Can you reduce web design project costs by engaging a consultant pre-project

The Double-Edged Sword: Balancing Web Design Costs and Research

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I have met very few clients that ‘like’ paying for research or discovery works. Essentially this is pre-project web consultancy and many people see it as lost money, money that could be spent on building the website or delivering the digital project in some real tangible way.

My name is Paul Edwards, I am a Web Consultant and Frontend Developer and I’ve been working in the web industry since 2005.

In this blog post I will discuss whether it is prudent to cut costs by asking your chosen web designer to remove the research phase from project estimates. In order to make an educated appraisal of this commonly used tactic, we will look at what is typically included in a project research phase and the potential opportunity cost of not carrying out research.

Your web design project is unique, so if you feel that you have any unanswered questions I would be happy to steer you in the right direction. Call me today on 01903 527927.

Research phase? Isn’t that just another way for my web designer to get more money out of me?

And there is the problem. The perception of the research and discovery exercise as something unreal that is used to pad out project costs. Not only that but some clients see that phase of works as obstructive. A barrier to actually getting on with things, which is about as far from reality as you can probably get.

Your project may on paper look like it is going to cost you more but let me be clear about this. Research and discovery phases in a project save you money.

Not only does research save you money I will hand on heart tell you that by doing research and development work before the kick-off of the main project you will also make MORE money. The benefits don’t stop there. Not only will you make more money, but you will also reduce greatly the chances of your project performing poorly or missing your goals entirely.

Let’s look at some of the purposes and reasons for carrying out a research phase before commencing a web design project.

Asset Auditing

Companies have churn or turnover in their staff. Often as staff members arrive and leave, information relating to marketing assets get lost, forgotten or deleted. As part of a pre-project discovery phase, I often carry out an asset audit where I attempt to discover any live or mothballed social media profiles, hosting accounts, websites and more.

you would be surprised at the sheer number of old accounts, websites and social media profiles which a company has which it may not even be aware of

I assure you, you would be surprised at the sheer number of old accounts, websites and social media profiles which a company has which it may not even be aware of. Often these accounts have been set up for previous (and now concluded) marketing campaigns or have been mothballed prior to a company rebranding exercise. These accounts can sit live but be off-brand, off message and display things that the company no longer wishes to be public.

The outcome of having old accounts live which are not being updated is that the viewing public may mistakenly think that the company has closed down due to the lack of posts that have been added in x amount of years or months. Old accounts can also get hacked or hijacked and do damage to a brand.

Focus Review

Often when clients first come to me they may or may not have a project brief. Project briefs are great things but they can be both a benefit or a hindrance depending on how self-aware a client is and how well they know (or think they know) their client base.

The reason I mention this is because there is a good chance a client has a firm idea of what they ‘think’ they need. They then produce their project brief with a flourish and proudly drop a weighty tome upon the meeting table.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am always happy when a client has a detailed project brief. It shows organisation, thought and the kind of mindset which is likely to lead to a successful project. Sadly however the project brief is often too focused. To the point where the client is prescribing the solution to the problem. This presents several problems to a person such as myself. 15 years in the industry has afforded me the privilege of having seen enough projects to be able to accumulate a lot of knowledge which can help my clients. When a client prescribes the solution they remove a great deal of my ability to be able to help them by using my knowledge and experience.

There is something more important than this though. With reasonable frequency, I find that a client who prescribes a solution focuses on that solution and completely misses what the goals of the project are as well as who they are trying help.

There are two tricky conversations that it is my job to have with a client early on in a project. Firstly, discussing budget and secondly discussing the fact that the project isn’t about ‘what they want’. The project isn’t for them at all. It is for their clients or for those that the website is designed to enable.

you would be stunned how many companies don’t realise where 80% of their income comes from

Often, to ensure that the project focus is correct, it is essential to revisit what the clients’ goals are, who their clients actually are (you would be stunned how many companies don’t realise where 80% of their income comes from) and to then rewrite the project brief, removing prescriptive information which may often cause a project to go in completely the wrong direction and which ultimately will lose the client money and fail to meet project goals. Often a client will be the architect of the failure of their project if the web designer they employ is unable to challenge assumptions and seek data to back up the assertions of the client.

Another issue with comprehensive briefs is that sometimes they are in part re-issues of briefs used for previous projects. This can result in a document that contains historic information which isn’t important to this project or which talks about adherence to standards which are now outdated or completely irrelevant. Without care, attention to detail and the desire to challenge information a web designer can end up working within artificial boundaries which can hinder the project’s chance of success and were unnecessary all along.

At its worst, a project brief can doom a project before it starts, at its best it guides and informs a web designer and provides focus against measurable objectives. It is always nice when both a client and a web designer are using the same criteria to know when they have succeeded.

