Imagine that you are a construction contractor. You show up on the site of your next job with your thermos and your tool belt, and the customer brings you to their backyard and shows you an empty spot of grass. “I’d like you to build me a tool shed,” they say.

“OK,” you reply. “What kind of dimensions, design and materials do you think you’d like to use for this project?”

“I’m not completely certain,” the customer replies. “I’ll know what I want when I see it.”

So you build a shed based on the best information you can obtain, making educated guesses using other sheds you’ve finished as examples. But when the building is completed, the customer steps out their back door in their puce bathrobe with their ALF coffee mug and says “That’s not really what I was hoping for.”

As a contractor, what do you do next? Do you build another shed? Do you continue to build sheds like some tiny SimCity run amok until the customer sees something they like? That’s one way of doing it – an expensive way (since the customer ends up paying for sheds that they don’t actually use).

We see this conundrum a lot in the world of web development. While the example above seems silly (nobody would really expect a contractor to build shed after shed), for some reason the intangible nature of the internet leads people to believe that it is a reasonable plan for site development.

Yet web developers get paid by the hour just like carpenters, so costs add up quickly if there isn’t proper planning on the front end of a project. The trick here is to know what you want before you see it. The only way to develop a website “as you go” is if you have unlimited resources or angel investors who are willing to roll the dice. And for every success story about Facebook, there is a cautionary tale about MySpace (how’s that working out, JT?).

Here’s the problem: Normally, a company doesn’t decide to build or rebuild their website on a whim. It’s a big decision. There are usually committees and meetings and compromises and budgets. It’s exhausting, and by the time everybody is finally on the same page (“build the website and have it done by the trade show in June”), nobody wants to start a whole new process and actually plan the site out. Deep down they wish that they could choose a developer, slap them on the back with a hardy “go to it, sport” and sign off on the finished product a month or so later.

But it never, ever works that way. Deciding you need a new site is just the beginning of a whole new process (that sometimes includes committees, meetings, compromises and budgets). Here at {code} Roadies we try to use our experience to streamline the undertaking as much as possible, but inevitably we find that this stage is the single most important part of any web development. Planning pays off.

Of course there will be some experimentation in any web development. The key is to do that experimentation on the front end before integrating it into the rest of the site. For example, it’s much more efficient to choose a WordPress plug-in by trying out a demo or looking at it on somebody else’s site than it is to do so after it is already coded into your own. You may not be able to see what it will look like exactly once it is customized for your site, but you can get a solid idea – and using your imagination just a little bit at this stage can result in significant savings in time and money on the final invoice.

In fact, it would be safe to say that planning and cost are inversely proportional when it comes to web design. The more you plan, the less your site costs and the quicker it gets completed.

Now the good news: you don’t have to do all this planning on your own. If you choose a good web developer, they will do it with you, lending their experience to the task so that it goes smoothly. We’re all on the same side, after all.

We all want to build that shed right the first time so the result is something we can be proud of.