Controlling the Cost of a Web Project - Part 1: It Starts with the RFP

Aaron Branson
August 07, 2012
Web Strategy

Controlling the Cost of a Web Project - Part 1: It Starts with the RFP

The cost of a web project can vary widely. And in most cases the cost grows over the course of the project due to scope creep and change requests. I’d like to provide some tips on managing the cost of web projects - specifically redesign and development projects.

Over my 10+ years of managing projects from RFP to completion within an agency environment, I’ve seen a wide variety of projects and I’d like to point out some characteristics that will lead to fiscally successful projects.

Part 1: It Starts with the RFP!

With such a major investment into something that touches all aspects of an organization, the website design/development RFP is critical. Sufficient time and energy must be put into the RFP and account for a reasonable timeframe for proposal submissions.

Having a thoroughly written RFP will help ensure the proposals you receive are relevant in terms of scope, budget and timeline. If it’s left without sufficient detail, you run the risk of receiving proposals ranging across the board and therefore are not even feasible to compare.

Make sure you clearly articulate in your RFP the reasons for the project, the objectives and list reasonable, measurable goals.

Scope and Requirements

Define the scope of work. This should include a breakdown of responsibilities of the agency and responsibilities of your organization. These responsibilities should put some shape to process/disciplines involved – i.e. discovery, information architecture, functional design, creative design, solution architecture, development, QA, deployment and project management.

Define the project requirements. This includes both functional and non-functional requirements.  It’s extremely helpful to think of your functional requirements in terms of “components” – i.e. Redesign, Site Search, Content Management, E-Commerce, Analytics, SEO, Blog… these are some common components. Each of these components should have sufficient detail of the requirements as each of the aforementioned components could be delivered in any number of ways.


Let’s be honest, the more info provided in the RFP, the more useful the proposal you get in return. And as important budget is to the project, sometimes it is still left undisclosed. At least address it. If the budget is disclosed, the agency can be sure to propose the best solution that budget can buy. And you have a great baseline to measure the proposals against.

Also, consider the shape of the budget management… do you plan on fixed cost/fixed scope? Or if your scope is a bit fuzzy, then you’re probably best going with a time and materials approach with a stated budget.

If budget is not disclosed, the scope and requirements we talked about must be really well defined.

Consider a Phased Approach

Many times an organization must go the ‘fixed cost’ route. But at the same time, the scope and requirements are really undefined. Those two conditions cause a problem. One solution to this is to phase it out into a “discovery” project in which the end result is an airtight project charter, requirements and ultimately a very effective RFP. And that money was well spent and the organization was not overly exposed financially.

What about the Timeline

So far, we talked about Scope/Quality and Budget… the third leg of the project triangle is Time. If you don’t know a reasonable timeframe for your type of project, and you don’t have a mandatory hard deadline, I’d suggest not defining one. I’ve seen too many unrealistic timelines in RFPs only to find out that there was really no driver behind it. Doing that runs the risk of the agencies taking the approach that the deadline must be important and therefore cut quality and scope in the proposed solution unnecessarily.

If you do have a hard date, be prepared by knowing what concessions you’d be willing to make in terms of scope and budget to meet that date.

The Process

Make sure you plan an RFP process that puts the agencies in a position to give you their best. Upon issuing the RFP, be sure to provide a method and timeline for the submission and answering of questions. Also, realize those answers may make a significant change in the solution an agency will propose so give ample time AFTER the Q&A phase for the proposal delivery. I’ve seen cases in which the proposals were due just a few days after the answers to a long list of questions were provided. This doesn’t provide enough time to digest the answers and determine, write and estimate the appropriate solution.

Within this process, you must also leave ample time for your own organization to review the proposals, ask questions, schedule presentations and make a well-formed decision. Be realistic in that once you do make a selection, the project doesn’t start the very next day. There are always the contract negotiations where legal gets involved in fine-tuning the language and the time necessary to get signatures.

In a perfect world, the RFP process would look something like this:

RFP Issued > Questions Asked (+3-5 days) > Answers Given (+2-3 days) > Proposals Delivered (+10 days) > Finalists Selected (+3-5 days) > Presentations Held (+5-10 days) > Selection Made (+2-3 days) > Contract Finalized (+2-3 days) > Project Started (+3-5 days)!

The moral of the story? This is your project! Your RFP will influence the quality, cost and timeline of solutions proposed. With a thorough RFP, you can “help us help you”.

Next we’ll talk about managing the cost through the first phase of the project.

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