Demystifying the Interactive Process [Part III: Definition]

After the options, ideas, and realities have been clarified with the Discovery process, the next step of the Interactive SDLC is Definition. During the Definition phase, everything that has been discovered gets documented and agreed to by all stakeholders. It is now that the actual project takes shape, and concrete plans are put into place which will govern all of the rest of the development process for the project.

Definition, For Clients

As a Client, the Definition phase is the one which can seem like the most redundant and particular phase of development. Conference calls and face-to-face meetings with several team members should already have taken place. The Interactive Strategist has been working with you to narrow down all of the possibilities, and you now know what it is that you will be building. After all, wasn’t everyone in on the conference calls that just took place? Isn’t the agency ready to actually get to work with making something yet?

In a word, no.

The ideas and strategies which the Interactive Strategist or Marketing Specialist has helped you decide on as a Client now need to be handed over to the Interactive Producer, who will be using all of the materials and learning from Discovery to create several documents. First and foremost, the Producer will generate a Scope of Work (or SOW), a document which will use extremely specific language to describe exactly what the Agency will be providing as the end results for the project itself. This document is presented and then approved by both sides, and usually both the Agency and the Client will sign off on the document, establishing it as the be-all and end-all contract for this particular project.


I’m going to let you in on a well-known fact in the industry: Agencies use language in a much more precise manner than Clients tend to do. This is very, very important, because part of that precision means that if something is not called out in full detail in the language of the SOW, then the Agency will not expect that they will be providing whatever that something is. When inexperienced Clients read Interactive Scopes of Work, they tend to carry assumptions along with them. Even if the language of the SOW doesn’t call something out explicitly, the Client may assume that one of their expectations is “just covered”, or else that it’s such an item of common sense that there’s no need to spell it out in the SOW.

Sooner or later, those assumptions will turn out to be wrong. Dead wrong. That’s why it’s crucial that you, as a Client, give yourself adequate time to review the Scope of Work. When you go into a meeting, Webex, or conference call where a Scope of Work is being reviewed, a good idea is for you to make a list of all the items that you are expecting to see in that Scope and then tick them off when you come to the language that covers it. If by the end of the review of the SOW you don’t find all of the items on your list checked off, then you need to raise those as question right then and there.  The SOW becomes a binding legal contract for services to be provided. If the services you expect aren’t in the SOW, or the SOW calls for things to be done in a way which is confusing to you, then you should put the brakes on right then and there and work with the Agency to revise the language of the SOW until everything is explicitly stated.

This isn’t just a point of legal wrangling. It’s an opportunity to check whether or not the ideas that you as a Client have been taking away from the Discovery process are actually what the Agency thinks you’ve been agreeing to. All of this, of course, requires that first and foremost that you as a Client understand just how important SOW approval really is, and that you take the time to read that contract. I have had more than one client sit through a SOW presentation with Q&A period to follow only to have them later complain that something they had assumed would be done was considered a Change in Scope. When I went back over the SOW and highlighted the language which had stated otherwise, I’ve been told a couple times:

“Well, that doesn’t mean anything. I didn’t actually read the Scope, and just because I signed it doesn’t mean I agreed to it.”

Yes, actually, it does. We have nothing stronger in our culture nor more legally binding than a written contract signed by both parties. The SOW is that contract. Please take the opportunity to double check that everything you as a savvy Client are hoping to see is actually and EXPLICITLY called out in the language of your SOW. It can save you thousands, perhaps millions of dollars, and it prevents the “miscommunication death spiral” from afflicting your relationship with your Agency.  If your Agency isn’t patient enough to work closely with you to ensure that misunderstanding doesn’t creep in at this stage, then my advice to you is to simply take your business elsewhere. Agencies work for the Clients, not the other way around. If they’re not willing to partner with you on the early steps of this process, then diagnosis doesn’t look good for the buildout either.

Definition for Agencies

Agencies know how to define things, or they shouldn’t be in the Interactive business. The more exacting and precise you can possibly be in consolidating Discovery down into a Scope of Work, the better. Obviously it is in your best interest as an Agency to guide your Clients through the process as carefully as you can. One tactic I found to be extremely helpful with my clients was to not only hand the Clients the materials they needed to review, but also to tell them the kinds of things they would be looking for at that particular stage.

