When working on a new web design project with a client, especially a new site launch, it is vital to have a clear definition of the project’s scope and the expectations of the future website owner. It’s far too easy for corporate politics and personal preferences to drive the features and processes of a website unless you consciously force the client — and yourself, at times — to focus on the needs of the users and the purpose of the site. Outlining the basic requirements and goals also helps to limit scope creep later on in the project.
Especially because many clients are non-technical, they struggle to explain what they want in the context of websites. By providing them with a list of questions, they can fill in the blanks for you without feeling like they are expected to know how to design a website. After all, that’s what they’re paying you to do, right?
How to Avoid Website Project Disasters
To help create the appropriate focus, I have developed a list of 20 questions you should ask prior to building any website. These questions are meant to get the client thinking about their core business, their differentiators, and their users. It also gives them a chance to get all their ideas on the table up front. That helps position you as a good listener, which is always a smart move.
This list of questions is intended for small agencies and freelance designers who are working with small- and medium-sized companies. I’ve also used this list of questions with large companies and it’s helped to fast-forward things early in the process. These questions should be used as early in the process as possible, prior to providing an estimate and a rundown of the project’s scope.
For many designers, the answers to these questions might even disqualify some prospective clients. Sometimes it’s OK to decline a potential project if it looks like it will be a disaster even prior to the onset.
It’s best to customize these questions per client. Depending on the customer, some of these may not be relevant, and others may be added, but I hope this set of questions at least gives you a solid foundation for constructing your design questionnaires with.
1. How do you describe your organization/business in one sentence?
Amazingly, many small businesses have never taken the time to answer this one simple question. By getting this insight from them, you’ll have an anchor to tie together the entire project. If the client can’t do this, the project is likely to end up as a messy site that lacks focus.
2. What three words describe your organization/business?
Tough? Yes. Important? Extremely. Users need to quickly understand what a business website has to offer, and why they should care. These three key words will help develop a clear message for the site’s users and can drive everything from the website color palette to information architecture. They can also help with SEO in some cases.
3. What makes you unique?
In marketing lingo: "What’s your value proposition?" Helping the client define what makes them stand out from their competition can be one of the most helpful insights you can attain at the forefront. If you know what makes them unique, you have a great basis for building a website on.
4. How do you describe your primary site audience?
Is the audience young? Old? Web-literate? Knowing the audience can influence everything from the font size and style to the navigation approach.
One word of caution on this one: Many clients will describe their ideal audience rather than the one that actually visits their site. Take their input as opinion and validate whatever you can through analytics reports if they have an existing site. If it’s a new site, you may be able to gain some insights by studying competitor sites through web tools like Compete.com.
5. How much time do you think the average visitor spends on the site per visit?
This question can help determine the width/depth of the site and the navigation structure, as well as the site features that are needed. For example, if the site you’re building is a community-driven site, then you’ll want to consider some game mechanics that will help increase user participation and have them stay longer on the site. Again, check this against real web analytics results whenever possible.
6. What is the primary purpose of the site? What’s the secondary purpose?
Many clients want their site to be everything to everyone. By writing down a single primary purpose, they’re setting direction for the site. Is the purpose to generate a contact? Sell an item? Inform the visitor? Induce some other action?
7. Is your primary focus on long-term repeat visits or short-term single visits?
With this information, you can help the client determine whether the content of the site will drive their focus. A brochure-ware site won’t encourage repeat visits because the content will be static for long periods of time. A daily blog might not make sense if one-time visits are the primary focus. Questions like this position you as an expert so you can help them reach their goals.
8. If a visitor spends 2 minutes on your site, what three things (in order of priority) do you want them to know?
This question is all about limiting scope creep and defining the goals of the site. With this information, and the answers in some of the questions from above, you should have a crystal-clear picture of what the site needs to do from the client’s perspective.
9. Who are your major competitors?
As part of your research phase, it’s helpful to know and look at who the competitors are to see what works and what doesn’t in their particular industry. The goal here is to see if you can produce a product that outdoes the competition, which is something your clients will love you for.
10. What sites do you like?
It’s helpful to see what good sites are in the eyes of your client: sites that have features, layout, content or design that appeals to them. Almost every experienced designer has run into a case where multiple mockups are provided, only to find out that they want a site that looks a lot like one that already exists. Get this information on the table early and you’ll avoid headaches and wasted time.
11. What sites do you dislike?
On the flip side, allowing the client a chance to vent about sites they don’t like will provide you with a better idea of what to avoid. Many clients have a hard time describing what they like/dislike unless they see it. This gives them a chance to do that, as well as educate you in the process.
12. Are there specific site features you would like to see included?
This is another question to help you gently set the scope of the project and make sure that the expectations are discernibly explicit. Don’t let client assumptions turn your project into a money-losing proposition. Site features could be blogs, search features, social media integration, and so forth.
13. What do you find most annoying about using websites in general?
Give the client a chance to vent! It’s better to find out that they hate certain things now rather than after you’ve included them in your designs.
14. Are there any colors or features that should be avoided?
Defining colors that need to be avoided can save you from embarrassment later. Few things are as embarrassing as accidentally using a color palette from a major competitor. Never assume you know the answer to this one.
15. Will you need to update the content of the site on your own?
Geek speak: Do you need a content management system? Should we consider building the site on a platform like Drupal, WordPress or Joomla? This one could clearly impact the scope of the project.
16. When would you like this project to go live?
It seems obvious, but this is a biggie. Assuming you know how long it will take you to complete the project — and if you’re a professional designer, you better! — this will help you define the key deadlines, deliverables and benchmarks.
It also puts some responsibility back on the client. Who hasn’t been burned by a client who fails to deliver content and approvals in a timely manner, but still wants the launch date to remain the same?
Last, but not least, it will keep the client from calling you every day for status updates.
17. Will this site need user registration and be able to save data?
Geek speak: Is there any database work that will need to be done? Most projects with dynamic components and databases will require more work and discussion to define specific requirements and deliverables. This is good to know up front so that you don’t get hammered by massive feature creep.
This question also enables you to assess if you are able to do this project based on your skill set and whether or not you’ll need to contract someone who can.
18. Who is the single, primary point of contact for this project?
I am sure that some of you are smiling at this one. Nothing spells disaster like having more than one client making decisions about a site (i.e. designing by committee). It’s almost guaranteed that you’ll be given conflicting direction at some point when this is the situation. Therefore, it’s important to establish who has the final say for times when the project comes to a screeching halt because of decision paralysis.
19. Will your site need a way to contact you via a web form?
Simple stuff: but it’s so common that many clients assume it’s a freebie and doesn’t take any work at all. Make sure you define this type of stuff up front.
20. Is there anything else you would like to communicate to me?
"Let’s get it all on the table now." Some clients are so full of ideas that they have trouble making decisions until they feel that you’ve heard all their ideas and suggestions. Rather than fighting that throughout the process, give them a chance to share their ideas up front.
What Do You Do If a Client Can’t Answer?
If you can’t get the client to provide any of these answers, I’d strongly suggest that you consider declining the project. If they can’t clearly explain their core business and the purpose of the site from their perspective, it doesn’t bode well for the project overall and you know that this will be a tough project to complete. You have to think about opportunity costs: By taking on a disaster-bound project, you can be affecting your chances in completing existing projects (as well as taking up new ones).
If you use this list on a project or have used similar lists of your own, we’d love to hear how it helped your projects succeed. We’d also like to hear some of the horror stories about failing to get these answers early on.
Are there key questions missing from this list? Are there questions you’d remove?