Why I love and hate short deadlines

Recently, we signed on to do a sizable website redesign with one of our client partners. We’ve worked on several sites together, and we’d had a good track record of launching high-quality sites on schedule. This project was a little different, though. Instead of a semi-aggressive (yet still reasonably paced) timeline, we were on an extremely tight and unmovable deadline. This project was one of those where the client says up front, “We know this is crazy, but we can’t change the deadline, and can you please help us?” The site launch was planned around a momentous, unmovable marketing push, and we had no flexibility on the release date. This was for a client we love working with, who had some staff leave unexpectedly. They were in a jam, and we wanted to help them meet their important deadline.

It was crazy for my team and me for a few weeks. But we pushed hard. The site launched on time, looked good, and worked! We suffered through a few things that didn’t go so well (for more on that, see below). And I was reminded again about why I both love and hate tight website deadlines.

What do I hate about tight deadlines?

These won’t likely be a surprise. Here’s the tough stuff about having a tight deadline:

I’m running on stress. No doubt about it, having a tight deadline staring me down adds a constant hum of stress and anxiety. I know I’m not the only one. My design/development team feels it. And our client partners feel it.

My team and I lose sleep. Projects crunched on time typically mean I get up early or work late — or both. Ultimately, I expect I’m going to lose some sleep to keep up with this project, and to make sure other projects are not forgotten.

Everybody makes mistakes. When things are rushed, mistakes are more likely to slip through. There may not be enough time for QA. Compound that with a rushed and tired team, and it’s easy for oversights and slip-ups to make it through.

Other projects suffer. A high-priority rush project has a tendency to suck up resources, and can be very disruptive to the normal workflow and schedule of normal-paced projects. This applies to everybody: the development team, the client marketing team, or the content team.

What do I love about tight deadlines?

But it’s not all doom and gloom. I actually love a few things about tight project deadlines:

Decisions are made quickly. This is a major win on the side of tight deadlines. There is not enough time to ponder or explore possibilities for very long if the looming deadline is to be met.

It’s easier to stay on budget. There’s just not enough time to go over budget! No doubt it can still happen, but we find we just don’t have enough time to burn the whole budget.

We get overall higher compensation. For super-fast projects that require overtime/weekend work, my company charges a premium. We do this so my team can be paid extra for disrupting their schedule or losing sleep, and we also do this because of the impact it will undoubtedly have on other projects. (If you are an end client, this is probably not in your “love it” category, but now you know why we have a rush rate!)

I enjoy the adrenaline rush. Okay, I admit it: I am a bit of a risk-taker and a thrill-seeker. And I like having a fast-paced, intense project every once in awhile.

You can make a tight deadline work.

Here are tips for making a project with a crazy deadline a win.

Do not skip time for QA. All teams that have a role in the project need time to review during alpha and beta. Plan to include the design team, development team, marketing team, content team, and, likely, the product owner or primary stakeholder. We learned the hard way that no team can skip or compress QA too much. If the design and development team don’t have enough time to do QA, it will be very painful when the marketing team reviews the site two days before launch and finds a slew of small bugs. What is a ten-minute tweak for a front-end developer, a marketer may see as making the whole site unusable.

Deliver content early. Make sure content delivery is in the timeline as early as possible. It’s an awful surprise to have built the site with an idealized version of the content, only to see that the final content is drastically different than what was specified. This is true for any project. And on a project with a tight deadline, this mismatch can derail the whole thing.

Build flexibility into scheduling for other projects. This goes for everybody. If your culture supports flexibility in other projects, or you have some that don’t have big marketing promotions tied to them, you may already be set up for this. If everything is scheduled without being movable, this will be tricky.

Limit your team to just one tight deadline at a time. Don’t try to deliver on tight deadlines simultaneously for multiple projects with the same teams.

Make sure it works with everyone’s schedule. The design and development team needs to be okay with it, as do any other teams involved, including marketing, content, and QA.

Plan for a patch (or follow-up) release. Schedule a follow-up release to fix layout or functional bugs. Content tweaks can be made right away, assuming you’re using a Content Management System. But oversights in the layout or functionality will need fixes from the development team.

Not all relationships can handle this. I don’t recommend a scary-tight deadline for a first project between development team and end client team — unless both sides have had a lot of practice with similar projects before. A lot of small things need to be figured out with a first-time project partnership, separate from just doing the work. What are the areas that need the most attention to detail? Where can the dev team make decisions without client input? How much tweaking will we need to do for font sizes? What are typical high-priority areas that need to be flawless? What state will the text and images be in when they’re delivered? How detailed will QA feedback be? If you already know these answers from previous projects, you won’t get stuck on them or make assumptions that could backfire.

Will I agree to launch a website on a tight deadline again?

Yes. I’m sure I will. And undoubtedly, I’ll lose sleep over it. (Remember what I said about the adrenaline rush?) But, I hope none of our clients ask us to do a rush project just yet. My team and I need time to recover from the last one!


Susan Snipes is the founder and president of Q Digital Studio, a web design and development firm in Denver, Colorado. As a community-minded web entrepreneur, developer, and ExpressionEngine expert, Susan’s innovative approach to the web has benefited well-known companies and organizations ranging from technology, healthcare, education, nonprofits, local and regional governments, and more. For more thoughts on entrepreneurship, leadership, and women in technology, follow her on twitter.