Technical Audit

It isn’t just important to know what accounts and websites a client have out in the ether, it is important to know where they are registered. What country are the services hosted in? Is this the country and the region that the asset is going to be viewed in? Is the hosting being used fast, well supported, fully-featured and appropriate to the task the asset is focused towards?

I often find that when auditing client websites that the target market is a completely different country in which the website is hosted. Often this is the case because the client purchased a cheap shared hosting account, didn’t realise the impact on server location in terms of website load times etc or simply that the hosting is an account set up by a third party over which they have no real control.

Sometimes clients actually have ad campaigns running on assets that are no longer relevent or for compaigns which have long since concluded.

After carrying out an asset audit I provide a report to suggest how these assets can be rationalised in order to minimise risk to the business and ensure best possible performance. You may find that the reduced costs from rationalisation of assets can be fed back into your project or will at least contribute towards the ongoing maintenance costs of your website.

Competitor analyses

Just what are your arch rivals up to? Looking at your competitors websites can tell you a lot about what might be worth considering yourself in terms of content and strategy.

The reasons for assessing your competition are many, but most significantly is the fact that they have likely already carried out the work that you find yourselves embarking upon now. Why not look at their site, analyse it and see if there is any information that you can use to your advantage.

  1. see what keywords and keyphrases your competitors are optimising their sites for
  2. see what content of theirs tops the results in search engines, is there anything of thieres that you can do better and use it to leapfrog their position in the search engines?
  3. look at their site structure
  4. see if their content and site is well recieved
  5. does their site do so well that it would proclude you from using certain keywords and phrases?

Brand and style usage guide

Your client may already have a style guide and indeed a usage guide alongside it. However, is that guide suitable for the web or was it designed and produced primarily for print?


If the branding guidelines were prepared for print only it is well worth looking at the fonts and colours used to see if they are suitable for web use. Some fonts ( serif fonts) dont display well on screens especially when font sizes get quite small.

The thin strokes that connect the sides of the letters and which provide a flourish at the feet of the letters become invisible on digital screens at certain combinations of font size and screen resolution. This leads to the impression that parts of the letters are invisible and greatly reduces readability.

While sans-serif fonts are essential for body text you may find that it is acceptable, and depending upon when you are reading this, possibly fashionable to use serif fonts for larger copy such as titles and larger elements of styling.


Colours are generally something which is subject to personal taste, however, certain countries as a generalisation have an affinity with or aversion to certain colours. What these preferences are may not be what you expect, for example:

In England, purple is a colour closely associated with royalty and religion. In contrast to this, Brazil associates purple with mourning and it is inapropriate to wear that colour unless at a funeral.

In some countries red is an auspicous colour but in a lot of western countries it is a colour of agression or danger. It is really important to research what the colours in your brand guidelines are associated with in the target countries that your website will be viewed in.

Sometimes brand variations are required for different markets and this is something that should be considered when budgeting for your web project.

Site map

Modern websites are normally designed well enough that visitors dont need a map of the site in order to navigate around and find what they want. Intuitive navigation, breadcrumbs and site search functions have largely replaced site maps in aiding visitor navigation.

Your site will however still require a site map although the requirements are now slightly different:

  1. XML sitemaps are created to guide search engines through your website to make indexing your site easier
  2. An agreed site map will aid in the production of site content
  3. A site map will help your web designer create the pages that will be needed
  4. Site maps help a company manage their assets and keep their content focused

Strategy summary

A digital asset audit (technical audit) when viewed alongside an agreed sitemap, well constructed project brief and competitor analysis allows for the construction of a digital strategy document.

Everyone likes to know when they have done well. Goals help that kind of assessment.

The digital strategy is essentially a summary of the agreed strategy and will allow both the web designer and the client to align their purpose in seeking to meet agreed goals which have a date and quantity attached to them. You will find that an agreed strategy summary will help both sides of the project gain momentum and focus activities around goals rather than personal feelings. All activities are aimed at and measured around business goals.

Measure twice cut once

The old phrase “measure twice cut once” is appropriate here and is a great way of expressing the use of a research phase when preparing for a web project.

Measure twice

Gather information, assess, analyse and strategise. Use achievable goals which are quantified and tied to dates.

Cut once

Make an informed decision focused around your extensive research and greatly reduce the chances of your project failing and/or having to repeat the process.

The cost savings from carrying out research come in terms of the potential opportunity cost of not carrying out research and enduring a project failure. It is important to measure the potential cost of getting things wrong and taking this into account when deciding whether to accept the advice for carrying out pre-project research.

I assure you that research will be enlightening, improve the chance of project success, improve knowledge and greatly reduce risk and potential losses.

There is a lot of work that is involved with research and I have only really touched upon it here. If you would like to know more then I would love to have a chat with you. Call me today on 01903 527927. I look forward to talking with you soon.