8 Common pitfalls when designing your new website

Written by Finn Taylor on 7th March 2013

(Last updated 11th March 2016)

8 Common pitfalls when designing your new website

As a web design agency we need to learn from mistakes, improve our processes and ultimately make sure we can spot the risks before they impact the project. This comes down to experience of working on web projects everyday, which improves our ability to see and avoid any potential pitfalls.

Clients do not have the same luxury of this everyday experience of what might trip them up, so here are a few common client-side pitfalls to look out for...

1. Lack of a client 'board level' project sponsor

Whilst some projects run smoothly, other projects can be challenged by clients internal politics, departmental resourcing issues and approval processes.

Experience shows us the importance of a board level project sponsor who is able to:

  • Make sure departments play nice
  • Re-prioritise resources (when they are scarce or difficult to access)
  • Engage with the most senior decision makers (other board members)
  • Ultimately provide sign-off and approval at critical points

Whilst a senior manager who has access to the board is useful, in a large corporate environment a board level project sponsor can really make all the difference.

2. Exec's are “too busy” to engage in the project

Your website is probably the most visible and public manifestation of your organisation and senior decision makers will no doubt have strong opinions regarding the design, content and functionality.

Failure to include the MD, chairman or other senior decision makers at the right times in the project will in all likelihood result in the project being derailed at the last hurdle. It is all too common for the project to be 85% complete before a key decision maker is shown where things are at, resulting in a "I don't like it" or “what about this” and a massive u-turn. Rarely can the opinion of one of the key business leaders be ignored.

Failure to ensure the senior members of the organisations are involved at the right stages will create a massive project risk.

3. MARCOMS tries to run the website redesign

One of the most predictable and yet awkward pitfalls to avoid is when the MARCOMS team decide they do not need to include senior stakeholders in the process - they already know all the issues, understand the dynamics....they will brief the agency.

Whilst they have an intimate knowledge of the organisation (it is a big part of their role to understand these issues and dynamics), a well run discovery workshop with senior leaders and various stakeholders from across the business will generate a much richer set of inputs, ensuring the website truly supports the business.

Whilst the MARCOMS project leader may have a very strong understanding of the organisation and the dynamics within it, there is no substitute for a well formed project team which includes stakeholders and decision makers from across the business/organisation.

4. IT department tries to run the website redesign

A website runs on a computer, is powered by a server and requires some level of programming/coding, so surely it must be an IT project  - right? - this assumption has misdirected many website design projects.

Remembering that a website’s key functions are marketing, sales and communications, we can see that these are not IT skills or responsibilities. Talented programmers and system administrators may be geniuses in their own right, however they are not designers, marketers or the best communicators, so should you really let them loose on defining and designing your website?

The IT department should play a role in helping to ensure that the hosting infrastructure and technical platforms are suitable, however your website should always be owned by the marketing/communications team (MARCOMS). The IT department is simply there to help support the infrastructure.

5. Content is written... we just need design

Something we have heard many clients say is "we have the content - its 90% there, we are ready for you to design and build".

Unfortunately this creates another project risk as the sitemap has been developed internally without having any input from the web agency, creating a disconnect from the decisions and dynamics within the project.

In practice this means that as the project progresses and the agency starts asking questions such as "why is this page needed", "does this really need to be here", "do you not think we need to tell the visitors about ..." etc - things start to unravel!

The agency ends up having a simple decision:

a) Ask questions and make suggestions to help improve the project, but risk having a moving target, which will ultimately result in “scope creep”, increasing the time required to complete the project (either the client or agency has a nasty financial surprise)
b) Just get on with implementing as best you can, running through the project without questioning / challenging what has been defined and risk the project missing its target, or at the last moment people discovering flaws which require substantial re-working.

A successful project combines the internal knowledge and experience of the client with the expertise of an external agency. Not including your agency in the planning, information architecture and messaging not only risks the content missing the mark, it also reduces your agencies ability to fully engage with the project, and ultimately compromises the project, timelines budgets and final deliverable.

6. Writing content internally

Ask any agency what the largest single risk in a project is and they will tell you it is content.

Whilst there is a temptation for clients to write content internally (there are some good reasons why the internal team is best placed to do this as well as some pressures and expectations on existing resources), however the reality is that it can be very challenging to generate large amounts of content within the remit of an existing role.

Being realistic, it is rare to find internal resources who have the time to write large amounts of content, as their jobs are already challenging and this more often than not results in project delays with content not being delivered on time.

A good external content writer who can spend time to absorb the internal knowledge and then to write the content, will really help to keep the project on track. However this does require additional budget and an acceptance that your internal writing resource might not be best placed to write your website content.

7. Key decision maker changes, but the project carries on regardless

Over the years we have seen many projects impacted by the change of key decision makers halfway through the project.

Whilst in most cases the new entrant into the project assures the agency that:

  • I am new and need time to develop opinions...don’t worry I will not mess!
  • Carry on with original decisions, they all look good.
  • No need to step backwards - it is business as usual, stick with the schedule.

The reality is that as the project progresses they will become more and more vocal about aspects which do not sit quite right. They will add their own flavour (which is only right as this is now their project), however this will be achieved by a thousand little “cuts”....resulting in a compromised project that has been tweaked and pulled until little of its original flair or coherence is left. This will also result in a frustrated team (client and agency) who have seen months of decisions and work unravel.

There will always be the potential for changes within a team during a project, however should a major decision maker change, then there are two options:

a) They agree not join the team and let everything continue without them.
The project steps back and the project is effectively re-run including them from the beginning.

Either way this can be a difficult decision, however death by 1000 little cuts will be far more painful.

8. Asking for tender stage designs

A common decision that can misdirect a project is when a client insists on “tender stage” designs. The client has decided that the only way to judge which agency to choose, is to test them to see who creates a design that hits the mark.

As an agency, we will warn the client that this is contrary to the process. A successful process needs the time to define the content architecture, the messaging, the brand and visual persona and that we need explore the tensions within the project.  Leaping forward to the design stage purely for the sake of tender,  is like being asked to paint a house before it is designed!

The client will tell the agency that they understand, but their boss/team wants to see who understands the brief best. They will also tell the agency not to worry, if appointed the full planning and design process will run.

As an agency we therefore have a decision:

  • Not to tender for the project, which is always a bit disappointing (especially if it is an interesting client).
  • Try to knock out a few quick designs for the tender - but they are half baked.
  • Or to really engage into the project and try to really think through the issues, without having any of the engagement and input required...essentially running an accelerated process which does not include the most important input.

The reality is that the tender stage designs will have influenced the project, but have not had the time to explore the issues and dynamics which will define it. Whether the proper planning and design cycle runs or not,  the project will have been compromised.

In conclusion...

The client relies on the web agency being experienced enough to avoid potential pitfalls, however the client shares an equal responsibility to ensure the running of the project from within the right departments, with the right input from across the organisation and the management of any internal changes and resourcing issues.

A successful web project relies on great communication, planning and the implementation of tried and tested processes. With all that in place, together we can achieve great things!

by Finn Taylor

  • Finn Taylor

    Finn Taylor

    Finn is a founding director of Liquid Light, and he still (after 22 years of web design) likes to get involved in projects. When he is not worrying about the clients, he is studying Chinese medicine, working with young criminals and doing spartan challenges.