Web Project Management: Asking the Right Questions

October 31st, 2015

We receive our fair share of RFPs and often have mixed feelings about how to respond to these. All too often such RFPs are just companies or organizations going through the motions, when they may already have an agency selected. Other times the client has done a lot of internal work and stakeholder discussion to get to this stage, but have not yet involve an agency. We feel it's important for clients to know that early involvement of a web agency can be the difference between project failure and success.

Clients often start a project with pre-conceived notions.

By the time clients contact web development agencies, they often will already have formed ideas about problem definition as well as the correct solution. Many times, these are based on incorrect assumptions about the nature of the problem, subsequently exacerbated by deciding on a solution without first asking some important questions. This often takes the form of an RFP (Request for Proposal), which may mean the project is already fairly far along. This is a shame, because it would benefit clients to work with a web development agency earlier on, to define the problems, goals, and scope. Such planning can save a lot of grief later in the process.

Asking the right questions to understand the client's needs:

Following are a few examples of typical issues that come up, and how we might ask questions about these:

Client: “We need this site built with XYZ.” (insert Drupal, WordPress, or Joomla here!)
Us: “Why XYZ rather than {insert other CMS name here}? How did you come to that conclusion?”
(The point of this question is to understand WHY the client selected WordPress. Ideally this decision-making process would involve input from the eventual web developer, who could advise on the merits of one CMS over another.)

Client: “Here is a list of 10 pages we must have in the new menu.”
Us: “Why so many items? Users won’t know what to focus on. We need to cull this list.”
(Often older sites will contain a slew of menu items, which make visitors’ eyes glaze over as they hit their browser’s Back button, or they continue to search your site in frustration. The short answer here is that less is more, and giving visitors fewer choices initially is much better than throwing a dozen of different things on the screen at once.)

Client: “Please make our site SEO-friendly, too.”
Us: “What are your goals, in terms of SEO? Which keywords matter most, and which pages are top priority? Who on your end will be editing content?”
(SEO is not just a one-time technical implementation, but a process. It requires ongoing content addition and editing, so it is as much a workflow training issue as it is a technical implementation issue.)

A project is never just about one goal or one thing.

There is always more than meets the eye, and it is our job as information architects, web developers and project managers to uncover all of those aspects of a project.  

First, we find out what the client believes the problems, needs, and goals to be. Then we set out to uncover items the client may not have considered, or may have overlooked. This can lead to some very different project scopes by the time this discussion is over.

Asking the right questions early on can make the difference between a bloated scope, a lean and mean scope, and a "staged happiness" approach. This helps the client know what their options are, and know that they have considered their options carefully and with sufficient technical input. 

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