By John Tabita

Stop the Slippery Slope of Scope Creep

By John Tabita

Last week I suggested you treat your clients like children. Studies have shown that children are happier and feel more secure when they know what their boundaries are and what’s expected of them. Your clients will too.

scope creep /skōp krēp/ noun

  1. changes in a project’s scope after the work has started
  2. a creep of a client who keeps asking for free changes

Scope creep often starts out as small and seemingly insignificant changes or additions to an already approved design or feature. Sometimes, the changes become so numerous that the project becomes a former shadow of what it was originally intended to be. If you’ve never read Matthew Inman’s comic, How A Web Design Goes Straight To Hell, take a few moments to have a good laugh (or cry), and we’ll continue.

In a perfect world, clients would approve your first design without asking their mother’s opinion of it, never request a single revision during the course of the development, and send you an expensive gift basket when the project’s finished. They would never ask you to keep adjusting the size of the header graphic until it became so gargantuan and ugly that you considered putting your worse competitor’s name in the footer instead of your own. Nor would they request you make all their product shots into animated gifs, or that you “fill up all the empty spaces” on the site (whatever that means).

If only we’d all listened to Wikipedia, perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess:

This phenomenon can occur when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled.

That’s what I’ve been trying to convey throughout this entire Putting a Stop to Abusive Clients series, except I’ve added one more step, so the process look like this: define, document, discuss, and control. Here are some things to define.


What’s Included; What’s Not

Make sure your client knows exactly what is and isn’t included. Are you providing SEO services? If not, be sure the client understands that you are not guaranteeing he rank well in the search engines. Otherwise be prepared to have that awkward “I’m not on the first page of Google” conversation a week after you’ve launched the site.

What about copy writing, site updating, technical support, and training? How about copyrights—that is, who owns the website once it’s done? Remember, what seems like an unreasonable expectation to you and me may seem perfectly reasonable to the client. Just as children don’t fully understand the world around them, neither does your client fully understand the world of web design and development. Help them do so, by setting clearly-defined boundaries and expectations.

Eleventh-Hour Design or Programming Changes

An all-too-common scenario is a client who approves your mock-up, then wants changes after you’ve built the site.

If you fail to manage this expectation up-front, you become the “bad guy” when your client demands to know why you won’t comply with his request. You’ll find yourself explaining how the process of converting a Photoshop design mockup into a working “HTML” site means starting from scratch—none of which will he understand or even care (nor should he have to). All he’ll understand is that you’re being unreasonable.

The simple, two-part solution is to first break the project down into phases and require a sign-off for each, like so:

  1. Design Phase
  2. HTML Coding Phase
  3. Programming Phase

Then, discuss the Photoshop-to-HTML conversion problem before the project begins, not when he wants after-the-fact changes:

Mr. Soon-to-be-Client, let me explain how the development process works. It’s broken down into three phases: a Design phase, a Coding phase, and a Programming phase.

Due to the nature of web development, it becomes very difficult to make changes to a previous phase once the project’s moved into the next one. For example, once you’ve approved the design I’ll create, it’s very difficult to make changes once I’ve began the coding portion. It’s almost like starting the project from scratch. Does that make sense?

So here’s how it works. I create an initial design. We’ll go through three round of revisions. That should be more than enough to nail down what you want. Once you approve that design, I can’t go back and change it, unless you’re willing to pay for the extra time involved. The same applies to each phase.

This gives you the opportunity be the hero instead of the bad guy. Let’s say the client does ask for some after-the-fact changes, and agrees to pay for them. You get to decide whether or not you’ll charge him. When the project’s over and you’ve been paid in full, you decide that the changes you made were insignificant, so you send him a refund check in the mail. Remember that expensive gift basket you wanted? Well, guess what you’re getting next Christmas.

It’s not too late to get my free guide, 27.5 Must-Ask Questions for Consultative Selling. Just follow me on Twitter and I’ll send you a link.

Image credit

This is part 9 of the series Putting a Stop to Abusive Client Behavior:

  1. Stop Client Abuse of Web Designers Now!
  2. Stop the Abuse! 7 Steps to a Well-Trained Client
  3. Stop Wasting Time with Prospects Who Aren’t Serious
  4. Stop Giving Away So Much Free Information!
  5. Stop Writing Proposals to Win Business
  6. Stop Doing the Same Things and Expecting Different Results
  7. Stop Waiting to Get Paid! How to Collect Even when Your Client Delays
  8. Stop Getting Walked on and Set Some Boundaries Already
  9. Stop the Slippery Slope of Scope Creep
  10. Stop Making Endless Design Changes
  11. Stopping Abusive Clients: The Complete Process
  • Rui Carvalho

    Hmmm, what if you manage your project in an agile way? Do you still go about defining everything to the point, letter by letter?

    • i think you can still have a defined time-scale (and price-scale) for actual tasks to refer to – then any changes can be compared to this to provide an accurate quote up-front. i agree with John that clients need to know exactly what is and isn’t included – and also, then, what is reasonable to pay extra for, or let go (and maybe trust the developer’s knowledge and advice!).

    • I’m not sure what you mean by “an agile way.” My goal is to avoid giving the client too much license, so I find it practical to define everything to the letter, so that nothing is assumed or presumed.

    • DW

      Yes, nothing beats changing some fundamental piece of code at the eleventh hour because your customer has just found another revolutionary, out-of-scope idea that he or she finds crucial and won’t pay you if you don’t implement it.

      Agile is harmful to the IT industry.

  • To me, I have found that if you clearly define what you will change as a notion of free goodwill and what you must charge for is important. I wont charge for a request to change a paragraph, or add a Facebook widget. I have many training resources for my client to learn how to make all of these changes themselves, but sometimes it just makes more sense for you to do it.

    If they require less than 30 min of work a day for less than 7 days in a given month then this is just work you can chalk up as promotional work to help build referrals.

    Another point is to build these minor tweaks into the budget. Charge a little higher maintenance/service fee monthly and use it as a selling point that you offer minor content tweaks included in price. Many customers require more hand holding up front but you hardly hear from them again after 5 years of dedicated loyalty.

    • I like to set the standard that nothing is free; that way, if I choose to make a minor change, I can tell the clients that there’s “no charge,” and I get to be the good guy. That’s just me. I’m sure there are many ways to handle it. The key is to find what works for you.

  • wow, Photoshop-to-HTML conversion? It’s my first time to be told.

  • Jurgen

    I work as a webdesigner since 2004. I have never ever worked in 3 separate phases design, html, and programming. In the way I work these are not phases, but just 3 aspects of creating a site. They interfere, and are worked on together from the beginning to the end. Being a one-guy-company, I am graphic designer, coder, user interface designer, usability expert, and editor all together, often at the same time.

    • So if you’re at the tail-end of the project and the client decides he wants the design completely changed, how do you handle that?

  • Pete

    I think something that helps control scope is to look for opportunities to make informal contact with your customer where possible and logical. Example: you’re tweaking some CSS. Give them a call, and maybe spend 5 minutes while you work and they refresh their screen to see what’s going on.
    This way, you often pick up on nuances of what they really want and can reflect them in the site overall. Doesn’t take you any more time, and can be useful to pick up subtle hints and the sort of look and feel they like. A plus: the client feels loved and involved!

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