Running a successful development project – the five documents you really need

As outlined in my previous article “Documentation: boring – yes, essential – absolutely!”, documentation, although unexciting, forms a key part of any project. It helps to keep things on track and protects both you and your client. In this article I’ll look at the five documents you need to run a successful development project from start to finish.

Document 1 – Statement of Work

The statement of work is your kick-off document. It’s purpose is to get a high-level agreement on what you are going to deliver prior to the main work beginning. As a minimum, your statement of work should define the key deliverables and your terms of engagement (your rates, where you will work, what expenses you will charge for, whether you are working alone or bringing in additional resource). Ideally, it should also include some protection for your work, setting out compensation rates should the project be scrapped prior to completion and payment milestones (i.e. development tasks that trigger payments). By getting agreement on these, you can start work confident in the knowledge that both you and the client are working to the same agenda.

Document 2 – Wireframes

Wireframes aren’t usually seen as an essential document, but they make my list for a simple reason: clients aren’t usually technical people. The functional specification, as we shall see, is the more important document for development, but most clients simply can’t read them without falling asleep. That’s why wireframes are so useful, they are a visual representation of the deliverable that can be produced quickly and without the need for coding (what do you mean you’ve started coding before knowing the full specification – shame on you ;-) ). They are also useful for helping the developer to understand the user journeys involved in the system. There are lots of tools available online to help you create wireframes, but you can sketch them if you feel more confident. Once you’ve got your wireframes in place, run through them with the client and get them to sign-off on the concept; it’s the big document next and you don’t want any changes half way through.

Document 3 – Functional Specification

For the developer, working alone or in a team, this is the main document. A good functional specification is worth its weight in gold, as it contains the single source of guidance for the project. Within a functional specification, each piece of functionality required for the successful build of the system must be fully defined without any ambiguity. Using the wireframes as a reference, the functional specification will describe the workings of each screen, from input validation to login procedures and error handling. Writing a functional specification is not easy, and can be onerous, but is essential. It provides the basis for successful testing and acceptance and can stop ‘scope-creep’ in its tracks. If you can, try to go through the functional specification with the client, especially if there are any logical calculations or data processing that is represented in the wireframes. This won’t be easy, but it does help a project to run smoothly – pick out the main areas they need to look at or provide a client-facing “executive summary” up front to help them through.

Document 4 – Project Plan

The Project Plan defines the delivery schedule for the project. Although this will focus mainly on development milestones, such as the end of development, testing and go-live, it should also include payment milestones if these have not already been included in the Statement of Work. Project plans serve a dual purpose, they define timescales, but they also allow you to show the impact of changes on the project delivery date. The Project Plan is all about setting expectations for the client and protecting your time.

Document 5 – Project sign-off

This document is often missed from a project, but it’s important as it forms a clean break between development and production. The document itself is simple, you just need the client’s signature and a reference to the original Statement of Work, but its impact is greater. With a project sign-off document in place, there is no argument over charging for work, as anything post-signing is chargeable work (unless you decide otherwise) – a good situation to be in.

These five documents provide a complete overview of the project, both from the perspective of the developer and the client. They provide clarity around the deliverables and the timescales, and protect from the dreaded ‘scope-creep’ (I haven’t covered Change Management in this article, that’s for another time). They also engender trust, as a professional approach to a project gives the right impression to existing and potential clients.

Just one more?

Of course, there is one document that isn’t on the list that most freelancers would say is the most important: the invoice. It’s the one document we’re always happy to create and to submit to the client. Hopefully, with this set of documents by your side, submitting your invoice will be the easiest thing you have to do all project and there will be very little issue about getting it paid!

What documents do you use in your projects? Do you have a different set of essential documents? What’s the most important document in your armoury? Do you agree with our list? Let us know in the comments.

Why documentation could save your project (or even your business)

Ah! Documentation! It’s everybody’s least favourite activity. We all like to be creative, whether you’re a web designer creating great sites, a writer penning brilliant copy, or even a consultant electrifying the room with your ideas and wisdom. And that’s fine, that is the most exciting and satisfying part of a project, it’s what keeps us doing the things we do (that and money of course). But without documentation, boring old documentation, we’re all heading for a fall.

