This post is part of an ongoing Good Client Guide series, which serves to demystify the web development process and empower consumers of web design (known to many in the industry as The Client™) to be an informed and effective partner in the process. Missed a step? Check out Step 2: Hiring A WordPress Professional.
No two web projects are the same
Every web project has a different set of requirements, and yours is no different. Perhaps you realized during your own goal-setting phase that your website requires a particular set of skills to build, based on your unique circumstances.
However, no matter how unique the problem is that needs to be solved, all WordPress website projects go through common phases. These phases may present themselves differently depending on the scope of work, or the project management preferences of your WordPress professional. Some of them may be broken down further into sub-phases. These phases may overlap or run concurrently. This post is designed to get you familiar with all of them, and recognize how they fit into your project.
Discovery & Strategy
During the discovery & strategy phase, we explore and define the project scope. This can include website functionality, desired visuals, your audience, your business & technical goals, and available resources(including existing infrastructure, project limitations, or other elements that will influence the development decisions and timeline). The outcome of this phase is a series of decisions about the specific methodology, technology, themes/plugins, design & development strategies, and/or content architecture that will be used. Basically, we’re deciding the best way to execute on the problems we’ve defined.
This phase might be included at the start of your project as part of the overall cost. For more complex projects, I (and many other professionals) often recommend a separate, paid discovery phase (under a full contract) prior to the main project, with the deliverable including a quote for the next phases. This provides a few benefits to you, the client: by working under contract, we can more deeply assess your needs by doing research into your existing systems or other proprietary information, and this extra time results in a significantly more accurate quote. Plus, the result of a paid discovery phase is beneficial research that can be used by the client even if the project doesn’t happen, or the client decides to work with a different team/person.
Sometimes, people try to skip this phase as a way to cut costs, perhaps suggesting that their own internal research is sufficient. However, without appropriate discovery, the design or development decisions made might be counter-productive, leading to increased costs and inefficiencies down the road. While internal research is a valuable tool, a discovery phase that is explicitly focused on web design and/or web development is crucial.
The design phase is focused on visually strategic problem solving, usually centered around aesthetics and/or experiences. Aesthetic design is what usually comes to mind when we picture this phase, and includes decisions about color, typography and fonts, imagery, spacing, and other visual design principles. Just as important during this phase is experience design, where we explore workflows, interfaces, and how elements of the site work together. This also includes any modifications to the WordPress admin experience, user settings pages, or other elements that aren’t necessarily part of the standard website.
Design may involve mockups (a hypothetical, purely visual representation of what a website will look like) but more often will involve less literal, more flexible methods like wireframes and moodboards or style tiles. Designers may work in a dedicated design program, within the browser, or using a prototyping program. Whatever the deliverable is, the results of this phase are carefully planned visual systems that inform the final functionality and appearance of your website.
Though we expect to see a heavier focus on design when we’re dealing with new website builds or rebranding efforts, there is usually an element to this in all projects. Even with a defined set of brand guidelines or style guides, each new feature will have its own user interface nuances that need to be accounted for. Make sure to account for user interface and design planning in all of your WordPress projects.
The development phase is focused on problem solving for functionality, interactivity, and integration. This is the part we usually think of when we discuss “building a website.” When development is discussed, it is often split into “frontend” and “backend” development. While there is some overlap in WordPress, here are the basic differences:
Backend development usually involves solving higher-level logic problems, creating relationships between data that don’t already exist, or creating relationships between WordPress and outside or third party components. This is primarily done server-side (before it gets sent to the browser) and in WordPress often requires more knowledge of PHP or other server-side languages.
Simply put, deployment is putting the finished product onto your live site. However, due to the complexity of many web projects, this phase is rarely “simple” and it’s important to allow ample time between completing development and “going live.”
Because WordPress is a database-driven content management system, both the database and the files have to be deployed and synced with one another. With smaller or new projects, this may be as straightforward as doing a complete backup of the development site and using import methods to setup a new site or completely overwrite existing files. For larger projects, there may be ongoing content to monitor, specific server environment differences to test, or other considerations that need to be versioned and accounted for. Depending on the size and scope of the project, deployment could be all at once, or done in stages.
Not all hosting environments are created equal, so each one may have its own deployment process. Some basic shared hosts may have you go through a one-click install. Some may have you create your own database. Some require you to FTP/SFTP your files, while others will integrate with a version control system and let you deploy directly. And each host has different server configurations, standard practices, cacheing systems, or plugin requirements. All of these variables can add a significant amount of time to the process. This is why I and many other WordPress professionals usually have preferred hosting providers for our projects, which I highly recommend discussing at the beginning.
And there is more to deploying a site than just the website itself. If you are moving or modifying an existing site, you need to consider what you want to do about redirecting old links to your existing content, which may be changing. If you are switching domains, remember to address other factors like email (especially if your email is not being hosted through a separate provider like Google apps, changing DNS info could break your email).
Your project is not over once the website is deployed! In order to learn what is working and what needs to be improved, you need to employ monitoring, testing, and maintenance. This could be as simple as following Jetpack and/or Google analytics, or as complex as A/B testing and other content modification tools. There are a number of plugins and services available for this. WordPress websites also require ongoing, low-level maintenance work like keeping themes, plugins, and WordPress itself up to date in order to get the latest features and security fixes. Plus, you’ll want to keep producing new and engaging content for your audience visiting your shiny new site!
Depending on the size of your project, you may be able to handle a lot of this yourself. If not, you may consider hiring your WordPress professional on a retainer to do ongoing updates, or contract with a company which specializes in WordPress maintenance.
We know now what to expect when building a website, but there’s another important conversation we need to have before getting started. Yes, that conversation. Learn how to evaluate potential website costs in Step 4: Your Guide To Bids & Budgets.