Preventing the 9 Most Common Web Design Project Disasters

If you’ve never been through a web design project before, you might be wondering how easy or how hard it is to actually get the website you want.

If you have run web design projects before, you’re probably aware of the issues that come up, and you may be wondering how to prevent them in an upcoming or future web project.

Whatever your situation, if you’re thinking about getting a new website, this post will give you a whistlestop tour through all of the most common issues that plague web design projects, and we’ll talk about why they happen, how you can prevent them and what to look out for when trying to avoid web designers and web design agencies who can only do a good job some of the time. 

Generally Just Being Unhappy With the End Result or Experience 

Our team have delivered a huge number of websites over the past 15 years, both here at Square One Digital and in previous roles.

We all got together to discuss the issues we’d each faced during web design projects in our pasts and we discovered they were largely down to poor communication and a lack of planning. Less often is a lack of web design skill to blame for a failed project.

As an expert you’ve also got to be able to:

  • Interpret unclear requests and read the minds of clients who can’t articulate their ideas 
  • Know the difference between what was asked for vs what was actually wanted 
  • Have genuine talent in both web design and web development 
  • Successfully manage multiple projects at the same time whilst keeping clients happy
  • Have the relevant systems in place to manage support, enquiries and project deadlines 
  • Avoid a scenario where your financial priorities dictate the priority of projects
  • Deal with spikes in customer support requests from existing clients 
  • Find the time to keep all of your skills modern and fresh 
  • Being able to align current and future website requirements to avoid issues

If you don’t get those things right, it doesn’t matter how good you are, you won’t be able to keep all your clients happy. 

The industry knows that web developers (the more technical ones) can be quite arrogant and will often pursue their own vision for a project over the client’s.

It’s known that web designers will often say yes to any website feature request, believing (often wrongly) that they can just find a plug-in for that later on. 

Also consider that if, like many, you don’t know the first thing about web design or how websites are built, you’ll never have the ability to objectively and intelligently challenge the people you’re working with.

You’re much more likely to either be taken advantage of or have your project(s) de-prioritised (drag on forever/have half the effort put in) when the web designer/developer is forced, due to situation(s) they weren’t prepared for (e.g. took on too much work) to pick and choose which of their clients they’re going to keep happy and which ones they are going to try to get away with not doing their best for. 

So if you’re here, reading this post, learning to walk before you start trying to run, I salute you! 

Let’s dive into the specifics. 

#1 Being Left With a Website That Looks Rubbish or Doesn’t Meet Your Brand Requirements or Brief  

Web Design Client: “I asked for something clean and modern! What is this?! I do not like it!” 

*Fast forward 4 months* 

Web Design Client: “This isn’t working. I don’t like what you’ve done, it doesn’t match my brand, you’ve not listened to what I asked for… And I’ve lost faith that you will be able to give me what I want. I’m going to start again with another company.” 

This is the outcome of many a web project, here are the main culprits: 

Lack of Design Ability 

Typical culprits are those so new to web design they’ve not had the time to develop a robust set of design skills, or who’ve been doing it for so long they’ve managed to find financial (not necessarily professional) success without updating their skills. 

Developers are notorious for overestimating their design abilities; often they have one okay-ish template they’ve designed, that gets rolled out to every client, meaning that every website they do looks very, very similar.

Web designers tend to rely on pre-built themes, because they don’t know how to code (HTML/CSS) is not code – don’t let them fool you – they need PHP and in more advanced cases JavaScript) and always run into the problem of clients asking for a certain layout or design and the drag and drop page builder system not being flexible enough to achieve it.

There’s a lot of hacky bodge-job efforts.

You can prevent this affecting your web design project by taking 20 minutes to educate yourself on what modern design looks like. Here’s some examples we found earlier:

The best thing you can do is ask for a free 20-30m design/inspiration session, where you look at and talk through lots of different designs together, to see whether or not they can deliver your vision.  This is something we include in our process for every site we build!

Different Communication Styles 

Different communication styles can cause no end of problems during creative projects. So many of us, especially the busy and often very to the point types of people, or those who struggle to clearly articulate what they see in their mind’s eye, speak with hidden meaning behind the words and phrases we use. It’s a nightmare for literal communicators to navigate.

For example, if you say to a developer “Oh, just make all the pages match this one, don’t be surprised if every page ends up looking literally identical in ways you’d never expect. 

