Applying Project Management to a Website

August 1st, 2000

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Originally published in Building Online Business

A website is no different from any other project: It must be thoroughly planned and managed throughout. Anything less than 100 percent effort in building a website is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Objectives must be defined, briefs written, milestones set, and tasks assigned.

Many companies make the mistake of embarking on a web project by drawing up a site map and calling it a “Request For Proposal.” A meaningful RFP, however, starts with the goals and strategic direction. Then come functional requirements, timeframe, budget, and numerous other design, technical, and administrative details. But the RFP is just the tip of the iceberg; there’s far more involved in developing a successful website.

Few companies have a suitable Internet marketing plan, let alone one that’s actively maintained. Having a site map without an Internet marketing plan is like having a street map for the wrong city. An Internet marketing plan is the compass that points users in the right direction. A typical plan is divided into section headings such as executive summary, statistics and strategies, budget, task force, program implementation, and summary.

It’s not that different from a traditional marketing plan. The Internet Marketing Plan, by Kim Bayne, provides a wealth of additional information and templates to help guide companies to a successful website. One of the more important concepts outlined in the book is the differences among objectives, strategies and tactics. Objectives set the vision. Strategies put that vision into action. Tactics bring strategies to fruition. A plan in any other order puts the cart before the horse.

Preparing an Internet marketing plan can be daunting. A good, easily achievable starting point is to complete a project profiler. This is a questionnaire developed by David Siegel and published in his book Secrets of Successful Web Sites: Project Management on the World Wide Web. It includes a set of questions under the categories Target Audience, Content, Functionality, and “Field Trip.” The “Field Trip” portion of the profiler is an especially useful exercise; asking users to identify best-in-class sites that are admirable and beneficial in different respects, such as graphics, navigation, download speed, content, and community. The project profiler sets the stage for the project and can effectively serve as an RFP.

The next step is to allocate adequate resources to ensure project success. There will be limits to available resources in time, money, and quality that must be accommodated. It is essential to identify which of these three constraints is the least flexible; this is called the “driver.” Next, it’s wise to assemble people resources into an “Internet team.” On the client side, this will include a team leader, one or more decision makers, a “content master,” an editor, a webmaster, and content contributors. The contractor side will consist of a “producer” (or project manager), an account manager, design staff, production staff (programmers and HTML developers), and a system administrator.

When hiring a contractor, give each prospect a completed project profiler, including an itemized project budget. To objectively select the best contractor for the job, use a “selection matrix” (see Secrets of Successful Web Sites for an example). Insist that the contractor sign a contract covering confidentiality, ownership of intellectual property, warranties, non-performance, and other potentially troublesome issues. Get the contractor to agree to abide by the “Client Bill of Rights.” In turn, employers should follow the “Contractor Bill of Rights.”

A number of “briefs” must then be drawn up before moving forward on the site development:

  • Strategic brief: Outlines the strategic direction for the site. It includes a mission statement, marketing goals, competitive analysis, user requirements, branding strategy, and the metrics used to measure project success.
  • Technical brief: Describes the visitors’ equipment, including monitor size, connection speed, processor speed, amount of RAM, color depth, installed plug-ins, etc.
  • Functional brief: Delineates what the site should do for visitors now and in the future. Be careful to separate the functionality from the execution. Keep the technical constraints of the typical user’s PC in mind, and avoid “feature creep”–enlarged project scope due to poor planning in the initial stages.
  • Creative brief: Lays out the proposed visual design directions, the objectives of the upcoming creative exploration, the audience, the “story” the site should tell, and the tone and imagery of the site.

The strategic brief is completed first, involving both the client team and the contractor team. The creative, technical, and functional briefs follow, primarily involving the contractor team.

Finally, a content plan is essential. It delineates who is responsible when for what content. The columns of the content plan should include description of the deliverable, content provider, writer/editor, due date, submission date, and priority.

After the briefs, several specifications must be developed and maintained throughout the project. These include the technical, functional, engineering, creative, and markup and layout specs.

The technical spec describes the basic approach and technologies that will be used in the site markup and layout, but not the functionality. It addresses issues such as whether the site will be database-driven, have cascading style sheets, require plug-ins, or be optimized for a particular color depth, screen resolution, platform, or browser.

The functional spec is a continuation of the functional brief and describes, in non-technical terms, the actions (functionalities) of the site, but not how those actions are accomplished.

The engineering spec explains how the site functionality will be achieved. This document helps determine what functionality will be included in the site, and simultaneously compares costs to benefits.

The creative spec is an extension of the creative brief, fleshing out the site structure, navigation, and mock-ups (storyboards) of the home and secondary pages. Choose the winning mock-up using a “criteria matrix” (Secrets of Successful Web Sites includes several examples).

Finally, the markup and layout spec describes how the mock-up pages are to be implemented in HTML, including dimensions, font faces and sizes, and animation.

After the specifications have been met and recorded, the project can then be broken down into tasks and mapped out over an established timeline during a project team meeting. The team’s first job will be to design a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).

A popular approach to conducting this meeting is to write down all the tasks involved in the project on sticky notes. The wisdom of using sticky notes lies in discovering how to position the tasks before the WBS is finalized. Related tasks are grouped together. Some tasks may actually be more generic and encompass some of the other tasks. These are not really tasks but “phases” of the project. Related tasks are grouped together above the appropriate “phase.” The finalized WBS can be charted out using Visio or other charting or desktop publishing software.

The team then uses its WBS work to develop a network diagram. The task-level sticky notes are rearranged in chronological order, positioned between two new notes–labeled “Start” and “Finish.” Those tasks that are independent of each other can be done simultaneously and thus should be stacked.

A task of “loading catalog database with product information,” for example, would be independent of “designing the graphics,” but it would be dependent on “designing the catalog database field structure.” It is important to identify the critical path of the project. In other words, know which tasks that, if delayed, will bring the project to a screeching halt. Such tasks are called “show stoppers.” After the network diagram is finalized, transfer it to the computer, again using Visio or other charting software.

With each task identified, the project manager must complete a task analysis form for each task, together with the team member assigned with the task. The task analysis forms will define the deliverables, resource requirements, milestones, time estimate, and task deadline. Prepare three time estimates–optimistic, pessimistic, and most-likely. Apply statistical methods to them to arrive at a much more accurate overall time estimate.

All the above documents and forms should be shared through a private password-protected website, or extranet. An extranet may, in fact, be turned into a real-time query and reporting tool. Some functionality along these lines would include allowing clients to add work requests, check the progress on active tasks, review pending tasks, set task priorities and budgets, and compare actual costs with estimates and budgets, all online using a secure extranet.

Project management is an essential ingredient for web success. Following the above tips and techniques will put a web project manager well ahead of the competition. Successful project management, however, also includes workflow, version control, Gantt charts, and content management–much of which will be discussed in future articles.

About the Author

Stephan Spencer is the founder and president of Netconcepts, a website development company. He is a frequent speaker at Internet conferences worldwide. He may be reached via e-mail at sspencer@netconcepts.com.