No matter what size a website is, the future success of the site is dependent on how well the site delivers content to visitors, and how pleasant that experience is. A well-planned site is easy to navigate and organized so the user doesn't get confused or have to think (much) to find what they need. A solid project plan is essential for bringing a great site to life.
What is Involved in a Website Plan?
Unless you routinely manage projects and have that experience under your belt, planning even a small project can be a dreaded exercise. There are two sides to this:
- 1. The Client
- 2. The Company or Individual Building the Site
In many cases, the client is a small business owner with limited time for planning web projects, since they are obviously running a business. That is why they hired a developer, right? They want to be led through the process by an expert with experience. The developer's job is to make sure things are planned and executed correctly and delivered on time.
The Basic Site Plan
- Set Goals – What should the site offer?
- Set Timelines – When should things get done?
- Assign Responsibilities – Who needs to deliver what and when?
- Test & Launch the Site
At the onset of a web project, the first goal is usually very simple – the client needs a web presence, or needs to revise their current one. Beyond that, there are many specific issues that need to be decided as far as site design, layout, navigation, technology utilized, etc… All of these decisions make up the site's overall focus. The more specific you can get here the better, since a loose, unfocused set of goals can lead to never-ending time lines, indecision, and ultimately a weak end-result.
Some simple ways to set goals can vary from drawing out a basic plan on paper to using some of the free online tools like Mockflow or Balsamiq, to just using your favorite software like Photoshop, Illustrator, or Visio. Once you have a visual reference for how the site is structured, you can start to see how things are organized and if there are potential problems with navigation or future expansion. Once you have an overview of what the site is supposed to do and how you want to lay things out, you need some deadlines for getting things done.
Set Time Lines – Solid, But Flexible
The hardest aspect of many site projects is setting a solid time frame to complete and launch the site. The client has a business to run and is often unavailable when decisions or input are needed, and technical issues can arise that hold up the developer from completing tasks on time. Folks with experience planning projects know that a too-rigid time line is a bad idea waiting to happen, and factoring in some cushion is a skill learned only from that experience.
A good rule of thumb is to add 20% to a project's deadline, assuming that things will go well. It takes a really honest look at the possible delays and complications, which go with every project. Just make sure there is enough elasticity in the plan to compensate for these delays.
Responsibilities – Define Who Delivers What
This one should be fairly easy to define: Who is responsible for providing each piece of content or info? Start with a list of deliverables and assign them to the appropriate folks. Sure, it can get more complicated than that, but even for small projects this can eliminate confusion and unintended delays because someone was waiting for something you didn't know you were delivering! In the planning stages, have each party sign off on the list to make sure there are no issues that may hold the process up.
Testing – Websites Just Work, Right? Right…
Oh, how we wish that were true! Testing and fixing errors can actually be the longest phase of a web project. Things like browser compatibility, coding errors, typos, client change requests, and poorly planned web applications will all factor into the testing and quality assurance phase. This can be tough when the client and developer both have small teams and little time to devote to testing, but needs to be a priority with a dedicated time line. If you see a project plan with the building phase quickly followed by the launch, with no testing factored in, chances are someone forgot this most important of all pieces.
Ideally, testing a piece of software or a website should be done by a team of professional testers, who have a list of activities to carry out, while being observed by a user testing expert. This obviously is not always possible, or within budget. So, you often have to get creative with your test methods. You might recruit your relatives…your kids, your friends or co-workers to try out the app or site, giving you feedback where needed. Sometimes an outside party can bring a perspective you would not have thought about, spawning new ways to solve a tricky problem or finding issues that an expert user would not find.
This would be a good time to point out that expert users do not make great testers. Why? Because they know how to get around better than novice users…they are familiar with all of the common conventions with apps and websites, and don't get tripped up as easily as a novice user. The site or application needs to be as user-friendly as possible, with the novice user being the target user. You want people to say 'It's so simple even a _______ can use it!'. A good plan for testing and user acceptance will go a long way towards earning you that 'accolade'.
Embrace the Plan, Check Back Often
All of this planning and effort can get you started on the right track, but it is also important to refer back to the plan and make sure things are staying on track and the goals are being met. Don't be afraid to revise the plan as well, since unintended circumstances can always crop up, requiring a change of thought, new addition, or modification. Maybe the client decides to scrap the contact form and just wants an email address, or perhaps they want to add a mobile formatted site, or change the look & feel. Get used to incorporating any changes into the original plan and adjusting time lines as needed…the fewer surprises the better!