Why Web Projects Take So Damn Long

July 01, 2009

Posted in Design and Web Industry.

Client: “I need a website in two months!”

It takes our group an average of 5 months to produce a website. Damn… clients get some serious sticker shock when they find that out.

So I share our project schedule document, which was supposed to be internal but shows exactly how we arrive at that timeline. Let’s take a look at why that is:

Milestone Hours Days with Client
Audit 6 n/a
IA 14 3
IA Revisions 2 3
Content Migration/Editing n/a n/a
Wireframe: 4 (+1 IA) 3
    Round 1 Revisions 1 1
    Round 2 Revisions 1 1
Homepage Design: 18 5
    Round 1 Revisions 6 3
    Round 2 Revisions 4 2
Subpage Design: 6 3
    Round 1 Revisions 2 2
Build: 20 5
Proofreading 8 n/a
Testing/Cleanup 12 (+4 GD) 3 n/a
    Testing/Cleanup #2 8 5
Launch 2 n/a

Notice how our total work time is something like 120 hours? Now count up those client days… that’s right, our average website runs somewhere around 40 days of client hold time. Ignoring weekends, that’s two months of hold time where we’re not working – just waiting for the client to send stuff back.

Gantt Chart image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/morville/3220968572/

Even if we’re not doing any other project work at all and both sides hit every deadline, we can assume that the project will take at least three months.

Wait a second… After each one of these stages, we also include some lag time – buffer for missed deadlines, vacations, etc. that might interfere with an otherwise precise schedule. In other words, we wait two days before we start the next stage.

Ideally, we wouldn’t need this. But in reality, every single project uses some chunk of (if not more than) their hidden lag time. With maybe 12 stages containing 2 days of lag time, that’s another 24 days of wait. In other words, a little over a month of work days. This brings our total up to approximately 4 or 4.5 months for the entire project.

Sticker shock begins to wear off. Enter the stage of despair.

Client: “But I need my website in two months!”

Me: “What do you want to give up? Do you want shorter hold times? Should we take out our lag time? Can you promise – on penalty of serious project delay or outright cancellation – that you will hit every deadline?”

Client: “…No, I guess not. I have to get approvals from my [department|boss|committee].”

Me: “Then do you see any way to get this project timeline down to two months?”

Why this Works

Clients don’t get what we do. They might think they do, but they rarely understand the amount of work, the process, and the exact location of the bottlenecks in the project. We have a fairly mature process with content planning, research, wireframes, and iterative design and development. Some vendors can turn projects around much faster – they just skip a bunch of the steps we find critical to the project’s success.

Even without other client work, the project’s greatest inefficiency is slow client response times. But the client doesn’t see this – he simply sees the final launch date and assumes you have slow turnarounds.

By breaking it down, with full transparency, the client can better understand the role he plays in the schedule. It’s 2 + 2 = 4. You might not like it, but 2 + 2 will never equal 3 because of poor planning or sheer force of will.

Still, I like to offer a carrot during these meetings:

Me: If you beat your deadlines, you’ll start saving days. We will probably be able to start work on your next phase ahead of schedule. And we’ll have more time to dedicate to refining the end product. So if you’re speedy with replies and approvals, we should end up launching much earlier. Just remember, it’s all about how long you need to get us the feedback we need to continue working.


  1. drew — July 06, 2009

    Ok so those numbers make sense for a brand new site. But what about starting with a template? Just curious.

  2. Daniel Morrison — July 02, 2009

    Great stuff.

    I’m a bit fan of more transparency. The more you show someone, the less likely they are to blame you.