Project Development

When are Websites Like Houses or Suits?

Shadow Element

“For every complex problem, there is a simple solution that is wrong.” George Bernard Shaw

Project Design

All products begin with a conversation about the business’s goals, the audience’s goals, and the constraints on the product.

Thumbnail of Pipsqueak’s worksheet for a website’s goals.

Click to download Pipsqueak’s worksheet. It provides a starting point to help think about the conceptual design of your website.

To us, projects first go through a design process—three specific design stages: Conceptual Design, Interaction Design, and Interface Design.

Conceptual Design:
What does it do?
Interaction Design:
How does it do it?
Interface Design:
What is its look and feel?

Imagine you’re building a house. Our design process would break down as follows:

  • Conceptual Design

    • Your architect’s understanding of your goals for the house, your aesthetic sensibilities, your preferred lifestyle, and your financial and physical constraints.

  • Interaction Design

    • The architect’s “wireframe” where she outlines the features and characteristics of the house internalized through her own expertise.

  • Interface Design

    • The blueprints stage where the “look and feel” of the house is solidified.

A good architect thinks through details that you haven’t considered.

It’s a lot cheaper to build a house with a good set of plans than to just make up the design as you go along. When you add a new staircase on paper, you don’t have to rip out actual walls to make it fit.

Illustration: Man draws on a whiteboard sketching out product design.


Illustration: Painter paints white over a Pipsqueak website billboard.

So now you’re through the design phase and you have a beautifully designed house—on paper. You still have to build it. For house construction, there’s a parade of skilled “trades” each of whom can accomplish some of the necessary tasks—carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, tile setters, and so on. There’s no cutting corners here. Even if you decide to do some of these tasks yourself—and safety tip: if you decide to install the electrical, you’d better have the skills—the tasks still have to be done by somebody, and it’s better if they’re done well. With any luck, there’s someone, usually the general contractor, who orchestrates all these tasks and makes sure that the floor is installed before the carpet. He’s performing another vital skill: project management.

In a house, there’s also a lot that you can’t see but that’s still vital. There’s finance, insurance, zoning, permits. There are structural engineers, soil engineers, septic systems, heating contractors, land graders, hydrologists, connecting the utilities, negotiating with neighbors. You get the picture—there’s important stuff to do that’s not immediately obvious.

Fortunately, a website is usually a lot easier to build than a house. But as a complicated project incorporating a large number of special skills, there are many similarities. After a web project is designed, it still needs to be built. Each task needs to be done by somebody. There’s the content that you can see: text, photography, illustrations, perhaps animations, audio, and video. There’s the programming to display that content and provide user functionality. And there’s the stuff that you can’t see but that’s still important—editing and proof reading, search engine optimization, quality assurance including cross-platform testing, audience testing, web hosting configuration, version control, and project management.

The Digital Do-It-Yourselfer

Illustration: Sewing Needle and Thread

Imagine you need a suit. You can buy a sewing machine and some fabric and go to town. But when you get there, it’s going to be in a homemade suit. People can tell. Your clothes represent you. Even if you own a sewing machine—unless you’re a tailor—it’s probably not a good idea to make your own suits.

There’s something about web work that leads many to believe they can do it themselves. Text, layout, photography, and interface design seem to be particularly attractive to these digital do-it-yourselfers. Their sense of easy mastery is encouraged by the makers of software tools who spend millions touting how easy the tools are to use. And we have all created text, photographs, and layouts at some level. We all have experience using computer interfaces and think we grok the mind of our users (What a shock! We usually conclude they’re a lot like us.) And it’s easy to disregard what we don’t know—or don’t know that we don’t know. It’s like that Chinese proverb:

“He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not…”

Project Management

Project management is about organizing and managing resources so that all the work necessary to complete a project is done to appropriate quality standards and within the budgetary and time constraints. More than just cracking the whip, project managers also must contend with legal issues: copyright, privacy issues, and accessibility. They must contend with advances in technology and internet usage trends. They must be aware of best practices in all the “trades” that they supervise. They must educate the site’s stakeholders in the issues involved in building the site and counsel them regarding the decisions they must make. And they must establish an appropriate workflow for both the creation and the ongoing maintenance of the site.

In much the same way that everyone working on a house buys into the blueprints, everyone working on a website must buy into the original design. The project manager must be adept at assigning roles and responsibilities among a web team. The project manager needs to balance the need to grant a certain degree of creative freedom to each of the “trades” working on the site while constantly checking that work against the needs of the underlying design. On a team, that creative freedom must also be limited by expertise; there’s often an inclination by contributors to spread beyond the scope of their knowledge and, indeed, their competence. Interface design, for example, is often undertaken by graphic artists. But a graphic artist can be terrific at visual design and terrible at interface design. It’s a little like the difference between an architect and an interior designer. Although some may be trained in both sets of skills, generally you wouldn’t consider having one do the other’s job. Likewise, there’s nothing about interface design that a graphic artist can’t learn and many have learned it. But interface design is a separate field of knowledge—it’s not a subset of the graphic arts.

Honed by the experience of building complicated projects, good project managers are made not born. Good project managers on web projects have performed, at some point in their careers, many of the underlying tasks themselves. A good project manager has to be able to think like a graphic artist but also be able to switch perspective and think like a coder. Maybe it’s the classic left brain/right brain dichotomy, but being able to put themselves into the minds of the people actually doing the work means that they make better decisions.

Putting It All Together

A row of children hold hands at the beach.

“Wisdom is knowing what to do next, skill is knowing how to do it, and virtue is doing it.” David Starr Jordan

Preproduction, production, post-production. Like a movie, a website project often splits neatly into these divisions.

Spend the preproduction time designing the site, discovering the needs of the site’s sponsor, understanding the site’s audience, making a creative brief, a technical brief, and a project schedule. Make sure that you know what you’re building, why, and how. Make sure that everyone is on board with the project as planned and that everyone’s expectations and objectives are aligned.

Spend the production time making the site. Acquire and allocate resources, organize the work, direct the activities, track progress, be sure the work is on the mark and up to quality, manage issues, communicate with the stakeholders.

Spend the post-production time making sure the site works as planned. Prevent defects, solve issues, test the site with users, communicate with the stakeholders.

And then manage the continued maintenance on a site as it grows and changes, staying fresh and aligned with the changing communication goals of the enterprise.