When committees write a specification, they outline their business, target audience, and requirements as a whole, and may even suggest the content that they are after. They also suggest additional functionality that they would like added, such as a forum, blog, shop, adverts or a messaging system.
These are often one line or one-sentence specifications and it’s nowhere near enough for a web agency to quote.
I’ll explain why with an example; a “messaging system”.
Does the client want a very simple system where it allows users to email each other? This is practically no extra work on most systems, so is unlikely to impact the cost.
If not, do they want a self-contained system in its most basic form, or want additional features? This is where web agencies start to raise questions, and where the complexity of the tender rises exponentially… along with the price.
Can you message more than one person at once? Do you need messaging groups? Can they be renamed? Can you add people to these groups are they are formed? Can you see when people are online? Can you search through previous chats? Do you want profile pictures/icons in chats? Do you want to enable emoticons (smileys)? Does the chat need to operate in multiple character sets (different languages)? Does it need to allow attachments such as PDFs, sounds, and videos? Does the chat need archiving functionality? Should it support images? Do you need notifications? Should it be standalone or should the login automatically link with other parts of the system? Do you need a way to report abuse to the admin? Can admin see messages? Should a user be able to undo or delete their own comments? Does it need to be end to end encrypted? Do you need a time-out for security? Do you want to allow users to theme their messages? Can users block others from messaging them? Can you ignore others or mute conversations to stop notifications? Do you need access to standard GIF libraries? What about voice recognition?
Seem a bit far-fetched, and that I’m being pedantic?
Well, Facebook’s Messenger has all of the above features, as do other common platforms, and the issue is that that’s what people learn to expect. Clients will often describe a simple messaging system, wanting all of the above. But that’s far from simple.
So here we have options ranging from a free email link to something that could take months to build. Where do we, as web agencies, aim our quote?
- We could go in at the lower end, assume it’s a very simple messaging system, hit the brief, but massively under-deliver and disappoint the client who likely expected more.
- We could go in at the lower end knowing fully well that the client won’t be happy, and expect to invoice the client for additional changes getting the project to the specification that they expected. This happens far too often.
- Or do we go in high, assume they want most of the functionality, and more than likely not get a chance of winning the tender as we don’t look as competitive.
We could, and of course, will ask the client a few questions. But this is likely to be just one requested feature of many, and specifying what the client needs will take days or perhaps weeks, and that is assuming that they have enough time to answer every question that they are asked by every web agency that they sent the tender to.
In reality, the client hasn’t even thought about this, or maybe wasn’t even involved, and will often need to revert to a committee to answer any questions.
So, what’s the solution?
What the client really needs is a dedicated phase with a web agency. During this, the web agency will scrutinise all of the required features and ask questions as I have above. They’ll discuss any implications with the client, and make sure the client knows exactly how this will affect functionality, expandability and price. Once a specification for each requirement has been agreed, ‘plans’ are quite often made to specify everything in detail. Also, if the client is up front with their budget, a web agency can help tailor the specification to match the budget.
This is of course a paid-for project, as it could take anything from days to weeks depending on the project, but the deliverables will be a specification that any web agency can be used to produce a more accurate quote or estimate.
Of course, the web agency producing this specification hope they will get the project, but this is not a given, and the client can take this document to the competition should they wish.
A good analogy here would be paying an architect and structural engineer to develop a plan for building a hotel, before passing it to construction companies to provide quotes.
This is not always a necessity but should make it clear why sometimes web agencies lead their prospective clients in this direction. It really is a good move as it means the client and chosen web agency to end up having the same specification in mind when a proposal is written and a website is built, and this way no one is disappointed with the outcome
The tendering process as a whole often encourages web agencies to under quote to ‘get their foot in the door’ and then add on charges at a later stage. This is a perfect way to avoid this and manage expectations from both sides from the outset.
The names of these projects change between agencies, but we call them ‘discovery phases’ if they are aimed at producing a specification, or ‘feasibility study’ if we are trying to determine if something is possible, or how hard it is to accomplish.
The aim here is to choose a web agency that you trust, and work with them to develop a full specification that will deliver what you're after, be expandable, and hopefully within budget.
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