There’s many other examples of situations where miscommunication can cause issues during a web development project. You can prevent this affecting your web design project by making sure you work with a team (like ours) that’s led by someone who isn’t a literal communicator; don’t hire a “doer” who puts themselves in the role of “manager”.

Improper Design & Inspiration Process 

One of the most common issues plaguing web design projects is caused by the designer skipping or rushing the early planning stages and making assumptions about what their clients do and don’t want, or what the experts can or can’t deliver. 

Here’s what a “rushed” design planning and inspiration gathering process looks like: 

  1. Request client to send 3 sites they like 
  2. Begin designing web pages

Imagine you’re looking for a new home; it’s like someone saying “show me three houses you like” and then they lock you into buying whichever one they think best suits you; not taking into account any of the hundreds of specific details, like garden size or kitchen layout, that are important to you. 

The chances of them getting it right are extremely low.

Here’s our process: 

  1. Show us and talk about three sites you like 
  2. We’ll document your likes and dislikes 
  3. Then present and walk you through 20-30 different designs we’ve found 
  4. We’ll create a detailed brief of your likes and dislikes around
    • Fonts
    • Colours
    • Layouts
    • Styles 
    • Functionality 
    • Imagery
    • Illustration 
    • Unique pages
  5. Finally, we’ll work together to design rules to apply to your new website, like:
    • Illustrations should be detailed, vibrant and modern 
    • Fonts, especially titles, should be calligraphic in style but still legible 
    • We want to utilise a diverse colour palette consisting of several pastel colours
    • Web page designs should make good use of space, content should not feel cramped 
    • We do not want to use any photography anywhere on the site, only illustrations 

What we end up with is a very detailed list of things you really DO want and things you really DON’T want. If you’re unsure, we’ll guide you through every step to help you make successful decisions. 

Skipping or rushing this process will only leave your web designer/developer guessing at what’s going to make you happy. 

#2 Web Designers / Developers Disappearing For Weeks/Months at A Time 

Web Design Client: “Hi James, I’m just wondering when you’re going to be able to get round to sending the revised web page designs over? It’s been three weeks now and I’d like to know how we’re going to hit the deadline we agreed to?”

*3 weeks of tumbleweeds*

Web Designer: “Hey Bob, I’m so sorry, Nelly, my cat, was brutally savaged by a stray cactus last week and I’ve been looking after her since. Obviously I’m too distressed to focus on work right now and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

Running a business is hard, especially if you don’t know how to run a business. You have to understand that freelancers do not train in business management. Like many people, they get good at something (e.g. designing and building websites) and make the fatal error of assuming they’ll just learn how to run a business as they go.

When you also know that most agencies are run by ex-freelancers, who still don’t take the time to truly understand how to run a business, it’s easy to see why so many web projects fail.

It’s not because the web design/development teams are bad at building websites, they’re just stretched way beyond capacity and, honestly, sometimes in the early, mid or late stages of a breakdown.

If your web person is ghosting you, it’s probably because they’re stressed to the max and can’t cope with facing up to the disappointment and frustration they’ve caused you to feel.

The only way to really prevent this is to learn how to identify the red flags before engaging your web designer: 

  1. Do they have real project management expertise or:
    • Are you working with a lone wolf expert trying to wear 20 hats (from accounting to project management, to project delivery)
    • Is there a genuine management expert on the team you’re working with, or does it feel like someone with a very technical or creative background just got promoted to “head person”
  2. Do they use proper project management processes and systems or does everything exist inside one or more people’s heads?

Ask to hear about their team and who does what, their backgrounds etc. Ask for a tour of their management systems and processes, and how they prevent overwhelm in their business.

For example, we operate a work calendar. Every project is broken down into deliverables and roughly how long each will take to complete. We don’t just say yes to every project and start it ASAP, we know when our existing projects are going to finish and when we’ll have room for new ones. 

#3 Projects Running WAY Behind Schedule (Months, Sometimes Even Years) 

Web Design Client: “Hey Bryony, I know you said that what I’ve asked for is a new scope of work, (even though I did ask you for this in our first call), and that it’s going to take more time, and that you’re really busy at the moment, and that you can’t start it right now, but I was wondering how long it will take and when you’d be able to start?”

Bryony: “Hey Jimmy, the thing is, when we first spoke, I was in a rush because I knew you wanted to start soon but I had three other clients demanding to finish their project that same week. So even though you mentioned that feature, I totally forgot to write it down. Ooopsie!

