Why Most Web Design Projects Run Over Time and Over Budget

Posted by Ken Semple

  Download our free guide: An introduction to growth driven website design

Why most website projects go over time & over budgetWebsite development projects put a huge drain on a company's resources and often go way over time & budget. Here's why that happens and how to fix the problem

Most web design and development projects either go over time, over budget or both. Seems crazy doesn't it? It's not like web development is a new thing, most businesses, including even the smallest business, have had a website for more than 10 years now. When you also consider that websites are rebuilt every 2 to 3 years, it just doesn't make sense that there isn't a way to plan a web design project which includes reliable estimates of how long it will take and how much it will cost.

The issue here is that the traditional web design/development methodology is broken. It doesn't produce a reliable plan for building a website and doesn't include a strategy for achieving business goals for the website. Traditional web development also tries to do too much without commissioning anything, meaning there are no results from the project until it is completely finished. Traditional web design and development brings with it a number of risks; running over budget and over time are just two of them. With traditional website development a large investment is made before commissioning where you're trusting that the right decisions have been made to yield the expected business results. All in all it's a pretty big gamble. Given that your website is your biggest marketing asset, you can't afford to be exposed to the risks associated with traditional website design and development.

As a Software/Electrical Engineer I've been involved in all sorts of projects from very small projects, to projects costing hundreds of millions of dollars. More often than not we commissioned on time and within budget. We just couldn't be late with projects where the cost of critical plant being down was so high.

So why are website design/development projects so often late and over budget, and why are the risks associated with updating your website so high? Most importantly though, what is the right solution?

Firstly, are all website design and development projects at risk?

Yes, all website development projects are at risk from traditional web design. Strangely, very small projects are significantly affected although the cost here is low, the problem is greatest on larger and more complex projects.

Larger, more complex sites are most at risk due to how poorly the project is defined when using traditional web design practices. As the project progresses, the complexity of the project exposes itself and it gets further and further behind and more and more over budget.

eCommerce sites are also at risk due to the products being poorly defined before the project starts.

Very small sites for small business, are particularly at risk although the cost implications are much lower. The key issue here is not so much the development process, but the inability of the business owner to contribute what is needed to the project.

Why is it we can commission other projects on time and under budget yet struggle with web projects?

It surprises me that web development projects run over in time or cost at a much higher rate than other types of projects.

Software development and other tech projects had an equally bad reputation in the 1980's and 90's (this article provides a nice summary of this). Software developers were able to clean up their act by developing project management practices which addressed the over time, over budget and commissioning issues they were experiencing. When I was working in the electricity industry in the 90's as a system operations software engineer, we would do almost anything to avoid having the IT department run a project, as we knew that if they did, it would go over time, over budget, and the resulting product would not do for us what we needed.

The web design industry as a whole seems to be at the place the software development industry was in the 90's; with most websites being developed using similar practices that software developers used in the 80's and 90's. The web design/development industry needs to change the way projects are run in order to restore faith in the industry and those of us working in it.

The issues which contribute to web projects being over time and over budget

There isn't just one issue which has caused this problem; a number of issues contribute to the problem including the following:

  • The project isn't defined properly before starting the actual design and development work
  • Inexperienced project managers
  • No defined methodology or one which isn't suitable for this type of work
  • Not addressing in the planning phase how much input is required by the client during the project
  • Rapidly changing technology
  • Inexperienced developers

I'll deal with each of these in turn.

The project isn't defined properly before starting the actual design and development work

Not defining the project properly before starting the work is the issue which has the greatest impact on a website development project, or any project for that matter, being over time and over budget. If you don't know exactly what you're going to do before you start, how can you quote it correctly?

This is overlooked in so many web projects. It's easy to mention in a quote that there'll be an About page and a Contact page and provide a simple estimate for time and cost. Estimating time and cost, without considering exactly what has to go into an About section, Contact page or any other part of the website will cause time and budget overruns when the project is executed. In some cases it makes sense for the About page to contain a simple page of text containing around an A4 page of content. Other businesses may need 10 or more web pages under the About page, with these pages showing core team members in detail, along with substantial information about how the company goes about its business.

If a solid planning/strategy phase isn't undertaken before the website is quoted and planned, these details just aren't known and the project is destined to be late and over budget.

Inexperienced project managers

The web industry has evolved quickly and it draws people from many disciplines including Graphic Design, Marketing, Journalism and Software Development. Many of these people have no formal training in project management or use the traditional waterfall technique for project management which failed the software development industry dismally in the 90's.

Due to the issues in the 80's and 90's, Software Development is one discipline in which people are well trained in modern agile project management practices and the tools which are used to manage these projects.

When you're getting your new website built, chances are the person running the project has had no formal training in project management. Not only that, they most likely aren't using a well defined methodology.

No defined methodology or one which isn't suitable for this type of work

It's quite common for websites to be built in a completely ad hoc manner without following any defined system or process. Without a process it's almost impossible to produce predictable, repeatable results. This is one of the main reasons web projects go over time and over budget.

Without a system or process to work under, the project is likely to be poorly defined. While you can get away with this for very small projects—the kind where a single person can map the whole project out in their head—you can't get away with this for larger projects.

You also need to use the right methodology. The software industry learned in the 90's that the traditional waterfall approach to project management with gantt charts and the like just didn't work in that industry. The same goes for the web design industry, you need to be using the right methodology to see the right results.

You have to develop under a suitable system using a well defined process. Inexperienced project managers are more likely to work without a system or process.

