What are Web Projects Actually Like?

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What are Web Projects Actually Like?

Imagine being a child again, or, for those of you truly in touch with your inner-child, simply imagine sitting on the living room floor, surrounded by blocks. In your mind is a grand vision for a tower unlike any other known to the world—one which only imagination could realize and wooden blocks can only approximate (though thankfully, you don’t yet know this). You start piling blocks, no plan necessary other than the picture in your mind and the desire to create. In truth, you’re not exactly building this tower, you’re discovering it—shaping it intuitively as you respond to the rubble around you. And there’s no deadline. You’ve got all the time in the world … That is, until Mom calls you for dinner.

If you’re like me, the artist in you still entertains romantic, David Macaulay-esque construction fantasies like this one at the outset of most projects you undertake. You begin them with the wonder of child only to be quickly thrust into the practical realities of adult work—plans, personnel, budgets, schedules, resources, deadlines, and management. Within minutes of getting started, wonder is often replaced with worry. The artist in me might find this a bit sad, but I’ve learned two important things that make it all right:

  1. Web projects are successful when practicality and creativity meet in appropriate measure, and

  2. If my whimsy has to take a step back for the sake of the project (which it often does), I’ll always have my living room floor…

You’ve no doubt learned this lesson already, so I don’t need to go on about it much more than to leave it at this: Web projects aren’t like play at all; they are a complex meeting of design and technology shaped by many people who must work to maintain a common vision. It’s this “complex meeting” idea that could probably use some further explanation, though. To do just a piece of that, let me return to the construction metaphor, but bring it a bit more down to Earth.

If you’ve ever been involved in building a house, you already have some insight into how building a website really works. Before any wood is cut, thousands of decisions are made, from finding land to choosing the knobs on the kitchen cabinets. In between is a wide spectrum of issues that concern many players—the architects, developers, construction workers, interior designers, landscapers, and of course, the customer. With the cost of the design and construction of a house, you’d expect the project to require the focus, diligence, and consistency of everyone involved, unfortunately leaving little room for play. (In fact, experimentation is guaranteed to take most clients from wonder to worry lickety-split.) I think you see where I’m going here. Web projects are just like this.

Because web technology makes so much room for iteration (unlike building houses), they must be managed even more closely. A print project makes a significant technological transition from design to production—from the screen to the print shop—which is costly enough to keep it from happening in reverse. Web projects, on the other hand, move forward and backward across a narrower technological gap that often makes it too easy to do ad nauseum until, whoops!, you’re way over budget with no real way to reverse the trend. Not good. To be avoided.

So far I’ve been ruminating on one of the more difficult differences between print and web projects, knowing full well that I run the risk of making it seem like working on the web just isn’t any fun. I don’t want to do that. I assure you, working on the web is fun. For designers, the need for discipline and moderation is nothing new, and is certainly neither a killjoy nor the really interesting thing about working on the web.

The Interesting Part

The really interesting part is how it gets done. Think about the building analogies I’ve used. Buildings and homes are obviously the results of long, costly, and complex processes. But a striking difference is where building can be constructed with almost no direct input from the consumer—few homeowners have little role other than spectator while construction is under way—a good website cannot be built without significant involvement from the client throughout every part of the project. It’s this difference that makes it so critical that anyone anticipating a web project be well versed in the process—designers so they know how to guide their client, and clients so they know what to expect and how to answer the many, many questions they’ll be asked along the way.

There’s a lot to plan for, and even more to learn.

P.S. This and my first post have been pretty abstract. I’ve intentionally focused them in this way because I want to lay a foundation for some of the more concrete material that I might share later on—not to mention that while there is ample supply of technical information available on the web, there is far less in the way of helpful strategic advice. So for those hungering for more detail, don’t worry. If I don’t share it myself, I’ll likely point you to many sources that will.