I’ve never added the functionality you’ve requested to a site before, and I’m still not using any project management software so I don’t know when I’m going to be free to start your work or how long it’s going to take… haha… #justleavemealone #norefunds”

Just like design, without proper planning, you’re at risk of assumptions wreaking havoc on your project.

The main causes of web design project delays: 

  1. Your web designer is too busy with other projects 
  2. You failed to establish yourself as a high priority client 
  3. Planning didn’t identify all of your needs from the beginning 
  4. New requirements were introduced part-way through a project 
  5. Your web designer is struggling to implement certain functionality 
  6. They have exhausted the original time they set aside for this project 
  7. They’ve lost motivation to keep going at full speed 

Average web designers / developers will say “tell me what you want on your website?”. 

Better ones will ask “Tell me about your requirements and what your website needs to achieve” 

Great ones will ask “What do you need your website to be able to do now and what will it need to be able to do in 1-2 years time?” 

You really need to know what the client is trying to achieve with their website now, what they want vs what they need vs what they can afford vs what can be done within the timeframe and how are their requirements going to change over time?

Without this knowledge, especially if you’re using lots of plug-ins (we do not), you end up making plans that have to change part-way through and this causes chaos, largely because changing website requirements once development has started often requires massive re-writes of code or replacing entire systems. 

Prevent this by spending at least two hours, if not more, talking about everything you need your site to do now and in the future, and properly documenting how site features/functionality should work if they are unique or obscure in any way. Get it down in writing or your requirements could be misunderstood or simply forgotten. 

#4 Needing to Pay and Wait Forever for Your Developer to Make Basic Content Changes Once the Site Is Launched 

Web Design Client: “Hey Ralf, I need to change the opening times on the website. Can you do this please?”

Ralf: “Hi Tom, thank you so much for gracing my presence to dump onto my already crowded plate what I can only describe as the world’s most boring task. You didn’t want to pay extra for me to build the site in a way that let you change, so now you’re going to have to suffer the consequences…”

The perceived value of website design and development has been degraded as a result of no-code and low code web builders; people don’t see building websites as a complicated task. 

Because of those no-code/low-code, drag and drop, DIY site builders like WIX and SquareSpace, people just expect to be able to change any web page content whenever they like. 

If you’ve opted for the highest quality build type, a bespoke coded website, this functionality has to be built in. It takes a considerable amount of time to do this and should be planned and budgeted for separately.

It’s common for less technical web designers to hack together websites using page builders and lots of plug-ins. This creates no end of chaos when it comes to making changes to your website; often you will need to be able to code or spend hours navigating infinitely through complex navigation menus in the admin area, just to find the right pages to make the changes you want. 

Prevent this by making it very clear which parts of the website you want to be able to edit, and how, before development starts. 

We do this for our clients, which means that over the course of a year, 95% – 100% of the change requests clients make, they will be able to do it themselves.

The 0-5% of remaining change requests? If they host their site with us, we do it for our clients for free. 

Other companies may have other solutions – ask them how they prevent this problem.

#5 Surprise Cost Increases Part Way Through a Project 

Web Design Client: “Hi Mark, I was surprised that you have sent through another invoice for adding a feature to the site that we have already discussed and is part of the project agreement we signed. Please explain why I’m being charged extra for this?” 

Mark: “Well, Judy, when you asked me for a gallery page, and you told me users needed to be able to click onto an image and have it “pop up” to display a full-screen version, I didn’t realise you were expecting the most complex animation sequence history has ever known. Yes, I probably should have spent more time understanding your requirements, but that would have taken time and I couldn’t justify that for the price you told me you were willing to pay.”

There’s a lot of weaselling out of things in web design projects, and it’s hard to really know objectively who’s to blame. If you underinvest into your web project, you’ll get a budget service and you most likely won’t have a sufficient planning process.

That’s okay if all you need is a very basic brochure website and you don’t really care about how it ends up looking, as long as it’s not horrific. But for anything, planning is your best friend when it comes to avoiding nasty surprises and project failure.

Put simply, if the vision for your website, in your head, is different to the vision for your website, in the web developers head, you’re going to run into problems somewhere down the line.

For your sake, I hope they’re identified before development starts, because web development changes, sometimes even minor ones, incur the biggest costs due to the often surprisingly complex nature of web development.

For example, let’s say you wanted to add a sidebar into a web page. In many cases that will require the entire page to be rebuilt, largely from scratch.

