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Agile vs. Waterfall Website Design: Why a Hybrid Approach is Best

When thinking about an update to your website, so many decisions have to be made early on.

One of the most important (but easily overlooked) decisions is determining exactly how the project will be executed from a project management perspective, especially if you’re working with an outside agency.

There are plenty of methodologies, but two are well known in the world of project management: The waterfall approach, and the agile approach. Both are comprehensive methodologies that come with their own legions of fans, yet each method has its own pros and cons. Which method you choose depends on many things, but foremost, is how your organization functions best. Let’s analyze both of these options before we dive into our suggested approach.

The Waterfall Methodology

What It Is

Compared to the agile method, waterfall may be considered more traditional. The waterfall method can best be thought of as a linear approach. You don’t start a new phase of the project until the previous phase is signed off on. If you’re working on functional specifications for your website, developers wouldn’t start a line of code until specifications were locked down and approved for every piece of the site. You try to solve all the questions on the front end so you know what to do when you move into development.

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The Upside

Waterfall is desirable for organizations with a set budget and timeline. Not only do you know where you are in the process at all times, but you know exactly what you’re getting and at what cost.

The Downside

The downside to this approach is that it can be limiting, and can feel rigid. There isn’t a lot of room to make iterations if new information emerges. For example, if you find out in the web development stage that you left something out in the design phase, it can be time-consuming and costly to go back to the design phase. You also don’t see the fruits of your labor as quickly. With waterfall, the entire project is built front end to back end, put through quality assurance, and launched. If it’s a big website project, that process can take at least six months. That’s not always a position you want to be in.

The Agile Methodology

What It Is

With this approach, you start with your general goal (a website build). You know the end game, and you break up the process into iterations along the way. You’re implementing the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as you go, which is essentially the most basic level build that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, but functions to provide you with learning and user behavior. The iterations in agile are called sprints, and they traditionally last two weeks. Sprints are the guide map for this approach and they are the absolute priority. In each sprint, everything that is completed is published to the live website, and everything that isn’t completed is pushed to the next sprint.

The Upside

The benefit here is that you’re seeing continual progress, and you can be more flexible along the way. It’s ideal for startups or innovative companies that need to get a product out the door quickly, or for an organization that doesn’t know exactly what they want the final product to look like.

The Downside

This approach can be difficult if you’re working with an outside agency because from a contract standpoint, you’re never really done. You may hear that it makes the project go faster, but in reality, it can make the project longer due to the starting and stopping between pushing live and the planning phase. You see more progress, but it’s a longer end game. This approach can be more expensive too. With the agile method, your organization is paying for a team of people rather than a set of deliverables. There has to be a constant stream of communication in order to continually get through each sprint, and some organizations may not be able to handle the amount of time and effort agile takes.

Mighty Citizen’s Suggestion: A Hybrid Approach

May we suggest the…wagile methodology? Hey, it’s easy off the tongue!

What It Is

Here, you get the best of both worlds. Your organization typically has a set budget. You don’t have the flexibility to get more funding if you want to add a new feature in sprint 17. Grants require exact estimates, so you need parameters upfront.

With the wagile approach, you work in phases. When scoping and contracting with an outside agency, aim for Discovery-First projects. Discovery typically includes audience surveys and stakeholder interviews to better understand audience needs so you can build the functionality they need and not waste money on the functionality they don’t. Discovery can also include tech audits, content audits, or other research that helps you better understand your website requirements. By doing Discovery at the beginning of the project, you can build a comprehensive contract to better understand exactly what you’re paying for and exactly what you’ll get in the end. Or, if you’re producing the new website within your nonprofit, you can build a website plan that makes it clear exactly what work is to be completed.

The Upside

The success of the wagile method is that it marries the linear nature of waterfall with the sprints of agile. For example, if your website includes the creation of 50 pages of content, you’d have a set Content phase to accomplish that. But, you’d also employ the sprint mentality to allow for some flexibility within that phase. The phase is broken up into groups, or “batches,” because it’s easier to write 10 pages of content where you can see progress and give feedback while you’re working on the next 10. Each phase happens in a loop: creation, presentation, feedback, then iteration—and everyone is involved in the process.

With the hybrid approach, you know exactly what is to be accomplished along with the timeline and expectations needed to get there. You’re following a clear path from the beginning of the project, but it provides more involvement and collaboration than traditional waterfall. The wagile method helps you plan your resources better because you know where in the process you’ll be next week and you can create space in your schedule as needed. It also helps teams to be more self-sufficient because the marching orders are in place. This makes the job of your project leader much easier and any sense of ease is important in the middle of a website build!

The Downside

Because the wagile method is not a standard project management method, you might need to educate your team and your leadership about why this option is the best for your organization.

No matter which project management methodology your nonprofit chooses, you’ll be better off after spending time considering your options. Remember—your best option is the one that is most compatible with how your organization functions.

This article was originally published for NTEN.

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