Pop Quiz!!!  What's the worst possible thing that can happen to your freelance project?  Okay, besides not getting paid for all your hard work, what's the worst thing that can happen?

I know there's some out there that will say the answer is that they will not get enough inspiration for the project, and will burn out on an only marginally interesting design.  Others might swear that the answer is that they'll overbid the project and feel guilt about over-charging their client.  These people are crazy, by the way.

Seriously, though, the real answer is scope creep.  What, exactly, am I talking about?

First, let's lay down a definition.  While I'm sure many will disagree, this is how I define scope: "A description of all deliverable products, including their requirements and features."  Pretty simple, really–it's an outline of the project, from start to finish, that defines what things are going to be produced for the client, down to the level of specific product features and functionality.

So yeah, this seems simple enough, but the truth is far from that.  Why?  Well, there are a few reasons.  First, alot of inquiries to my site look like this:  "I need a blog.  How much do you charge?"  Although this depiction is perhaps a bit hyperbolic, it does illustrate the truth that even though customers know intuitively what they want, very few have the ability or technical vocabulary to articulate that to the web designer.

So before we talk about how not to get burned in this common situation, let's talk about this "scope creep" and how it happens.  

Imagine this scenario (and it's happended to me…): You're a freelancer, desperate for business.  Someone comes across one of your designs, loves it, and wants to contract with you to develop a site design for them and "plug" it into WordPress.

As the desperate designer that you are, you make a hasty quote that is realistically at the bottom end of what you should actually be charging, and your client runs with this.  So for the first stretch of the project, things are going well.  You come up with what you think is a great design and submit it to the client.  While they like it, there are several "tweeks" that they need made.  Okay, no big deal.  You make the changes.  

Now WordPress installation begins.  You skin all the standard WP pieces no sweat, and submit for the client to approve.  They're pretty cool with what you've done, but now mention that–BTW–they will need to be able to have videos on their site.  A little perterbed, you spend a couple hours scrouring for the right WP plugin that will do what the client has just now decided needs to be done.  Finally this is done and–guess what!–now Flickr integration neeeds to happen.  Then an events managment tool. Then…

On and on it goes.  What started off as a simple site design and WP implementation has turned into an entirely different animal.  The problem?  Unless you have a VERY generous client, they will probably not expect that they need to be paying you more for these things as they assume that the price you originally quoted them is for "getting their site up."

Now at this point, it's easy to sit back and blame the client for being greedy.  But this is not actually very fair (at least not always…).  As a designer, when you quote a price, it is you that is placing a value on the project you propose to do–the client can only assume that this value covers what they understand their project to include.  So the dreaded scope creep that sucks the life and profitability out of a project is, finally, the result of poor project planning.  That means it's on you…

Obviously, scope creep just plain sucks.  It is a dreaded curse because it is the thing that can most quickly destroy the enjoyment and worth of a project for a design.  So how do you avoid it?  Here's some things I've learned (the hard way!):

Define Your Scope, Define Your Scope, Define Your Scope

Nobody hates drawing up detailed proposals more than me.  It is tedious, unexciting work–definitely not as cool as bringing a killer design to life in some Adobe product. But this is the most critical step.  It is here that you get to formally and explicitly outline exactly what kind of work your are proposing to do.  In this document, you can describe in painful detail precisely what the final outcome of your work will be for the price you are qouting.

But more than a good means of covering yourself against losses due to scope creep, it is also beneficial because it presupposes that you have done adequate discovery with the client to be able to draw up such a proposal.  And believe me, if a client really is interested in pursuing your services, they will be more than happy to walk through this somewhat arduous process.  Those who are impatient or incredulous to it are probably the ones that are going to be the most guilty of instigating scope creepiness ( ! ), so this process might actually help to weed them out.

Stick to Your Guns

As freelancers, our bread-and-butter is happy clients, and it's a real temptation to go beyond the scope to accomplish that–I know I've done it more times than I can count.  But this is precisely how scope creep gets out of control, for at what point can you say that "NOW" the project is out of scope when you've been working that way for a week already?

So stick to your guns.  If your client wants an addition or adjustment that's clearly out of scope, refer constantly back to the agreement that you made (remember, the incredibly detailed one that was REALLY FUN to do?).  Politely let them know that you'd be more than happy to work with them to accomplish what they want, but that their request is currently outside of the project scope.  Then follow up by offering to draft a change order that will address their concerns with an appropriate adjustment to the contract total.

The very first time I did this, I was paranoid that the client would be upset, or worse, question my motives.  Precisely the opposite was true. To the contrary, my client recognized that their request was above and beyond the agreement, and gladly worked with me to produce a revised bid total.  This was all made possible, however, because I had done the right thing by clearly outlining the scope of the project from the starting gate.  

Be Honest

In freelancing, it is really easy to make a lot of promises about things that may or may not be feasible "on the ground."  This is especially true when you begin having to integrate your designs with 3rd-party systems–unless you've done something a bunch of times, what seems like an easy task might be extrodinarily arduous in reality.  So when you are approaching the definition of scope, be honest with your client about the potential for certain questionable items to be pulled off.  If needed, work some "flex" room into the project scope and bid to allow for the eventuality of custom development–of course giving the client the option to decide to exclude the item in question if it becomes time or cost prohibitive.  

If nothing else, this will prevent you from making promises that are unrealistic.  If you make promises you can't fulfill, you will find that it is much more dificult to get the client to agree to a change order.  However, if these issues are transparent from the beginning, the clie
-designer trust will s
till be intact when bumps in the road pop up, and you'll find them much more amenable to providing a change order OR seeking alternative solutions that do not break scope.


I could go on forever about scope creep, but I'll stop.  To wrap things up, the reality is that every project has scope creep–it's impossible to avoid completely.  But this does not mean that the life-draining kind of scope creep is unavoidable.  Soj ust be sure to be aware of this issue and do everything possible to mitigate it, because when scope creep infects an application, there is a very good chance it will be DOA.  Obviously, nobody wants that.  So do your homework, spend time making a good proposal, and stick up for yourself as a designer who needs to eat and sleep just like everyone else–believe me, your clients will respect you for it.

NEXT: Elements of a Proposal


More in this series:

On Becoming a Better Web Designer, 6(a)

On Becoming a Better Web Designer: Default CSS

On Becoming a Better Web Designer, in 4-D!

On Becoming a Better Web Designer, Part Third

On Becoming a Better Web Designer, Part Deux

On Becoming a Better Web Designer [First Part]