It’s the day before a client project is due. Slowly but surely, you’ve got a trickle of comments coming in. People are asking for a small tweak here or there. Maybe it's adding another inner page, redesigning an email cadence or customizing their chatbot. Wanting to be professional and flexible, your instinct is to try your best to incorporate those edits as fast as possible. Soon enough, you find yourself doing work way beyond what you thought the project would be.
Sound familiar? We’ve all been there. It’s scope creep.
Fortunately, you can control scope creep while still meeting your clients’ needs and expectations with the project management practices outlined below.
In this article, we’ll take a broad look at the challenge of scope creep, including:
Defining scope creep and how it can impact your projects
Identifying common causes of scope creep
Proven tips to avoid scope creep
Ways you can manage scope creep when it arises
What is scope creep?
The “scope” of a project is all the products, services and results that you and your client have defined and agreed on. Scope “creep” happens when a client’s needs change along the way, without considering their impact to the project’s timeline and budget.
Naturally, being flexible and able to make changes as you go is important for any design project. A client may have new ideas, additional needs or a shift in project management that requires everyone to adapt. Oftentimes, these changes make for a better final product, and adjusting accordingly doesn’t have to mean you’re headed for trouble.
However, scope creep sets in when those changes haven’t been approved by all project stakeholders, and their impact on time, cost and personnel resources hasn’t been factored in.
As an agile professional, you might be thinking, in the scheme of a project, what’s the big deal about doing an extra task or 2? But taking on unauthorized work sets a dangerous precedent for your relationship with your client, and it can also set up agencies and freelancers for workflow problems down the road.
Think about it this way: Working on changes that go beyond a project’s original scope puts an undue burden on your team and budget. Plus, the client will likely expect those changes to be done within the timeline and costs you initially agreed on. As a result, you end up losing focus on the central parts of the project, which can lead to rushed or incomplete work, missed deadlines, stressed staff and ultimately, unhappy clients.
Worst-case scenario, unauthorized work can impact your entire business by slowing the delivery of other projects, decreasing staff productivity and hurting your revenue.
The good news is you can control scope creep with good project management practices and close communication with your clients. You may already be doing some of these, or they may sound like a different approach to web design altogether. Before we look at best practices, let’s identify the most common causes of scope creep.
5 common causes of scope creep
Scope creep impacts every industry, but managing scope is particularly challenging in creative fields like web design.
Here are 5 common causes for scope creep in web design projects:
Poorly defined project requirements
No process for managing changes
No consistent method for your client to request changes
Lack of client involvement
Overdelivery and gold-plating
1. Poorly defined project requirements
Not having a clear-cut blueprint for a project is the most common cause of scope creep. If project requirements aren’t discussed, agreed on and clearly understood by both client and professional before the project gets underway, scope creep is practically guaranteed.
Part of the problem is that clients aren’t thinking about scope. They’re focused on getting a product or service that helps their business succeed. It’s also common for clients to not fully know what they want at first. As their project moves along, they figure out what they’re looking for and slowly but surely, their list of minor tweaks accumulates and pushes the project beyond the original scope.
That puts the responsibility of initiating the project plan of action and defining the scope of the project squarely on the shoulders of the agency or freelancer involved, which we’ll show you how to do in a bit.
2. No consistent feedback process
It’s normal for a client to need changes as a project moves along, but those changes can also open the door to scope creep if there’s no clearly defined process for both client and professional to track and manage them.
Without that kind of process in place, agencies and freelancers run the risk of being overwhelmed with requests for changes and new features throughout the project.
On the other end of the spectrum, a solid client feedback process can also help prevent a phenomenon called “scope kill.” This is what happens when worthwhile changes don’t get made because teams adhere too strictly to the original scope of work. It’s all about finding a workable medium where your process balances structure and flexibility.
Having a feedback process can also help control 2 other causes of scope creep: unrecorded changes, where project teams work on changes without the project manager’s knowledge, and unrequested changes, where teams make changes on their own to try to impress their client.
3. No consistent method for your client to request changes
When your client doesn't know your feedback process, you leave room for confusion.
For example, you might get all the information you need from your client for one requested change and barely any guidance for another. This is a common problem for projects with multiple stakeholders, because each one has their own ideas about project priorities and style of communicating them.
Designers then end up having to guess what the client wants or find themselves trying to please everyone, which doesn’t lead to productive outcomes.
4. Lack of client involvement
We’ve talked about how change requests from clients cause scope creep when mismanaged. However, not having enough client involvement can be just as harmful.
When clients are hard to reach or aren’t invited into your web design process, agencies and freelancers are forced to make project decisions on their own. By doing this, you risk taking a project in a direction that isn’t in line with what your client has in mind, or might cause other problems later on.
Keep in mind that when clients aren’t responsive, it’s often unintentional. They likely just have other tasks or priorities pulling their focus.
