A web project involves the needs of the end-users and the business, new ideas and various limitations and boundaries. At the beginning of the project it is not always clear what problems, challenges and needs the new website must address, and how new ideas could help find solutions.
When starting a new website project, its goals and scope should be clarified through a feasibility study. A feasibility study is a tool which the organisation’s management can use in deciding whether or not to implement a project.
Contents of a feasibility study
A feasibility study maps out the goals and scope of a web project based on the business’s requirements. Another central aspect of the feasibility study is to establish the financial and scheduling framework for implementation of the project.
A typical feasibility study addresses the following issues:
- background and need for the project
- goals and requirements
- preliminary concept
- cost estimate
- benefits and profitability of the project
- project phases and schedule
- resources, organisation and management of the project
- implementation tools.
A typical web project springs from a desire to develop or expand an existing website. Therefore, the current situation must be reviewed in the feasibility study: What content and functionalities does the current website have, who are its users and what technical solutions it is based on.
It is helpful to describe the needs which gave rise to the idea of a new development project. A feasibility study must also provide a recommendation on whether the project should build on existing platform or replace them with an entirely new IT solution.
Setting goals and requirements
A web project can be considered successful when it has produced the expected results. The final results should be mapped out as clearly as possible before starting the project. A feasibility study must include a recommendation on what the website should enable users to do, and what problems at the organisation it should resolve. Expected results are set out concretely as a preliminary concept.
Details about what specific steps and technical solutions are needed to achieve the goal are outside the scope of a feasibility study, but are addressed later in requirements specification phase. However, the goals and requirements of a project can be clarified with a preliminary definition of requirements (concept), which then serves as a starting point for the more detailed specification.
A realistic budget
Sufficient funds must be committed to the project, taking into account future expenses, for example training, in addition to the cost of the actual system. The budget should also cover possible small overruns and other added expenses which inevitably surface during a project.
The organisation’s own personnel resources are often a bottleneck in web projects. Costs resulting from the organisation’s own work should also be taken into account in the budget. Among other things, time and effort from the organisation’s personnel is needed in planning the website, producing content and coordinating the project.
In the feasibility study phase, vendors and software have usually not yet been selected. The bracket for costs and workloads can still be estimated, for example by comparison with the cost of comparable projects or by requesting cost estimates from various vendors without making any commitments.
The largest costs in a typical web project are:
- Software licenses
- Concept design, specifications etc.
- Technical implementation work
- Content production
- User training
- Maintenance and hosting costs
Benefits and profitability
Once project costs are known, they can be weighed against the benefits of the project to estimate its profitability. The estimated profitability of the project is the most important factor in deciding whether or not to proceed. However, websites differ from traditional IT investments in that more abstract assessment criteria must often be used in estimating their profitability.
The benefits sought in web projects are frequently qualitative. They include improving the organisation’s image, improving information flow within the company or with its partners and providing access to up-to-date information. The financial value of qualitative benefits is difficult to define, so using traditional investment calculations (for example ROI) for website projects is often nearly impossible.
Still, it is possible to calculate the monetary value of certain benefits. A website can save on workforce costs by improving the efficiency of a particular process, for example handling orders or providing customer support. A website can also replace some other form of communication, in whole or in part. The website’s benefits can then include for example savings on printing and postage costs.
Project phases and schedule
Time pressure often leads to an unrealistic project schedule which, in practice, is impossible to adhere to. An effort should be made at the time of the feasibility study to ensure that the schedule is realistic, and that sufficient time has been reserved for each phase of the project.
Problems and changes during the project can easily cause the schedule to be drawn out. Flexibility built into the schedule in the feasibility study phase ensures that a delay in one phase does not jeopardise the timeline of the entire project. An unrealistically tight schedule can also lead to neglect or omission of certain project tasks in order to meet time constraints, for example starting live use of the website before it has been adequately tested.
In the feasibility study phase, breaking up the website implementation into a number of consecutive projects should also be considered. An effective approach is often to divide up the project so that urgent portions are implemented first, and less essential functionalities are addressed later. Implementation in phases facilitates project management and enables the most business-critical functionalities to be available for use more quickly.
Project organisation and management
In connection with the feasibility study, a preliminary plan for organisation and management of the web project is drafted. This should be done even if not all project participants have yet been selected. The feasibility study should include recommendations on at least the following questions regarding management and organisation:
• Project organisation
• Monitoring and reporting
• Change management
Assessment of implementation tools
Technical details of the website implementation are usually not locked in during the feasibility study phase. The feasibility study can, however, include requirements and restrictions on the technical solution. It can also include a comparison of the pros and cons of various options (e.g. different CMS platforms).
Web projects often make use of existing software and hardware, in which case the restrictions and opportunities of the environment must be taken into account. An organisation planning to purchase a web project may also use various IT standards and recommendations which must be taken into consideration in selecting hardware and software.
The feasibility study should also provide a recommendation on what other systems will be integrated with the website. The organisation’s entire IT architecture must be taken into consideration when selecting hardware and software, particularly when integration will be extensive or technically complex. Integration with other systems can be a significant consideration in technology selection.
A well-reasoned decision about proceeding with the project
It is essential that the organisation’s management genuinely commit to the project. The backing and commitment of management communicates to the rest of the organisation that the project is necessary, and also that they believe it will lead to clear benefits. Without a serious commitment from management, successful completion of the project and achieving its goals is highly unlikely.
A feasibility study provides management with a concrete way to assess the expected benefits and costs of the website project, and to identify development priorities. A well drafted feasibility study is a valuable tool for the organisation’s management to use in deciding whether or not to implement a project, and how it will be carried out.