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  • September 22, 2016

Good Questions: Why We Prize Project Definition

They say the smartest students are the ones who ask the most questions. As a kid, that didn’t make a lot of sense—you think you look vulnerable—but with every answer you get, you’re more informed, wise, and empowered to keep learning. Decorative Illustration

Of late, to put this theory into practice, Happy Cog is trying a new project model that carves off a short, low-cost Project Definition effort as a distinct initial phase of every engagement. It’s a “look before we leap” approach that allows us and our prospective client to collaboratively develop a defined, realistic budget, timeline, and set of deliverables. Could we take a guess at these beforehand and pop them into a proposal? Sure. But we’d rather ask educated questions than provide uneducated answers.

The Project Definition phase allows us to develop a complete, shared understanding of how to best meet the needs of your organization and your audiences—and what we can build to accomplish that—before we pledge how much it will cost and how long it will take.

Being the smart blog-readers you are, you probably have some questions:

Why is this a better way to approach my project?

Since 1999, Happy Cog has completed 100+ client implementations. We’ve worked on everything from responsive design systems for Fortune 500 companies, to content models and strategies for higher-ed institutions, to custom-built CMSes for nonprofits. But each of these projects, in its own way, was customized for the client. We don’t do out-of-the-box solutions—and we don’t think our clients want them, either.

In the past, we’ve proposed projects based on too many assumptions and unknowns. This is what agencies typically do. They’re trying to win business to keep the lights on—and to do that, they’ll propose a large number that isn’t based on any insight into what the client or the specific project actually needs.

But with the Project Definition phase, the benefits go both ways:
  • It keeps us, the agency, from promising to complete a project for a set amount of money before we know what the deliverables are, how long it will take, and how much we should really be billing.
  • It keeps you, the client, from being blindsided by change orders should the scope change as we learn more about what you and your audiences really need.

What exactly will we do?

Like anything worth doing in life, we’ll begin by talking to people. We’ll work with you to gather a list of stakeholders and decision-makers (not the same thing, though they can overlap), subject-matter experts, audience members—basically, the people with skin in the game. We’ll interview them about their role at the organization, how they interact with the website, and how it could help them do their job better. We’ll look for themes in their answers.

Then, we’ll conduct an audit of your current website. This effort is as diverse and large in scale as your site. The audit includes an assessment of your content assets, the number of pages we’re working with, your URL structures, incoming and outgoing links, your functionality requirements, and the various technology platforms in use.

Finally, we’ll look at what we still don’t know. Ever the eager students, we’ll bring our remaining questions to a collaborative workshop during which we’ll explore and answer the leftover unknowns. Partially at the workshop and then back at Happy Cog HQ, we’ll build the resulting answers into a strategy for the project and a scope for the work to come—which, yes, includes a completed website (or CMS, or intranet, or…)

What do I need to bring to the table?

The whole point of a Project Definition phase is to let this phase define the project. So the first thing you, as a client, need to bring is an open mind. (Isn’t that what all teachers say?)

But we’re not starting from scratch. You need to bring some concept of what your goals are, what you’re trying to achieve with this project, and what pain points you’re trying to fix.

Also have an idea of not just what content and assets you have, but where you’re trying to go. What is your online communication strategy as an organization, and where does your website fit into that? These are questions we can explore together.

Before we can start exploring a full scope, we’ll ask you to bring some sense of a budget and timeline constraints for the full project.

Most importantly, we’ll ask you to bring and rally people—stakeholders, subject matter experts, users—and we’ll decide together the best way to engage them in the project.

What happens when this initial phase is done?

At the end of the Project Definition phase—at which point we’ll have developed a great sense of how our organizations work together—we will prepare a set of strategic recommendations and a scope for the rest of the project.

This work is “portable.” Once it’s completed, you’re free to work with anyone to execute the roadmap that emerges from this exercise. (Spoiler alert: we’ve never had anyone actually do that.)

So how do we get started?

We realize that the Project Definition approach requires you to put a little faith in us. We know it’s not necessarily apples-to-apples to what you’re asking for, but we think it’s the way to get the best apples in the end. And after 17 years of working on amazing projects and delivering for our clients, we feel we’ve earned a little faith. As far as students go, we’re not Kindergartners.

So to get started, we invite you to reach out to us. Questions encouraged.

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