Why are website projects so hard?

Sonja Sharon

Why are web projects so notoriously difficult? And what can you do to make your next project smoother and less stressful? Here are 7 website project pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Why are website projects so hard

The average website lifespan is shorter than you’d think – just 2 years, 6 months and 27 days. So it’s likely that you’ve recently completed or are soon to embark on a new website for your business or organisation. And chances are you’re not exactly relishing that prospect.

You’ll have heard the horror stories – web projects that have over-run, under-delivered, blown budgets, broken team relationships and forced early grey hairs. Hell, you’ve lived it!

And if you’re currently in the throes of a tumultuous love/hate relationship with your website project, understand that you’re not alone. Building our own site last year was tricky, to say the least. Some of the pitfalls below are drawn from our own bitter experiences.

So why are website projects so notoriously difficult? And what can we all do to make them smoother next time?

Seven web project pitfalls and how to avoid them

Here are some ways we’ve seen website projects go horribly wrong, with ideas to help you avoid the pitfalls and put your next website project on a less stressful path to success.

1. Lost in translation

Web development teams are from Mars and it feels like you’re from another planet entirely. You have no idea what they’re talking about – you don’t know your front end from your back end, your URL from your HTML, CMS from your SEO (I could go on). This is crippling your confidence and holding up the decisions you need to complete the project.

Avoid this pitfall:

Hire a web team that talks your language. There are some great companies out there. Look out for useful content on their site that explains the process in plain English – that’s a good clue. And make sure everyone knows what’s expected in advance. But educate yourself too and become a bit of a geek on all things web. There is a lot of good information out there so skill yourself up and learn all you can.

Read:

Help yourself to the ‘how to create a valuable website’ chapter from our Valuable Content Marketing book. It sets out the process in non-techy language >> Download the website chapter here

2. The friend trap

Where you save money by asking a techy friend to knock you out a new site. This can work, so it depends on the friend and the scale of the project. However we’ve witnessed enough website nightmares to advise people against this route. The main problem is either a) your site isn’t given priority because you’re not paying much or b) worse, they do a rubbish job and it ruins your friendship!

Avoid this pitfall:

Value the website project. Recognise your website as a key business development tool, one that takes proper investment. How much is attracting the right client worth to you? (Now multiply that). How much time will you save your team if all the information your audience wants is easily accessible on your new site? What value do you put on new confidence and pride in your team when the platform and message is clear? Think of your website as a new team member working 24/7 to pull in new leads and engage with customers. Create a business case for the new site around that.

Read:

(Not sure what to suggest you read here, but watch any DIY programme where the homeowner is sitting forlornly in an unfinished conservatory because he can’t get the labour to help him finish, and his friend Brian has let him down. Pay for the right help, you’ll save time and money in the long run.)

“If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.” – Red Adair

3. Form over function project failure

Where design leads and arguments and indecision follow. What the website looks like becomes too open for debate. It’s like choosing your wedding dress and inviting too many people to the fitting. Auntie Barbara thinks off the shoulder makes you look slutty, your chief bridesmaid reckons the fitted waistline doesn’t suit you, and your Mum is crying in the corner because she’d always imagined you in white, not blush pink. Everyone has an opinion and it all becomes way too subjective. Arguments ensue and the project falls apart in a messy heap. The trouble is, the people commenting have no real idea of what the website needs to do. No project structure = chaos.

Avoid this pitfall:

Treat your website like any other (change) project. Don’t ask for opinions from too many people on the look of the site or you’ll get sidetracked. Instead, apply proper project methodology. What’s the pressure for change? Do you have a clear, vision for the project? What do you want the website to DO, how are you going to do it, and by when? It’s a PROJECT like any others, not an art class. Make time for the foundation thinking and work to a proper project plan.

Read:

Think content first (before you get the web designers in)

“Your website is a work of commerce. Not a work of art.” – Mark O’Brien of Newfangled in A Website that Works

4. Forgotten customer alley

Where you forget why you’ve done this in the first place. A new website is a new platform for your business, so it’s got to be customer focused. Yes, you need to tell the story of your business and your people, but making it too inward looking is a recipe for failure. Turn the dial too far in the direction of talking about yourself – ‘our clients’ ‘our solutions’ – and you’ll just be creating a very expensive online ‘me me me’ brochure. (And no one wants to read that.)

Avoid this pitfall:

Remember, your website is not about you. Our favourite quote is never more relevant than when you’re building a new website.

“The reality is, nobody cares about your product. That may sound harsh, but your customers and prospects only care about themselves.” – David Meerman Scott

Fall in love with the customer and their problems. Your website is for your customers. Approach the project from that angle.

Read:

Quick test. How self orientated is your website?

5. Team troubles

It takes collaboration between a combination of specialist skills to create your new site – content, design and development etc. all working in harmony. You hire experts and they all fall out!

Avoid this pitfall:

Pick the right team, people who are great at what they do but also respect each other and are happy collaborating. Strong project management is key, as is setting clear roles and responsibilities. Often the individual members of the team will have overlapping skills, so make sure you set the project up knowing who’s doing what so everyone plays to their strengths.

Read:

What makes a good digital team? Really useful ideas here to help you get the right team in place, from our friends at Deckchair on the UXTail Soup blog.

6. Content blackhole

Where you get the structure and design all lovely and sorted and then the design teams asks you for your content and the problems really start! You’re not sure what to say and the project either stalls or badly over-runs.

Avoid this pitfall:

Work on your brand message and content strategy first, before you get the designers in. Take the time upfront to create a clear, shared vision of why you’re doing this, what you want from it, who you’re targeting, what they need and what you want to say. Thinking content strategy first is the surefire way to avoid getting sucked into the content blackhole. And get expert content/copywriters on your team.

