Which came first, the budget or the scope?

January 19, 2016

“How long will it take and how much is it going to cost?” — these are invariably the first questions clients want answered when they approach us with a potential project. Surprisingly, these questions can be difficult to answer with any degree of certainty at the outset of an engagement. In this article, we’ll explore this dilemma ask the all important question “Which came first, the budget or the scope?”

Not all scopes are created equal

Understanding the scope at the outset is easier for some projects than it is for others. It’s important to remember that there is a big difference between redesigning an existing website or application vs. creating a brand new one. When doing a redesign, the features, content, and requirements are largely known by virtue of the fact that the application already exists. In contrast, creating a new product from scratch requires that we work together to define the objectives, feature set, content requirements, technical platform, etc., etc., etc.

In the latter case, the scope is murky and ultimately unknowable at the outset.

Organizations often identify a need for a new site or application and come to us with what amounts to a seed of an idea. Very few details are known at this stage, only that there is a need for a new product.

A helpful analogy

Think about it like this— your Great Aunt Zelda (God rest her soul) has left you a substantial inheritance. You decide that you want build a lake home with the money. At this point, you know you want a home and you know that you want it to be on a lake. No sane person would walk into an architect’s office and ask them, “How much is my lake house going to cost?” It is obvious to anyone with a pulse that there are too many unknowns to generate an estimate.

Based on your needs and priorities, you’ll need to choose a lake, buy a plot of land, survey the plot, pick a contractor, determine the size of the house, develop a floor plan, get the plans approved, and pull the proper permits. Your architect will provide expert consulting to help accomplish these tasks and when the planning phase is complete, provide an estimate for the build. Of course, the key word here is “estimate”. As literally any person who has ever worked with a contractor knows, even after your plan is complete, the cost of the project is subject to change based on an infinite number of unknown factors.

But seriously, how much is it going to cost?

Organizations, unlike sane people looking to build a lake home, often expect far more certainty around the timeline and budget of their potential project very early in the process.

They are sometimes surprised to learn about our fee structure and that we provide a flat fixed-fee budget for the first planning phase and fairly wide ranges for the design and implementation of the project.

“Is there any way we can narrow these ranges?”

“Can you provide fixed fees for all of the phases?”

While we understand the importance of financial planning, the answer to these questions is almost always, “no” – and that can be hard for clients to hear. My personal favorite comment from potential client on the east coast (so you should read it with heavy New York accent) “It’s going to cost me twenty thousand dollars for you to tell me how much this is going to cost?”

There is clearly tension here. Organizations have a legitimate need to know precisely how much to set aside for the project, but estimating the cost without a basic understanding of the scope is a fool’s errand.

We strive to resolve that tension by communicating to our clients that determining the scope of the project— identifying the overall strategy, defining the business and user objectives, and developing a list of features— is the first part of the project itself.

Going back to the lake home you are building, this is you sitting down with your architect to talk about how many bedrooms and bathrooms you need, how far away from the twin cites you’re willing to drive, and how long of a shoreline you want.

After those core elements have been defined, we can narrow the ranges and provide fixed fee budgets for the user-experience design and implementation of the project.

The (not so) fine print

Then there’s the fine print (or what would be considered fine print if it weren’t right at the top of our list of assumptions,) “This estimate is based on our current understanding of the project scope, we will work with you to manage cost and timing expectations should the scope change.”

There are key checkpoints during the course of a project when previously unknown information comes into focus. To continue with our home building analogy- things like, finding human remains when digging the foundation, would fit squarely into this category. Joking aside, most of the time the new information is less impactful and results in needing to accommodate more functionality or complexity into the project rather than pausing indefinitely so that law enforcement can conduct a criminal investigation.

More commonly, we’ll learn about a technical or data constraint, a new feature will be identified, or we’ll learn from executive leadership that mobile support is required after all! Or, three days of monsoonal rain causes the worksite to flood and the newly poured foundation of the lake home to fail.

The point is that we have to be transparent about the reality of developing complex websites and applications. The words of a certain former Secretary of Defense come to mind, “there are unknown unknowns.

Throughout the course of the project, we continually make and confirm assumptions. We work closely with clients to ensure that our decisions align with business objectives and that clients are never, ever surprised by an invoice.

If you’re trying to understand how to attack creating a brand new complex, transactional user experience, talk to us. We’d love to share more about what we’ve learned about scoping and planning for these types of user experience.

By Gregg Harrison
Vice President

Gregg’s passion for all things digital started two decades ago as a project manager and has expanded over the years to include a focus on user experience consulting, client management, and operations.

View Gregg's Bio


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