I was emailing with a friend recently who is trying to get her website completed. The development phase is finally beginning and she’s been given a date when the website firm expects to complete the work. I had to caution her, though, don’t count on that date. Development is the most unpredictable phase of website and software creation.
In earlier posts, I’ve described in detail the stages of building a website. The Discovery and Design phases are fairly predictable.
Discovery is mostly meeting time
Discovery is the process of gathering requirements. We hold discovery meetings consisting of one to two hours (usually two). Based on the size of your project, we will allocate generally from two to four Discovery meetings. That’s about four to eight hours of your time. For each meeting, you can assume we’ll spend one to two hours doing follow-up documentation. So, depending upon the size of your project, requirements gathering will take somewhere between six and sixteen hours.
Your vendor should be able to give you a similar, accurate estimate of the discovery time, based on the size of and complexity of the website you are trying to build.
Website design time is estimated with SWAGs
The time to design the website is also predictable. That prediction is based on the number of pages in the site, and the complexity of those pages. A website with content that rarely changes and that doesn’t include places where the user can enter text or make selections is easier to design. The size of the website is important because, just as it takes longer to write or edit a 100 page document than a 10 page document, it generally takes longer to design a 100 page site than a 10 page site. (That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but generally true.)
Your vendor should know how long it takes its designers to design simple pages and complex pages. By using their SWAGs and adding in review meetings and revision times, your vendor can get a pretty accurate estimate of website design time.
Website development…that’s harder to predict
Now we get to the website development stage. I wish I could say it was equally as predictable. But experience across the industry has shown it’s just not. A simple WordPress website is fairly predictable, but when you move on to larger, more complex websites, the development time becomes harder to estimate.
I’m not a developer myself, and I’m sure that some programmers out there can add better information about why development often takes longer than expected. What I can say is that all the software and website development companies I’ve worked for, from large ones like Microsoft to small ones like the very first startup I worked at, have had the same issue: development time estimates are frequently wrong.
- Development often requires using a lot of different technologies that don’t always play well together: the programming language, the operating system, the customer’s ERP systems, the shopping cart, the hosting company, and so on.
- You can only research technical issues so much before development starts. At Coherent Interactive, we have our developers review the requirements and design because we’ve learned that designers (with the best of intentions) sometimes come up with brilliant designs that are difficult to implement. By having our developers involved early on, the developer can tell us when a design element is likely to break the budget. Still, you can only spend so much time researching the cost at this early stage. Unfortunately, some design elements will take longer to implement than you predicted, because it’s just plain hard to know up front.
- Coordination is challenging. On large websites, you are likely to have multiple developers. That means more coordination and therefore more challenges. Ask any experienced project manager—on any type of project from construction to NASA launches–more people means more challenges means more risk.
- Bugs, bugs, bugs. Inevitably, a feature is basically implemented, but there are niggling little problems (software bugs). Those dang bugs can be sooooo time-consuming to track down and resolve. It seems like you are going to have this part of the site finished today, but some pesky bug has proved incredibly difficult to resolve, and so the feature takes another day to complete.
- Changes. No matter how much time you spend on requirements gathering and design, when you actually go to implement the design, you and the customer uncover more issues or new needs. You can’t anticipate everything.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that development should drag on forever. Your vendor should be able to give you a fairly accurate estimate of the time your website will take to complete. A good agency has experience across different types of projects, and can draw on that experience to give a solid estimate.
Still, even with the best agency, expect a little less accuracy when it comes to the development phase. Now that you understand the challenges, maybe cut your vendor a some slack.
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