My standard spiel would sound something like this:

“I’m sending you the text of the Scope of Work we’ve just presented so that you and your team can review it. What you will be looking for as you review the Scope is to make sure that everything that you and the Interactive Strategist decided upon will be represented in specific language. You’re also going to need to consider the language of the Scope very carefully to make sure that there is nothing left to ‘common sense’ which isn’t included in the document. Specifically, you’re also going to want to pay close attention to all of our Assumptions, because they outline the conditions we as an Agency assume you as a Client will be operating within.  Once you and your team are confident that everything you want to have happen, and only what you want to have happen, is contained in this document, then you should send over your approval. Please understand, by signing this document you are entering into a contract for this project to be built exactly as specified in this Scope, and you acknowledge that the SOW becomes the only actual agreement for services between us regarding this project. Do you have any questions as to what the Agency needs you to pay attention to when reviewing this document?”

Is it exhaustive? Yes. Do I recommend it for every Client? No, but it never hurts to help set expectations for approvals if time permits. I certainly recommend a similar approach for any new Client the first couple of times through the process. Because as all of the Producers reading this can attest, even this kind of speech doesn’t prevent every miscommunication, but at the very least it does represent a very good effort in very good faith to reduce as many misunderstandings before they happen as possible.

Other Documentation for the Definition Phase

Both Clients and Agencies will be generating a number of documents for the Definition phase above and beyond the Scope of Work.  Producers will generate estimates to accompany all of the hours breakdowns for the project as the SOW is coming together. Those estimates are usually included in the SOW somehow to indicate the agreed payment terms, but they still need to be generated. Some shops I’ve worked at have also included Content Audits in this phase, a formal cataloging of any web site or app which exists prior to the start of the project. Sometimes the Strategic Plan includes the Content Audit materials, and other times a preliminary conceptual Site Map will be generated as well.

If the project is going to involve heavy use of databases, interactivity, or other programmed behaviors, then it becomes essential that part of the Definition phase also includes Functional Specifications, or “Func Specs” as they’re called in the Industry. If you are working in E-commerce at all or any kind of interactive project where there are lots of conditional functions or an extended data capture as the main part of user experiences (think shopping carts and complex registration forms) then you will also want to have an Information Architect or a Business Analyst sit down and come up with a series of detailed Business Rules for how the database/form/program to be built will behave.

The Project Plan

At the very end of the definition phase, once the SOW and all of the Business Rules and Functional Specifications are generated and approved by both the Agency team and the Client team, the Producer will create a document called the Project Plan. The Project Plan is where a Producer takes a look at what is promised in the SOW, how long their own team members estimate that the project will take, and the available resources available to the Agency. From all of that information, the Producer will create the Project Plan, a massive Gantt Chart which should detail every single task or project stage, what job role (or occasionally, which specific team member) will need to perform which task, and how long it’s going to take them.

The Project Plan is what separates a good Producer from a great Producer, and it’s the point at which the all-important questions about TIMING will be settled, on paper, for the remainder of the project.  Using software like Microsoft Project®, a Producer will create the Gantt chart and work to establish what’s called the Critical Path or Critical Timing. Anywhere in the Plan where jobs can be worked on in parallel will be called out, and anywhere that a strict sequential approach is necessary will also emerge.

Saving Time

Producers are constantly asked to do the impossible with regard to timing. Sometimes they can do it. Other times, they can’t. As a Producer, it’s my job to know where we can reasonably save time, and how to do it. And it’s also my job to know when the process is just going to take however long it takes. Our stock example is to say, “If it takes a pregnant woman 9 months to make a child, if I assign 8 other women to help can I get it in one?” Uhm, no.

With that said, there are lots of ways to save time, but they frequently start by asking the Client to make some sacrifices. Part of what a Project Plan needs to account for is the length of time that the Client has to review and provide feedback on any of the many checkpoints along the way. A good rule of thumb is to allow the Client no less than 5 business days to review and provide feedback on every single touchpoint. If the project is huge or the Client has more than 4 stakeholders who need to sign for every approval, up the amount to 10 business days for the first draft of the plan.

That way, if the subject of Timing becomes a controversial issue, the first concession to be made in the Project Plan will fall squarely on the Client.

“I can cut a month off of the Project Plan right now, but I’ll need you to commit to approvals being turned around in 3 business days, not 5. If we arrange this as an expedited schedule, I’ll need you to acknowledge via email that you accept responsibility for the overall project timing if approvals take longer than 3 business days.”

