I was talking to a client recently about requirements for a website. They’re a small, mission-driven organization seeking to engage and develop their community.

We talked initially about a basic news feed, a place for photos and stories, and descriptions of opportunities for involvement.

Limited resources (both financial and human.) Basic requirements. Simple project. Pretty straightforward.

Right? Right?!?

I’m definitely not singling this client out,  because what happened next happens all the time:

What about a…
Could we have a…
I’ve heard there’s a way to…

And that’s when it came out. Out of nowhere, I responded:

We need to be really careful here; what’s happening now is a bit like browsing the grocery store on an empty stomach.

It’s understandable.

Compelling websites and cool interactive functionality surround us when we spend time online. It all looks so easy and intuitive. And when your organization is lagging behind the web curve—or lacking a real presence entirely—there’s going to be a hunger to go big. However, as anyone who’s ever worked on a web project knows, the real work begins once the site is launched. And over-reaching can result in biting off much more than you can chew.

Checkout shock

Over-reaching with features and functions can end up costing more time and money than you’re prepared to invest. When a web project begins, the process is anchored by an underlying sense of project scope and, ideally, a baseline sense of the required features and functions. Once those features / functions are refined and solidified, additions will almost certainly impact the project bottom line—either in terms of schedule and / or cost.

There’s a ripple effect that results from even the (seemingly) simplest of changes. Adjustments to features / functions require adjustments to prototypes which require adjustments to design, front-end html / theming and CMS development. Refinements to functionality are perfectly normal during testing and prototyping, but adding features—beyond a certain point—can be a dangerous, slippery slope.

More than you can chew

Of perhaps even greater concern is the potential for over-spending to create a website you can’t maintain on your own. Dynamic content strategies sound great, but they require significant writing and editorial talent to feed and curate. Large imagery carousels certainly look cool, but they require photography and graphic design chops to produce imagery that meets quality standards (sub-par carousel graphics can quickly undermine an otherwise beautiful website). User commenting / interaction (usually) requires moderation, Twitter integrations require someone to Tweet, custom page-types / CMS configurations require increased in-house technical capabilities to manage the site going forward… and so on.

Shop smart

Our job as consultants is to collaborate with clients to specify website requirements that meet goals, address real user needs, and provide the most bang for the client’s buck. Ranking desired features and functions in terms of how well they meet those criteria, along with how complicated they are to implement, can help rationalize the process. If a particular feature ranks low on the goals / user needs scale, and high on the complexity scale, move it off the table. Exercises of this nature help focus website specifications on real needs, not on one’s hunger for (perceived) “cool.”

In advance of these exercises, just like when shopping, it’s important to plan ahead.

Know your appetite

Before embarking on a web project, be sure you have a keen sense of your in-house writing, editorial, design, and technology capabilities. Given your assessment, how much ongoing website management can your team realistically stomach? Unless you plan on adding additional resources, this set of capabilities (along with timeline and budget of course!) provides the initial framework within which you can begin outlining desired features and functions.

Avoid “blue sky” wish list sessions. Always set some real criteria first.

Know who’s coming to dinner

Websites should never be defined solely by you (or your consultant) in a conference room. While proper discovery and testing phases will certainly involve real-life users, it’s important to come into the project with a basic set of user needs to help guide your thinking.

What are the questions people answering your phones hear all the time? Do you have volunteers? What do they hear? Are there particular online services your constituencies are asking for? Understanding what visitors think, feel, and (should) do when they arrive at your website is an important part of developing a user-focused presence. Your consultants can help, but there’s nothing stopping you from doing a little homework to help you get properly triangulated ahead of time.

Simply put, the intersection of user needs and your organizational goals / resources / capabilities should frame your website’s functionality.

And know you can always shop again, later…

Finally, know there’s always room to grow.

Unfortunately, there remains a pervasive sense that once websites are launched, that’s that… the site is done. Not true. This isn’t your annual report going off to the printer.

Be comfortable with the notion of walking before you run. When they are properly defined and developed, websites are scalable. Functionality can be added. If you’re feeling woefully out of date and starving for a new website, focus on getting caught up before charging blindly into the future.

Maintaining a modern website takes work—more work than you might think. Your goal should be to operate within your means, and scale your website and capabilities in tandem.

In the end, a little planning can go along way towards getting your organization in the right mindset for a web project. Knowing your capabilities and remaining focused on real goals and user needs will make for a more efficient process, and a more effective end result.

Your organization, and your dinner guests, will thank you.

Ok. Starving. Off to Foodies