What makes a successful web development project?

We were recently asked the question, "What makes a successful web development project?" by a potential client. It's a good question, one that I spent a fair bit of time pondering. Every project is different: the clients we work with come from varied industry sectors, have different organizational cultures, and different objectives. Over the past 14 years, we have learned a lot about what it takes to make a web development project successful.

Here’s some of those things:

Clearly defined strategy and business objectives

You can’t have a successful project if you don’t have a clearly defined goal that your team is working towards. Your organization has strategic goals. How will the website align to your strategy? How does the website fulfill your company's mandate? We want to know the big picture and ensure that big picture is agreed upon by all team members to reduce conflicting assumptions and make sure we’re all in agreement about the direction the site needs to go.

Leadership support

There are many stakeholders in a project, from the team members to the end-users of the final product, but some stand out as having a large impact, both positive and negative, on the project: the project sponsor or executive leader. We have engaged leaders to get their support on projects by keeping them informed and involving them directly in workshops or through steering committee structures.

Customer / end-user involvement

Design can be a lot of guess work, unless the end-user is involved. Instead of speculating on what might work and how a design might be received, we cut to the chase and find out. Talk to your customers. Test things. To quote our client IDEO, “Fail early and fail often”—get out in the real world and learn from your mistakes. There’s nothing quite as educational (or humbling) as watching a design you toiled over get poor marks in a usability session. Design isn’t about our designer egos; it’s about the customer and ensuring their success.

Solid project management

As rigorous and detailed as any project plan is at the start of a project, it cannot predict the future. Things happen: conditions change, requirements change, clients change, technologies change, customers change. Good project management becomes great project management when dealing with the unknowns and changes in a project. We’re lucky enough to have a great team of experienced and certified project management professionals at OpenRoad and have benefited from their decision making abilities, negotiation skills, and deep insight into the design and development process.

Honest discussions about scope and budget

Talking about scope, budget, and timelines on a project are difficult. Everyone wants the best possible quality item for the cheapest amount of money in the fastest amount of time! Coming to consensus on matters of scope, timelines, and budget are fundamental to project success. Rigorous estimating practices and solid project management inform and back up our ability to have these discussions with our clients, along with a willingness to work within the constraints and respect the limits of our clients’ time and money.

Explicit assignment of responsibility

We utilize a matrix document called a RACI to determine who’s responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed for tasks in our projects. Often times project conflict can occur due to the assumptions of team members as to who was responsible for a given task, or who should be consulted prior to a decision (and then wasn’t). By stating these assumptions up front and detailing them in a RACI matrix, we get to find the points of disagreement before the project starts. We also get to analyze the RACI to find out who has too much responsibility, isn’t being consulted enough, or needs to be informed more.

Respect for opinions and ideas

We enjoy working with our clients and their customers and respect the experience and subject matter expertise they bring to the project. We learn a lot from our clients and their end-users. After all, our expertise is the domain of building websites, web applications, and using the web strategically, not running a retail business or a library or providing car insurance or the production and distribution of electricity. This mixture of perspectives is one of the most enjoyable parts of our job and we feel privileged to engage in these conversations, ask “silly questions,” and challenge assumptions in a well-intentioned fashion.

There's so many more, but those struck me as pretty important. What others do you consider to have been important in making your web development project a success?