Go into any pitch or brief for a website project and I’m fairly certain the word “Responsive” will be sprinkled liberally all throughout every conversation during the session. Whether or not everyone in the room fully understands what that word entails, is another thing altogether. But the matter of fact is, with access to the web becoming increasingly ubiquitous on an infinitely wide range of devices, responsive web design is here to stay. I personally can’t even remember the last time I built a non-responsive site.

A website redesign project is a software development project. Companies and agencies who cannot understand this or lack the expertise to handle such projects tend to find themselves in a world of trouble as the project goes on. I’m sure we’ve all heard the adage “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”. In most agencies, the sales and marketing departments are the ones making that first impression with the client. When there is a disconnect between the marketing department and the people who create the work, everybody involved will be in for a hard time.

There are a number of indicators that a website revamp will end up becoming a fire-fight, or even worse, fail altogether. Some of you can probably relate to this quite well. The statistics are alarming. According to a study done back in 2008, the failure rate of website projects was around 25%. A recent high-profile failure would be Healthcare.gov’s failed launch. But it is important that we highlight these issues and how to mitigate them.

No clear digital strategy

Simply having a website or an app or two does not mean you’ve “gone digital”. Your website is a tool to facilitate the digital experience, but a digital transformation is really much more than that. I highly recommend everyone who is involved in digital to read and internalise Paul Boag’s Digital Adaptation.

By forming a digital strategy you have an opportunity to establish a firm direction for your online footprint, rather than being the victim of managerial whims. - Paul Boag

The decision to implement a responsive website is a solution. But what we need to ask is, was the problem properly defined and does this solution solve it? Without a clear digital strategy, we have no basis on which to make decisions on what the appropriate solutions should be. This is why it is important for senior management to be fully aware and supportive of the organisation’s digital strategy.

All parties involved need to understand that the web is nothing like any other medium. The web is evolving at a neck-breaking pace, it is unpredictable, bordering on chaotic at times. We cannot hope to predict, control and manage this every-changing landscape. It is untenable to apply traditional business strategies, which operate on the premise that you can plan and budget for the next five years, to the web.

Insufficient experience and expertise

This is why it is crucial to have an experienced team well-equipped to traverse this landscape. The emphasis here is on team and close collaboration across various disciplines. The traditional waterfall approach of having specialists operating in silo and passing on the project from one phase to the next is no longer effective nor relevant.

For an agency who wishes to undertake such projects, it is mandatory that every person involved has strong digital backgrounds. It is not enough to simply understand the digital landscape yourself. To provide direction on how to navigate a landscape that is in a constant state of flux. Working together with the client to come up with the best approach for solving their business problems.

A responsive website is just one way to cater for mobile consumers. Depending on the nature of the business and the organisation’s business strategy and objectives, maybe a native application is a better solution. There is no clear cut answer to which is better. The trick is to assess the needs of the business, then choose the solution with the best fit. Context is everything. The problem must be framed in the context of the organisation in question.

It takes expertise and experience from the digital team to not only come up with the most appropriate solution, but also, clearly articulate to senior management and relevant stakeholders why the solution was proposed, and how it can benefit the business.

Mismanagement of expectations

Without the aforementioned experience and expertise in handling responsive web projects, it is inevitable that the estimation of effort required will be terribly off the mark. The web is a reasonably young medium, and there is nothing quite like it. Stakeholders and management, who are not familiar with digital and the web, will not be able to gauge the complexity of the project. The onus thus falls on the digital team, be it internal or external, to flag out the high risk areas, and cater for worst-case scenarios accordingly.

Client or stakeholder education is of utmost importance at the beginning of the project. This is where expectations are set and impressions are made. The digital team is put in charge of the endeavour because they are supposed to be the experts in this field, and can provide the necessary guidance and direction to move the project forward. Stakeholders need to understand that there will be some unknowns that will only be unearthed once development actually begins.

It is impossible to educate another about something you do not fully understand. When the digital team lacks the requisite skills and experience, resulting in stakeholders with unrealistic expectations, the project will undoubtedly end up being a fire-fight or worse, fail altogether. A poorly scoped project, based on estimates given by someone who has no hands-on experience with the actual work required, is often a recipe for disaster.

Lack of transparency and communication

A responsive design is more than just displaying content nicely on different screen widths. A successful responsive design is heavily dependent on content, performance and user experience. All three are intertwined, which means that the content strategists, the UX researchers, designers and developers must all be on the same page. It has to be a collaboration across disciplines.

User research will drive the content and direction of the project, that in turn shapes the design, which impacts the architecture and development. Because every role brings something different to the table, communication is key. Developers understand the web more deeply than anyone else, and will be able to provide feedback on the feasibility and implications of certain design decisions. Designers will use their expertise to present the content in a way that best fits each use case. But the key thing here is, communication must take place throughout the process.

The digital team are not only domain experts, but they have to be able to explain what they do and why they do it in terms that clients and stakeholders can understand. In other words, they also have to be professional communicators. Without the proper buy-in from key decision makers, there is a high risk of the project collapsing like a house of cards.

There will inevitably be bumps in the process or issues that the team did not expect. We cannot hide these challenges from stakeholders and pretend everything is peachy. The team needs to be up front about any issues, why they came about and explain how the issues will be mitigated. By involving the stakeholders in the mitigation plan, they might provide valuable insight that contribute to solving the issue. Perhaps that feature did not have to built that way in the first place.

Building with sub-optimal processes

The meat of the project is the actual building of the website. Every website revamp must be built on clearly documented functional requirements. Some may argue that this is a relic from IT projects of the past that utilise a very water-fall approach, but I disagree. Functional requirements can take the form of user stories. This portion of the planning involves the digital team working very closely with the stakeholders to fully understand the nature and objectives of the business. The digital team’s expertise comes into play when it comes to articulating those objectives into user stories that will form the backbone of the project.

From a design standpoint, a style-guide driven approach would allow for consistency throughout the site, as well as facilitate a more efficient front-end build. CSS architecture is especially important, but often overlooked. The challenge with CSS is that it is easy enough for most people to pick up, but takes effort and experience to architect well. The larger the project, the more critical it is to have working agreements on name-spacing, coding-style, file structure and a proper deployment process. Of course, this also applies to code of all languages that will be used in the project.

Building up a style guide of components early allows any inconsistencies in the design to be flushed out and discussed early. I’ve worked with high-fidelity comps provided by designers that had up to 7 or 8 shades of yellow. But upon clarification with the designer, it turns out that the client had asked her to make modifications so many times that she simply missed out updating all the relevant components. But if we had instead worked on low-fidelity static comps and translated them into HTML and CSS early, things like updating colour schemes would take much less time than if a designer had to change the colours in their static PSD files.

Wrapping up

Nobody starts a project with the expectation it will fail. Given the ubiquitous nature of the web today, an organisation’s web presence is more important than ever before. It is something that will directly affect a business’s bottom line. Those of us who live and work on and with the web need to advocate change for the better. Every one of us has the responsibility to constantly improve ourselves in terms of skills, knowledge and processes. Then, we need to educate those around us who do not do this for a living. We cannot simply shrug and accept the status quo, thinking we cannot make a difference. We can, we should and we must.

Credits: OG:image by Mim