Hold stakeholder interviews now or pay later

Paul Boag

Commitees are the kiss of death to any web project. Give the kiss of life to your dying project with some one-to-one interviews.

There are two ways to kill a web project – form a web steering committee or push the project through without consultation. We all know the dangers of former, but there seems to be an increasing movement to embrace the latter.

Failing to consult is dangerous

“Just do it” has become the mantra of many web designers and website owners. They believe they know what needs to be done and should just push on regardless, refusing to get bogged down in organisational politics. However although I applaud the sentiment, choosing to ignore the opinions of colleagues and other stakeholders has serious consequences:

  • You can create resentment among influential individuals within your organisation who maybe tempted to derail the project.
  • You may fail to accommodate key business objectives.
  • You could miss opportunities to further benefit the business through the use of web technology.

So if forming a committee or ignoring stakeholders entirely is not the answer, how should you consult with stakeholders?

One-to-one interviews put you in control

At Headscape the majority of our clients are large institutional organisations such as central government, large charities and universities. As a result we have faced our share of committees and extensive consultation phases.

The problem with consultation by committee is that you are not getting feedback from all of the individuals in the group. Instead you are at best getting the feedback of the consensus, and at worst that of one or two dominant individuals.

A better way is to meet people individually. Not only does this allow you to focus on their specific requirements and concerns, it also allows them to be more honest than when they are with their colleagues. Some of the best feedback from an interview comes when they close the door and tell you stuff in confidence.

One-to-one interviews also put you in a powerful position. In committees everybody hears all the opinions shared. This quickly leads to discussion and compromise. Before long you have lost control of the project and the committee is designing the site on the fly.

One-to-one interviews removes this problem in two ways. First, only you are aware of what has been said in all the interviews. Second, you have time to consider your responses rather than decisions being made on the spot.

Interview a wide cross section of people

So who exactly should you be interviewing? The answer is as many people as possible from a wide range of positions. The tendency is to interview the most influential individuals such as senior marketing executives or the MD. However, although you do want their strategic overview, you also want to solve grass root problems experienced by sales staff, customer support or business partners.

Obviously the exact nature of the people you speak to will be determined by the organisation and nature of the project. However, you should consider including:

  • Senior management – who provide a strategic overview of the company and the position of the web within that strategy.
  • Marketing – who can provide a perspective on how the website integrates into the marketing strategy.
  • Sales – who can help you understand the sales process and identify ways that the website can move a user through that process.
  • Business partners and suppliers – who are able to give you an outside perspective and an indication of where the web might be able to support the relationship between an organisation and its partners.
  • Customer support – who will have stories of real customers concerns and frustrations. These are areas the website might be able to alleviate.
  • Customers – who can share their expectations of the website and the organisation as a whole.

Of course, in smaller organisations some of these roles maybe combined and managed by a handful of people or even a single individual. However, no matter how small the organisation it is still worth holding stakeholder interviews.

Once you have your set of interviewees lined up the next question is what should you ask them?

Allow your interviewee to shape the interview

Although it is good to have some questions preprepared it is not wise to be too restrictive. Generally speaking you should allow the interviewee to drive the direction of the discussion. That way you ensure the website addresses their needs and interviewees get a chance to “have their say”. This means they are more likely to go away satisfied and are less likely to object later.

That said, some structure is necessary. In most stakeholder interviews we cover the following areas:

  • The interviewee’s job – Understanding somebodies job helps you identify ways that the web maybe able to help.
  • The interviewee’s challenges – Everybody faces challenges in their jobs and the web maybe able to help.
  • The interviewee’s opinion of the current website – This provides an opportunity for the interviewee to express any frustrations and make their voice heard.
  • The interviewee’s expectations of the new website – This is the interviewees chance to outline anything they would like to see on the website.

Just these four areas are normally enough to encourage a valuable conversation of about 40 minutes. However, allow at least an hour between sessions because you do not want interviewees to feel rushed. A major part of the exercise is to ensure they feel consulted and that their opinion has been fully heard.

Spend time now, or spend it later

Stakeholder interviews are time consuming. To interview a reasonable number of people in a large organisation you need to set aside at least two days. That might seem like a lot. However, the alternative is misinterpretation of requirements and stakeholders objecting to the direction of a project because they were not consulted. It is possible to schedule and budget two days of meetings. It is not possible to predict and schedule for the problems you will encounter if you do not consult properly.