Avoiding Pitfalls in Website Project Management

I'm currently working on a large project for a complex B2C site. I was brought in after the majority of the bones of the project had already been completed. As many of you know, this can be a little disconcerting as you won't have had any input into the process and often you will have to do what you can. There are things that you will see that could have been done better although you can probably get by without throwing the project leader under the bus in front of their colleagues. Usually in a situation like this there was no "malice aforethought" on the part of the project leader. They simply didn't know what to look for and were doing the best they could.

At this point, it's a good idea to look for obvious things in design and the ability to market the site and see what is possible to modify without reinventing the wheel. Simple things like sorting the nav menus alphabetically and the ability to add relevant SEO tags are great places to start. On the project I was working on, I was at first dismayed by the complete lack of ability to add any keywords, descriptions, browser titles, etc from the product admin area. Upon asking the project leader if any of this was going to be possible, we scheduled a conference call and our project leader at the dev company who informed us that this was out of the original scope and would require additional billable time. Well, we dug a little further and thanks to a second perusal of the contract, we were due this functionality and thus I experienced a drastic reduction in my stomach acid production.

I decided to leave the nav item sorting for after we'd taken ownership of the site as it is a simple matter of adding an "ORDER BY" statement to the SQL query to fix it.

So this brought up a couple of questions.

How did things that were seemingly obvious get by the initial scoping of the project? Sorting a nav menu alphabetically? The design/dev company is an established, reputable firm that charges $125 per hour to do their work. When is the last time you saw a nav that was based on a product list not sorted alphabetically? Unless there are conscious decisions made to sort in a different order because you want to lead with a certain product order, this is just silly. And you don't get steamed until you hear the dev company saying they want to charge two hours labor to add an "ORDER BY" statement to the SQL query.

Secondly, why is scoping so hard? It's because websites and how people interact with them is complex. Often times, an idea that sounds good initially is found to be confounding to the end user when you start to use the site. Many times there isn't a dedicated UX person to oversee these details. So how is an inexperienced project manager to deal with this?

I think that a simple to complex design process might avoid many roadblocks.

First, don't think that any of this is simple. It isn't. Set realistic timelines.

Start with basics. Really basic stuff. Stuff you might think is stupid. Think about how you can get your customer from their entry point to converting.

Look at sites that succeed. Do what they do. In a way, there's nothing new under the sun. We now have a generation of people that do a lot of work on the web and they are familiar with a certain way of doing things. Accommodate them. You may not be Amazon or Yahoo but you can emulate their best practices.

Spec the site with the idea that you will be able to add additional functionality in the future. All major sites live by this principle. Ebay is a prime example of starting simply and adding (too many?) features as they go.

Get help. Ask for advice. This falls squarely at the feet of the client. Is this your first time creating a site? Moreover, is this the first time you're creating an extensive B2C site? Do your research. Creating a website is like building a car. It's complex.

Demand that the design/dev company give you access to the site even while in development. If the design/dev company doesn't grant you that level of transparency, be wary. And if they do grant you that freedom, don't dog the company out if changes don't happen in seconds. Do not micromanage. If you think that you can do it in 15 seconds, go for it. Otherwise, if you trust the dev company, wait for their email for you to have a look. This is a two way street and you don't want to create acrimony. Also be wary of PDF proofs of a site for an extended period of time. You'll need to see functionality.

Now you can get into the nitty-gritty. Like sorting menus. And how long you want it to take for the site to load. Do you really need all the buzzers and whistles graphically? You are trying to build a relationship with your visitors. Make it easy for them to do what they want to do and let them get on with their lives.

Lastly, internal project managers shouldn't forget the fact that websites are refined over time. Nobody gets it right the first time. You can't plan for every eventuality and need to be prepared to continually evaluate the site and work towards the best experience possible for the visitor. The visitor is your web capital and anything you can do to build their confidence in you is money in the bank.