When I initially meet prospective clients, I only want to know one thing about their planned project- what is the purpose of their unborn website and what do they want to do with it. For smaller businesses and organisations, this is not often thought about. When I ask, I get answers like "we want a web presence" or "we want to improve our sales by having a website and showing that we're a contemporary business". You must really watch out for this level of ambiguity.
I get website briefs for e-commerce websites, product/service catalogs and information websites for businesses, organisations and events, such as festivals. The good briefs usually have three things included with the overall description- some idea of how it will be formed (usually including example sites that they like), how it will work for their visitors and how they plan on using it. I can then plan a website which will fulfill the brief. Relatively straightforward stuff.
Warning bells sound, when a prospective client comes to me with a project brief of "I just want to get my business out there, you know, on the interwebs". How do you even start to plan for a website like this? The tell of a potential time-waster is a level of vagueness when it comes to describing what they want to do with their website and what they want to achieve with it.
Helping the client
Unfortunately when you have someone with such a vague idea of what they want, it usually means they haven't really thought about creating a website and are simply here because their niece said it was the latest thing and they were totally behind the times if they don't have a website (and if they're not "socialising on networks").
I try my best to help a prospective client come up with some concrete plan for their site- what a website could do for them and their business, what they would have to do to get it created, what it will take to keep it updated for the life of the website. More times than not though, as soon as they leave my office I never see them again. They're overwhelmed with the work that they will have to do, which is usually not considered. An hour of my time, down the drain, for no return.
My current standard practice is to have mini-meetings with prospective clients, usually through the telephone and ask them the all important question- what is the purpose of the website that they hope to create. If someone can tell me, in a sentence, what they want to do with their website, I'll schedule a meeting. Otherwise I'll send them on my project planner and ask them to fill it in and get back to me. My project planner is a set of questions, which are a constant work-in-progress, designed to try pries information out of the client about their prospective project. This is a beneficial exercise for the client and if it reduces my wasted time, it's a huge benefit for me too.
A lot of larger web design studios, such as Happy Cog, Clearleft and Erskine Design (the only ones I can think of at the moment), have downloadable project planners. I would suspect that their planners help to separate time-wasters from real prospective clients too.
If you have any related practices to reduce wasted time at this early stage of a project, let me know and I'll compile a future post with more ideas. I'm working on the latest iteration of my own project planner and as soon as I'm finished, I'll post it, with a write-up, on this blog.