Website Project Breakdown - What the heck am I getting into?!

Posted on August 31, 2018 Matt Rakowski

A Project Manager's Guide to Building a Website

For those that need a website and don’t know what to do or where to start...

In a world that has evolved into various methodologies, terms, acronyms, etc., in everything, we don’t get skipped over in the website world either, especially when it comes to project management. You will hear common method buzzwords such as "agile", "waterfall", and everything in between. In this article, we will focus less on the methodology and more on the makeup of a website build project that one may encounter on either side of the table as an implementer - or as the business entity.

We will break these projects out into “phases” of work that make the project more palatable. No, it won’t ever be as tasty as Nashville hot chicken, but at least you will understand what’s going to happen in these sets of deliverables to better see the forest from the trees. With that, you will be better equipped to talk about the parts that you will be involved in (and can ask the right questions).

Right off the bat we will break a website project down into these common project milestones:

  1. Discover
  2. Design
  3. Develop
  4. Launch prep
  5. Launch

As you can see, that is a little easier to talk to rather than an Excel spreadsheet, word doc, or napkin with a mind dump of the project requirements. One can break this list down further (and I will!) into more manageable sets of deliverables, as there are many activities that make up each of these milestones. I will touch on each milestone at high level, so you are better prepared for what you will be getting into while you are building, or rebuilding your website!

Discover & Onboarding Phase

The Discovery Phase of the project is when we identify and document the core direction of the project. It includes very important steps to build the framework of the website and align the project team with the customer's vision and objectives.

Get Started with Your Own Discover Phase

It all starts with the kickoff. Here you will meet the complete project team (client and agency sides) and get a base understanding of the project. This is sometimes the only occasion that the entire team is at the table, so laying out and establishing guidelines, as well as setting the overall expectations for the project are key in this step.

User Scenarios Exercise

Once the team understands the project at a high level, the real work begins - documenting important core framework items. To start discovery work, we run through the list of website users and their needs - we call this the User Scenario Exercise. Yes, the sales team went through and agreed upon the list of initial requirements that make up the website, but user scenarios will really lay out the needs of the website in a more detailed way. Sometimes you will find items missing right away, and, heads up to both sides, a change order may be coming to increased budget/scope/time!

SEO Prep

SEO prep is usually identified at kickoff. There are many activities to prep SEO for a website, but we like to start with discovering high volume, high intent keywords and use those to flesh out the navigation and architecture of the website. Most of this is built into an SEO plan. Sure, websites can be built without it, but if you aren’t thinking about SEO when building your navigation structure, then you are short-changing your ability to get seen across the world, and more importantly, your target audience!

Wireframes & Technical Requirements

It's time to start thinking about website design and development. The documentation consists of website wireframes and technical requirements.

In wireframing the goal is to lay out the main website pages in a contextual view with boxes and filler text. Boring I know, but it helps the web designer focus less on layout and flow, and instead on bringing something beautiful to life. The wireframe then leads to the content plan to help gather content needs.

The developer version of the wireframes is the technical requirements documentation. This can come in a variety of documents/styles. All that jargon and fancy tech speak starts to look like a legal document, but don’t fret, the developers know what it means and really do value this documentation to help blueprint what they need to do.

At that point, the main discover items are identified and the project can move on to the fun parts... starting with design!

Design: the Fun Stuff

Design is probably the most fun part of the process, but it can be difficult at times if the approval process is hampered by panel involvement or an indecisive decision-maker. To help get the sign-off as soon as possible, the designer will discuss the design vision and branding with the client and use the wireframe to create the initial homepage design.

Again, this could get bogged down as decision-makers are involved, but a piece of advice, assign a one or two-person approval team to drive acceptance and consolidate the feedback. There is something to be said with the phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth”.

With good communication and approval flow, you should be happy with the design and ready to move into development. In some cases, it’s better to sacrifice some of the timeline for the quality of the design. Once the design is approved, the designer will package up all design files and meet with the developer to begin the heavy lifting.

Development: the Heavy Lifting

Development may seem complex because of the needed coding expertise, but it can be the least time-consuming part of the process if discovery and design were done correctly. Having said that, yes, you will need to test the code and verify functionality, but that can go smoothly with proper setup.

Development involves creating the environments to work in (and ultimately launch on), building the design into reality, and getting all systems integrated and 3rd party plugins installed. Complexity around this varies widely, but more functionality and integrations = more complexity and variables to test. As an example, the moment eCommerce is brought up, accept that this need can multiply the complexity.

With good communication and awareness of needs (you are hopefully seeing a theme here), technical development can go smoothly, and before you know it the launch date is set.

The Content Variable

Oh! Speaking of development, there is the fun, daunting, tedious, and most important task of content building!

This is probably the most important phase in terms of planning to get ahead of the overall flow of the project timeline. The client is key in this activity as they are the most knowledgeable resource about their customer base. Yes, we can help write content, but ultimately we are relying on the client's years of experience.

There are many ways to accomplish this task, but one of the most logical approaches would be to take the wireframes and use those as a guide to what content will be needed (via the content plan mentioned above). After much thought and potential heavy lifting, the content will be complete and ready to be loaded on the site.

Stage that Rocket!

Now that most of the heavy lifting is over, we can’t take the foot off the gas pedal yet!

With launch prep, we try to minimize all issues that could go wrong with launch. This starts with making sure the client understands the delivered site. Typically the website team will stage a few pages with the content using the content plan. Then the client will have something familiar and “real world” as possible to replicate and train from.

After being trained, clients should be comfortable making any edits on the staging website. Good thing, because they will then be responsible for making content edits moving forward. The client ultimately gives the approval to begin launch. Once you press the go button on your end, we aren’t quite done yet!

With approval locks the content, and now the team (sometimes including the client) will go through a functional test of the site to make sure all necessary links, forms, and other fun web requirements are working as needed - many teams will use a plan for this. At the same time, other SEO tactics are being completed to set up the site for good search engine optimization.

If all goes well and all lights are a satisfying shade of green, we will move on to launch!


If all of the previous activities went according to plan, launch should just be a matter of ceremony. Yes, there are hiccups that can happen, but a good team will be on top of it and able to fix anything that comes up during the launch activities. Check out our website launch checklist!

Word of caution though, if you don’t have a domain (the www.), or a location to put the site on (the hosting provider), there will not be a launch. Make sure to have that domain purchased and a host selected prior to the big day, preferably before the project even begins!

It's time to put your trust in the project team, but don't worry, the project manager will keep you in the loop as the site is being turned on to the world. Once you get the “We are live!” message, that pretty much ends the project. You will work through any post-launch issues with the team and formally be handed over to the support team for potential issues and future enhancements.

Congratulations on your new site! If you have any further questions about our website process, reach out to us! We love answering questions about our process and will be more than happy to help you in any way we can!