But what do we mean by documentation? That’s a good question. Documentation takes many forms, from invoices to functional specifications, creative briefs to project timelines – and they’re all important. Documentation is the backbone of any project for two crucial reasons:

1. It sets the limits on a project

When you come out of a creative session, or a briefing, your head is usually buzzing with ideas. As is the clients. At this point in the project, the end product is rather nebulous and probably looks different in your head than it does in theirs. Good documentation helps you to distil this creativity into a deliverable. By taking a step away from the creativity for a moment, you can clearly define what you will deliver – be it 300 words or a website design – in terms that are unequivocal. It should also define how you will deal with changes, which we all know and accept are part of the process. How many rounds of amends will you allow; are they free or paid? And finally, having set out the deliverables, it should also say when you will be paid – be it 100% on completion , 100% after the initial delivery, or 50% up front and 50% on delivery. You must set the terms of engagement, so that the limits are clear, both positively (what you will do) and negatively (what you won’t do). By doing this, the client understands what they are getting and if they overstep the limits, you have the power to push back or charge more.

2. It sets expectations

So you’ve set the limits on the project and the client knows exactly what they are getting. The next step is to set expectations. Expectations are different from limits. Limits define the deliverables for a project, whilst expectations set the times and costs. A good documentation set will tell the client when you will deliver and how much it will cost them. It allows you to set out your terms, and the client to benchmark your demands in an open and transparent manner. For me, in my career in digital agencies, setting expectations has always been the key to a good client relationship. By being honest about costs and times, you can create trust, and trust will get you a long way. Setting expectations means you can beat them, and meet them. Conversely, it empowers your client and makes them feel in control. It also stops you from being hassled when you need to work (”is it ready yet?”) and buys you time to do a good job.

If you don’t provide documentation around a project, you’re opening yourself up to risk, and as a freelancer risk is the one thing you don’t want. In big companies, if a project starts to wander off-course, they can throw additional resource or budget at it without causing too much of a dent in the bottom line - I’ve seen it happen. For you, that’s just not possible, or it might be, but at your expense – you’re either going to be putting in a lot of long days and late nights, or reaching into your bank account to pay people to help you. It’s in your interest to stop this from happening and it’s here, in the dark times, that documentation is your friend.

So next time you start a project, for a new client or an existing one, make sure you’ve got your documentation in order. It’s boring, yes, but one day it might just save your project, or your business.

In the next post, I’ll look at some of the key document you should use to control your projects – from briefs to project plans.

Central Desktop: What businesses get wrong about change management

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Yes, I am aware that the last few months on this blog have been a series of guest posts – breaking just about every rule of blog writing (1 promotional to every 5 useful, etcetera, etcetera). However, I like to think that if I write an article it will be useful to someone somewhere, so here’s another.

Change management doesn’t have to be a horror show

The phrase “change management” may conjure up an unpleasant vision of an army of consultants roaming around your office and a large monthly bill hitting your bottom line, but in truth it’s something that applies to all businesses and projects, small or large.

If there is one scary thought about change management, it is that change is very rarely manageable. As pointed out by Michael Jarrett in his 2003 paper, The seven myths of change management: “…the rapid development of change and its divergent antecedents means that change is not something that can be managed with certainty. Outcomes can be both divergent and unexpected.”

Which, in layman’s terms, means that you never know exactly what to expect when you begin, and things never run as you intended. Still, change management isn’t as scary as it sounds. By following some simple rules, it’s possible to successfully introduce changes into a business with a minimum of fuss and inconvenience. Equally, it’s very easy to exacerbate this situation, which explains the origin of all those horror stories. Here are seven things that businesses get wrong about change management.

Read the full article and find out what the seven things are over at Central Desktop.

Central Desktop: Why is business tech spending on the rise?

Logo for Central DesktopYes, it’s been a slow couple of months here, so please accept my apologies. All droughts come to an end though, and this one ends with a look at the latest forecasts for tech spending, digging under the obvious economic reasons at the some of the macro-and micro-trends that have changed our spending behaviour.

At the start of April, both Gartner and IDC released their latest forecasts for technology spending. The good news for technology vendors? Both forecast solid growth across all areas of spend, from telecoms to devices. It’s a stark turnaround from the 2013 reports that showed a contraction in spending in three of the five main tech categories. Good news, overall – but the real interest in these predictions is behind the scenes. The financial troubles of the last few years, coupled with external and internal changes in the business environment, have left us looking out at a very different landscape. As Quentin Hardy succinctly put it in The New York Times, Tech Spending Recovers, but It’s Different.”

So what is this new landscape? And how have we ended up here?

As always, you can read the full article over at Central Desktop.

Central Desktop: How to make a case for new technology to your CIO + IT team

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New Year(ish). New Article.

Gartner have made some bold predictions that state that by 2017, the CMO will be be spending more on technology than the CIO. Well, if that’s true, CMOs need to read this right now, because buying technology for the business – even in today’s SaaS environment, isn’t as easy as clicking your fingers. They need to know how to pull together a cast-iron business case.

