Make It Work: 4 Web Development Project Management Tips

It’s no secret that a website development project is a complex process. When you’re managing client expectations, motivating your team and trying to meet deadlines, it can feel like you’re trying to juggle chainsaws with one hand tied behind your back. That’s why good project management is essential for success as a digital agency.

To help identify project management tips that can keep your team (and you) on track, we enlisted Director of Projects Suzy Bates and Project Manager Chris Devidal of web design and development agency Four Kitchens to share their wisdom.

Abstract Project Management Graphic

1. Kick it off right

With a sufficiently detailed contract, it should be easy to transition into kicking off the project with your team.

Make sure you equip your team for success with a detailed project plan. It should include:

  1. Breakdown of deliverables. Include all the steps to get from where you are to a finished project. For example, if you are building a new website for a client, your project plan should not say “Build website.” Break each task down into steps, like “purchase domain”, “create dev environment,” “design homepage,” etc.

    Each of these steps should have an established process. For example, in the “purchase domain” task: what is the established domain company your business will purchase from? Do you purchase one, three or five year ownership? Is this purchased by your company or billed separately to the client?

  2. Team roles. Now that you have broken down the deliverables into smaller tasks, determine who on your team will do what. Include internal QA tasks that precede sending deliverables to the client for approval. Also be sure to include client tasks, such as reviewing and approving initial mock ups.

  3. Due Dates. Your project plan should include deadlines for you and the client, broken down for each deliverable. If you’re billing by milestone or in sprints, make sure each deadline is tied to a payment date.

  4. Dependencies. Make sure your team knows what pieces depend on other pieces to be finished before they can be implemented, so all of the different parts can come together smoothly.

It’s worth going through the project planning process even if you’re a team of one. As your only employee, you need to be an effective manager to get the most out of the hours you will be putting in.

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2. Communicate, communicate, communicate

The success of a complex project hinges on everyone communicating with each other throughout the process. “Engage in open, honest, and regular communication,” Suzy says. “Talking with the clients every day helps them hear all the bumps in the road. Clients end up feeling like team members rather than clients.”

Make a habit of staying in touch with every stakeholder with:

  1. Internal Status Meetings. They don’t have to be hour-long gab-fests, but a quick check-in meeting for updates and next steps works wonders to keep a complex project moving.

  2. Client Status Meetings. Brief touch-base meetings with the client can keep them posted on your progress and remind them of upcoming deadlines. Chris says, “We provide the client with a regular report or always-available dashboard which allows them to track the financial progress of the project.”

  3. Project Management Software. Services like Asana, Basecamp, and Mavenlink all make it easier to see what’s due next and who owns what, as well as serving as a repository for resources and assets.

Suzy also advises you to find new ways to communicate with clients. “A meeting isn’t the only way to get information from them,” she said. “We use Slack, chat, video calls, email, even good ol’ fashioned phone calls.”

In addition to your regularly-scheduled meetings and check-ins, reach out to the client proactively when:

  1. Something goes wrong. Chris says, “Don’t sit on bad news. Seriously, tell them early; tell them now. Clients are more angry if they find out they could have known earlier.” Suzy adds, “Making a mistake isn’t a disaster, so don’t treat it that way. Don’t blame. Learn.”

  2. Before they miss a deadline. “Call out a client when they are being hard to deal with,” Chris says, “as we are all humans and will likely deliver a less awesome solution if we aren’t getting along.”

  3. If you have a major question, such as “Is this an approved resource?” or “Does your company still offer this service we’re building a page for?”

  4. Something is out of scope. Scope creep is the enemy of progress (more on that in part four), so address any changes in scope promptly.

3. Be flexible but realistic

If your contract allows the client to suggest new features, make sure any features you approve are feasible, budgeted for, and added to the timeline. That includes additional processes for your team, such as another round of edits or more testing, as well as additional functionality. Let the client know how a scope change will change the timeline and the budget. “Empower the client to make decisions with the right amount of information,” Suzy recommends. “Give them the information they need so they can know how decisions impact progress and either make adjustments or adjust their expectations.”

As you balance the client relationship with project expectations, scope creep is one of the most common risks that web agencies encounter. Don’t be afraid to assert yourself if the client asks for a major addition that would substantially delay the project. It’s okay to suggest that you deliver the original project first as a phase one, then begin a new phase two project to integrate the feature they suggested. That way you won’t have an ever-lengthening timeline with no deliverable in sight.

4. Standardize on what works well

It may take a few projects to develop a workflow that works well for you and your team. As you learn which project management tools and cadences work best, standardize on them. It’s important that you create repeatable processes to reach your agency’s maximum efficiency.

"Repeatable processes are more efficient in that the variation from the planned path is much more easily recognizable," Suzy says. "Additionally, the learning curve is smaller if you have done at least some of it before."

Four Kitchens has found that the following tools help their team with project management:

  • Harvest for time tracking

  • HUBPlanner for people time planning (resource planning)

  • JIRA for task definition and tracking

  • Google Docs for spreadsheets, documents, sharing of documents.

  • Periscope for amalgamation of Harvest, HubPlanner and Budget data in a database.

Once your project is delivered, it’s good to take a step back and evaluate how the process went. Take a clear-eyed inventory of what your team did well and what could stand to be improved. Chris says, “We have a culture where blaming is not allowed, so when something happens we try to learn from it rather than point the finger. Retrospectives are a core element of learning how to do better next time. Caring communication about mess-ups always leads to productive outcomes.”

Sometimes managing a web project can feel like spinning plates while herding cats (or herding plates while spinning cats). But you can keep all your cats in the air with a little project management. Start with clear expectations, do the prep work, keep communicating, and stay focused, and your complex projects will get done one milestone at a time.

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Topics Agencies, Digital Agencies, Education, Agency Partners