You’re doing it wrong: Six reasons your digital projects keep failing

Dan Cryer's picture
by Dan Cryer

It should come as no surprise that over the course of ten years in digital, I’ve seen my fair share of “perfect storm” projects, where everything seems to have gone wrong all at once and nobody knows why, writes Dan Cryer, managing director of Block 8 in Manchester.

Having worked with Ian Patterson on the project mentioned in his article, The Dark Side of Digital, I know all too well that these gremlins can crop up anywhere, and at any time. The fact is, it happens everywhere, but nobody is keen to admit it. The trick to turning things around and delivering successful digital projects is learning why that perfect storm happened to you and preventing that particular type of fail from happening again.

Coming from a development background, I want to look at this from a different perspective than you might be used to hearing; so hands up everyone who has said, thought, or overheard: “our developers are rubbish, they never deliver anything on time.” My guess is that most of you have your hands firmly and proudly placed in the air, you can put them down now. I hear this sentence coming from just about every agency, at every failed project debrief and as an almost constant hum at digital events. The sad thing is, it’s rarely recognised that this is usually a sign that something else has gone wrong.

In this article, I want to explore some of the common reasons that digital projects really fail: the true causes of missed deadlines and blown budgets.

“Let’s talk cash first, we’ll work out the details later.”

developerThis is one of the most entertaining of the reasons that projects tend to go awry. You’re working with a director who just can’t help but make those lunch time deals with clients that give the entire team palpitations. They appear mid-afternoon, a couple of beers down, and announce proudly that they’ve just signed a deal for £40,000; now we just have to “work out the details and get it delivered next month.”

It’s easy to see how this falls down, you’ve signed a deal on the basis of cost before anyone even remotely qualified has had a chance to look at what needs doing. By the time requirements capture is done, if it ever is, it’s far too late to change the timescales or budget. It’s always worth that little extra time to make sure you’re doing the right thing for your business, and for the client.

“Failing to plan, is planning to fail.”

Despite the vastly overused and often mis-credited quote, quite possibly the most dangerous trend in the digital industry is jumping into projects without putting any time or thought into planning.

For some agencies, this is just standard operating procedure - projects are tackled in a “fly by the seat of your pants” fashion with a complete disregard for process. This can work for a lot of projects, so these agencies are quite often considered to be very successful, until one of those dreaded clients comes along that checks things more carefully and pushes a few scope boundaries. This is when the entire house of cards falls down.

In other agencies, ones where process and documentation is everything, the gremlins creep in when something slips. You can have the best process in the world, you have requirements, specs, wireframes and testing plans coming out of your ears - but this project is different. In this project, you miss a step, you do something a bit outside the process here and bend a rule there - and all of a sudden, you’re up to your ears in “missing feature” emails and “MAJOR BUG” reports.

Finding the right process and balancing planning with the need to get the job done (by next week) is a hard problem to solve. What works for one agency won’t work for another, and there’s always “that one project.” What’s important is that you do have a process, and that you stick to it.

“I know it’s a month’s work, but we need it by next week.”

deadlinesEveryone has heard this at some point, it’s a phrase that strikes fear into the heart of everyone in a digital agency. Usually, this comes directly from the client - but often with added pressure, or at least no resistance, from directors and account managers.

As someone on the receiving end of this, it can be hard to formulate an opposition, as there is usually a good reason behind it. You’ll probably recognise some of the most common culprits:

We have a marketing campaign launching on Monday

We really need to impress this client, otherwise we might lose them

You promised it would be done by the 15th. I know we asked for a few changes, but we still need it delivered by then.

Reasonable or not, this can be a toxic problem with some clients, who will work you and your team into the ground with ever-decreasing turnaround demands. Sometimes it is worth the risk of pushing back to develop a healthier, more honest relationship with your client. A healthy client relationship brings with it a happier, more enthusiastic and productive team.

"Can we cut the testing phase so we can come in at a lower price?”

Testing is always the first target in the “battle of the budget” between an agency and a client. It’s sometimes difficult to justify asking the client to pay for time for you to “fix” something you should have built properly in the first place, or at least that’s how the client sees it.

Unfortunately, it’s also the most vital aspect of any development project, web or otherwise. Things do go wrong in every project, and it isn’t because you’re working with bad developers: It’s because developing a web site is huge and complex undertaking, and that’s hard. Even if your developer has worked miracles and made no general errors, there’s always that one browser bug (say it with me: “It doesn’t work properly in Internet Explorer 7”) or the issue that only happens when you rotate your iPad eight times.

Having the right testing process in place, and sharing it with your client early in your relationship shows them that you take quality seriously and know what you’re doing, as well as saving you weeks of hassle and late night phone calls!

“Oh, and it needs to do mobile too.”

In 2014, mobile should no longer be an afterthought - but all too often it is. We work with agencies across a range of markets, of varying sizes, and one thing that comes up time and again is a complete disregard for mobile. It’s not that these companies don’t care about mobile, it’s that it’s such a low priority that they often fail to even produce a single design or wireframe for the mobile version of their sites. The sites are sold with a promise of using “responsive technologies” - but that’s where the interest ends.

Consideration for mobile needs to be at the heart of every web development project, even if your industry is not typically one in which potential clients come from mobile devices. Why? Because even if your clients don’t come via mobile now - many consumers and enterprises alike are ditching computers entirely in favour of tablets and mobile phones. Finally, when you email a testing link to your managing director, where do you think they’re going to read it? That’s right, on their mobile device.

“OK, we’re done. Maybe now the client should have a look at it.”

There’s no doubt about it that client-side problems are a major source of delays in digital projects, whether it be delivering content an hour before a site is due to go live or that “final” Word document of bug reports at 8pm the night before your 9am launch. Despite knowing this, as an industry we tend to lock out the client and beaver away on projects until the 11th hour, until we feel all set for the “big reveal.”

This never works.

If you’re lucky, the client will test the site and have a few bits of feedback, some bug reports and some content changes. If you’re not, and especially if you’ve failed to properly document the job in a specification, you’re looking at weeks worth of structural changes, a design overhaul and hundreds of bugs that you’ll have no choice but to deliver for free, and they will all need doing by next week.

Try to get your clients involved as early as possible in every stage of the project. Ask them to sign off wireframes, designs, HTML templates and finally, the end result. They’ll feel more included whilst actually helping you deliver a better end result with less wiggle room for those last minute “can you also add” requests.

Every single one of the problems I’ve outlined in this article will manifest itself in the same way: Your developers will fail to deliver the project on time, and you’ll blow your budget. Unfortunately, very few of these issues can be prevented or resolved by developers alone, these are systemic issues that need to be addressed across the whole company - they are problems in the way clients are handled, projects are planned, and processes are followed.

Digital projects need more than just good developers, they need a team that works together as one unit, follows best practice processes and doesn’t compromise on the steps it takes to deliver a quality end-result.

Dan Cryer is managing director of Block 8 in Manchester, over the last 10 years he's worked for clients including Aviva, Stickyeyes and Guardian Media Group.

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