5. Overdelivery and gold-plating
Every digital agency or freelancer wants to deliver clients their best work, go the extra mile to demonstrate their value and build a great relationship with them.
Though this attitude can become a problem if you start accepting and acting on every change request a client gives you, without the right infrastructure in place. When your good intentions lead to extra work that provides little value, you put yourself at risk for scope creep.
These risks include overrun deadlines, overworked employees, low-quality work or failure to finish other important priorities for your client.
“Gold plating” is another good intention that can cause scope creep. That’s when designers keep fine-tuning their work to the point where the added value isn’t worth the additional time and effort.
How to avoid scope creep
1. Work together to define project requirements
To accurately determine the scope of a web design project, begin by working with your client and your team to clearly define the requirements.
Hold a kickoff meeting with your client. Ask your client specific questions about their goals, timelines, business objectives and overall vision for the project. Then take that conversation and summarize it in your design brief, which will guide and define the scope of the project.
Be sure to include these key items:
Detailed project requirements
Team resources you’re assigning to it
The roles your client’s staff will play
Project deliverables, including milestones, costs and timelines
The overall project deadline
Make sure your brief also states that you’ll be entitled to additional compensation for extra work. How much you charge is up to you.
Review the draft brief with your team to make sure the timelines and overall direction for the project looks good to them, are realistic and take their existing workloads into consideration. Your team may also have helpful insights you can include, so make that conversation collaborative.
Finally, meet with your client to review the brief, and make sure they understand and are onboard with it. Let them know they’ll be responsible for additional charges if they request additional work and that you’ll need extra time to complete them. There shouldn’t be many with your feedback process in place.
By including your client in the planning process, you keep your creation process as smooth as possible.
2. Create an effective feedback process
Decide how you’ll record, track and manage all changes requested by your client. Having this process in place can help protect you against requests that aren’t within your project’s scope and make for a more seamless handover.
A strong feedback process includes these key elements:
A central library of all change requests and their status
A method for prioritizing change requests
A process to gauge how each change will affect the other aspects of the project, along with costs and timelines
A process for communicating issues with the change requests
A point of contact for each request on your client’s team
Experts also recommend coming to an agreement with your client on these 3 guidelines to manage the change process:
The maximum number of reviews for each change request (for example, up to 3 rounds of review by your client)
Timelines for when new versions of each change will be delivered
How much time a client has to review each change (for example, the client must provide feedback within 3 days)
To prevent your client from requesting unneeded changes, remind them that this process is in place to meet delivery time with the best possible result.
3. Align with your client on each change request
When a change request comes in, the first step is to make sure you and your client share the same vision for what needs to be accomplished. What might seem like a simple change to them may not be for you.
As with the other recommendations here, be sure to review your plan of action with your client, and ensure they understand and agree to it. This will help make your team more productive and keep your project moving forward efficiently.
4. Keep your client involved
We’ve shown how involving clients in the initial planning stages of a project is key to keeping the project on track, even as changes need to be made. That early involvement actually reduces the number of change requests that will come your way later and helps ensure your brief covers the resources you’ll need to meet your client’s demands.
Because you know they’ll need changes along the way regardless, it’s important to keep your client involved throughout the project. This will help keep it within the intended scope and on the right track.
Clients who might not be as responsive as you’d like are usually busy with other priorities. Be sure you keep them up-to-date and ask for their input when you need it. There are different workflow and collaboration tools available to you to help with that.
During your kickoff, ask your client how they prefer to communicate. Is it email or video calls? Texts or Slack? Do they want a status report every day or a recap of the main items a couple times a week?
You’ll want to give them just enough of the right information to help them make decisions quickly, so the project stays within the right scope, timeline and budget.
5. Know how to say “no”
Another important practice recommended by industry experts is learning how to say “no” when a client requests changes you believe aren’t necessary or feasible.
If you’re diligent about setting up the processes discussed above, your clients will have played a key role in defining project requirements and should know when a request could cause scope creep. Saying “no” to those requests for the sake of keeping the project on track is justified.
That said, client communication can be tricky, and managing client feedback is essential to building a mutually beneficial relationship. Of course, there are instances where it doesn’t make sense to just give a flat-out “no.”
Here are 3 ways you can handle a new change request while maintaining the client relationship, too.
Agree to work on the change, but work with the client to adjust the project’s scope by cutting out less important tasks and requirements to accommodate the additional work.
Edit in versions
Tell the client you can add the new change to a list of project priorities you’ll tackle in the future.
Get compensated fairly
Asking for the budget needed to cover extra work is a reasonable request, and should already be covered in your contract.
Unanticipated changes are bound to come up. But with a strong process in place to stay on track, you’ll be able to keep scope creep at bay and deliver your best results.
Have a story about how you’ve managed scope creep on a client project? We’d love to hear it. Share in the comments below.