The core principal of this waterfall process makes perfect sense. So how is it that projects can still go horribly wrong? Is it lack of experience? lack of ability to deliver what the client wants? Difficult clients? Or just the nature of the beast?
You, like me probably take pride in your experience and ability to sidestep project pitfalls, foreseeing issues before they arise and yet somehow you scratch your head at the ability for a meticulously planned project to still go off the rails.
Enter the principal of content first
A project will run like clockwork from the discovery phase where you absorb as much as you can about the clients business and the project requirements, through to the planning and IA where site-maps and wireframes are developed and into the design where the visual look and feel is defined and keyscreens are designed for each unique view.
At this point the implementation and build starts and then here things start to go wrong - as the content is added, things no longer quite match up, and before you know it you are back into planning, drawing up new sitemaps and wireframes, redesigning elements, re-designing key screens and then having to rebuild pages, features and functions within the website.
The reality is that all the best planning and design can quickly unravel when the content does not match up - this rapidly forces a project into an iterative cycle which either dramatically increases the cost of a project or in the case of a fixed cost project results in a loss of profitability.
Whilst agile methodologies tackle this issues by not only cantering for the change in requirements, but by truly embracing them, the reality is that this only works in an environment with generous budgets or an open ended chequebook - in a fixed cost project, agile development principles can just as easily run over if the job is not complete or run out of time.
Here is where 'content first' really comes into its own
Discovery leads to planning and IA - this allows the content writing to start. Planning can define wireframes enough to help guide the content writing, but the understanding is that this is all you are trying to achieve. Brand development and initial design can begin - this can even lead to a final design, however this is only homepage design and maybe a simple lower level page.
At this point your deliverables as an agency go on hold - you are waiting for the content to be delivered...you do not progress to key screens or build until you have received 95% of the content. Whilst traditionally you would have moved onto key screen layouts and site build whilst you wait for the content, this is where things have been going wrong… hold your nerve and wait for the content.
When the content arrives your process breaks from your nice waterfall approach and becomes quite agile, combining the best principals of in-browser design, where core styling is applied in line with the approved design, the site is reviewed and then more detailed layouts are designed in-line with the real world content in the browser. Obviously some Photoshop layouts may become relevant (when styling in HTML/CSS is becoming too limiting), however designing each key screen as a pixel perfect layout is no longer relevant.
By focusing on the content, the website process goes back to what it is really about - content.
Content first can de-risk your project if you are willing to do the unthinkable on a project... stop working on it until the content is delivered.
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.