"I would like a cake. How much is that?"
If you walked into a bakery and asked that question, you can bet your sweet tooth that the person behind the counter wouldn't respond with a price. He'd probably ask several questions: what size? how many layers? what kind of frosting? what kind of cake? do you need it decorated with someone's name? do you want it now or later?
And if you said, "I dunno. Just a cake. You know, tasty? for eating?" and the bakery gave you an estimated price, they'd be guessing. If you then walked into another bakery and asked the same question, with the same (lack of) clarifications, and that second bakery gave you an estimated price, they'd be guessing too. If those prices were different, you wouldn't have any real way of knowing whether the cheaper price was for a smaller cake, a simpler cake, or the same cake at a better price. No one had any idea what you wanted...
...so you probably won't get what you wanted.
This is not different with a web site project. Coming up with a simple list of requirements for the project you want completed makes good sense, not just once you've chosen your vendor, but before you choose your vendor. There are several advantages to providing vendors with a list -- just a page, nothing fancy -- of what you want your site to look like, contain, and do, and any special concerns you have before you start.
Reason 1: It helps you consider your overall marketing.
It's amazing how much you can learn about your customers by embarking on a web site design or redesign project. Before you start looking for vendors, and even before you start writing your requirements document, you might want to undertake an informal survey of your current customers. If you're starting a brand new business, you can ask people you know who you think would be perfect customers. You should find out things like:
- Do you use our web site (or our competitors' sites) more often at home or at work? On your phone or on a computer?
- Do you like buying things online?
- What would you like to know about us that you don't know yet?
- If we could do one cool thing online that would cost you nothing, what would it be?
Reason 2: It forces you to refine your needs.
When you think about your new web site, you may have some really grand ideas involving a video channel, an interactive calendar that alerts your customers about all kinds of things, or even a scratch-and-sniff site. Of course, along with all the other things you must have, like a great design and contact forms and social media integration and a blog, these exciting big plans can affect the bottom line to a degree that is hard to picture until you've put them down in writing. If they're hard to explain, the chances are that they'll be hard to build as well. No good designer will ever tell you it can't be done, but the best designers will tell you "yes, and..." The "and" is always cost.
You can alleviate some of the pain in having to turn down big, expensive web site proposals from vendors you really like by prioritizing your requirements. You can describe them any way you like, but the easiest is to refer to them as "must-have," "would-be-great," and "bonus." Then you can ask your potential vendors to price out the "bonus" items separately, giving you the option to pick and choose the ones that fall within your budget.
Reason 3: It gives you a budgetary reality check.
Yes, we have to talk about the elephant in your web site: cost. If you send out a great, well-crafted requirements document, and all the quotes you receive in response are for far more money than you are ready to spend, it might be time to re-examine your budget. One over-budget estimate is easily discarded. When all of them are too much, you may need to take some time to raise funds for your site. If you've taken the time to think hard about what you want and find it out of reach, then you either need to change your requirements or change your financial circumstances.
You can always consider a phased approach, with basic "must-haves" built now, Phase 2 including your "nice-to-have" items, and Phase 3 adding your "bonus" items. When you let your vendor know from the very beginning what your final destination will be, she can begin the project on a platform that will last through all your growth.
One of our favorite designers, Marissa Strassel, wrote a great blog post about her firm's process for giving their clients a price estimate. If you read that list of questions she asks, you'll get a sense for all the things that impact the bottom line price. "I just need a basic web site" doesn't even scratch the surface. If you stop there, it does not give the vendors free rein to let their imaginations take over. On the contrary, it's so vague that it will all but guarantee a project full of unpleasant surprises and change orders, leaving you with either a site you don't like or a bank account tapped much deeper than you expected.
The most helpful information to include in your requirements document are links to sites you like, a basic site architecture, and a list of things the site should do. You can click on the blue "Guide to Your 1st Website" graphic to learn more about the things to consider in your planning.
Most important of all, taking the time to get detailed with your web project requirements saves you time during the rest of the project, when your developers will be charging you to answer the questions you could have considered earlier. It is always worth the effort to take the process seriously, to consider the time and resources (financial and otherwise) a part of your marketing budget, and to be strategic about your online message. Otherwise, the chances are good that you'll have to eat whatever the baker gives you.