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Ten Ways to Stop Scope Creep in Your Web Design Project
By Chris LeCompte

Let’s face it, web design is not a very predictable service. Sure, the extent of the service is to furnish a working web site (one would hope) along with any hosting and maintenance needed to keep it going. The issue is that the specifics of the project change with almost every client interaction.

Keep in mind this isn’t a problem. Web design must be a flexible and fluid service that changes to the varying needs of the client as well as the quick pace of the internet. What is a problem is scope creep.

Scope creep occurs when a client keeps piling on requests for additions or changes to their project that are outside the scope of the project. Some clients are mindful of this and will explicitly ask if it will cost more. Others, unfortunately, are not this considerate or knowledgeable enough to know when they’re pushing it.

How can you combat scope creep? I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of it completely, but there are some ways to prevent and reduce it.

Preventative Measures

The first five ways to fix scope creep are preventative in nature. Stop the problem before it becomes a problem is the best method.

  1. Conduct a Scope of Work before beginning the project

    A Scope of Work is a document that details the specifics of the web project. Some prospects will complete this in the form of a Request for Proposal. If they don’t, offer to create it for them (at a fee, of course) or insist that they complete one on their own. The Scope of Work will detail project requirements, initial site navigation, technology needs, expectations, available materials and so on.

  2. Build a provision into your proposal addressing scope creep

    Be upfront about scope creep and address it in your proposal. Such a provision could describe what qualifies as scope creep and what will need to happen should scope creep occur. It’s also a good idea to list out hourly rates that will be used for anything above and beyond the extent of the proposal.

  3. Include a strong terms and conditions section along with your proposal

    Most web design proposals are weak. They describe little and are vague on the legal side. A solid terms and conditions section can spell out, in legal terms, how scope creep will be dealt with. This is not a section you should write. Hire a good lawyer who can work with you on defining your terms. It’s worth every penny.

  4. Have a plan

    What are you going to do if scope creep occurs? Sometimes it’s inevitable and the best defense is a good plan of action. How are you going to approach the client? What steps will you follow to resolve the situation? List these out in an actionable manner so that when the time comes to address scope creep with a client, you’ll know exactly what to do.

  5. Explain scope creep to the client

    Using verbal communication (e.g. picking up the phone or meeting) with the client can go a long way in preventing scope creep. Whereas a proposal can often use dull and robotic syntax, just having a chat with the client about scope creep can be more helpful. Most clients understand the problem of scope creep since they themselves have to deal with it in their own line of work.

Defensive Measures

The last five ways to tackle scope creep are defensive measures. If the scope creep has already happened, there’s no need to fret. It can still be fixed.

  1. Address the scope creep immediately

    Once scope creep starts happening, you need to address it right away. The longer you let it occur, the more comfortable the client will become in making out-of-contract demands of you. Have a friendly chat with the client about what is and what isn’t within the scope of the proposal. The operative word in that last sentence is “friendly.” The moment you take a defensive posture with a client is the moment you kill the relationship. Some clients just don’t understand the concept of a scope and need a little guidance. Don’t treat them with hostility.

  2. Make recommendations

    Is there a reason why the scope creep is occurring? Maybe the client wants to add things that aren’t necessary. This is where you can use your expertise to quell scope creep. Explain to the client that the new additions they’re asking for aren’t necessary. However, don’t be dishonest about it, and only recommend against an addition if it really isn’t necessary.

  3. Use the “Phase II” defensive strategy

    One of my favorite strategies for defeating scope creep is what I call “Phase II.” If a client starts requesting some really good things that just aren’t within the scope of the project, I’ll tell them that their ideas are good but that we need to build them into a second phase of the project. This is a great strategy for two reasons. First, it gets the client excited and they start generating more ideas for the next phase of the project. Second, it gives you an immediate in for working on a new phase of the project. It doesn’t work all the time, but when it does, it’s a benefit to both you and the client.

  4. Use project management software to keep the project on track

    Scope creep can be a very disruptive distraction from the primary goal of the project. Using project management software such as Basecamp can help you shepherd the client back to the original project. Milestones clearly outline the long-term vision of the project while to-do items turn these milestones into actionable chunks. Once a client starts to veer off course, use the project milestones and to-do items as a point of reference.

  5. Go the legal route

    This is the worst, I repeat, worst way to go, but it may be necessary if you’ve exhausted all other options. The legal route is to refer back to the terms and conditions the client signed off on. When a project goes out of scope, you might have to forcibly remind the client of these terms. You can be gentle about it but sometimes you have to get nasty. Unfortunately, once you start getting nasty, the chances of saving the relationship go down quite a bit. It may even be wise to conduct a quick cost-benefit analysis first. Use this as a last resort.

How do you prevent or combat scope creep? Or, do you employ some of the tactics mentioned above? Leave a comment and let me know. It’s always interesting to learn new and different ways to approach this issue.

Chris LeCompte is a web designer and Project Manager based out of Northern Virginia working at his own company. Chris runs his own blog: http://www.clecompte.com/.

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