Webvanta Blog: Creating Effective Websites

5 Keys to Successful Website Projects

The recent healthcare.gov debacle marks a new high, of sorts, for the web: for the first time, the president of the United States has had to publicly apologize for a failed website project.

That the problems with the website merited this level of attention is yet one more sign of the pervasive influence of the web on society today. Just a few years ago, signing up for insurance would have been a paper process, and no one would have been so concerned about problems with a website.

To be sure, this website project had special challenges. Projects of this scale, especially when under government auspices, have a dismal success rate; The Standish Group reported that 41% of projects over $10M are outright failures, and another 52% are ‘challenged’, leaving a success rate of less than 7%.

Your website challenges are no doubt much more modest, but it is still all too common for website projects to fail. Here are the keys to making sure yours isn’t one of them.

1. Start with a clear, detailed specification

The only way for your designers and developers to be sure they know what you want the site to do is to develop a clear, detailed specification. Discussions and brainstorming sessions are great, but all too often they result in each person having a different picture in their head. There’s no substitute for writing down the details so everyone can agree on them.

It’s best to have someone who has experience with many websites write the specification, because they’re likely to think of issues that others may not. It’s also helpful to have someone outside of the organization do this work, so they can provide an independent viewpoint.

It’s equally important to remain flexible. Don’t expect the specification to be unchanging or comprehensive. As the site is developed, new ideas will come up, and issues will arise that the specification didn’t anticipate.

2. Make sure your team has the required skills

If you haven’t had a lot of dealings with web professionals, you may think of “web designer” and “web developer” interchangeably. In fact, designer and developer are very different roles, for which different people are best suited.

Designers are artists: they are the ones who make things beautiful and often define how things will work and how the visitor navigates the site. If you think about building a house, the designer is the architect.

Developers are technicians: they are the contractors and carpenters. They live in a highly ordered world of detail where everything needs to be exactly right.

In addition, you need people with more skills than just design and development: you also need people skilled in information architecture, interaction design, content strategy, writing, and search-engine optimization. Some designers and some developers have these skills, but many don’t.

It’s also important to realize that coding skills vary widely. For a simple site, someone who can customize a theme using HTML and CSS may be all you need. But you may well need someone who can write new HTML and CSS from scratch, and who can write JavaScript as well. And if your needs are complex, you may need back-end (server-side) development skills.

It is very rare that one person has all the skills you need. Make are realistic assessment of the skills you need, and make sure the team you select has them.

3. Check the team’s track record and responsiveness

How do you assess the skills of your prospective team? Since you’re probably not an expert in all of the skill areas you need, it can be hard to evaluate them technically.

This is one area where past performance is indicative of future results. Look critically at sites they have built in the past. Ask for specifics about who played what role. Request references and testimonials.

If your project requires features or capabilities beyond website basics, check whether the team has implemented similar features in the past.

We’ve heard from countless website owners and managers about their frustrations with designers and developers who disappear for days or weeks at a time, don’t complete the tasks they promised, and ignore emails and phone messages.

Most freelancers are well intentioned, but often they get overwhelmed. All too often, they deal with overwhelm by focusing on one client and ignoring the others.

You want a team that gives a high priority to responsiveness and reliability. How quickly and thoroughly do they respond to your inquiries? Do they readily understand your goals and needs, and explain things in terms you can understand?

Check with past clients about what their experience was like. Were deadlines met? Were problems resolved quickly? Was the team open to changes?

4. Don’t underestimate content and coordination tasks

A successful website depends on more than just design and coding skills: you also need project management, content curation, and content development. These aspects are often under-appreciated and under-resourced, and the results can be disastrous.

Most new website owners are astonished at how much work it is to gather all the content and coordinate all the aspects of the project. You may want to handle these tasks internally, while contracting out the design and development tasks, but be sure you have the time and inclination to do so.

For large projects, having someone focused on project management is essential. Collecting all the content, evaluating the work in progress, and coordinating input from all the stakeholders can be a big job.

It’s also important to recognize the primacy of written content. No matter how great your site’s design and technology may be, if the copy isn’t well-written, engaging, and optimized for the web, the site isn’t likely to be effective. Good writers are often missing from web teams.

5. Plan to test, revise, and iterate

No matter how well your project specification has been crafted, and how talented and experienced your team is, it is unrealistic to expect everything to come out right the first time.

When writing the specification and creating the visual design, the team is generally working with a small amount of sample content. As the real content is added in, unanticipated issues are sure to arise, and the design will need tweaking.

Often, using the newly built site also reveals usability issues that weren’t obvious on paper. There’s no substitute for having real people trying real tasks on the real site. Be sure to build this into your development cycle. Some testing should happen before the site launch, and more should happen on an ongoing basis.

There’s also the technical aspect of testing. Websites are, in part, computer programs, and all computer programs have bugs. It just isn’t practical to create bug-free software. A talented team will create fewer bugs, but you should expect there to be some, and build in a process for finding and fixing them.

The web is a particularly challenging environment because of the wide range of browsers and devices that people use to access it. Your site should be tested on all the common desktop computer browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and several versions of Internet Explorer), as well as on smartphones and tablets running both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android software.

Don’t Be Daunted

If we’ve made building a great website seem daunting, we apologize — it is easily within your reach, as long as you have the right partner. And we’d love to be your partner!

Check out some of the sites we’ve built, what our customers have to say about working with us, and our website design and development process.

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