What do you need to know from your client before starting a new website project?


(Or what I’ve learn to ask and consider before starting to work on any client’s project)

It’s the first meeting with the client. He emailed you regarding a website he needs to create for his business saying something like this:

“Hi! I’m looking to build a new site. It’s about dogs. It’ll have an about page, a contact page and maybe a shop so people can buy things directly from the site. Oh, I also need dogs’ pictures, smiley and happy dogs. How much can it cost? Can it be ready in three weeks? I don’t need something fancy or complex, just a simple site that people can share on Facebook and that kind of stuff. And I need it to be on top of Google results. Can you do that?”

I’ve got emails like this many times. I’m sure you did also. But what do you do next? Is this email enough to actually answer to this potential client with a proper quotation? If not, why not? What else do we need to know before we do that? Or what’s the best thing we can do in order to get this job?

My parents always say I loved asking a lot of questions, even when there weren’t answers. I asked and asked and kept asking. I grew up but I still do that. Only this time you don’t need to worry, these questions do have an answer and they are here to help us improve our work.

Replying right away to this kind of emails with a budget proposal may have several risks:

  1. You can end up taking less money than what the project is actually worth.
  2. You can end up working more time than expected on a project that was supposed to take less time.
  3. You can end up working on a project that is actually beyond your capabilities and resources, and then don’t be able to deliver the expected results.
  4. You can end up with a bad client (I know this is a lazy term, but you get me, right?).
  5. You might be perceived as less professional.
  6. Not getting the job (this possibility is always there, but here it’s incremented).

All this happened to me, of course, till I learned. I understood that in order to avoid these unwanted risks I needed to get this potential client into a personal meeting where we’d be able to talk deeply about the project and about how our studio works.

Therefore, my main goal for this first email reply (or phone call) is to set up a meeting.

Once I learned that, this is what I started to do:

I always reply those kind of emails by telling a little about how our studio works: our procedures, what we can do, why can be good to work with us, what the client should expect. That’s good to try and match the expectations from the beginning, and it’s also a great strategy to filter clients that will be a good fit for you. This part is a really short description. A paragraph should be enough.

I start that email by telling the client that his project sounds really interesting and I close it by asking him on a meeting (“I would love to meet you…”) so we can seat and chat about his project and tell him about how we work more deeply.

Why is that meeting so important?

There are two goals to that meeting:

The first one is trying to close the deal with the new potential client and for that the client needs to be listened.

I cannot tell you how important is to let the client talk. Not just about the project; let him talk about his life, how did he get to what he’s doing right now, why he does this, what are his achievements, his obstacles, his dreams, his frustrations.

“…the most effective way to get people’s attention is to give them yours. When you truly listen to someone – when you offer them your undivided focus, summarize their main points to make sure you’re tracking, ask curiosity-based questions to find out more – you’re demonstrating openness and respect in a powerful way. Most people automatically want to hear what someone who seems interested in them might have to say.”

Erika Andersen, Forbes Magazine

Make the potential client feel comfortable with you. Make him feel you’re already involved with him and its project. People need so much to be listened that they’ll hardly lose the opportunity to give their project to someone that was able to listen to him.

But listen to him sincerely, not just act like you’re listening: it’ll build a better relationship with your clients and it’ll let you work from a better place.

The second goal to that meeting is getting the information you need, as exhaustive as it can be, to later know how to quote the project correctly and how to prepare yourself, your studio and your resources for what is going to come.

At the same time, take the time to clarify things for the client and make sure he understands how a website development project works, how you work, and what he’s going to get after the process is done.

From that first meeting we’ll get (or we need to get as much as we can):

– A clearer panorama of what the project is about and who the client is.
– An expectation of time and resources we’re going to need.
– A concrete project structure (that includes a content structure) with its scope and limits to prepare an optimized budget.

If you work with clients that don’t live near you, you can also make the meeting over Skype or Hangouts. But it’s essential that you find a way to meet the client and speak with him before starting any project.

And then the brief…

I use to come back to the studio after the meeting, read all the information I got and build a written project proposal that works as a brief between the studio and the client.

Such a brief includes:

  • Information about the client and his business
  • A short and general description about the project
  • A detailed description about what the site is going to include (from content to specific features)
  • Estimated times
  • Budget
  • Side notes with needed clarifications about limitations or unexpected things that may not be included in this proposal and will need to get special care when the time comes

We’ll get to specifics about writing a project proposal in the next post.

For now:

What’s the information we need to obtain from a client on the first meeting to build this brief?

What to ask, how to ask and why to ask it.

1. Activity/Business

As web designers we meet endless kinds of business and activity fields. I’ve made websites for artists, for theater shows, for apparel stores, for chemical and industrial companies, for non profit organizations, and even for online dating sites.

So how can we know each one of these fields? We don’t. If we’re curious enough or have a large and diverse global knowledge we may know some of these fields, but there will always be those that we don’t really know. And even for those that we heard about them… do we really know in deep how do they work, what do they care about, how the people working there think, what’s their mission? That’s what we have to learn.

For the website we’re building to reflect the project identity it’s mandatory that we first understand that identity. So don’t be afraid to ask the client every question you think will help you clarify what he does, what its work looks like, what are their strengths and weaknesses, what’s his history and how he imagines the future.