#6 A Website That’s Excruciatingly Slow For Visitors or Site Admins/Editors (When Making Changes in the “Back End”)

Web Design Client: “Joe… It just took me 2 hours to update one list of services on one page of our website. I have three more lists to update… Why is the site so slow?? Also, customers are complaining that they’re having to wait 3-10 seconds for every new page to load, how do I fix this?”

Joe: “Well David, the thing is, when you went against our advice to pay a little more to host your website on a proper server, we had to stick your site onto a server that’s effectively powered by a hamster in a wheel. The hamster’s on holiday at the moment so everything’s running much more slowly than usual. There’s nothing you can do apart from remove the 85 plug-ins I used to build your site, stop using drag and drop page builders and move to a faster web host. This would mean that you stop paying me money and find a new company to work with, so actually forget everything I just said… Okay?? Please?”. 

This is another symptom of low budget, low quality web design services. You just don’t have this problem when a) your website is built properly and b) you don’t opt for bargain bucket £5 p/m web hosting.

Two concepts to understand are build quality and server performance.

The more you can do with your website as a non-developer, (changing the website without writing code), the more code it requires for your website to function, adversely affecting build quality.

Developers build very lightweight websites. Designers (using no-code/low-code tools like drag and drop page builders) build very fat, bloated websites.

Imagine a car. 

Your website is the car. 

Your web server is the engine. 

Your site visitors are the people in the car. 

A bespoke coded website is like a car made from a modern, super tough, but super lightweight carbon alloy.

The no-code/drag and drop page builders are like cars made of heavy, old-fashioned steel.

The heavier the car, the more power the engine needs to have to move it forward at a good speed.

The more people inside your car, the heavier it gets.

To prevent this, you either get a cheap website with more expensive hosting, or you pay more for a higher quality website and a sufficiently strong server. 

#7 You Keep Being Told You Can’t Have Certain Features or Website Functionality 

Web design client: “Mary, our customers are complaining about how long it takes to complete the sign-up process. Instead of having one massive list of questions, can we break it up into multiple pages?”

Mary: “Oooh, that’d be great wouldn’t it! Sounds simple but.. Unfortunately I prefer to spend my time in Adobe Illustrator or Canva, making websites look nice. The idea of learning how to properly use industry leading solutions like GravityForms, or coding it myself, sounds like a real ballache… I’m not going to do that just for you – literally no-one has ever asked me for this feature and I doubt anyone else ever will – so unfortunately, no, it’s not going to be possible to do that.

I would introduce you to a more competent developer, but then you’ll probably not work with me again and you’ll send them referrals in the future instead of me haha, so, that’s not going to happen either.”

Many years ago, a developer friend of mine told me how they deal with client’s when they ask if certain website features are possible and can be implemented. They’d say “The answer is always yes, but it comes down to what level of expertise is needed, how long the task will take and if you’re happy with the overall cost”.

We adopted the same approach.

When you work with developers who write their own code, like we do, they can make pretty much anything happen when there’s no reliance on plug-ins or hacking together code from other developers.

You can prevent a scenario where you’re constantly being told no when asking for upgrades to your website by making sure that: 

  • The team you work with understand your current and future feature requirements 
  • If your requirements are unique or complex that you work with developers not web designers
  • Each feature beyond “this is text” or “this is an image” is clearly documented or talked through
  • You ask your developers to prove they’re able to deliver what you want 

The big risk is having either a web designer or inexperienced developer say “yes I can do this, no problem” and then later discovering they can’t, or ending up with a janky set of plug-ins that sort of mostly do what you need right now, but can’t handle any future requirements. 

#8 Missing or Broken Functionality For Which There Appears to be No Solution or Workaround 

Web Design Client: “Hi Jasmine, I remember in our first conversation I explained how important it is for us to be able to allow users to filter blog posts by category, but what you’ve done isn’t working. When I click on one of the tabs, it shows me some but not all of the blog posts. How do we fix this please as it’s a key feature I feel I’ve already paid for??”

Jasmine: “Haha… Well, the thing is… When you talked about that feature I assumed it’d be fairly easy. So many sites have something similar, but I couldn’t find a plug-in to do it in the exact way you needed so I tried to build it myself…

After 5 hours testing code snippets from other developers, one should have worked but for some reason didn’t, I hired someone from Fiverr to do it for me. But now they’re not replying to me..

I just can’t solve this problem because I’m not a web developer and should have been up-front about this in the first place, but now I’ve spent so many hours on this, I can’t justify giving you more of my time. So….”

It’s a straightforward process that so many web designers/developers get wrong. 

