20 Questions to Know for Avoiding Website Project Disasters

Sep 16 2010 by Jason Schubring | 31 Comments

20 Questions to Know for Avoiding Website Project Disasters

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?

Related Content

About the Author

Jason Schubring has built more than 100 Websites and delivered e-mail campaigns for companies of all sizes. His strategic, design, and Web development background creates a unique perspective on effectively combining digital and traditional marketing. To connect with him, follow him on Twitter @jasonschubring or find him on LinkedIn.

31 Comments

Евгений

September 16th, 2010

if you asking “What sites do you like?” you should ask “Why exactly?” also. Same with “What sites do you dislike?”

Alexandre Giesbrecht

September 16th, 2010

If the client can’t answer any question and you don’t decline the project then please, please, please, please, save all the communication with them and share it at Clients From Hell.com! :)

David - Web Designer

September 16th, 2010

Almost all of these questions sound familiar, especially “Who is the single, primary point of contact for this project?”. I have built a couple of Sites, where i was dealing with two company directors, both giving contrasting decisions, the projects took twice as long as expected!

Bill

September 16th, 2010

That was the summary I was looking for. As I would have written it if I was a writer. Thanks!

Mark @ Alchemy United

September 16th, 2010

Nice list. The one I use is now 30 questions deep.

Agreed!!! If they don’t want to answer then run. Any project where I tried to be “flexible” and sidestep my questionnaire has lead to more trouble than I want to mention. Never again.

A couple additional thoughts if you don’t mind:

- To Clients (who want their site to align well with their biz needs): If your web designer/developer does not ask such questions, find someone else

- To Clients (who want their site to align well with their biz needs): When your web designer/developer/agency does ask questions *invest* the time to answer them properly and thoroughly. Yes, you’re busy. They are too! Ultimately, the questions are to reduce waste for everyone.

Finally, while I haven’t done so just yet I intend on adding a “Client Commits To…” checklist that I’ll ask them to read and initial.

For example, the answer to #16 is important. What’s more important is the context of what they are willing to commit to the project in terms of time and priority. “In three months” might sound reasonable but not really if the client’s busy season is coming and then right after that they go on holiday for two weeks.

Not that I’m here to vent but I’m sure we’ve all had clients who took two weeks to reply to a question and then a week later ask why the project hasn’t made progress. Or maybe it’s just me? :)

Brett Atkin

September 16th, 2010

I would love it if I could get potential clients to do this before I provide a quote. And I have seriously tried too many times to remember. The typical process I see is I get an RFP and when I reply with a long list of questions, I normally get a 1 sentence answer if I’m lucky. Now I would love to toss their RFP in the trash and move on, but that isn’t always the financially responsible thing to do. I have much better luck getting this information after I’ve been awarded the project. I try to do my best to get a good feel for the client / project before I respond to the RFP. I recently walked away from two potentials after this feeling out process. One wanted to be everything to everyone and it is impossible to design a site that fits every demographic. The other was from a consultant that provided a 15 page RFP. The amount of detail was insane. In the end, I think you have to do your best to learn as much as you can without actually putting a questionnaire in their hands. I have recently started writing my proposals with a “research” step that includes all your great questions. We don’t move on until those are answered and compiled in a brief.

Alex

September 16th, 2010

Good list of questions.

I would suggest to check this boook also – http://www.web-redesign.com/

There are lot of useful stuff that help you build the work of your design business in right way

Allen

September 16th, 2010

Great list of questions. I use my own and will include variations of yours. Using a questionnaire for particular web design projects, or anything else like SEO, branding, etc. can be very helpful. As suggested above, if a client cannot answer most of your questions then they are most likely not ready to proceed at all.

IT Village

September 16th, 2010

good article. continue good work

Seth Alling

September 16th, 2010

Perfect timing as I have a meeting to begin a design with a client in a couple hours. Most of these I already have on my list, but there are a few which will be great follow-up questions. Thanks!

AnnWithNoE

September 16th, 2010

Follow up to #18 – what’s the best way to get in touch with that person? How available are they to answer the questions you need to make progress? What’s their level of comfort with web technology – can they speak at a geek level?

Thanks for posting this – I’d love to see a list of questions a developer should be prepared to answer.

Jason

September 16th, 2010

A vital article covering the important step in the design process. The most difficult part is getting them to answer your questions, since most of the time they haven’t REALLY thought about them.

Doing this will eliminate many headaches and wasted time later on. Thank you for posting this article.

Shaymein Ewer

September 16th, 2010

I understand numbers 10 & 11, but I disagree with them as well. A lot of times the owner or marketer has a vision of what they want their site to look like based on sites they like. But, you have to be careful not to base your design and development on the client’s likes/dislikes.

Of course you want your client to be happy with their end product, but I find it more and more at the bottom of the list when dealing with clients. Which overall, the UI questions should be asked of the specific user group that will be visiting the website as opposed to the client.

Eric Cope

September 16th, 2010

this fits perfectly with my new rule – no projects with family.

Nagib

September 16th, 2010

Nice article and really good questions to start.

Of course, depending on the site purpose there would be many other important questions, for example, for an e-commerce or e-learning websites with specific features.

But, one aditional question would be about the portability. Does the customer expects mobile audience? Is there a need for special features, or even a reduced version of the site?

