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.

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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.

Sealing the deal – why the end product is only half the battle

Baseball Pitcher
Delivering the perfect pitch doesn’t have to be as hard work as he’s making out…

You might be a great designer or an exemplary coder, but the quality of your end product is no guarantee of getting the job. We’ve all been through the experience of pitching for work, losing out, and then being stunned when you see the finished article online or in print – “I could have done better than that!” you exclaim. It hurts professionally, emotionally, and on the bottom line, financially. And the thing is, the reason you didn’t get the job is not usually about output, it’s with the ability to pitch an idea effectively. Pitching is an art, and not one that everyone gets the hang of, but there are some simple rules you can use to improve your batting average. In this article I’ll take you through some of the key lessons to learn when putting together and delivering the ‘perfect’ pitch.

“Hey!” you might shout, “I’m a freelancer, I don’t pitch, that’s for agencies, not for me; I’m just resource for hire.” Unfortunately you would be wrong in that assumption. Everyone pitches pretty much everyday of their life, whether you’re turning up at a job interview, networking at a social event, or delivering an idea to an existing client. In all these situations we’re trying to get people to see what we want them to see – and that’s the heart of every pitch. So, one man band or small company – even large ones if you’re reading – these are the three things you need to know to create great pitches.

Lesson 1 – Research

Have you understood the brief? It’s a good question to ask yourself, because the client’s requirements aren’t always written in black and white, or in what you’ve been told over the phone. When reading a brief, look behind the actual requirement (”I want a website”) and into what the client is trying to achieve. The client could be looking for a new way to connect with a particular demographic or launch a new product. Make sure you ask the right questions of your client; understanding the issue that lies behind the requirement gives you an opportunity to go beyond and give them something spectacular that they may not have even thought about. It also shows that you have an understanding of their business goals, positioning you as a partner, not just a vendor.

Lesson 2 – Frames of reference

“People buy from people”, that’s the common quote that people draw on. The reason: it’s true. It’s not the whole story, you have to have something to sell, but it goes a long way towards sealing the deal. That’s why it’s important to know who you are pitching to, as well as what you are pitching for. Luckily, this is a lot easier to do than it used to be. Even if you can’t talk to them directly prior to the pitch, you can research them online, using tools like LinkedIn and Twitter, and corporate resources such as the company website. This research will give you an insight into what sort of person they are: are they aspirational, big-picture people, or are they into the details? Understanding distinctions like this can give you a headstart in creating your pitch, and help you to connect to them during a pitch. If you get it right, aligning your world-view with theirs will elicit the response, “Wow! You really get it!”

Why, because we’re telling them what they want to hear.

Lesson 3 – Preparation

You’ve got the what and the who, now you’ve got to deliver. Writing a pitch can be daunting, but it’s really the art of storytelling, and with the information you’ve already gathered you’ve got the right ingredients. A good pitch will consist of three elements, woven together to create a compelling journey for the client. They are:

  1. An understanding of the situation – both the logical requirements and the emotional ones.
  2. Your solution to that situation
  3. How you’re going to deliver it

The language you use will change dependent on the person you are speaking to, details for detail people, aspirational “this is what you could have” messages for big-picture people, but the content remains the same. And once you’ve written your pitch, make sure you run through it. Knowing it off by heart means you can spend more time talking around the solution and making the connection with your audience, and less time reading from slides.

Taking the time to work through these steps each and every time you get the opportunity to present will pay benefits. Yes, pitching is an art, but it is a skill that can be worked on and improved. Over time, you will find yourself better equipped to understand what you are being asked to do, how to articulate it, and ultimately, to deliver it.

If you would like to find out more about pitching, here is some suggested additional reading:

  1. The Hidden Agenda: a proven way to win business and create a following by Kevin Allen
  2. The Art of the Pitch: persuasion and presentation skills that win business by Peter Coughter

Have you got any pitching techniques that have worked for you? How do you prepare? Let us know your tips in the comments.