Website Development Problems: Are developers or clients to blame?

James Pennington, the National B2B Centre’s Lead IT Consultant, looks at some of criticisms that we hear from SMEs about their website developers and tries to provide an objective view on where the blame really lies.

Over the past 6 ½ years I’ve been with the National B2B Centre I have had a constant stream of complaints from clients who have had issues with their web design and development providers

  • It’s taking ages to get the site completed
  • The site has gone live but it doesn’t work properly. Don’t they ever test anything?
  • It doesn’t look anything like what I expected
  • It cost a lot more than they initially quoted
  • They asked for £50 to change a line of text.  I thought we could do that ourselves

It would be easy for us just to join in the blame game and side with our clients when they make these sorts of statements.  As a poacher turned gamekeeper I can see both sides of the argument and, in truth, the situation is not as black and white as you’d think.

The complaints listed above are the consequence of quite a number of factors.  My experience is that although there a few real cowboys out there most website designers and developers are out to do the best job they can.

So let’s examine some of the factors that are causing problems and how we can overcome them.

Getting Your Money’s Worth

Cheap job or good job?
It is possible to get a basic website up and running very quickly using a site builder provider by a hosting company or by buying a template.

If you want a fully customised website that is fully branded, has all of the bells and whistles, is designed to meet the needs of your target market and has been created by an established design and development company then expect to pay thousands of pounds for it.

So if you get a much cheaper quote then you need to check it out.  It’s quite likely that you will have found an experienced freelancer who is able to offer a better deal than a company can: if so, great.

Other times the cheap price may reflect inexperience or desperation to bring business in.  This may not matter – but if you are not sure try suggesting, for instance, that a contract is drawn up or that there is a time penalty on payment.  That should sort the men from the boys.

Minor change – major cost
Lots of people complain that they get charged too much for minor changes once a site or system has gone live and I agree that some of the figures I have heard are ridiculous.  However I would like you to look at it from the developer’s point of view for a moment.

If you haven’t signed any support contract (and perhaps you didn’t take up their recommendation for a content management system (CMS)) then they might struggle to allocate resources from other projects to do your job, however small.  And the person who does do the work may have to familiarise themselves with your system, check that the change is correct and test it out before it goes live.  That might be why they charge what seems like so much money.

Apart from reconsidering that support contract you could consider learning how to do some updates yourself.  Even without a CMS it is usually quite easy to make text changes to a website.

Quick tip.  As a rule avoid using friends and family to get work done as a favour or on the cheap.  They may have less incentive to get it done than a pro outfit and if there is a problem then it could cause all kinds of domestic strife!

Tell Them What You Want
My experience is that the main reason that website projects go badly or don’t provide the expected results is due to poor definition of requirements.

Spell it out
Whose fault is this? Well developers and designers usually want to do what their clients ask. Even if they don’t get a detailed request they will try their best to do what they think is right.  So the onus is on the client to spell out in as much detail as possible what they want.

In practice very few SMEs do much more than a vague one page brief.  This is simply not enough.  It is vital to think about and document all of the factors related to why the website is required and what it should do.  The questions you might want to ask yourself include;

  • How is it going to change / benefit the way we work?
  • Who is it for (precisely)?
  • Who is going to use it?
  • How should it function?
  • What technologies will it use?
  • Will we be able to maintain and update the system?
  • What should it look like?
  • Who is going to write the content/do the testing/do search engine optimisation/do the training
  • What are the terms of business?

These questions apply whether you are talking about a so-called “basic website” or a full blown ebusiness application.

Requirements rewards

It is easy to think that you will save some time and money by not defining your requirements but it will cost you in the long run.  I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who develops websites and business applications. He told me that;

‘We always provide what the client asks for.  When the client realises this is not correct then we have the opportunity to sell a change or create additions that were not in the additional specification.’

That is probably an extreme example but you can probably imagine all of the basic reasons why documenting what you want is a good idea, for instance;

  • Your website or system is more likely to work how you want it first time.
  • Timescales for development and implementation are more likely to be adhered to.
  • The cost and responsibility for some of those extra bits of work such as content changes, user testing, SEO and training becomes open and above board.

Any developer worth his salt will be pleased to get a better understanding of what you want from your site so your business relationship should be improved.

Tell Them What You Are Going To Do

We are only experts in our own field
For you developers and designers remember this.  Your clients may smile and nod their heads a lot when you tell them all of the wonderful things you intend to do for them.  Their heads may nod the fastest when you mention words and phrases like AJAX and Java.

This does not mean that they understand what you mean or why they should have it.

In these circumstances you may benefit from doing a bit of client education – it could save you some effort in the long run.  If you don’t have the time or resources then think about using the B2B Centre as a kind of “translation service”.

It works both ways
You might also want to consider the working relationship you have with customers.  I know how easy it is to get caught up with a new application development tool or interesting piece of technology.  But remember that your clients are paying for your time and they may not appreciate the project delay or increase in costs caused by your experimentation.  On the other hand if you take the time to explain what you are doing and why then they may be happy to take the potential benefits.

Having a requirements specification written up or getting a contract prepared may be as helpful to you as the client.  Having things spelled out will reduce the risks of non-payment or losing money on a project.  Because you are more likely to get it right first time then you are also increasing your chances of repeat business and referrals.

Summing Up
I started off saying that I would try and see where the blame lies for website problems.  In reality it takes two to tango and both clients and developers have a responsibility to work together more effectively.

Clients needs to say what they want and when they want it and developers need to explain what they can do and when they can do it by.

James Pennington