Why some projects just go right

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.

  • Jon

    A great talk full of great advice

  • Nice presentation Paul, but not because of the 10,000% conversion increase, but because it’s a solid example of how web design can align business objectives and users needs. Great insights!

  • Roger

    Another awesome presentation with a real-life project.

    Paul: How long did you work on this project or is this an ongoing project?

    • Its an ongoing project that we have been working on for 5 years now.

  • I’m interested in knowing what software you made this presentation with.

    • I get asked that questions all the time Greg. I use a program called Screenflow.

    • Thank you Paul. Definitely one that’s going in my dock.

  • Bruno Belotti

    Thanks for sharing Paul, great presentation and really useful advices!

  • sam

    i appreciate the tips its realy a great step up from been stock thanks alot looking foward to more ..

  • I definitely agree that a good client, designer relationship can generate real value for an e-commerce website. Overall great work!

    Do you feel that it’s possible to educate a client to receive good results or do you have to already have a good relationship like in Matt’s case?

    • Matt Curry

      Now here’s a not well known factoid. Headscape weren’t the agency I wanted to win the tender back all those years ago. So in fact, Headscape started off in an almost negative-goodwill situation with me as the client. But, if you’re a good site manager, you work as well as you can with the chosen agency and execute the wishes of the business.

      So, a lot of it was time spent educating me, explaining design decisions, and including me in the process. Throughout the first year I gained a lot of respect for Paul, despite his Bolshevik tendencies.

      It also helps that I am awesome, obviously :-)

  • Great presentation, and great reminder that practical solutions may not be sexy, but they can be effective.

  • Jason

    Great presentation my friend! By far one of the sxsw best I attended this year, you put on quite the show!

  • Great presentation and nice work on the site. The thought processes and work your team put in on this definitely shows.

    I must say though it would be interesting to see what their website was like 5 years ago when you first started on it.

    Half a decade’s worth of work and a whole lot of new technology and better browser support means that the project was ever-evolving.

    Good tips thought. Appreciate it! Cheers.

  • Really enjoyed watching to this, interesting how the user testing in the homes helped you discover issues that you would never have experienced in a controlled environment (e.g. the post-it).

    I think the key is finding or choosing the right clients to work with and as Matt mentioned educating the client and helping them to understand that their website developments should compliment their overall business strategy.

    I think this can be more difficult however to get smaller businesses to understand this and then allocate the necessary time to go through a planning, implementation and iteration process that will add real value to their business, when they have a “let’s build another amazon” attitude.

    We always try to help clients understand that we deliver business solutions and our chosen medium is via the web and kick off communications from there, that said it can be a difficult task getting them to appreciate that they are not web experts.

  • warren

    Tiny point (and no doubt will be considered pedantic) but isn’t it multivariate testing, rather than multi-variance?

  • Benjamin Johnston

    Hey Paul, I’d love to watch this, but there seems to be a problem with the video’s embedding permissions.

    • Identity

      Hi Benjamin,

      Found the video : http://vimeo.com/46524288


      • Benjamin Johnston

        Awesome, thanks! I probably could have searched a little harder… :)

    • So there does. I have emailed the person who owns the account and hopefully they will reset it.

  • I love your style ^^ w/ great content, cheer!!

  • Yael Chazan

    A few points should be added to this article about ecommerce.
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    we found the solution for our company Centralpoint by Oxyon.

    Centralpoint not only had the Microsoft interface that was
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