  1. Have we implemented this functionality before? 
  2. If yes then propose solution to client and focus on pros and cons 
  3. If no then research solution and make sure it’s possible first
    • Is the solution compatible with the rest of the site 
    • How can the solution be extended in the future 
    • What will trigger a costly rebuild for a major part of the site
  4. Communicate all of this to the client to set realistic expectations 
  5. Only after all this, begin implementing the solution

The truth is, once a web designer has exhausted the time they planned to spend on your project, you’ll notice them becoming more and more distant. Without proper planning you’re likely to end up in a situation where there’s a major project issue, you feel you deserve a free solution but the exhausted web designer/developer feels it’s impossible or unfair to give you that. 

#9 Falling Out With Your Web Developer Who Then Holds Your Site Hostage Until You Pay More Money 

Web Design Client: “Boris, you’ve really messed everything up, haven’t you?! It’s unacceptable really. I hired you to build me a nice website, to do a good job, but what you’ve given me doesn’t work, it’s 8 months late and honestly I’ve seen mouldy fruit that looks more appealing than what you’ve given me.”

Boris: “Aha..! Yes, uhm, well haha, the thing is, the thing is I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. You’ve wasted so much of my time, yes, yes so much of my time with your poppycock descriptions of things you thought you wanted but then didn’t, then did, but then you wanted it in a different way. Now, you want me to spend more of my time helping you to fix something that’s not broken, that’s beautifully designed and does exactly what you wanted it to do in the first place!

I’m not spending another minute on this website! No, I’m not. Not unless you pay me another 30% to add these new features in, that weren’t part of the original contract.” 

When web design relationships fall apart, it happens very slowly, then very quickly. Tempers flare, feelings of injustice set in on both sides and, in many cases, a poor understanding of contract law can give clients a false sense of security.

Your web designer/developer likely manages your web hosting. If they do, they can shut your website off at any point.

If they haven’t given you any of the files for the website, you won’t be able to simply move the website to another server/host/website company. You’ll have to start again, largely from scratch, at least doubling your costs (many people at this point choose to work with a more premium web design company to avoid the same thing happening again).

If you haven’t paid the full amount of the original agreement, you will likely have zero claim to those files.

If you have paid the full amount you’re unlikely to win a legal argument over breach of contract, or anything else, because your contract is likely very, very vague in terms of what the web developer needs to deliver.

Example: If the contract just lists “home page” as a deliverable, they can give you any kind of home page and that’s enough to satisfy the contract. Anything beyond what is written in the contract is assumed or, at best, implied, and therefore not part of the agreement. 

To prevent this, you need to invest into proper planning and to do that you won’t be able to work with the cheapest providers.

In Conclusion

So here’s a quick recap of what we’ve covered in this post:

  • The most common issues faced during web design projects are due to poor communication and a lack of planning. Far less often is a lack of web design or development skill to blame for a failed project.
  • Delivering a successful website project requires a large range of skills; from design and coding to project management and communication. It’s incredibly rare that one person alone has the ability to perform at the highest level in all these areas.
  • Spending time at the start of the project outline exactly what you DO want and exactly what you DON’T want is probably the most important stage of the entire project. If your designer tries to skip this, that’s a huge red flag.
  • When you’re vetting potential providers, ask them about their processes. Ask to hear about their team and who does what, their backgrounds etc. Ask for a tour of their management systems and specific processes, and how they prevent overwhelm in their business.
  • Think about everything you need your site to do now AND in the future. Make sure you talk this through with your designer and ensure everything is properly documented. This should include how all your site’s features/functionality should work if they are unique or obscure in any way. Get it down in writing or your requirements could be misunderstood or simply forgotten.
  • Make it very clear which parts of the website you want to be able to edit, and how, before development starts.
  • Remember the car analogy from earlier? You need to make sure your website is hosted on a server that is sufficient for its needs, otherwise you’ll end up with a site that is excruciatingly slow to update. Your team should be able to advise you on this. If they don’t seem to know much about this subject, or they’re trying to avoid speaking about the technical details – this is a big red flag. Make sure you get a second opinion from someone with a more technical set of skills before you make a decision.
  • Make sure the team you work with understands your current and future feature requirements.
  • If your requirements are unique or complex ensure you work with developers not web designers.
  • Ensure each feature beyond “this is text” or “this is an image” is clearly documented or talked through in detail.
  • Make sure you ask your developers to prove they’re able to deliver what you want. 

If you’re looking for a trustworthy, experienced and knowledgeable team to build your next website, let’s have a chat.