It’s true. Researchers have confirmed it, dogs have no concept of scale. In other words, a small dog does not realize how small he or she is. Hence the well-known phenomena of small-dog syndrome. So why am I bringing this seemingly random factoid up?
Well, I’ve noticed a similar phenomena when working with web vendors. It can be hard for them to anticipate how long it will take to do work for you, especially if the work in question requires the creation of something that’s entirely new to them.
Now your developer by his or her basic nature wants to make a good product for you and please you because you’re the customer. That innate desire to please coupled with the difficulty of making accurate projections of time can mix together to make one, well, very expensive cocktail. They may tell you anything is possible, because, well almost anything is — for a price.
Although frustrating, it’s important to realize that 99.99% of the time the underestimation of how much work (and money) something will take is not the result of any malice on the developer’s part. They weren’t trying to trick you. Web work is complex. What seems like a simple feature at first blush can “blossom” (some might say explode) into a larger, more challenging problem unexpectedly.
So, as the internal manager of your nonprofit’s website redesign, what are you to do? Here’s a short list of sanity and budget-saving recommendations:
Ask early, and often.
Ask your web developer how she or he’s doing on the budget early and often. Emphasize that you have a strict policy of “no surprises” and that they should not feel shy about speaking up about budget concerns. Keep asking about different site features, how complex they are, is it a quick fix or a more difficult thing to develop — their answers may surprise you, and it will help you manage your own and other staff member’s expectations.
A great way to do this at the outset is to ask for a per-feature breakdown of hours to complete, versus of an estimated date of arrival, as a developer’s schedule may change day to day.
Watch that scope, creep.
“Scope creep” is a term used in the project management biz to describe when the parameter of a project expands in ways unaccounted for at project outset. Say you’re redesigning the site, and all the sudden a board committee member decides that blogging is where it’s at, and you really need to have one on the new site, even though that wasn’t a part of the original plan. That’s an example of scope creep.
Some of it’s to be expected; your understanding of your needs will evolve. But understand too that you were given a bid based on a certain set of parameters, be prepared to potentially pay more, or to let something go, which brings me to my next recommendation.
Sure, that page of magically appearing meowing cat heads would be fun for the kids, but do you really need it? Keep a tally of “need-to” and “nice-to” features for the site, or “phase 1″ or “phase 2″ features. When speaking to site stakeholders like the executive director or staff, don’t be afraid to ask them how they would prioritize features as they think of them.
Closely related to the prioritization and scope creep components is having the best understanding you can about what your nonprofit’s needs are for the site before you even put out an RFP.
A great place to start is to look at other similar organizations to see what kind of site features they have. You do not need to re-invent the wheel. Look at who’s successful in your area and ask yourself what are they doing right? Take notes.
It’s also good to ask staff, board members and other stakeholders to sit down and have a “blue-sky” session where you brainstorm new ideas for the site, without regard at the moment for concerns of cost. Be clear that what you do is limited by the realities of time, t-notes, and technology — but having an uncensored conversation can lead to innovative approaches to communications that you may not have anticipated.
Think inside the box.
Sometimes it’s okay to go with a packaged product. What I mean to say is, when investigating different web vendors some of them will have ready-made Content Management Systems like WordPress or Drupal, and it may make sense to opt for them instead of trying to do something entirely customized.
Although building a customized site from scratch would be the only guarantee that you get everything humanly possible that you wanted, that customization comes at a price. Sometimes just enough is good enough when considering different pre-set systems, where the path (and price) to completion is clearer.