As designers, we're accustomed to conceptualizing websites in terms of design structure - wireframes, white space, code, navigation, and so on - as well as in terms of content management. But before a design project can even reach that point, you and your team must create a project plan.
A project plan is a concrete document that lays out precisely what's going to happen, when, and what will be completed by whom. How long is your projected project timeline? When do you plan to be done? Which team member is responsible for which tasks? If you're not prepared to answer these questions, you're not prepared to begin your project.
Follow these step-by-step instructions for creating a specific, actionable project plan.
Choose the Right Project Management Software
Project management software is an essential tool, especially if you're working on a large project or planning a lot of complicated moving parts. The right software will lay out each detail in a clear, easy-to-understand way, allowing you to mark off areas that have been completed or add new information if needed.
Do you need an all-in-one solution? Some design projects are small enough that it makes sense to use multiple programs, with one for each aspect of the project: quoting, payroll, time tracking, and so on. Some projects require software that can handle all of these tasks and more - and keep information flowing seamlessly between tasks.
Do you need to work in the cloud? Cloud-based software will promote more effective collaboration between team members, because your project's information can be accessed from anywhere.
What features do you need? Some all-in-one software solutions have an excessive number of features, many of which won't be useful to your organization. Many solutions, on the other hand, allow you to pick and choose the most beneficial features, making sure your project is organized efficiently and without clutter.
Define the Project
Now that you have a tool to lay everything out, it's time to define the project. Project definition is an extensive step - more than just saying to your team, "Our client wants a website." Right now we're not talking HTML, CSS, or programming; we're looking at the big picture.
Here's what your project definition document should include:
Summary. Create a basic overview of the website, using client input. Include brief points about the client's organizational background, the type of people the client serves, and the unique value they provide. This information should guide any project decisions you make going forward.
Goals. What will this website achieve? What is its end point? Identify specific, measurable goals.
Target audience. Who does the client most want to reach? What are their needs? Create audience profiles identifying key demographics, their routine web use tasks, and their goals. Consider also how the target audience perceives the brand being represented.
Message. What information will best attract and motivate the target audience? How are you planning to engage them with the brand? Most importantly, what makes this brand unique?
Competitors. No matter the industry, there will always be a competitor offering a solution similar to yours. Create an overview of specific competitors and their websites to help you better hone the message you want to send. This will help you develop your visual branding, calls to action, site navigation, and other content.
Risks. Anticipate and define potential risks in the planning stage to avoid running into any unexpected problem down the line. Make sure you have a plan in place to mitigate major risks - like backing up your project files, for example.
Draw Out a Work Breakdown Structure
Now it's time to develop a work breakdown structure, or WBS, to put the plan into action. You've developed the aims and objectives of your project, so it's time to break down the deliverables your team will complete. Again, client input is paramount to completing this step.
It's also a good idea to involve your team as you plan the website. Break it down into separate components - layout, content, and plugins - and any sub-categories each component entails.
Create a Detailed Project Timeline
Make sure all team members know who's responsible for each task. If a task is not assigned, it won't get done. Be as specific as possible when outlining what's expected and when it's due.
Implement and Manage the Work Plan
It's finally time to put the plan into action. The above-mentioned categories - layout, content, and plugins - should all be fleshed out at this point.
Site map. Here's where we get into wireframes and site architecture. Create a content map and figure out how all the pages connect to each other - that is, how navigation will be laid out.
Visual design. Draw up a visual concept for the site, keeping the client's brand and visual style in mind. Make sure all colors, fonts, and other design elements are on brand.
Development. Now it's time to bring in the HTML and CSS. Put the written content in place, add social media plugins, and include any other multimedia developed by the content creation team.
Testing. Your site isn't finished until it's been tested. All the elements should work; double and triple-check using multiple browsers and mobile devices.
Remember, part of the management process involves managing your team. Ensure everyone is doing what needs to be done within the time frame you've designated for the project.
Launch the Project
The site is complete, all elements have been tested, and the client has approved the finished project. Hooray! The site can now go live.
Create a Maintenance Plan
This is the final step of the project, but it's an ongoing one. One of the core principles of web design is site maintenance. Think of your website as a living, breathing organism. Keep working with the client to update as necessary.
Don't let your website become a failure before you begin. As with any major project, if you define your goals and objectives first and then focus on the details, you'll give yourself the best shot at success. You'll also minimize the overall workload and, ultimately, provide a great product for your client.
About the author
Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.