And, just to not make this too long, question 17 is not only important but also tricky. You should also ask if your customer will want to integrate visitors data into an existing CRM database. This may lead to another branch of questions.

matthew c

September 16th, 2010

thank you soooooo much :) great list, and the commentary on each question is appreciated

john

September 17th, 2010

First, anyone who declines work if the prospect can’t answer these questions can totally refer them to me.

What kind of clients are we talking about here? I would venture that ZERO percent of my clients could answer some of these questions (correctly) before I explained what they needed, which is why I was there to begin with. my clients are small local biz, independents and artists (usually musicians). some of the local business people i have helped don’t even use the internet on a personal level at home let alone have a strategy for leveraging FourSquare or some other new unexplainable-to-non-savvy-clients service.

Second, just a couple years ago (before the economy completely crapped out its own skeleton) and before TwitFaceSpaceSquare changed the very language we use (share, like, tweet, favorite, friend, follow – OY!) it was much easier to scope projects and turn down potential disasters and even – gasp – split design and development and marketing into discrete silos for the overpaid project managers to make operations tidy and help with execution. the ‘social’ aspect of a web project was implementing a blog or forum. things have changed a bit.

projects are getting way messier and less defined as consumers change the way they fundamentally relate to the Internet (yes social media and mobile apps, i’m looking at you). some project managers (if you even have them anymore) are actually damaging the process by crow-barring ‘best practices’ from 2006 into something that doesn’t yet have a definition. i don’t care that every day there 10 billion new articles on how to use social media or mobile apps for business – nobody really gets this stuff. what works on Twitter or Facebook or ANYTHING online for one company or individual will not work for another in the very same industry. and it’s evolving daily. that has real consequences for UI and backend development.

Edwin Sandoval

September 17th, 2010

These suggestions are very powerfull but difficult to get it if you don’t try to do it in person with your customer.

Tutorials4all

September 18th, 2010

Interesting list of questions and very helpful. Will try to include ALL of them in my next project. Thanks!

Gabriele Maidecchi

September 18th, 2010

Wow, this is what I call, quality content. A new client’s preliminary interview should cover this stuff as a default, but it’s awesome to read such a comprehensive, meaningful list.
Thanks for sharing :)

arnold

September 19th, 2010

Thanks for the tips. Its surely help me

gdh web design

September 20th, 2010

Thanks for a great list of questions, we always start a project with an initial questionnaire. Its the only way to get a solid base of understanding but its also very important i believe to start the thought process for the client, its a great time saver!

Craig

September 20th, 2010

Great list, I have added some of these to our current question list and totally agree if these questions cannot be answered to begin with, the task of developing a website without the project becoming a disaster are non-existent.

Craig Pennings - Web Designer

September 22nd, 2010

Fantastic list, you have included a few that I haven’t thought of when gathering information for a quote.

Josh

September 25th, 2010

Scope creep will kill you.

Dale - PWD

September 28th, 2010

My staff sent me an email of this post. I think they are trying to tell me something :-}. Excellent article as we often suffer from scope creep and these questions gives some clear cut direction.

Dale

Avangelist

October 1st, 2010

I used to ask 10 & 11 as a religion, mainly when I was starting out as I thought that it would speed up my research and design process. After a few years I realised that these two questions will only ever result in you confirming 1 thing – the client wants an existing website almost every time. You can spend months working on a design but they will continue to refer to the site they have seen and liked and until you provide a clone of it they will not feel you have met their requirements.

David "Vilepickle"

October 3rd, 2010

Thanks for the great write-up. This is my favorite question when working with clients:

“When would you like this project to go live”

As you said, it puts the pressure on them to actually deliver content and expectations on time rather than letting it hang out there for months and months. And if they do let it hang and then complain about it you can come right back to this question.

Mike B

October 7th, 2010

I have about three meetings like this per week and I go back and forth about asking for site designs they like. If the client is sophisticated enough you can have pretty good luck, but for the less savvy bunch I’d say you’re better off asking “what do you want your site to do” or “how do you want users to feel when they see your site” etc. rather than asking for a look. Someone who doesn’t think about design all day (like most of us) might get stuck on a design if you show them something they like and you’ve pretty much pigeon-holed yourself into that look.

Jason

October 14th, 2010

I have several differently worded questionnaires similar to this. I have found individual clients may react to different wording, so if they have trouble with one set of wording i slide an alternate in – it tends to build rapport by showing i am prepared to modify my approach to achieve their desired design. It is the little things that decisions are made on.

They are reluctant to go through this stage, but once they realise you NEED the answers, they just get on with it.

Rosie

May 13th, 2011

Nice article to spark the thought process in clients.

As Brett Atkin noted, all too often we send these questionnaires out and receive little in return, many times just a sentence or two to answer all the questions. I find it helpful if I’m the one willing to do the writing; set up a face-to-face meeting or a phone call with the prospective client, ask the questions verbally and write the answers down. This way I can re-frame the question or provide additional hooks that will get the client thinking and talking.

Another caveat… When you ask them what websites they like, ask them what they like about these sites. I had one client send me three links to sites he liked. All three were widely different in style, layout, just about everything. When I finally pinned him down, it turned out that he liked that the font color wasn’t black; each of these sites were using an off-black charcoal for the main body text.

As time has gone by, I’ve quit asking this question (and its opposite, what don’t you like). Too often the client wants a website that looks just like an existing site. There are other, better ways to gather this info, such as asking the questions Mike B mentioned above.

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