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That Little Website Planning Detail Called Requirements Gathering

A funny thing happened on her way to getting her website built, said my new client. They were asking her questions she was unprepared to answer.

She was surprised at the enormous undertaking she had started.  Who ever thought owning a website for a small business would be so time consuming and confusing?  Not to mention expensive.

They are nickel and diming me, she feared.  She didn’t like their mockup, but had trouble conveying to the designers why, because for starters, they were expected to be the experts.  She felt awkward asking her questions.  Was she qualified to ask them?  Maybe they really did know what they were doing and she was being a pain.

Woman doing yoga on cliffShe was so uncomfortable with the situation that she reached out to me for help and I soon became the project manager.  Despite the fact that the website is small and its scope limited to a local area with one service offering, nevertheless it required a plan and this she did not have for them.

I routinely send out my Requirements Document, which is part of my discovery process for any website I work on.  Without it, I have no idea what the website owner wants to do and why.  It creates discussions about competitive value and educates me on the products, services and expectations for success.  Small business clients don’t want test plans but they do want a guidance system and a way to determine if every task is completed before the website is rolled out.  For many small business owners, the planning stage is exciting at first and then tedious as it drags on into putting together the nooks and crannies of website hosting, development, design and marketing.

Their expenses are driven up because there are many ways to do something, such as sending out a newsletter or setting up a shopping cart.  A wise investment for any company is hiring skilled people who truly know how to build a website intended to work for everybody the site owner wants to reach.  Without a doubt, the most commonly ignored website requirements are related to who is going to use the website, followed by how they are going to use it.

Another requirement rarely included is conversions design.  This is a separate skill that goes beyond simple user interface design and even user centered design.  Behavioral studies used by human factors and persuasive design specialists test, among other things, how images are used to sell products or communicate feelings.  In the case of my client, the image used for her website mockup was wasted space.  The model was all wrong, the colors were not going to contrast properly for mobile design and the final blow was that the model was facing the wrong direction, away from the most important content on the page.

She needed someone to explain how to make her website, to the people hired to make it.

Coming into a project that has already begun can be interesting.  My role is to make sure the job is done properly and to their credit the company has a nice setup for working with their clients.  They, too, appreciated having someone to go to with their questions that the client could not answer because she lacked the expertise or confidence.  This is also common for a small business owner.  They don’t know what they don’t know until they are sold something broken and by then it is too late and they have lost thousands of dollars.  They need someone who is their advocate.

As I went through the information architecture and mockup for the homepage, I discovered that she had signed off on a set number of pages.  However, there were areas placed on the homepage that were intended to contain call to action buttons or links to inside pages that were not listed anywhere in the information architecture.  To add them would require more money and changes to the existing contract.

There was no plan presented beforehand that included the information architecture for the entire website.  There was no sketch or taxonomies or mental models or user personas or keyword research done beforehand.  In fact, without a fully developed website plan with requirements documentation, other areas are out of scope like marketing, organic SEO, sitewide links, accessibility compliance, page load requirements, and specifications for mobile design.  While some companies include bits and pieces of these areas into their designs, it’s anyone’s guess as to how expertly or cohesively they are implemented.

This story is repeated by untold numbers of small business owners who want a website.  They have no idea who to trust and their budgets are tight.  They rely on the advice from friends without understanding that their friends’ websites are likely not doing well either or won’t be soon because the technology changes so quickly.

Before taking the leap, it is vital to hire someone to manage your website project from the start.  Don’t put your business at risk because you may lack the proper knowledge or expertise to hire the right people to build your website.   Avoid allowing anyone to build your website without website and target audience requirements.  Web designers are not mind readers, but they are often expected to be.  Communicate with your designers and if you need to, bring in someone who speaks their language to do it for you.

The investment into your own peace of mind is priceless.



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