In short, questions on this matter may include asking about: activity, products, services, history, mission, vision, market context, competitors.

As we said before, clients want to be listened, and they’ll love telling you in detail about their everyday occupation.

2. Target Audience

For me this is always the most important piece of information we need to get. Because communication happens within two parts, there’s always a person on the other side. And the websites we create are meant to be for other people, because of those other people.

We don’t create a website just so we can have an online address for our project. We build it because we want to get something from the interaction that happens within the site and people.

And for that we need to really know the people that will be in touch with our site. A good idea is to build a detailed profile (or profiles if there are many) of our site’s audience, taking into consideration different kind of variables.

Questions to ask at this point:

– Who is the audience of this website?
– Why will people get to this website?
– Who are we looking to attract?
– Geographic, demographic and socioeconomic details.
– How do we talk to them?
– What are their expectations?
– What are their difficulties?
– How can your site serve them?
– Where do they hangout online?
– What are they used to use?
– How do they look for information?

And there are much more, depending on the specific project. Believe me, we can make a whole separated post just about this matter.

I know proceeding on this type of research sounds complicated when times and resources are limited. But if you can at least ask some of these questions and try to figure in your mind the kind of people that will visit the site, not only your job will be much easier but also the project will be more successful. And that’s something your client wants and therefore, you want it too.

3. Goals

Why does this project need a website? What does it suppose to achieve?

Goals will answer to these questions. Our whole project strategy will depend on the objectives we state at the beginning of the process.

They serve to guide the project and to make sure everyone involved is working towards the same purpose. They also help us understand (and many times to explain the client) what’s relevant to the project and what isn’t. If it helps getting us to the goal it’s in; if it doesn’t, it’s probably out.

When you sit down to write goals for your project, keep in mind 3 essential points:

  1. Objectives need to be clear, concrete, achievable, attractive and measurable.
  2. You can have general big objectives and more specific ones.
  3. And they usually start with a verb.

Some examples:

– Generate awareness about the project / the company / the organization…
– Sell our products…
– Engage the community…
– Create an online community of…
– Advertise our services…
– Generate donations for…
– Build an e-mail database of…
– Inform about…
– Help people communicate with each other…
– Help people find…
– Persuade the audience to…
– Be a source of reference about…

Exclusive Bonus: Download the Website Strategy Questionnaire. A comprehensive questionnaire that will help you understand any website’s strategy.

4. Content Structure

We got to a tricky phase. While in an ideal world the content of a website needs to be created prior to the design stage (so the designers can design for and based on the content and not the other way around), in the real world that doesn’t always happen.

But I’m not talking here about having the texts and the images ready. In this step we need to understand the big structure the site will have, so we can anticipate what we’re going to need to build it in terms of content, resources, development work and time. It will also clarify to the client what site is he going to get and prepare him to work on the material he’ll need to provide.

The content structure needs, of course, to respond to the goals stated before. It’ll list all the sections and subsections of the site, including specific comments or features included.

A basic example could look like this:

  • Home
    • Section 1: …
    • Section 2: …
    • Section 3: …
    • Section 4: …
  • About
    • Child page: Mission
    • Child page: History
    • Child page: Team
    • Child page: Clients
    • Child page: Offices
  • Services
    • Service 1: …
    • Service 2: …
    • Service 3: …
  • Store (E-commerce integration with online payments)
    • Page: Products list with products filter (categories)
    • Page: Cart
    • Page: Check out
    • Page: User account
  • Blog
    • Articles separated by category sections
    • Comments on articles
    • 5 different authors
  • Contact us
    • Contact details
    • Contact form
    • Google maps integration

* General features:
– Newsletter subscription
– Site wide search

You can present the structure in a list like this or in the form of a tree (the tree lets you visualize in a clearer way the hierarchy and the connections between each section).

One more tip:

I always build sites based on WordPress, so their contents are by nature self-manageable. That means the client can later on edit/add/remove contents from the site. BUT… as we know, there’re many ways to handle content in WordPress.

We need to define if we’re going to use regular posts and pages or specific custom post types, or specific custom fields; if we’re going to develop a taylor made theme or we’re going to use an existing theme or plugins.

In order to decide, we need first to know which contents on the site the client will want to be able to manage by himself (dynamicer contents) and which content types will be more static.

So on the side of each item on the list you can write an S if it’s a “static” content or a D if it’s a “dynamic” one. For instance:

  • Mission page (S)
  • Blog articles (D)

That’s something I ask from the beginning and define together with the client, to make sure we prepare the dynamic content in a way that will let the client manage it.

Summing up…

Website projects are diverse. Each one has its own needs, goals, problems and, more important, people it relates to.

It’s fundamental to know as much as we can about the project we’re getting into, so we can design a solution that answers to that specific project. In that sense, it’s highly recommended that we meet the person behind the project, AKA the client.

Clients love to be listened (did I say it already?). It’s our job to know what to ask so we can build a better project proposal that will stand as the spinal column of the website building process.

Exhaustive information guide us to a better strategy. And a better strategy will lead us to a better building process with better results.

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