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Project post-mortems: how to successfully conclude any project

By Penina Finger | Design | Feb 26, 2014

It’s launched. It’s live. It works.

You designed, built and tested it, grieved nixed ideas and celebrated solved quandaries. The gears are whirring on their axles and your final invoice is paid. Your project is done. Mostly.

Before you move on to the next looming deadline, did you make some time to review the project, and clear your head along with the whiteboard? A post-launch review, or post-launch audit (a.k.a. post-mortem), is hopefully more than just mulling things over in your head, or even with your partner over a beer.

Larger companies that have lost cross-functionality can tragically blow this part by making the post-mortem a frightening blame game. Do a web search for “post-launch review templates” and you’ll get over 7,000,000 results. If that’s your world, make sure you do your own, real and private assessment. It will help you turn experience into craftsmanship, and make your best practices even better. The better templates will help you break the evaluation process into measurable parts, to get specific, and to write stuff down, but here’s a “what and why” overview. The intent here is to ensure a positive and productive post-mortem.

 

1) What went wrong?

And how can you do it differently next time? Beyond, “Right. Never work with that jerk again,” it’s more valuable to get as specific as you can. If the client turned out to be a pain, consider what clues about their character you can learn to recognize next time. For example, you may now be more on the alert when a new client balks loudly at the price. It could be a warning that this project will cost you (in revisions, stress, disappointing results, etc.) more than it actually earns.

That may be too nightmarish an example. Maybe it’s easier to look at strategies to address that other age-old problem: preventing expensive last minute changes.

On the other hand, if you’re not happy with how you yourself handled some part of the project, again, identify the specifics so that you can give yourself a chance to handle things differently next time. Learn what events trigger irrational behavior and decisions, or pick a tech skill demand that turned out to be over your head: plan to take it to the next level.

 

2) What went right?

Name a few things that worked great, and figure out why. In detail. Specifics are important here, too. “The site looks fabulous because I’m awesome,” can be broken down into, “I’m super proud of how even the smallest details on the home page strengthen the brand. This happened because we spent more time getting to know the history of the client’s business, and got excited about their future vision.”

For some, the “what went right” step is a tempting one to gloss over, but it’s just as important as step #1. Force yourself to come up with five things that worked, even if you only go into detail about one or two.

 

3) Organize and archive your creative assets

With the next project breathing down your neck, this is another item that can be forgotten, or rushed. Put away those last-minute assets that fell to the wayside as the deadline loomed and things went nuts. Was there some nice artwork you created that got dropped, or can be reused? File it with your royalty free resources, or wherever you’ll be able to find it when you need it. Toss or file any printouts you had pinned to the wall for reference while the project was in full swing. Place purchased and licensed photos, fonts, etc. in clearly marked folders with licensing info. Backup the completed project.

 

4) Update your portfolio

Prepare and upload your best work. Include peripheral materials as well as page layouts. If your architecture for this project was a thing of beauty, give it some polish, add a note about its history, and let rest of the world appreciate it, too. If the going was rough, this step ties in nicely with #2. For example, although the whole project seemed like a waste of time, remember that set of nice icons you created? Post those.

 

5) Make sure you are in the loop for ongoing analytics

Even if you’re a freelancer, it’s in your best interests to stay informed about the status of the website you worked on. Access to reports will help you improve future work and encourage a longer-term relationship with your client. It sets up an ongoing conversation, making it more likely they’ll come back to you for revisions, or for the next project. Besides, you might like to know if features that seemed snazzy right up to launch are driving users crazy. It’s not pleasant to get news like that, but it’s even less pleasant to keep making the same mistakes. Having actual numbers is also an excellent way to demonstrate measurable results, particularly for a redesign… which, by the way, also means you should have analytics in place and running before you start the project, so you can measure change.

 

6) Documentation

If this wasn’t built into the project process, then do what you can to find the time to do it now. This is essentially, but often not only, a style guide. What you are doing is leaving “tracks”, either for yourself should you be asked to handle revisions, or for newcomers, to help them recognize patterns, stylesheet rules, etc. Within the corporate world, if no post-launch documentation processes are in place, do what you can to convince management to give you the chunk of time you need. If you’re independant, it’s up to you to make this a priority. Hopefully, you included post-launch documentation in your project estimate.

Knowing what went right, what went wrong, and what you plan to do differently has become a much more fluid art for projects that are created to live on the ever-changing web. That’s another reason to make sure you establish and continue evolving your approach to the Project Post-mortem. Besides, we have a tendancy to hold on to the bad stuff, letting it turn into worry, weighing us down, while we discount the good (gender note: studies show that women professionals tend to do this even more). With a conscious process, we can harvest valuable lessons from the entire project, reverse that negative trend, and make great work greater.

 

How do you round off a project? What final steps are essential? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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  • http://nodws.com/ Nodws

    As Guy Kawasaki said “Post-mortems are USELESS, by the time the enterprise
    failed the people responsible have already left the company or been fired not to mention the people who don’t want to make enemies by expressing a legitimate concern” -Enchantment

    • penina

      Good points. Please give a re-read, though. I’m talking about something a little different. This is the kind of post-mortem we creatives can do *for ourselves*, outside of the corporate blame game.

  • cyborgspider

    Our team calls them “retrospectives”, more positive and happy-feely than the morbid, grisly-sounding post-mortem :)

    • penina

      Brilliant! Have you got an alternative for “morguefile”, too? :-)

  • Inspavo Consultancy

    Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.isadoradesign.com/ Isadora Design

    Yes, this article makes some excellent points about learning from our mistakes AND our gains and implementing these into the future projects. I particularly think it’s great to strike a balance in our review between the right and wrong parts of the project timeline. If there were plenty of wrongs, prioritizing these instead of going into depth over all of them (as sometimes one feeds into three more issues) will save plenty of time.

    Thank you for sharing!
    Cassandra
    Isadora Design – Handcrafted Web Design Company

  • http://www.wiredtree.com/ Rachel Gillevet

    Hey Penina,
    This was a really nice post. It can be tough to wrap up projects and you gave a nice rundown of how to successfully do so. Anyway, I thought my readers would enjoy this and I wanted to let you know that I included your article in my roundup of February’s best web design/development, CMS, and security content. http://www.wiredtree.com/blog/februarys-best-web-designdevelopment-cms-security/ Thanks again for informative and helpful post.

    Rachel

    • penina

      Thanks, Rachel!