Common practice for website development is to separate projects into three components – Strategy, Design, and Development. These components are almost always planned and executed separately and distinctly from each other. For example, an organization will start a website redesign effort by devising a strategy for the new website through internal discussion and collaboration, sometimes informed by member feedback, or through hiring an outside firm to help build the strategy. Next, the organization's marketers hire a design agency to develop the visual design (look and feel) of the site based on either a new corporate rebranding effort or on the existing brand, using a new information architecture and interaction design (UX) for the site. Sometimes the design agency participates in the strategy development – sometimes not. And finally, the organization, often through its IT department, hires an implementation firm (or uses their own development team) to turn the resulting design and architecture into a fully functional website.
Many terrific websites are developed in this manner, but many more fail to achieve the goals and expectations that seemed possible during the redesign process. The separation of the Strategy, Design, and Development components of the project often results in a poor outcome because of inefficient handoffs, competing goals and priorities, and a lack of understanding of the factors necessary for success among component teams. However, holistic planning, management, and execution of these components, with strong communication and participation among the experts in each, can enable the full vision of the organization to be realized and its end customers (both internal and external) better served.
Creating A Holistic Project Environment
While an organization can facilitate a holistic approach by using a single vendor, it can also effectively do so using multiple vendors and multiple department participants. The important thing is that the project be guided and informed by a holistic vision that results in a holistic project environment.
A holistic environment is one in which the Strategy team is educated in the implications of design, UX, and the technologies chosen for implementation, while the Design/UX team and the Implementation/Development team share a common understanding of the project’s beginning (strategy, business analysis), middle (design, UX and integration), and end (implementation). This understanding includes project goals, project methodology (including communication), required skills, project metrics/outcomes, and project governance. In fact, what this means is that there is just one team – not a series of separate teams. This does not mean that all team members participate in all activities, but that there is consistent and regular involvement of all project elements throughout.
Analyzing Typical Project Handoffs
The following example illustrates how a non-holistic, typical division of the project components of strategy, design, and implementation, leads to imperfect outcomes.
An organization hired a design agency to develop the branding and design for a new website. Deliverables from the design firm included:
- A set of several dozen meticulously developed images for the site launch
- A base image
- Multiple-sized versions of the same image, for several screen-dimension experiences, including
- One for desktop
- Two for tablet (landscape and portrait)
- Two for smartphone (landscape and portrait)
- One for the IPad Mini.
The design agency was unaware that the organization's chosen CMS had a very good mobile/responsive image management capability for which only one high quality base image was required; they were unaware that the CMS would auto-generate appropriately sized image versions for any pre-configured screen sizes. As new display types (such as Apple watch) come to market, the CMS was easily updated to recognize that new display type. If only the CMS implementation team had participated in some of the design planning, the initial cost and time of creating different image sizes could have been avoided.
Discovering Value in Cross Functional Teams
It is more and more apparent in today’s digital marketing environment that design considerations don’t just disappear when you move to implementation. Creating templates in some coded language - it doesn’t matter which one - is not just a software engineer’s job alone. How a sub-menu gets generated in code can impact how the presentation of that display renders in various browsers and various situations – this is even truer when taking into account current trends towards personalization, persona-based targeting, and multi-variant testing. As pages and elements of pages are coded, input from the UX and creative design team members can be extremely beneficial to the end user’s online experience and to the long-term maintainability of the site.
The idea that audience identification, user stories, and a full understanding of business goals and product functionality must come before any development starts is fairly accepted standard. However, experience tells us that we are constantly learning NEW THINGS about the intended audience, the customer, the goals of the business, the true complexity of the functional requirements THROUGHOUT the process, including during actual development. This does not mean that we should minimize the efforts to do these things prior to development, but it does mean that everyone must recognize the value of using cross-functional teams that participate and collaborate during all stages of the project.
What happens if you follow this approach? Challenges will surface earlier in the overall process. The handoffs from each phase will be much smoother and more coherent. Re-education cycles will be avoided. The layout and user interface elements will be designed with greater flexibility and maintainability over time. The final implementation phase will be shorter and have fewer change orders. The organization will have spent a little more time and money up-front, but will save hugely in the long run. Your website will last well beyond the typical 3-4 year cycle of redesign and rebuild.
Embracing A New Project Model
So how does an organization run a website development project to achieve better outcomes and more long-lasting success? First of all, the organization must embrace the concept that everyone involved in the project has an investment in the success of not only each component of the project, but also in the end result. Four key concepts must be shared across all aspects of the project, from beginning to end:
- A set of well-articulated, shared goals must be understood and re-articulated for each component and at each phase.
- Skill-sharing and cross-fertilization of ideas must be built-in to every phase.
- Content governance decisions made in each phase will significantly impact the next phase.
- Project management and project communication must be integrated across all three phases.
In my next blog post, I will discuss each of these key concepts in more detail.