Illustration of hamburger, cup with straw and shadow of fries

You Don't Want Fries With That

Why you should always stick to your strategic plan and be cautious when taking the quick and convenient route when making decisions mid-project.

I’ll admit it – sometimes I want fast food. It’s convenient to be able to get a quick and cheap fix when I’m on-the-go and just need something to satisfy the immediate need. But we all know it’s not healthy for you, and certainly not sustainable to live on for the long-term.

The vast majority of the time, I want something better: quality ingredients, thoughtfully put together in a strategic way to create a better flavor, ultimately creating a more satisfying meal. I also want it in an environment that matches the taste experience. When I go to my favorite local sushi place, for example, there’s a certain user experience I expect to have from the lighting, the ambiance, and of course the food. You can bet that the owners, chefs and designers of that restaurant did their research on the location, clientele’s needs, space planning, and visuals before spending their budget to create an experience that keeps me and others as repeat customers.

Typically when a web project lands on our door, it’s suffering from a bad diet. The site has grown organically as pages are added, internal governance plans need to be revisited, the site is using outdated technology, or possibly all of the above and more. The site is bloated, and no longer serving its customers well. This is actually a great opportunity for clients to create a streamlined and focused experience: audit the content, create content types and taxonomy to reorganize it, and give the site a visual interface that draws users in. But it all starts with great planning.

The most successful projects are those in which the strategy for the project is discussed and defined upfront. At the beginning of each project, we work with a client to get clarification on the following:

  • Learn about who they are as a company
  • Learn about their audiences, and what they want out of the web site
  • Learn about the goals of the organization
  • How we can help them meet those goals
  • And how we can do it on time and within budget

This is a critical phase, and we spend a lot of time upfront doing research and strategy work to get this right. This is accomplished through looking at existing analytics and metrics, user surveys, talking with stakeholders, examining personas and content strategy, and doing an analysis on competitors. In order to create efficiencies and a seamless transition to later phases, we have our designers and engineers get involved in the strategy from the beginning so they can ensure that the visuals support the functionality, and vice-versa.

All this planning is summarized in a strategic report that defines the roadmap to inform the design and development phases that follow, allowing all team members to stay on track in case we meander off the path. The advance planning also serves to better define the project scope and budget, so expectations can be managed from the start. Essentially, we’re planning the restaurant and quality menu so we can ensure attracting the right patrons.

With the initial strategy in place, the design team has clear direction to create the proper visual atmosphere to support the needs of the functionality. Through style tiles, wireframes, initial design concepts and then prototyping within the browser, the design team is able to create the proper visual framework and tone. The development team moves forward with build specs, creating content types, choosing the right code for the right job, and prioritizing the functionality of the site as it gets built. From start to finish, the strategy is kept top of mind.

It’s easy during a long project in particular for the fatigue to set in. Everyone has been in the weeds for so long, working through building small details of the website, and it’s tempting to make short cuts. But it’s rarely smart. The fastest way to lose control of a project is to become a short order cook, and just start taking orders without taking a look at the overall strategy of a web site. When a client says they want to add a last-minute design change here, or a piece of functionality there, that’s where all the strategy and upfront planning becomes critical. We resist the temptation to say “do you want fries with that?” If a client requests an addition/change/update that seems more impulsive rather than strategic, the initial roadmap allows the team to take a step back and ask: sure we could make this change, but is it smart to make this change? This is when you can go back to that strategy work to say with confidence that no, you don’t want fries with that, and here’s why.

Don’t make the fast choice just because it’s convenient, or because of pressure from a stakeholder. If it is smart to make the change, then by all means go for it. But impulsive fixes can serve to create the site bloat you’re trying to avoid in the first place. Instead, rely on smart strategy work upfront to create a plan that allows your team to stay on the collective diet that keeps your web site lean, efficient and sustainable over the long term.