The Challenge of Evolving Requirements: 5 Ways to Stay in Sync with your clients

I recently heard something on the radio that made me “aha!” out loud regarding the Affordable Care Act website and the contractors who created it. They were complaining of “evolving requirements.”

I laughed because I know exactly what they mean. I call it a morphing idea, but it’s essentially the same. In a nutshell, the phenomenon works like this:

–  A client comes to you with the Original Idea. They tell you some things about it. They then go away.
–  You dutifully work on bringing the Original Idea to life. Meanwhile, the client continues to further develop the Original Idea in his head.
–  You meet with the client again. The Original Idea has grown wings and turned into something very different.
–  The due date has not changed.

As a creative person, I don’t believe in quashing ideas. I think they take time and work to develop, and of course, not all ideas are good ones. Part of designing for a client is encouraging and allowing ideas to change, and some of the best work comes from spur-of-the-moment ideas and changing gears!

However, from a contractor’s standpoint – whether a web designer, photographer, sample maker, graphic designer, etc. – it is incredibly difficult to finish a project with evolving requirements. And since contractors normally don’t get paid until the project is complete, having fuzzy boundaries is not a good thing.

So: how do you deal with evolving requirements while still allowing for creativity and growth? Here are 5 tips!

1. Write it Down

An idea is never defined until it’s written down. It’s like quantum theory.  The client’s concept can be an infinite number of things at the same time in the client’s brain, and he won’t even realize that his idea is shifting between an infinite number of choices until he is required to define it.

Either ask the client to write a list of attributes for your project, along with drawings and other specifications, or meet with him and ask a lot of questions. Take notes. Often the client won’t have the answers right away, so he will have to get back to you once he has taken time to consider the options.

This is very important: at the end of the meeting, read the requirements back to the client and confirm that this is what they want. Because, oddly, sometimes it’s not. People can be very imprecise in their language, so double check by stating the project goals in your own words.

Let me give you an example: Tom gave us a new coffee maker, and told us, “I don’t like the way it comes out.” We thought he meant that the coffee didn’t taste good. What he actually meant is that the carafe didn’t pour well. It spilled coffee everywhere.  Double check what you think you are hearing.

2. Piece by piece

If you are working on a large project, try to break it down into smaller, well defined pieces. This will help you not only hit deadlines, but it’s easier to define a large project in small stages. It also becomes easier to estimate the time the project will take when you break it into smaller chunks. And, as a bonus, you can invoice for the smaller projects as you finish them.

3. Communicate/Re-assess

Check in with your client on a regular basis and sooner rather than later if something doesn’t seem right. Send him a picture or mock up of what you’re doing and confirm that you’re on the right track. Meet in person if you must. Keep track of any changes to the original requirements, along with the dates you were given new requirements.

4. Wouldn’t it Be Great If…

Don’t get side tracked if your client is bursting at the seams with ideas. If another project is already in motion, figure out if the new idea is pertinent to what’s already going on. If it’s not relevant, have the client jot down the new idea and then tell him he can schedule the start of this new project after the projected end date of the current one. 🙂

If the new idea is potentially pertinent to the current project, and especially if it’s a good idea, resist the temptation to just blindly agree to incorporate it into the existing project, ask: will this new idea move the current project forward?  Will this new idea negate any of the requirements you’ve made so far? What are the ripple effects of implementing the new idea on the cost and the schedule.  No matter how miniscule the new idea seems, make sure that both you and the client understand how it can affect the finish date and cost of the project.

5. Be Goal-Oriented

One of the best ways to keep focused is to remind yourself and your client of the original purpose of a project. Go back and read the stated goal every now and then. You’ll be surprised how minor details can sometimes distract you from the main project.

Your client should be able to define the project’s goal in a sentence or two. For example, an activewear collection’s may be “wicking yoga apparel in bold prints.” That way, when the client brings in a great idea for swimsuits, you can pull out the concept statement and evaluate how a bikini fits in with the original concept. Usually, the result is that the client got distracted from his original goal.

In short, if you can keep good, clear records and help your client stay focused on the project, it will reduce the probability that the project will have evolving requirements. By keeping a positive outlook and avoiding knee jerk “yes, I can do that” or “no, that’s impossible” responses, you’ll find yourself in a better relationship with any client.

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