Once you’ve located a project and sent the prospect your portfolio, and they’ve expressed interest in working with you, the next step is to sit down with your new client and set everyone’s expectations. Most companies consider their websites to be a marketing tool so you’ll often be working with their sales or marketing department, who are almost exclusively non-technical people. This means that they won’t know what information to give you – what’s important for you to know before you start coding. You need to take responsibility for getting that information from the client; that way you’ll be much less likely to have an unpleasant surprise halfway through the project.
Before you start building (or rebuilding) a website you need to know what the client wants their website to do. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Quite often you and your clients will be guilty of making assumptions about the website’s capabilities. So in that initial meeting, you need to toss out all your assumptions and get the real nitty-gritty details on the project. Here are some questions to get you started:
- Who will be using the website?
- How will the site’s visitors interact with the website (placing orders, contact forms, surveys, downloads, flash movies, quizzes, etc.)?
- What graphics or images will the site need? Does the client already have them or do they need you to find/generate them?
- What is the message that your client wants to get across in their site? A company that wants to portray themselves as friendly and easy to work with will have a very different site from one that is trying to look as bleeding-edge tech-savvy as possible, which will be very different from a company that wants to look dignified and high-level corporate.
- Who will be responsible for maintaining the website later on? If it’s you, get the terms of your contract straight NOW. If it's not you, you may want to work out terms for training the person who will be maintaining the site.
- If you’re rebuilding an existing site, how will the new build be phased in over the current one? Some developers like to code the entire thing on a testing server and swap it in all at once; others prefer to deploy one section at a time, usually starting with the least visible portion of the site so that they can deal with the inevitable bugs. Either way is fine – just be sure that the client is aware of and OK with the method you choose.
- Is there a definite deadline (e.g. before the next industry trade show, or before the company’s fiscal year ends)? If so, you must be absolutely sure that you can complete the project before then, or you will have an extremely unhappy client. The rule of thumb is to estimate how long you think it should take and then double that timeframe.