Very often a website can be built in-house, but the implications of this can easily be overlooked. Even for a simple website of maybe a page or two, it shouldn’t be treated as something which can simply be thrown together haphazardly, and then forgotten and left to gather virtual dust. If a website is the first point of contact with your organisation, the impression you create counts. The point is, don’t make this decision too lightly!

There are several factors to consider:

  • Time
  • Budget
  • The technological demands of the project
  • The skill level in-house
  • How much maintenance will be required

The first two in this list are the magic numbers. Even if it will be an ongoing project, as any website should be, you need to pay particular attention at this stage to the time and money needed for the initial construction. With every ounce of will that you can muster, you need to plan within these two constraints, which means thinking very carefully about what creating your project entails.

Time

A software project manager once told me that however long you think it will take to complete a software project, no matter how generous you think you’ve been on the estimate, add at least half on again and you’d be getting somewhere near. Since then, my own experience has more than backed this up. (Take note here, a website is very much a software project!)

The

This diagram draws from the sphere of software engineering, showing the traditional and most straightforward approach to constructing software, the Waterfall model. (Click the image to see a larger version with explanation.) Don’t get too worried about terms like software engineering. We’re going to take a plain, simple look at the steps that you would usefully go through when designing your website. You can modify this plan to your needs, or find other models on the Internet or in books. The aim is to give you a starting point from which you can properly consider the work ahead.

On the diagram, there is some scale implied in the length of the arrows left to right. Importantly, with this model it’s possible to feed back up the waterfall, which is important because if things start to go wrong somewhere down the line, you may need to back up one or more steps to get to the reason why.

Usefully, the model provides the basis for scheduling. Tasks applicable to the particular phases will be done pretty much in the order shown, though there may be some overlapping and feedback. Working out how long these tasks will take requires breaking them down, perhaps having some experience of at least similar work, and essentially making an informed estimate. Try and be realistic, and if you’re not sure, be generous. Putting this whole together provides the project’s working schedule.

Make sure that this schedule is possible to fit within existing time commitments, as any time you commit takes away from your other, normal working tasks. This includes update and progress meetings; so don’t forget to include them in a schedule.

Budget

The idea is of course vital; it’s the lifeblood of the project. We’ve pretty much covered the work involved here already – you know what you want the website to do, and you know who you want it to be for. You need to formalise the idea, producing a document that fully describes the details. Since this is absolutely central, take every care to ensure that you never lose sight of it. A larger project with many workers can easily begin to lose the focus of the original concept. You may even want to define clearly in the early stages what a project is not going to do.

The skill level required to fulfil your wildest dreams may be very expensive to buy, so unless you are incredibly lucky, or have time, energy and willingness to devote to learning yourself, your interactive fully animated educational game site idea may have to take a little trimming. You might need to do a bit of checking on fees paid for the work you want doing, and don’t forget to pay yourself for your own time. There are costs in administration and materials, and you may need to buy software and hardware, too. Don’t leave any stone unturned. Sometimes, a dismissed item can turn out to be a nasty surprise when a large amount of money suddenly needs finding.

So, when you work out the costs, does it fall inside your budget? If not, start again! Go back to your idea, and see where you can trim back on ambitions. That reminder again: it’s better to do one thing well than a lot of things badly. If you’re stretching a budget, you won’t do anything well.

It is possible that an idea may have to be shelved. The only key here is honesty. There is no point in attempting to tackle something that you know in your heart just can’t be done. However, if and when you’ve met both your magic numbers for time and budget, you’re ready to move on. You’ve completed the initial planning stage, and have clear documents guiding your future schedule, resource and decision making requirements.

Technological demands

If your website is essentially providing textual information, maybe with a few illustrative graphics and photographs, including just a few hyperlinked pages, then anyone with basic confidence with a word processor should be able to create the pages. This is especially true if you own a ‘WYSIWYG’ tool ‘ ‘What You See Is What You Get.’ There are many freely available, so it may be worth searching the Internet or checking the cover disks on magazines to see if you can spot any. There are also many pay-for web building tools, which can be a very good investment if you plan to do a complex site, or more than one website.

The more interactive you want your website to be, you can bet that you’re talking about more involved technology. Scripting languages such as JavaScript and VBScript are required even for very simple effects such as image swaps or colour changes when a visitor passes a mouse over a picture or some text. Quizzes and even highly involved user games and activities can be achieved using these languages. Again, a search of the Internet will reveal many archives that give away snippets of code free for you to personalise for your website. Almost certainly, you’ll find something that will form a close basis for the effect that you’re after. Remember though, this is going to take more time for research, learning, implementation, and also maintenance.

More and more often, websites utilise databases. This may be for contact information for various groups, or maybe for product descriptions, maybe with photographs and so on, or perhaps storing all the web pages themselves on a database, which can be a great boon for maintenance of large, busy websites. There are many possible uses, but these are pretty serious developments that will almost certainly require a professional web developer’s involvement. You’ll need to make sure that your website is with the right host, on the right server or account, and that you’ve fulfilled all your obligations to the Data Protection Act if necessary.

Technology is about ideas. It’s there to make your vision come to life. So, if you’re sure of what you want to do but don’t know how or even if it can be done: take advice. Don’t compromise at this stage. Research first, and get to know your options. Keep your time and budget magic numbers in mind, and make a decision from there.

The skill-level in house

This should be straightforward. Once you’ve decided on the technology level for your website, you can quickly assess if it can be done in house or not. There may be room for training considerations, or skills may be transferable, particularly publishing and word-processing. If a team member has an aptitude for scripting, great! If a team member is a great artist, photographer or designer, fantastic! You also need an author to write the text material, and as many willing souls as possible to test and feed back on the work you produce.

Now, you need to make that decision can we do it? If you can’t, and you can’t afford to hire in, it’s back to the drawing board. Be very honest here, there’s no point attempting to achieve something that you’ll never succeed with. If you can do it, or if you can afford the hire costs of outside skills, you’re just about ready to go into the construction stage!

How much maintenance will be required

This is a significant consideration that is often not considered at all. A website should never be thought of as a static, once built never again thought of event. Even a single page information sheet should be revisited from time to time to ensure that the information is accurate, and the presentation is brought more up to date.

Websites that aim to present more dynamic information, for instance news events, should be considered with exactly the same journalistic approach as a newsletter or newspaper. If there are details covered by the Data Protection Act included in your website then you have a legal responsibility to make every effort to ensure and maintain the accuracy of the information that you hold, which can mean a lot of research and a lot of contact chasing. This is background work that can be overlooked, and may require ongoing technical support as well as research, administration and production time and money. Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that once it’s there it’s finished. You can easily be caught out with suddenly having no people or time to do essential upkeep of the website that you’ve worked so hard to produce!

How to get free assistance if you’re stuck

There is a lot of free help around for the budding webmaster and web developer. One such source is the experienced-people forums. It’s free to join and members there are usually very knowledgeble and helpful.

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