A website is never finished

A website is never finished

During about 14 years of web design, development and programming, I’ve constantly emphasized the fact that a website is never finished. Well, not in the real meaning of the word. Almost without exception, during the development phase of a project, my clients ask me: so, when is the website going to be finished? And I always reply: define ‘finished’.

This is the reality and I’m not being ‘rude’ or ‘clever’. Sure, they hired me to do a job, plan the outcome, work towards the goal and deliver what I had promised. But what IS ‘finished’ in a website context?

Websites have become so full of bells and whistles nowadays, it can be a complex process. It all depends on the desired features, the people involved, the platform of choice and the input from various shareholders. Sure, you can build what they call ‘a business card’ website with only a page or a few, add some contact info, an ‘about’ section and a contact form and be done. 

For a more complex approach, you could slap a nice little blog on wordpress.com, with a free template, adverts all over, and start blogging in less than 2 minutes! That’s certainly one way to go about it, if that’s what you consider ‘finished’. And of course, that could be enough for you and there’s nobody who can say otherwise.

But if we’re talking a company or charity website, a product or e-commerce store, a community, blog, or anything you wish to invest in long-term, you need more than just a 5-minute job.

Each client has their own opinion and set of expectations when it comes to the ‘build me a website’ request. Some clients are easy, particularly if they are not too tech-savvy. They will ‘want a website’, ‘not care how it’s done’, ‘just get it out there and I will pay you whatever’. Sounds like the ideal client - that’s nice and it seems to give you a lot of creative freedom with none of the consequences. 

In some cases, ‘all the features’ are ordered, with as little expense as possible. That’s usually a warning sign right. From experience, I know that a project like that is ‘never finished’. There’s always that ‘feature’ you have not implemented without which the website is not finished. 

Others are more reasonable and want ‘some set of features’ within a ‘reasonable’ price. Fair enough, I can work with that. A good combination of feature vs. price is good but you need to be specific about them. You can plan most features, but not more. As I’ve discovered, during planning there are a lot of ‘main things we need to have’, the indispensable functions. Then there’s the ‘nice to have’ category, where some negotiation can be had. Always try to under-promise and over-deliver as they so rightly say.

Enter the MVP

The better question, as far as when the site is ‘finished’ should be: when is the website going to be ready for launch

When it comes to a larger project (website, mobile app, intranet), an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is a great idea. List all the features you need without which the website or app cannot be launched. This is the minimum set of functions it must perform to be ‘ready for launch’. Sure, it may not be perfect, it may not have all the fancy bells and whistles, but it will do the job, accomplish what it is meant to and serve its main purpose. 

You can add new fancy functions later. You can tweak that little border that doesn’t quite sit well, but later. If you keep chasing your tail, adding yet another thing to the website in hopes of making a bigger splash at the launch, you will never launch!

Take an e-book reader app, for example: There are so many of them out there, it’s so hard to count, each one boasting that extra-special, unique feature. That’s great, but if you’re setting out to build your own from scratch, you’re up against some serious competition.

If you have a classic brainstorm ‘blue sky’ session with the major stakeholders, you will get an interminable list of ‘nice to have’ features but only a few of them are essential to make an e-book reader. Perhaps, an e-book reader MVP is simply:

  • Allow customers to sign up or login
  • Allow them to buy or download their purchased e-books
  • Allow them to read their e-books, jump to a desired chapter
  • Maybe, allow them to change the font, font size and remember the reading position

The list of extra, nice-to-have features can be much longer:

  • Add synchronisation of reading position across platforms
  • Allow side-loading
  • Add highlights, notes
  • Allow customers to share fragments of the e-book on social media or by e-mail
  • Allow sharing and synchronising of notes
  • Add a dictionary function to define words
  • And so on…

For a website, the process can be similar, with even more things to choose from and to ask for. That’s why a great idea is to establish what the MVP is. Maybe the main features that we can go live with are: 

  • Have an attractive home page that welcomes, leads you into the content and shows the latest news, the main services you offer
  • Have an about us page
  • Have a separate page for each service with more details
  • Include the contact information and ways you can be approached – social media links, contact form, a map to your shop/office.
  • On the technical side, you want to track the traffic with analytics.

This might be enough for a simple company presence online. If you’re building an online store then of course the MVP needs to include:

  • Ability to list all the products you want to sell with minimum set of information: image, descriptions, details
  • Ability to add them to the shopping cart, order and pay for them.
  • Order confirmation e-mails, order processing, etc. – which already gets into the website backend territory.

Later, you might want to add product sharing on social media such as Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Then you may want to allow customers to add product reviews, submit their own photos of the product or their experience with it. But does this qualify for the MVP? You decide and make it clear in the requirements.

Coming back to my initial affirmation that ‘a website is never finished’, I’d like to say that even beyond the MVP and the launch date, a website is indeed a perpetual project. I like to think of a website project as a sculpture – you don’t finish it with just a few strokes. You start with some broad lines, some raw hints, then you add more and more detail, chip here and there, until it starts resembling the final shape but it is still rough around the edges. And so, you keep chipping away until it’s perfect. 

With a website or web application there’s always something more to do, to add, change, tweak or improve. There’s always a newsletter registration form to add, a social media link, a change in the home page, and for the more complex and bespoke websites, a change in code, an improvement to the business logic, optimisations and data flow. 

My point is, when you’re planning a website with a client, or if you’re a client, when asking for that quote, price estimate and deadline, be a little merciful. Make sure your minimum viable product is no more and no less than what is required for it to stand on its own, to define what it does and provide the core service you’ve intended for it. 

Every developer understands that their job is not finished when the website is launched, the app is submitted to the app store, or the users get access to your intranet application. That’s when work begins! You’ve gone live! Yes, there’s room for improvement, yes, you don’t have the full experience out of the box, but you’ve gone and done it! 

So don’t ask for the moon before launch. Ask for a ladder, maybe a pole. You can build the rocket ship later.

Photo credit: @spacex

Cristian

The guy behind Graphicious.co.uk, Cristi has been developing websites and applications for more than 14 years, has built his own CMS from the ground up (twice!) and is passionate about e-commerce, automation, graphic design and music.

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