The Challenge of Creating Proposals

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How can we create an estimate if we don’t know the full scope?

“We had one client who said, ‘All we need is a website. It’s not that big of a project,’” recalls Partner and Business Strategist John Clauss. “We knew it was bigger than what the client thought so we suggested taking on the work on a pay-as-you-go basis. As expected, it ended up being quite a large and complex project.”

That approach worked because as we went through the process, the client developed a better understanding of the scope and our process. They had choices all along the way that would save money, save time, or improve the product. Ultimately, they chose the latter and we improved the product far beyond their original vision.

In drafting a proposal, we need to understand the context of the client’s needs.

What are their pain points? What’s driving them to make change and what would make their lives a whole lot better? We can find other things that need fixed but first we need to get the client there. Some literally don’t know what they want, they just know what they’ve got isn’t working. That leaves us with a pretty open field of options.

The old way of creating estimates – providing a wide range of estimates to accommodate unknown technical requirements – is counter to our iterative, micro-scoping process. We strive to remain agile so that we can be strategic throughout the project. Even knowing all the information up front, it’s still very difficult to estimate hours.

“We might have what seems like an 8-hour task,” Director of Technology, Jeremy Amos says, “and then we find out something new and it becomes a 30-hour task. We had a project where the client wanted to add notifications, which seems simple on the front-end, but to do that on their back-end we’d have to remodel the whole thing. Sometimes, it’s not even a good idea and we need the flexibility to say it isn’t worth it.”

So how do we draft a proposal that accurately describes the project without promising a specific solution?

A big piece of the puzzle is who the actual client is, not just the company. We work with a lot of different client types with varying levels of experience. We’re also often in situations where there isn’t just one client; it could be a committee of people with varying expectations and levels of expertise.

Generally, the more technical a client is, the more open they are to innovation. A private school client we recently won came to us through their IT Director. “He’s very comfortable with technology and wants to leverage everything that’s available,” remarks Content Strategist Angelique Little, “but even more importantly, he’s able to bring the rest of his organization along. He’d done a lot of research and understood not only their expectations but our process.”

A less technical client, however, tends to stick to what’s safe. But “what’s safe” can be dangerously close to being outdated. As an agency, we need to maintain a certain level of innovation or we look outdated too.

On the school project, we got approval to move forward with a concept phase which allowed us to learn the client, their users, expectations and needs, then provide an estimate and timeline of work that’s specific to the execution recommendations. Now everyone knows exactly what to expect and the client understands how to participate in the process.

Often, the freedom to innovate is strongly tied to the level of client trust.

Technical Project Manager Maggie Fok brings up an event management client that we’ve been working with a long time. “When we first started with them, they didn’t have faith in outsiders – they’d been burned in the past – and we had to prove ourselves by working on smaller projects. Only when we had a certain level of trust were able to say ‘What if we reimagine the registration system?’”

These are the kinds game-changing projects we love, the kind that dramatically impact the bottom line, but for all kinds of reasons we often can’t do them right away. If we’re able to work with a client incrementally, though, we get to a place where they’ll trust us with bigger and more meaningful development.

How can we keep timelines and budgets from constraining the project while still delivering within client expectations?

“It really comes down to innovation,” says Partner and Product Design Lead, Patrick Ford. “We can literally spend 10 to 100 hours on the same task, with greatly different results. We can do the minimum required or we could collect user data, vastly improve on the experience, and solve important business problems. Which do you prefer?”

When a client comes to us with a fixed budget or a fixed timeline, we ask “Is that budget now or is that your budget forever?” Because we can work in phases and create a digital roadmap of improvements to tackle over a longer period of time. It’s a process that works well for us and works well for our clients but it can be a shift in thinking, and it’s our job to get them there.

When crafting proposals, we try to emphasize that we can always deliver some kind of solution within whatever constraints the client presents, but with an iterative approach we can accommodate more complex designs and technical implementations as well as opening the door to innovation.

Scoping, then, becomes part of the education process.

“When timelines and budgets are squeezed, it’s usually design that suffers” says Creative Director, Scott Abbott. “If we’re building a custom tool, those pages are complex and take a long time to design. We can do five pages for a more straightforward site in the same amount of time but even then, if there are a lot of pages, we need more time to explore or we end up with every page looking the same. It’s the upfront design exploration that really makes or breaks an experience in terms of having a unique look and creating a memorable impression. Ideally, we have the flexibility to spend that time on innovation.”

With a goal of elevating our clients to a best-in-class interactive experience, scoping ends up being a delicate dance between delivering on client expectations and creating space for innovation through iteration.

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