The Importance of Process in Web Design | January 17, 2004

Web design is still a relatively new industry, run by a highly creative and technical workforce. However, because we focus so much on the creative and technological challenges of our work, we often neglect the business side of things.

New media also tends to be very incestuous. Most of the people involved with new media come from within the industry, leaving a general lack of experience from outside the sector to draw upon. As such, a lot of the day-to-day challenges we face in web design are not necessarily new, but they are often new to us.

One of the ways of dealing with these challenges is to have a good process in place. The idea of a formal process can scare some people. However most of us have our own processes whether we're aware of them or not.

One of the benefits of formalizing your process is you don't have to permanently carry it around in your head. Often if you have an ad hoc process you'll miss steps or will have to do the same thing over and over again for each project. By setting up and following a formal process it can cut down on a good deal of wasted time and really help boost your productivity.

For most web designers, their process consists of a plan outlining the various stages of a project, and the forms and templates used at each stage. The process you use really depends on the size of you your business and the needs of your clients. However a good process is one that's easily scalable to accommodate your changing circumstances.

Most new media jobs usually follow a fairly similar pattern.

And will require at least some of the following documents:

Proposal, Brief, Project Plan, Technical and Creative Spec, Wireframes, Personas, Contract, Invoices, Sign-off Forms, Change Management Forms etc

While this is a very simplified example of a web design process, it's enough for you to get the picture.

Often designers worry that a formal process will stifle their creativity. This may be one reason why very few print designers I know can even stomach using contracts, let alone follow a systematic approach to a project. However having a good process can actually help you be more creative. In the discovery phase the use of techniques like brainstorming, mood boards and personas can all help spark your creativity, while creating specifications can help put boundaries around the project allowing you to focus your creative direction.

Clients appreciate working with web designers who have a set process in place. For clients who've never commissioned a website before, your process explains to them exactly what you'll be doing and what's expected of them. For more experienced clients your process is a form of security blanket. It's say's that you know what you're doing and that you'll produce what you say you'll produce, on time and on budget. If things start to go wrong, both parties can fall back on a good process.

Large clients like public bodies will often require their suppliers to have a ISO ratified process in place. These clients are used to working with professional companies that follow set processes and usually have set processes themselves. In fact many companies will hire you on the basis of your process alone.

However one of the main benefits of having a good process is its ability to help guide, educate and sometimes protect you from your clients. The relationship between Client and Designers is no different from any other relationship. Communication is key, and a good process is the cornerstone to good communication. A good process aims to make sure there is understanding and consensus amongst all parties. It lays out the ground rules, allowing for objective rather than subjective decision making, and can help prevent costly last minute changes to spec.

Finally if a project ever does go bad, a good process will provide proof that you did what you set out to do and that you had the consciences of the client (through milestones and sign-offs) along the way.

Having a good, flexible process is one of the most important things a web design firm can have. However I'm constantly amazed by how many designers are taking on work without even the most rudimentary of processes in place. So what do you think about the importance of process? Do you have processes in place? If you do, what processes do you use? If you don't, why don't you?

For more info on the subject of the process of web design, have a look at some of the following books

Posted at January 17, 2004 10:52 AM


Scrivs said on January 17, 2004 11:26 AM

I really like to emphasize the point you make about the process educating clients who are new to the process of building a website. This is even great for clients who have burned before by web designers who followed no process and the results showed when the final product was produced.

A process shows professionalism in an industry that is mostly dominated by amateurs. Business process does nothing to stifle creativity because it has nothing to do with creativity. Amazing how many freelance designers fail at what they do really because they have no business process to work with.

Ben Pirt said on January 17, 2004 1:56 PM

I find that the issue of insuring that the clients understand what they have to do is one of the most important for me. There have been a lot of projects that I have worked on where the client assumes that just because they are paying you to do the work, that all the work will be done by you. What they don’t realise is that they probably need to do just about as much work in defining the content of the site for you to work with.

The number of times I have been held up because the client underestimated what it would take to get their side of things together doesn’t bear thinking about. A good project manager should be driving both sides of the process along and making sure that there are no bottlenecks.

Jorge said on January 17, 2004 3:05 PM

Thanks for sharing this list. I was very straightforward in my process, for me it was just planning, implementing/testing and delivery. But now that you have arose those extras, i find them valuable.

In particular, the first point. If you explain to the client that in the discovery process you have to actually “discover” customers and marketplaces, that gives you more control of all the project.

I have had some clients that send the information in a word document that starts: “at the top of the page a 5cm blue zone. The logo, and the name of the company in bold arial, justified to the left[…]” And at the end they have even drawed a visual approximation of the page! This really annoys me. Explaining that you have to investigate users and the market prior to ANY design, even the one the client had from the beginning, gives you more control I think.

“Large clients like public bodies will often require their suppliers to have a ISO ratified process in place.”