Not addressing in the planning phase how much input is required by the client during the project

The traditional way of developing a website puts a huge drain on client resources. It requires intensive input from the client's team throughout the project. Most clients don't account for how much of their time is needed in order to make the project successful and they struggle to meet their standard workload as well as participate fully in the website development project

When the project is poorly defined, the client won't have the full picture of what is required from them, and can't communicate whether or not they can commit at the level required to meet the project deadlines. Knowing whether the client can commit at the level required before starting the project allows the plan to be changed to fit the client's needs.

Rapidly changing technology

Web technology changes faster than just about anything else. A development can be started using one version of the development tools which can be 3 versions old before completing the project.

Changing technology has to be considered during the planning phase of the project. The software used to develop the website will depend on how you manage changes in the technology, not just during the project, but for the life of the website. Some systems need to be kept up to date in order to stay on top of security issues, and some don't.

Training of participants in the project also needs to be considered as the technology changes.

Inexperienced developers

Many developers in the web industry have no formal training in software development. Some of these developers are producing good work, others not so much. While an inexperienced developer may be able to deliver your project effectively, how they've done it could become a problem.

Formally trained developers do things in a way which ensures others can easily maintain and modify the website after it's commissioned. Inexperienced developers produce 'spaghetti code' which is almost impossible to maintain and often has to be completely rewritten should any changes be required. We're seeing more and more of this as untrained, off-shore developers are being used to 'cut cost' in these projects. This practice can significantly reduce the cost of the initial development of a website, however more often than not the overall costs over the lifetime of the website will be higher when factoring in maintenance and improvement costs.

Solving the problem

The solution for the website design & development industry's problems is to learn from the software development industry. Web projects are basically software projects, and the same gains that the software development industry has achieved can be achieved in the website design/development industry by adopting similar development methodologies and project management practices. 

The key to this is to break the project into manageable chunks, be always commissioning, and use good software tools to mange the projects. The methodology is Growth Driven Design.

Growth Driven Design substantially reduces the risks in website design and development by:

  • Reducing the up front cost of the website - commission a website at a much lower cost presents a much lower risk
  • Cutting the time from project start to commissioning
  • Reducing the drain on client resources
  • Includes a comprehensive strategy stage which ensures the project is planned properly
  • Uses a flexible, agile, process which allows for continuous change, learning, and improvement of the website
  • Produces a better ROI

Growth Driven Design reduces the up front cost of the website

With Growth Driven Design a smaller project is commissioned initially, referred to as the Launch Pad website. What goes into the Launch Pad website is decided during the strategy stage of the project and depends on the business needs at the time. The Launch Pad website could present a new direction for the business or it could be the subset of the complete website which will produce the greatest outcomes for the business.

The upshot is that we have a smaller, more manageable project which is easier to plan and execute on time and on budget. This project is commissioned quickly at a lower cost than a traditional website and starts producing results for the business early.

This aligns well with the solution software developers came up with in their industry, and will revolutionise website development.

Growth Driven Design cuts the time from project start to commissioning

Usually it's a small proportion of pages on your typical website which produce most of the business results. Building and commissioning the parts of your website which drive the best results for your business makes sense. It gives you results much faster than a complete rebuild and you'll be able to used the data coming from what you've already done to fine tune how you do the rest of the site.

You have a number of options at this stage; running the launch pad website in parallel with your existing website through to shutting down your old site and running just the launch pad site. The way you go depends on your existing website and your business needs.

Growth Driven Design reduces the drain on client resources

The intensity of a website development requires significant time input from the client. It can be very difficult for some clients to provide these resources to the project on an on going basis, as it takes them away from everything else they have to do. The short time to commissioning with growth driven design substantially reduces the time resources needed from the client prior to commissioning.

Once the launch pad website commissions, the pressure is off and the ongoing improvement process begins, finishing and improving the website at a manageable pace.

Growth Driven Design includes a comprehensive strategy stage

Like any good project management process, Growth Driven Design starts with a well defined strategy stage. It has to—when you're initially only going to commission a small portion of the complete website you need a bulletproof strategy stage in your process to ensure you make an informed decision about what should go into the Launch Pad website.

Growth Driven Design uses a flexible, agile, process which allows for continuous change, learning, and improvement of the website

The Growth Driven Design methodology has been developed from the ground up to be a flexible, agile process. This is evidenced by the early commissioning of a smaller portion of the 'finished' product with follow up cycles of continuous improvement.

Growth Driven Design takes advantage of all the gains made in the software development industry and allows for effective use of the excellent project management software which has been developed as a result.

Growth Driven Design produces a better ROI

Commissioning early allows for real results well before a traditional website would even be close to being commissioned. The follow up cycles of continuous improvement use the performance data which is continuously being collected to ensure each cycle drives better and better results. The overall result is a much better ROI than can be achieved through the traditional website design and development process.

Some final thoughts

Yes, there are some real problems with the way websites are being developed today. This doesn't mean there isn't a light at the end of the tunnel; Growth Driven Design brings web design out of the dark ages and brings it into line with similar technology projects.

Okay, so Growth Driven Design doesn't solve all the problems we see in web design. But it does make the other issues far less significant.

Make sure you take a look at Growth Driven Design before you start your next web project. Download our free guide to Growth Driven Design for more information.


Download our free guide: An introduction to growth driven website design  

Topics: Website Design, Growth Driven Design

Download our free guide: An introduction to growth driven website design

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