If you're like most people, you started out that new website project feeling excited and optimistic.
You couldn't wait to see your shiny new site! Sadly, that feeling often starts to wear off and you're left feeling somewhere on the spectrum between feeling ripped off by the designer you hired and wishing you had known how much work was involved on your side.
We're often contacted by clients who started a project with another company or a freelancer and need someone to come in and finish the stalled project. There are a number of reasons projects can stall, so before we decide whether to take on the work we need to know why it stalled in the first place.
Seven of the most common reasons that website design projects stall or fail are included below.
Note: when I refer to a designer or developer, it could be one person or a team.
- Unqualified developers. This could be because you hired someone who is great at design but not at development, or because your desired site features have changed (see #2 for more on this) and the project has outgrown the developer you hired. It could also be because the developer is a jack of all trades but master of none, so it takes them forever to do things at a subpar level that someone more experienced could do much better in a short time period.
The danger of unqualified developers is not just in a project not being finished, but it can also be dangerous on the web. A few years ago the owner of an advertising agency called me in a panic (and this was someone I had never even heard of before) because the developer of a shopping cart system had contacted him demanding that he take down an e-commerce site using that cart system because he was collecting credit card information on a server that wasn't secure. It was scary that the ad agency owner (who is also the one who created the site) not only didn't know that the site should have been on a server with an SSL certificate – he didn't even know what that was!
I was totally amazed, and also reminded that most of what I take for granted is unknown by people who don't have my experience.
- Scope creep. This is one of the most common problems in the design industry. You and the designer start out thinking you're in agreement on what's included in the project, but little by little you think of things you want to add. They don't seem like a big deal to you, but often changes that seem very small actually require a lot of backend development. You should realize that every time you make a change, it adds to the time and cost of a project.
Another common issue that causes scope creep is that clients often deliver content for their site that hasn't been proofed or edited, and all of a sudden your developer is expected to become a copywriter. Copywriting is a totally different skill and talent than design and development, and is just too important to be treated as an afterthought that you dump on the developer.
- Disagreement over what's included in the project quote. This is related to #2, scope creep. Often it may seem to you that something should obviously be included and the developer says it isn't. Example – several years ago a government client paid $25,000 to have a tourism website developed by another company and the site quote included a business directory. The directory software was installed on the content management system but the developer didn't add any of the businesses. When the client asked about it, they were told the $25k didn't include adding the listings and it would be $3,500 more for the developer to add them. This is a basic thing that should have been clarified in the project agreement.
- Clients who micromanage. Let's face it – if you were a designer, you could do the project yourself and save money. For some reason, though, many clients suddenly think they're designers once they've hired a designer. When a client micro-manages a project by dictating every move the designers make, it not only creates a mess of a project but also tells the designers that you don’t trust their judgment. If you hire someone because of their expertise, you need to be willing to trust their judgement and allow them to do their job. If you can't do that, you shouldn't hire them.
Do you go to your doctor and tell them what's wrong with you and how to treat you? You might try, but you won't get far. You should give professional designers the same respect for their knowledge and experience.
- Bottleneck on content delivery and approvals. This is actually the #1 reason for projects to be delayed, and it's usually because the client either hasn't delegated the responsibility to someone who can handle the work, or because the client isn't making it a priority. When a project stalls because the designers are waiting on feedback or content, their cost in the project is rising every day and their cashflow is decimated. They have to scramble to find work to fill the gap, and too often the client who has procrastinated reappears one day ready to get started again and expects the designer to be ready to work on demand.
It's also hard to put aside a project for days, weeks, or months, and then pick back up where you left off. The designers will have lost their creative flow, have to refresh their memory of what they were doing, and try to recover their inspiration. They'll also have to refresh the client's memory; if much time has passed, the client may even change their mind on decisions they previously made, requiring extra work of the designers (refer back to #2, scope creep).
I'm embarrassed to say that 20 years ago when I first started Glerin, a client literally took a year to get me the content I needed to finish a site! That's just totally ridiculous, but because I was inexperienced at the time I didn't have safeguards in place to protect me.
- Too many people involved and no decision maker. For any design project, the more people involved, the more you're asking for things to go astray (the Too Many Cooks syndrome). The old adage of a camel being the result of a committee who was designing a horse rings all too true. There's just no way to satisfy everyone, and someone at the client has to be authorized to make executive decisions.
The designer needs to have one person who is the point of contact for the client, and that person needs to have the authority to make decisions. If you're with a group, like an economic development office that reports to a Board, you should have the authority to work with the designer and only have to go to the Board for final presentation. The Board should not be giving input into the design. Just like you've hired a designer that you need to trust, they need to trust you to make solid decisions.
Funny story - I'll never forget when a Board member commented on a new brand color that “yellow means danger!” It happened to be someone I knew personally, and I replied “yes, and blue means cold, red means stop, green means sick, and black means death.”
- Lest I make it sound like stalled projects are most always the client's fault, let's end with The designer disappears or goes out of business, leaving you high and dry. This is all too common, and if you're one of those people who asks why a site should cost so much because your neighbor's cousin's 12-year-old nephew “knows how to make a website,” you'll be even more likely to experience this. It's also true that businesses go out of business, though, so you should make sure you're working with someone who has a track record, good references, and has been in business long enough that you can feel as confident as possible that they won't be closing down. Shameless plug - did I mention we've been in business 20 years? ;)