Setting Expectations

If I wanted to be a bit more project manager-like I might call this article “Definition and Scoping”. But it is really about accurately setting expectations. Putting together a web site is the same as any other project that involves two or more people. There needs to be some plan or specification that the group understands and agrees to work towards or the project won’t get done well.
Setting expectations is an opportunity for the small business owner to discuss the project’s business goals with their web team. Through the process of discussion, whether in person, on the phone or via email, the web team can in turn provide suggestions for applying their technical, verbal, visual, and web-marketing skills to the web site.
By the end of this discussion a consensus should have evolved, so that there is a project plan that can be followed to completion. Generally this plan will be in some written form; whether written or not a “check-list” helps to minimize misunderstandings and keep the team focused.
This post seeks to provide a minimal framework for small businesses to use as a starting point for developing their own specific project plan.
Type of Site
One of the first things to discuss and make sure everyone understands is what the site is supposed to be when it is finished. Some web projects are self-evident, and the client knows (correctly) exactly what they want. An example of a self-evident site might be a mail order catalog business that wants to launch an on-line version of their catalog. Both the real world business model and on-line equivalent are fairly well established, and so to a great degree, we know what is meant when the client wants an “On-line Catalog”.
Many small businesses need to simply offer their customers some additional convenience by having minimal information available via the web. Displaying the type of business, an address and phone number is sort of the minimum “business card” or “yellow page ad” type of site. A description of the business and hours of operation are typically included. Directions to the business and descriptions of additional services that a business can offer via the web are all ways to help customer use the business.
More frequently the small business person has less well conceived notions of the business goals for their web site, and so the type of site may not be as clearly defined. The process of discussing and defining the type of site that the client envisions is important so that business expectations for the site are appropriate. Knowing what the benefits of the finished site are allows the client to decide how much it is worth to them to develop the web site.
Size and complexity of site
For lack of a better method of guessing, a site’s size and complexity are often expressed in terms of a number of pages. For small sites this may be a sufficient method of measurement. Some factors that will contribute to the complexity of a typical small business web site may include:
How is the site information organized? In many small business sites this can be distilled to an outline, just like the ones we had to write in high school composition class. There are also other more complex relationship models that may be applicable for database driven sites.
Photographs, logos, backgrounds, buttons and bullets are examples of graphics files that may make up a page. These graphics files have to be created and changed as the design develops. How many of these items are needed? How many of these items can the client supply at the beginning of the project?
And that’s not to mention animated sites or those with audio and video clips…
Well designed web sites will attempt to conform to known standards of page layout and accessibility. This means different things to different people, and the client has a hard time knowing the difference between “good code” and bandwidth consuming table based layouts. Often the best way to define this is in terms of in which browsers the site will “work” or render correctly.
I recently worked on a site and was rather embarrassed and slightly irritated to find out after the fact that all my client’s friends seem to use IE5.5 for the Macintosh. It looked fine on my Mac in Safari. On the other hand, the percentage of users with this browser is less than 1% in any statistics I have seen recently.
(n.b. Almost none of my own sites render correctly in IE Mac 5 either. I must figure this out and it shouldn’t be so darn hard.)
Client side scripts can serve a number of useful purposes, and almost 90% of users allow these scripts to run in their browsers. If the web team decides to implement some of the client’s business goals through JavaScript, these should be defined. Care should be taken that an end user of the site cannot “break” it by disabling JavaScript in the browser.
Fees to license or write these scripts vary and should be evaluated against the value they bring to meeting the client’s business goals.
Site searches, feedback forms, and guestbook scripts are examples of CGI scripts that may run on the server to provide a small business web site with improved customer service. Most e-commerce sites are run by some kind of CGI (or server side stuff anyway.)
Difficulty in implementing these scripts varies widely as does the complexity of the setup. These needs, if there are any, should be examined and discussed carefully at the beginning of the project.
Everyone can maintain their own web pages. (Well, everyone who has access to a computer and the Internet.) In day-to-day fact there are often a number of additional requirements to maintain a web site. Was it created using a specific “client side content management system” such as FrontPage, Dreamweaver, or GoLive? Is there a server side content management system, such as Moveable Type? Does the client need one? What is the skill level of the client’s staff that will be performing the updates?
And how much maintenance does the site need? AdvisorBits is updated whenever a new post is made, or a new photo added to John Walker’s Photoblog. The JSW4.NET corporate site is updated several times a year with news and new service information. The site has never really been finished in the 5 years it has been on-line, but it is very successful for my wife. Some sites need more or less maintenance.
Method of promotion and responsibility for promotion should be considered as an integral part of the site. At a minimum the keywords and description of a website should be decided before beginning the site. Not only will this help to define and scope the project, but it should be included on each page in the code in order to provide information clearly to search engines.
For many small businesses guerilla marketing can be extremely cost effective way to promote the site to their target markets. By working with relevant websites to exchange links and free placements in major search engines small businesses may get all the on-line exposure they need or want. Everyone who has an on-line presence should announce the fact whenever they communicate in electronic or other mediums. This means putting email addresses and web sites URLs on business cards and in all advertising; and using short signatures at the ends of email correspondence with the web site address of the company.
Some small businesses may seek to finance their web site though corporate sponsorships or through directly selling advertisement. Other small businesses that want to use the net to do business nationally or internationally may want to examine paid listings and promotional programs.
By definition the web is always changing. And so in a sense, a website is never “finished”. We are always looking at the most recent “snapshot” of the website’s development. Some sites change more rapidly than others.
For a web project to be successful, we need to have a snapshot that we will evaluate against some criteria and be able to say “The site we have described in our plan is finished”. This may happen in multiple phases for some businesses.
The list of web site project components in this article is not exhaustive, I can think of other things that could be part of a web project.
For my business, the price we quote to our clients is based on how long it will take to complete the project and the hourly rate of the team members. When the project is clearly defined, it’s usually easy to figure out how long it will take to do each part of the project. (I have done this a few times before after all.)
Licensing fees (if any) for JavaScript and CGI programs should be discussed. Are these included in the price or will the client license these directly from the authors?
If the small business client can work with the web team to define the project more or less as I have described here, then I think it is the responsibility of the web project manager (people with a job like mine) to deliver the site as defined.
It is my experience that customers who get what they expect at the price they were quoted are usually very satisfied. To me a project where the customer is satisfied is a project that is done well.

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