Problems With Your Website? It’s Probably You.

What's Scope Creep?

“I’m the head of this team […] Nobody’s madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should, which means it’s gonna get fixed,” – President Obama, speaking about

The man was at the forefront of the most technologically advanced presidential campaign run to date. How many lines of HTML, CSS, PHP, or Python do you suppose the President wrote personally? Maybe one – in between signing executive orders and negotiating with North Korea, you know? And he’s taking personal responsibility for the website.

The President goes on to say, in an interview from NBC News: “[When it came to] my campaign, I’m not constrained by a bunch of federal procurement rules, right? When [the Federal Government] buys I.T. services … it is so bureaucratic and so cumbersome that a whole bunch of it doesn’t work or it ends up being way over cost.”

What can you learn from President Obama’s statements on when buying or building your own website? Only the most important lesson about building a quality website, ever: it’s all about who you hire to help you.

Your vision can be spot-on. Your scope defined perfectly. You could do everything right AND be the freaking President of United States and still not get what you want if your web developer isn’t up to snuff.

On the other hand, you could have a very competent web designer and still manage to get things fouled up. In the President’s case, he has Federal Procurement Guidelines working against him – even a $300M budget can’t fix those kinds of hurdles.

I built my first website at 11 or 12 years old and have been building them ever since. I know a little bit about the trade. There are five critical areas I’ve noticed websites fall apart, and it’s usually your fault (and not your web developer’s):

  1. Vision
  2. Scope
  3. User Interface
  4. Copy
  5. Expectations

Let’s break it down:

Vision – Why does this website exist? What’s the purpose? How will people use the website? What does it do?

Can’t answer that? Step away from the computer and go back to the whiteboard.

Scope – What needs to be built from scratch to make the vision a reality? What components can be re-used from somewhere else? Are there existing frameworks to build on top of? Existing branding or graphics? Existing copy? Or is everything fresh and new? How much time and money will building the site take? (Multiply time by 2x, money by 3x). Do you need it to work in every browser ever invented? Do you need it to work on tablets and smartphones?

Websites are fickle beasts. If your scope is off, even by a little bit, if your web developer misunderstood something, if your graphic designer got the colors wrong, if the call to action doesn’t “pop” or the logo wasn’t “just so”, if you have a wild egg nog-induced fever dream for a new feature… your budget and timeline will be blown, and it will be your fault.

User Interface – Do your users know how to use the site? Do they know what things are clickable? Do the layout and navigation make sense? Is the text readable?

Somebody awesome recently said “design is marketing”. As in, that thing you want the user to do that will make you money, change the world, or both? Yeah, it’s all about design. If your user interface sucks, nothing in the world will get your users clicking things to put money in your pocket.

Copy – Has your text been proofread? Is your text filled with jargon, lingo, or jokes only you would get? Will the users understand what you’re asking them to do?

Wording is one of the most complicated parts of any website. You would be amazed at how long it takes to craft a perfect email opt in box. Oftentimes, before I even start thinking about what content should go on any given page of the website, I come up with “the tweetable thing” – A 140 character description filled with action words of what this company, website, product, or service does. Sometimes it can take 3 hours to come up with “the tweetable thing”, sometimes it can take 3 weeks. It’s of absolute importance because it’s the one thing that drives the rest of the copy on every other page of the website. It sets the tone, the voice, and the expectation of things said and not said.

Good websites have information cleanly displayed. Great websites have information integrated with design presented as one. Bad websites put design before content.

Expectations – Has the timeline and budget been discussed? Has the scope? Has the copy been written before the design was created? Are the steps of creating website clear? What happens if you do decide to add some functionality later? What happens if there’s a change in scope and the website won’t be fully baked for your big deadline? What happens if your budget falls through? What happens if the web developer gets sick? What happens when users don’t use the website in the way you’d intended but some completely other way you never anticipated? For God’s sake, do you even have a contract? Does everybody have the same definition of the word “is”?

Expectations are important, y’all!

So what’s a person in need of a website to do?

If you’ve already hired your expert:

  • Hire me to vet your web person
  • Ask a lot of questions – even if they seem stupid or irrelevant
  • Double your timeline and triple your budget – at least in your head, so you wont do a spit take if things change
  • Get the vision crystal clear. Find examples of any parts of your website that already exist somewhere else so you can be clearer
  • As much as you can help it, do not, Do Not, DO NOT move the goalposts mid-project.
  • Figure out your website exit strategy – if the relationship doesn’t work, what rights are you given in the contract? Who owns what?

If you’ve yet to hire an expert:

  • Hire me to vet your potential web person
  • Interview your expert – and then ask for a list of their competitors. I regularly let my clients price shop and sometimes they even find things that I’ve missed.
  • If you don’t trust your expert, bad gut feeling, whatever – walk away. Immediately.
  • Ask for a list of recommendations along with a portfolio – if they don’t have BOTH, walk away.
  • Ask who this developer likes to work with – graphic designers, JavaScript experts, whatever – what do they take care of in-house and what do they outsource? This will give you a good idea of where the scope could get out of wack.
  • Before you sign anything – figure out your website exit strategy. If the relationship doesn’t work, if the developer builds something totally out of whack, what happens? Can it be revised? What rights are you given in the contract? Who owns what?

Got any other tips from experience? Let me know!

This blog post is part of the Word Carnival. Each month, a bunch of us small business owners get together and blog about… stuff. This month’s topic: 101 Ways To Screw Up Buying or Building Your Website. Be sure to check out the other bloggers’ takes on the best ways to screw up your business by screwing up your website.