Why some projects just go right

Paul Boag

Like many web designers, I have spent a lot of time worrying about why projects go wrong. Perhaps we should be asking what makes a project successful.

Headscape recently launched a website for the RAF Benevolent Fund. I am really chuffed with the result. It came in on budget, was turned around really fast and the client seems happy. Best of all, I love the final design produced by Chris Sanderson.

My aim is not to massage Chris’ already over inflated ego, but rather to ask why that project went so well. What made it different? Why did things go so smoothly?

Of course, every project will be different and what worked for the RAFBF might not work elsewhere. However, it is an interesting question and one we need to ask when we launch a particularly successful website.

For this project there were 5 key elements of success:

  • The client.
  • Efficient planning.
  • A focus on content.
  • The use of wireframes.
  • A different approach to design.

Let’s look at each in turn beginning with the most important element in any project… the client.

The client

Without a doubt, the single biggest thing that will make or break a web project is the client. A great client will lead to a great website. A bad client will lead to a disastrous website despite the best efforts of the web designer.

What do I mean by a ‘great client?’ A great client does not need to know a lot about the web (although I admit this helps). A great client instead needs to be:

  • Organised: He has a clear idea of why the organisation has a website and what he wants it to achieve. He also recognises the amount of work required to make the project happen and has planned the internal resources required.
  • Available: It may seem obvious, but it is hard to build a website without the client being available. Often a client has too many other commitments or holiday booked at key points in the project. The client needs to be fully committed and available for the project to succeed.
  • Receptive: A great client is open to the ideas of his web designer. He should be happy to have his own ideas challenged and take part in lively debates about the direction of the project. However, he shouldn’t be a pushover. Ultimately it falls to him to make the final decision.
  • Authoritative: The client needs to have the authority to make decisions. This is not to say he won’t need feedback from elsewhere in the organisation. However, he shouldn’t be dependant on others to make daily decisions and he should be in a position to make the final call based on the feedback he receives.

More than anything it was the client who made RAFBF a success. In particular he would listen and argue with me about the projects direction. Ultimately he knew his own mind and made his own decisions. I can respect that. It is that kind of decisive management which gets things done.

But our contact at the RAFBF wasn’t just decisive and receptive to ideas, he was also hyper organised.

Efficient planning

We take a real pride in our organisational skills at Headscape. We have 3 full time project managers and that ensures our projects run like clockwork.

Despite our best efforts projects sometimes slip. When this happens it is normally because the client doesn’t grasp the amount they need to contribute to the project.

For a web project to be delivered on time the client needs to be able to arrange regular review points with key stakeholders in order to ensure sign off. He also needs to be able to collate content from across the organisation, edit it and then get final approval. Meetings need to be arranged, resources need to be found and deadlines need to be met.

The client for RAF Benevolent Fund had already put a lot of these things in place before we were even hired. Content was being populated into the content management system while the design was still being decided upon. Not only was this efficient, it also led to better design because we had the content to work with.

A focus on content

Having a clear idea of the site’s content from the start, transformed this project. I cannot emphasise enough how useful it is to have the site’s content before beginning work.

Before design began an initial information architecture was in place, calls to action were defined and key functionality set. This allowed us to do some really interesting things with the user interface. This would have been impossible if we did not know exactly what content would appear on the site and what calls to action were most important.

Key to this content oriented approach were the extensive wireframes I produced.

The use of wireframes

We have seen a direct correlation between the quality of wireframes and the smoothness of the project. In fact our wireframes are becoming ever more detailed and often even reflect elements of the final layout. We find this is a great way of involving the client in the process, set expectations of the final site, and nail down the details which so often derail a project.

Example RAFBF wireframe

The wireframing process is collaborative and takes place with all team members. This includes (where possible) the client, designer, project manager and developer. This ensures that the final set of wireframes can act as a definitive specification for the project that everybody has agreed to.

They also solve a lot of the design decisions upfront allowing the designer and client to focus on aesthetics rather than getting hung up on content and functionality.

A different approach to design

We have always had a slightly different approach to design than many agencies. We don’t work in isolation and then suddenly present a finished design to the client. Instead we work with the client showing them inspiration, sketches and moodboards, encouraging their feedback at each step along the way.

Example of a moodboard we produced for RAFBF

However, with RAFBF we introduced another element into the design process which worked brilliantly. Rather than iterate the moodboards to get an aesthetic approach all were happy with, we took the client’s preferred moodboard and developed that into a poster.

RAFBF Poster

Although this sounds like a strange thing to do it worked well. It allowed the designer to establish a design direction without getting bogged down in navigation and content. Chris (the designer) found it refreshing to approach things from a different angle, so avoiding the same old design conventions.

Final RAFBF website

This approach also seemed to work well for the client who quickly latched on to the tone set in the poster. To be honest this approach was a bit of an experiment. However, it worked so well that the final site reflects the design of the poster extremely closely.

The moral of the story

For me the lesson here is two fold.

First, a client will make or break a project. Get a good client and you will end up with a good website. If you are a web designer there is little you can do about this. However, if you are the client then you need to realise just how much of the success of your site rests with you.

Second, you need to work with the client rather than against them. You need to show them your thought process and engage in healthy debate about the right approach. Don’t let your own pride get in the way of admitting when they make a good contribution and take the time to educate them when you feel they are going down the wrong road.

If both parties play their part, the result will be stunning.