Uh? I haven’t seen this in Latin America. Is that the way it is done in Europe? A lot of large companies and governments have very amateurish sites.

Krista said on January 17, 2004 3:37 PM

Excellent points! Just wanted to let you know I’ve taken the liberty of pointing to your post in the “What’s New” section of Digital Web Magazine. Cheers!

bergin said on January 18, 2004 2:16 AM

yes, the waterfall model for the web design community. heres another example

Cameron Adams said on January 18, 2004 12:22 PM

When working with large sites and large organisations (such as Government bodies) you can’t aford not to have a strictly defined process. Producing documentation such as a requirements specification, architecture design, and data modeling is essential to lock down the client and make sure they can’t change the project on you further down the track. Web development is just like any other software development, and software engineers have strict processes to follow.

This should all happen before the client even gets a sniff of the site’s visual design, as all this stuff is non-subjective (i.e. decisions will be made quickly, without getting bogged down about “the right shade of blue”) and is essential to understanding what the site will look like.

That being said, a lot of small clients don’t have the resources or the understanding to deal directly with these processes, which is frustrating, because they end up with a poorer quality site because of it. This generally leads to the developer presenting them with fully fledged prototypes and hoping the client likes them, a process in which the work can quickly multiply.

Sam Royama said on January 19, 2004 4:13 PM

Great outline Andy.

As you mentioned briefly, having a process also helps measure the cost of doing business. This is paramount to a small design firm. Often a small parntership or entreprenurial venture won’t have a whole lot of business know-how. People who are new to business really need to have a process to help them manage the cost of doing business and cash flow. Two key elements of surviving the first few years as a new business.

Frank said on January 19, 2004 4:49 PM

Cameron Adams wrote;

“This generally leads to the developer presenting them with fully fledged prototypes and hoping the client likes them, a process in which the work can quickly multiply.”

When I 1st started in this industry that is what I used to do. I was under the belief that clients did not want to see half baked ideas and so I would produce a virtually finished site only for them to say, ‘I don’t like it’.

I now believe that the process of showing clients work at key stages of development is vital.

I would be very interested to hear about how others treat this process. Do you show a finished site/photoshop mockup/wire-frame/text outline etc early on and at what stage do you show a client an actual html version?

Take it easy.

Jason said on January 19, 2004 8:46 PM

Great read! You hit the nail on the head. Our organization recently implemented a new web-based project management system to help with our process. In the first few months the new tool helped us learn where our processes where previously failing, and also gave us the tools to fix the broken processes through the use of templates. The software we went with was Infowit Creative Manager ( since it is designed specifically with us creative folks in mind.

Mike said on January 20, 2004 7:59 PM

Fantastic post. Even better the second time I read it!

I would like to echo Scrivs and Ben’s comments above and emphasize the idea of sign offs for all projects, big or small and no matter how knowledgable the clients are.

Michael said on January 27, 2004 12:37 PM

I really liked this post - as someone who is trying to make a transition over from Software Development / Consulting into Web Development / Design, I’m already used to structured and phased work processes. I can’t see how larger software implementations could be possible without strict guidelines. Seems I’m aiming for this at the right time.

Adam said on February 2, 2004 11:51 AM

This is all well and good for projects that are well defined, easy to estimate, and subject to little change. If you can say yes to all three, then by all means use the waterfall as described above. Beware, though, that the waterfall is a terribly misleading and inefficient method for large projects, projects with unknowns, and nearly anything with programming involved.

Please go to or pick up a copy of “Agile & Iterative Development” from your local bookstore before you start doing the waterfall on your next web project. Please! I cringed when I read this from the article:

“Finally if a project ever does go bad, a good process will provide proof that you did what you set out to do and that you had the consciences of the client (through milestones and sign-offs) along the way.”

That’s like not bothering to look for cross traffic, crashing into a car, and saying that “my light was green so I was right.” Well you’re “right” with a strict waterfall process, but you also failed the project. This is one reason the nearly every government agency recommends the waterfall. It’s a safe “no fault” method! Projects just “go bad” sometimes and people seem to accept it. The sad part is that it doesn’t need to be like that. Really.

Please, please, (pretty) please, go and check out various iterative development methods! Especially, (eek!) if you’ve never heard of them before. Here, I’ll give you a few to google for to start you off:

Web development is a new industry so I (one of its members) ask you humbly to not go and spoil it by using methods developed for assembly lines a hundred years ago. If you build sites like plastic spoons, however, then you’ve found your method I guess.

sameer said on March 11, 2004 9:08 AM

have been looking for such information for sometime now, but to be frank, isnt this too short an essay? would like to read more from you, about this subject.

thanks a lot for writing this article

sameer said on March 11, 2004 9:09 AM

have been looking for such information for sometime now, but to be frank, isnt this too short an essay? would like to read more from you, about this subject.

thanks a lot for writing this article