architecture

The gotcha:
Content for the new website isn’t fitting well within the number for templates specified in the contract. We’re going to need to architect, design, and build a few more component types.

How to prevent it:
Each of your candidate agencies should be quantifying their scope based on a combination of pages, templates, and components. Components (and sub-components) are going to be the most useful metric for CMS(Content Management System)-driven websites. Even the most simplistic website design is going to use at least ten components; twenty to fifty is a more realistic number for moderately complex websites. Ask the agencies how they arrived at the component number and, if possible, have them present or talk through the list. Specifically, ask what happens if the content necessitates components in excess of the specified number – and make sure that answer is reflected in a contract.

3) Visual Design

The gotcha:
Only two rounds of revision were allocated for the designs and we’re not ready to approve the current layouts.

How to prevent it:
The key to having a smooth design process is to limit the amount of subjectivity. Each stakeholder on your team brings their own subjective bias to the project. A good agency will insist on making presentations in person and on having all stakeholders present at the time of presentation. Prior to the project, create alignment among your team by designating one person to have decision making authority in the event of conflicting opinions. Also designate one person (usually the project manager) to consolidate all design feedback and to ensure that each individual piece of feedback has consensus of the entire group. When the number of design revision rounds become insufficient, it’s often because everyone’s feedback was authored independently and just dumped to the agency as one unorganized list. Having stakeholders review the design outside of the agency’s presentation compounds the risk by introducing feedback in absence of an expert’s rationale and without hearing group discussion.

4) Development

The gotcha:
We started using Salesforce for a CRM and want our new business leads to go directly there from the website.

How to prevent it:
Modern websites are highly integrated with other systems. This may be as simple as sending form data to another service like Salesforce or it could be complex like pulling live product pricing and availability. Since each integration can take many hours of development time, it’s critical that every integration is specifically documented within the project scope. Have your current IT team or IT vendor provide a detailed list of all current and future planned integrations and in-site applications (e.g.: calculators) and offer your candidate agency a chance to discuss each. A well qualified agency will be eager to have the discussion.

5) Content

The gotcha:
Creating and moving content to the new site is taking way longer than our team expected so we’re not ready to launch. They agency says their work is done and wants to close the project.

How to prevent it:
One of my colleagues used to say “every client dies on content mountain”. Content related efforts are almost always under-estimated by clients in website projects, especially in the case of first-timers. Work with your candidate agency to plan a content strategy and evaluate their assumed timing for each task. If you have subject matter experts who are going to need to author and review content, make sure that there is reasonable time for these individuals to do so, remembering that they will also likely be responsible for their standard duties within the organization. Good agencies will address this common threat in the bidding process and will be eager to create a shared plan with status checkpoints throughout the project.

In summary
Your website project should be a fun experience and I recommend that you keep an open mind to expanding the project along the way. For instance, you may decide that conducting user testing is a useful tactic to validate a cutting-edge design decision. Understanding the risk areas within a project will help you to avoid unexpected and non-beneficial expenses, freeing you to invest at your discretion on opportunities to reduce risk, expedite the time to market, or create a better customer experience.

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Copyright © 2019 Voice & Reason, LLC. All rights reserved.

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