Usually, Clients are working against real deadlines and will happily step up their approval cycles in order to realize the time savings. Occasionally, my experiences have not gone that way. I had one client working for a new build who agreed to the 3 day turnaround time and other time-saving expedites, and then read me the riot act when I informed them that their launch date would have to move out by a week when their senior VP went on vacation and took 2 extra days to get the approvals to me. (The schedule really was that tight everywhere else that the delay impacted the final delivery date).

One of the very last places that any Producer should make concessions for timing is within the Interactive Process itself. There is a very real reason why these steps are acknowledged as ‘industry best practices’… because after trying to work without them, the industry as a whole agrees that these are the best practices for getting things done right the first time. Rookie Producers and Clients new to the interactive sphere will skip these process steps thinking that a project is simple (deceptive!) only to find out too late that the entire project has derailed because of something that would have been caught and corrected had the basic process been followed fully. I know, I’ve learned how important all of these steps are by trying to cut out almost every one of them at one point or another, and having to scramble to deal with the fallout when seemingly-simple, straightforward interactive builds went very wrong.

Sticker Shock

In the 1990’s (ahem, 20 years ago), the buzz on the streets and in the popular culture was that the internet was fast, easy, and cheap. That was true, back when the internet’s commercial potential hadn’t yet created (and destroyed) vast fortunes. Once the internet became monetized, the populist communication platform started sharing space and behaviors of a Mall. Traditional advertising always cost money, so it makes sense that now, a decade plus after the public adoption of the World Wide Web gave Interactive media a treasured place in our hearts, the pricing structures have caught up significantly.

If all you want is what we would call a “brochure site”, static information designed once, non-interactive and never-changing, then the good news is that yes indeed, you can make real cheap web sites. But if you want any bells or whistles, any interactivity, any sort of modern, updated design, any complex data capturing and optimization…. well, then you’re going to have to make an investment at least on par with the kind of investment you’re making in other advertising budgets. I had the privilege of working for one client which made the unilateral decision to scrap their entire print-based advertising budget to free up more money for their interactive advertising budget. They got more traction from the net than they would have from billboards and minipoles, by far.

In the Definition phase, one thing that’s going to be defined is the price. As a Client, you need to be realistic about your expectations or you will indeed face sticker shock. As an Agency, you really need to start preparing your Client to avoid sticker shock by discussing pricing as you go. There are dangers to this, as we all know, because when we give a number to our clients as a “ballpark” or an “estimate” the human psyche latches on to the amount, not to the qualifiers, conditionals, and assumptions which Producers surround any ballpark with. This is why my immediate response to any client question about pricing ballparks is “About 3 million dollars.” In the nervous chuckles that follow, I try to point out to them that ballparks are all about the assumptions, and that I hate giving ballparks up front because those assumptions get quickly forgotten, and then the Agency gets asked to live up to a quote which it never actually gave in the first place.

And After Definition….

It should be pretty clear to any of those familiar with Print that the Definition phase is one of the real differences between the two project life cycles. Remember, in Print the Process is flexible but the Results are fixed. In Interactive, the Process is fixed but the Results are flexible. It’s when we encounter the Definition phase, right up here in the beginning and BEFORE anyone begins to actually build or develop or design *anything* that this point really gets hammered home.

But not to worry. Once the extremely detailed Definition process is done and the Project Plan has been presented and signed off on by both parties, you will (finally!) be moving on to getting something made, in the Design phase which we will cover in tomorrow’s article.

A different sort of place

Week 1 of the new job is done. The reverse commute is wonderful. It’s such a different kind of energy being up in the midstate region of Connecticut.

I’m replacing someone who is moving away here, and in a stark contrast to working at my last job in Darien, I’m being slowly and gently trained and transitioned. My first day at my last place saw me in a client meeting on site before the end of the day. Not only that, but the person I replaced had left the company the Friday before I started, so I was just sort of thrown to the dogs.

Here, there’s a lot of infrastructure and philosophical alignment that runs throughout the entire agency. Everyone knows the interactive process here. Everyone lives by it. And as a result, there’s none of that jarring clash between the offline promotional agency world and the online interactive agency world. Everyone, from the owner down to the new hires, are all on the same page.

What a relief such a simple change makes. How lovely too that I had an entire week of being coddled, really, as I was brought up to speed on projects. I’m looking forward to the fact that next week I’ve got the full week to take the lead on my projects while my predecessor is still nearby to answer questions and provide insight. It makes coming on board a much more pleasant process.

The inner paranoid part of me is slowly relaxing. Slowly. Not quite willing to believe that it’s going to stay this nice, but I’m no fool — I’ll enjoy what I’ve got while I’ve got it.