Luckily, this article contains five tips to make the process a little easier.

There’s nothing more unsatisfying than introducing a new system into an organization and seeing it fail. It’s a waste of time, a waste of money and a waste of opportunity – and yet it happens all the time. Usually, it has nothing to do with the technology; these failures are almost always about adoption. Whether a system is over-hyped, under-utilized or simply not fit-for-purpose, the result is the same.

Unfortunately, these precedents can make it more difficult to introduce systems in the future, as “system apathy” sets in and users become inured to promise and cynical about change. This apathy can also spread to those people who install the system: IT and the CIO. Instead of a new solution, they may see ill-conceived plans, a lack of ROI and negative impact on their credibility. The erosion of the business benefit of these systems can have a massive impact on the bottom line.

[...]

It’s great that CMOs are tech-savvy, but they need to show more than a recognition of technology benefits, and start to pick up on best practices from the IT world to really bring the CIO back into the fold.

Put simply: to get a CIO on your side, you have to think like a CIO. And that means going back to the business case.

Read the full article over at Central Desktop.

Writing by James – The Top 5 Most Popular Posts of 2013

It’s the end of 2013, and that means it is time to look at my most popular posts of the year. Without further ado, the Top 5!

#1 – Scribd – the wrong way to use Facebook personalisation

The run away winner this year, and up from number 2 last year, this article still seems to be hitting the spot. I still get comments and emails around the subject, as it seems that nothing has changed – the number of people still searching for ‘Scribd Facebook’ on Google has not decreased.

#2 - RE: The Walking Dead – A call to Frank Darabont

Last year, when this rolled in at number 1, I said:

“When I first wrote this post, it was only intended to vent my own frustrations with the first season of the Walking Dead, but it seems that there are a lot of people who feel the same way. Luckily, my main issue with the series – not enough zombies! – has been answered.”

I’m extremely glad to say that Season 3, which finished a couple of months back on UK terrestrial, was the best yet. It had a strong story-line, plenty of zombies, and some very fine moments between the Governor and our band of survivors. How I’m managing to keep away from reading Robert Kirkman’s original comics, I have no idea…

#3 – Scribd – the wrong way to use Facebook personalisation – an update

In this follow up article to the original, I looked at how the rest of Facebook’s launch partners for ‘Instant Personalisation’ had fared. The quick answer? Not very well.

#4 - The album that saved my (musical) life

I’m glad this is still in the top 5. Pixies are a group that I hold close, they’ve had a massive impact on my musical direction. Without Pixies, I can’t imagine that I would ever have ended up listening to my current favourites: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Tame Impala, and Radiohead. This look at how they were using old content in refreshing new ways across social channels to engage with the next generation of fans was a pleasure to write.

#5 – Product Review: Testimonial Monkey

Rounding out the top 5 for 2013 is this product review of Testimonial Monkey. I don’t write a lot of reviews, but once in a while I get approached and asked to look at new products, services, or books. If you’ve got a product that you would like to put forward, please let me know using the contact form on the About Me page. Testimonial Monkey simplified the process of getting customer feedback and had some nice features, so it was a good review to write – it’s always more difficult if the product or book isn’t as good as you had hoped. Luckily, I haven’t had many of those.

Thank you!

Many thanks to all of you who have read my articles this year, whether you left comments or not; I hope they were useful and informative. I hope to see you all again in 2014.

Cheers, James.

How Iron Maiden turned piracy into paying customers

How Iron Maiden turned piracy into paying customers

Iron Maiden Stage Show

I will freely admit, without embarrassment, that before I fell in love with Pixies, my favourite band was Iron Maiden. It was the perfect partner for my ‘angry-on-the-inside-blank-on-the-outside’ teenage years. Although the music might not be to everybody’s taste, they are an amazingly successful band, playing to over a million fans over the course of 2013.

So it was with interest that I read this article on Citeworld, about how Iron Maiden is using social media analytics to guide decision-making around its tours; the basic premise being that by looking at this large data set, they can capitalise on download activity by planning opportunities for fans to buy merchandise legitimately.

Like Pixies, it’s great to see a band embracing the changing landscape. It just goes to show that change is not just inevitable, but that it is also the source of opportunity.

*** UPDATE: Since the post was created, an update has been posted on the source article stating that Iron Maiden did not work with the analytics company mentioned. Although its disappointing that the article was not researched correctly, I believe it does show a valid use of data analytics and we will see more businesses using this kind of insight moving forward. I wasn’t the only one to follow up on this article; you can find out more over at Techcrunch.  ***