Read:

7. The never-ending story

Project got stuck? The never-ending story pitfall is when the project stretches on and on and on and never gets finished. Everyone’s frustrated – your team, your board, your suppliers, your customers too. No one can agree how to move forward. Will this project ever end?

Avoid this pitfall:

Re-address your goals for the project. Why are you doing this? Tighten up the vision, and get agreement from the team that you’re all working towards the same goal. Be realistic. See where you are now, and look at the minimum it will take to publish. Take the final steps to push the project over the finish line. But do that in the knowledge that a website is is never really finished. You’ll be adding new content all the time, and tweaking the messages as your business develops.

“Nail down your website job description before you consider what it will look like.”

Read:

Slow down to speed up with your website project – 6 questions to answer to put your website project on track 

In summary – how to make your next web project easier

Website projects are often hard, there’s no getting away from that, but there are things you can do to make producing your next one WAY easier.

  • Function over form. Although form is important, think content first before you get the web designers in.
  • Start with content strategy. Get the job description for your website sorted and agreed.
  • Your website is not about you – well, it is, but only from the perspective of the customer. It’s a tool for them to understand how you can solve their problem. Approach it from this angle.
  • Proper project plan and careful project management. Prioritise key functionality and iterate over time.
  • The RIGHT team. Vital.
  • Accept that it’s never done. And that’s a good thing. Think of your website like a member of your sales/customer service team, working for you 24/7.

Let’s put an end to nightmare website projects! Do share any other pitfalls we’ve missed. And if your website project went smoothly let us know what helped you get it right.

We hope these points help, and wish you the very best of luck with your next project.

Sonja and Sharon

Further reading:

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7 Comments

  1. Some really great points in here Sonja. Careful expectation management is so important with a website project and I agree with spending some time educating the client on all things website related. It’s easy to forget that not everyone is digitally literate, especially when you live and breathe it.

    Things we always find work well include weekly status calls, collaborative planning tools and a good process. The projects we have had where things have gone not quite to plan are the ones where the client isn’t sharing the right information in the right place. For example texting over information or sending photos via WhatsApp, thats how things get lost and missed out.

    A good way of busting the jargon is to ask the website team to turn functional points into user stories.

    https://www.mountaingoatsoftware.com/agile/user-stories

    I also think that Website projects are so hard because clients do not understand how long things take to do and how complicated some elements are. I can’t find an example online but I remember Fergus from OneBigField talking about it as getting the client to estimate how big the dog is, is it a Chiuaua, Poodle, Labrador, Husky or a giant Lord of the Rings Wrag? Sometimes making the client realise how big a task is can help them realise that it’s not that important and focus can be shifted elsewhere.

    Reply
  2. VC

    Hi Piers.

    Great comments – thank you. I know you do a great job for the clients we’ve recommended to you so your views are well worth hearing. A few thoughts in return:

    Expectation management is key isn’t it? Easy to gloss over but always comes back to bite you if it’s not given thought and time.

    What tools do you find work best for information sharing out of interest? You make a good point on this. We’ve used a variety before – from Gather Content to Basecamp and Trello.

    I’ll read the read the requirements -> user stories post. Sounds interesting. And as for Ferg’s dog analogy – that I need to hear more on. A creative approach to ranking the size of the task.

    Would be fascinated to hear the client view too. Cheers Piers!

    Sonja

    Reply
    • We are currently using.

      – Trello
      – InVision
      – Dropbox
      – GitLab for bug tracking / reporting
      – Slack (with a few clients)
      – Google Docs

      I’ve been recommended another called Teamwork which I am going to trial in the future too 🙂

      Reply
      • VC

        Thanks Piers. Useful.

        Reply
  3. The perfect website is so hard because you can’t see what you’re getting at the get go.

    Added to that getting the right website can be expensive and so you need definitely need to look at it as an investment – I love your point about understanding the value of your client and how many new clients do you need to cover the costs.

    For us the EUREKA MOMENT was when we attended Pub School. It reinforced who our customers were and what we wanted our website to do – we wanted it to be more than just a shop window for new clients.

    Our new website is more than a project (has a start and an end) and we want to continue to work with our developer (we’ve got the perfect partnership with the brilliant Atomic Smash) to evolve, enhance and keep our website fresh.

    Reply
    • VC

      Hello Jon.

      Great to hear from you here, and congratulations (to you and Atomic Smash) on the newly launched site. It’s good to get the view from client-side, and I’m delighted the thinking you did with us at Pub School helped to set the web project on firm foundations.

      Commissioning a new site is a tough decision isn’t it? A big outlay for smaller firms and a real challenge when: “you can’t see what you’re going to get.” I’ve learned a lot from you about setting the value upfront, so thanks for that Jon.

      Best wishes to you and the FD Works team as the site develops and evolves – just the right way to think about it.

      Sonja

      Reply
  4. VC

    Postscript: From discussions on this post over on LinkedIn – two valuable additions to our list of common web project pitfalls from the brilliant Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media Studios (https://www.orbitmedia.com/team/andy-crestodina/):

    8. Losing strategic focus
    Adding whistles and bells that don’t make sense for the brand or the visitors. Keep reminding yourselves of the goals of the project.

    9. A lack of understanding of the component parts
    Every website is a combination of four things: brand style, a design structure, programmed features and content. Being able to look at these elements separately while still understanding the whole is a major challenge for the unskilled eye. A site might be excellent at 3 of those, but a failure on the 4th.

    It takes skill and experience to know what you’re looking at. Once you do, you can judge/improve each element separately. That’s the trick, right?

    Reply

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