Three steps to success

What matters to a client with an idea for a web application is getting the product they want, at a price they’re prepared to pay, to a deadline (usually “yesterday”). What matters to the developer, on the other hand, is to create it at minimum cost, as soon as possible, so they can invoice and move on to the next project. Beneath this deceptively simple set of needs, though, lurks a minefield.

Three steps to success

Rarely do any of our clients know what they want in sufficient detail, which isn’t a criticism: the very nature of software development is for a product to evolve as opportunities are spotted and redundant features abandoned. The trick is to specify enough at the beginning to allow design and development to start, then to embark on a continuous process of consultation, testing and refinement. Problem is, this makes generating an accurate price quote and project plan very difficult, and the total cost in particular is usually the critical information needed for the project to go ahead. So the ongoing consultation needs to keep an eye on the effects of any changes on plan and price.

Client and supplier are both serving their own interests and a successful product results only when these interests can be aligned: the client wants to pay as little as possible, whereas the supplier wants the biggest budget possible; the client wants the job done in no time, but this can lead the supplier to shortcuts that haunt them later on; the supplier wants to do as little work as possible, while the client is looking for the best achievable result. Little wonder then that so few software projects finish on time, on budget and to the satisfaction of all parties. One or both parties can end up unhappy, with the client feeling it’s not the software they wanted, and the suppliers feeling they’ve barely broken even (perhaps even lost) on the project due to endless changes of spec. I’ve been a software supplier for almost ten years, and before that I spent almost as long commissioning software, so I’ve seen this tragedy from both sides, and it’s my experience that successful, “win-win” projects share three common aspects: communication, trust and commitment.

Keeping lines of communication open is essential. Services such as Basecamp and Skype make it easier than ever to ensure a constant two-way flow of information, making it far more likely that deadlines will be met as problems are identified and dealt with earlier. Basecamp allows you to keep project documents – including the project plan, specification and scripts – in full view, so you can be certain that the entire team is using the latest version. It’s also possible to hold online conversations without the need to co-ordinate multiple diaries, which results in a clear account of what’s been agreed that you can all refer to later. It can publish project milestones online, too, alongside to-do lists for individual team members.

Open communication depends on trust, which is encouraged by open communication, in a virtuous circle. It’s usually up to the supplier to take the lead, and it’s a risk well worth taking. By being open from the beginning the supplier encourages the client to also be as transparent as possible. Every member of the team then knows the current situation and nasty surprises are eliminated.

Trust needs to be earned and the onus here is again on the supplier, since clients will feel they’re shouldering most of the risk. Integrity and honesty are essential: clients quickly sense the attitude of their suppliers and reciprocate. Integrity sometimes means giving clients the bad news that what they want just isn’t possible, but I firmly believe there’s no other way to do business. When I look back at the most enjoyable, successful projects I’ve worked on, they’ve always been characterised by an excellent working relationship between my team and the client.

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