Websites aren't rockets. So why do we still far too often approach web projects like rocket launches? It's time to start planning for continuous change.
Far too long, we have thought of web projects like rocket launches: You plan, design, and build the thing, maybe you train people how to steer it, and most of all you sweat blood only to be prepared on that magical date: launch day. That one decisive moment when your rocket takes off – flawless, perfect – with all eyes on the final product and the team that built it. With stakeholders sitting in their comfortable chairs as they watch their investments go up – sometimes in smoke.
To some extent, this analogy totally makes sense. Setting up a timeline and having a clear goal to aim at, and be it only a red-letter day, can indeed have a positive impact on the intensity and progress of work. And it can also be argued that there is some importance in making a good first impression, especially if your work is targeting a bigger audience. Setting a launch date has therefore been a valid strategy in many projects, and it surely will continue to be valuable.
But there is a downside in approaching a digital project like a rocket launch: Websites aren't rockets. Rockets are built for a specific mission and after serving their purpose, they end up as space debris. End of story. Websites are different, though. The moment you launch them, their story has only just begun.
Time is change. Friend or foe.
This story needs to be part of your planning. Because as sophisticated your strategy and thoroughly crafted your design might be, the only thing that's certain is change: Your users will change, their device preferences will change, their usage behavior will change. Technology will continue to change at lightning speed, making things look outdated in the blink of an eye and requiring new solutions, but at the same time opening up new, boundless possibilities. And also your competitors might change – but so might you, your brand, your product, your content.
Not being able to flexibly react to those changes can be harmful. In the best case, you will have to invest most of the money, resources, and effort that went into the launch once again in five years, because your product is not up-to-date anymore. But maybe you realize that you invested a lot into features that turned out to be not as beneficial as expected. And if you did not prepare for adjustments upfront, making changes to your product will now be much more expensive and tedious when existing structures have to be broken up again and everybody is already working on the next project. In the end, your customers might even go to your competitors who get it right. So you better be prepared for change.
Plan for change
While most physical products can't be improved much once the customer carried it home from the mall, a digital(ly enhanced) product is not only able to change, most of the time this is where digital really shines: You are able to react to your user's behavior and feedback. You are able to improve features like accessibility and performance. Planning for change is not that hard, but it has to be done early to really get everybody on track and because it can impact decisions right from the beginning. That’s also why simply including a support budget for „all those changes“ is definitely not enough. You need to approach your project like an ever changing product from day one, because that's exactly what it is going to be.
Depending on your project, you then might ask yourself some interesting questions like:
- Does our workflow facilitate continual improvement?
- Do we have a strategy for failure?
- Does our content strategy include a flexible solution for content management?
- Is our design flexible enough to easily make changes?
- New devices occur every day: Is our design robust and responsive enough?
- Are we independent enough from technological trends? For example, do we really need that fancy third-party framework? What happens if the framework changes?
- How about progressive enhancement?
- Who will monitor the success of the product once it is up and running?
- Who will be responsible for changes? Do we need a team that takes care of the product? Do we maybe need a team that does this 24/7?
Restart on repeat
We are living in most exciting times, with disruption at every corner and huge economic and social challenges ahead. In order to master the future, embracing change is crucial.
Both we as web professionals as well as our clients have to overcome the idea that the success of digital products can be planned beforehand. If we acknowledge the fact that change is inevitable and that in a lot of cases our educated guesses are only guesses, we will change how we approach projects. This is not to say that we should stop planning. But we should instead start planning for continuous change and come to love the flexibility that is inherent to the medium we are designing for. We should learn to restart on repeat.