If tProject scoping mindmaphe last five years have taught me anything about e-commerce platform selection, it’s that the devil is in the scoping detail.

I’ve had project headaches and budget creep because I’ve not understood all the touch points of an e-commerce solution. I’ve seen vendors underestimate time and cost because they’ve not had enough detail to understand requirements.

I’ve learned that the cost (time and resource) of managing a comprehensive project scoping phase prior to going to market is the best investment you can make. Regardless of your knowledge base, you need to understand what you want to achieve with your e-commerce platform, who it affects and how you will evaluate available solutions.

This is my take on the top ten project elements you should include in your scoping phase before you write an ITT…

1. What are your project goals?

Start by defining commercial objectives – it’s essential you know how your e-commerce platform supports the overall business so that you can prioritise project elements and evaluate each solution provider’s ability to deliver core functionality to support targets.

For example, if a primary goal is to build a solution that can scale to cope with rapid traffic growth and seasonal spikes, you need a partner that offers a robust and scalable hosting solution with excellent technical support.

2. Who is responsible for what?

To keep your project on time and to budget, avoid duplication of effort and internal confusion. If you’re in chaos, the project manager at your chosen solution provider will struggle to hit milestones.

You need a single project sponsor at Board level (too many cooks, broth etc), a project manager who is the go-to person for your solution provider and a project team which supports your PM. It’s essential that for each person involved, their line manager supports their involvement and has allocated resource to this project. It can’t be left as a “when I’ve got time” approach. If you want a successful e-commerce project, take it seriously across the business.

3. Which stakeholder groups do you need to involve?

Involving the relevant people upfront has two benefits; you get visibility of the impact the e-commerce channel has on other areas of your business, and you can tackle the politics that can impede project delivery.

Humans are complex things. By making people feel that they have a stake in the project, you can reduce the internal barriers. Just make sure they don’t try and take over. Personal fiefdoms can be an issue, so protect your project.

4. Visualise your in-house technology map

I’ve always found this a great starting point when defining technical requirements. Get your IT team to map out the systems architecture to illustrate inter-dependencies between internal and external systems.

You need to understand how each element of the e-commerce platform (database, CMS, catalogue manager etc) interacts with other systems and what data exchange formats your business supports.

Work with your IT team (and external suppliers) to understand any restrictions that must be catered for within the new platform as well as areas for improvement where you would like the solution provider to add value with their expertise.

5. What are the individual requirements of each business unit?

Having got people excited, it’s now time to find out what they want. Set up meetings with key people and drill down into how they interact with the e-commerce platform, what they like/dislike and how they think it could support them more effectively. Getting these requirements accurately defined helps you prioritise project elements and cuts time/cost further down the line.

Don’t fly blind. Produce a clear agenda for each meeting and circulate in advance clarifying how you would like them to prepare. Start each meeting with a clear summary of objectives and try to make them feel that this is a positive experience, not a grilling interview.

6. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current platform?

You don’t want to reinvent the wheel. If something works well (back this up with your analytics and voice-of-customer data…if you have it) make sure it is documented. Keeping what’s good is as important as addressing what’s not and will help manage the project scope/cost.

I worked with a client who wanted to change the entire checkout process, thinking it was confusing. Looking at the Google Analytics stats, the last two stages of the checkout had excellent conversion. We revised the requirement to include provision for testing of checkout pages to optimise basket-to-order conversion.

7. What are your success criteria?

Define your top level critical success factors, both financial and non-financial. This helps sharpen the mind to focus on scoping requirements that add value and aren’t just “nice to have” and is really important when evaluating potential solution providers.

For example, a success factor could be reducing the time it takes to load new products to the web catalogue and increasing the automatic categorisation and population of data fields. Having this clearly defined helps you evaluate the user interface at demo time.

8. What do you expect from a strategic partner?

In my opinion, 80% of e-commerce platform requirements are hygiene factors. The solution should have advanced search capabilities, support multiple templates, enable dynamic merchandising etc.

What sets people apart is the soft skills that they bring to the partnership and their ability to work with you to evolve your online presence. Define what’s important to you in a strategic partner and explain what evidence you would like to see.

For example, in a recent ITT I outlined the need for industry presence and contribution to thought leadership as two key qualities for the successful partner. We wanted to see how active people were in exchanging views and offering advice proactively.

9. What is your e-commerce roadmap?

Rome wasn’t built in a day and it’s likely that you can’t deliver all your platform needs with the budget you’ve had signed off. Project phasing is important, so you need to outline your roadmap to chart what functionality and capabilities you want to have and by when. This helps solution providers phase the development approach to manage budget and keep the scope realistic to meet project milestones. 

10. How are you going to evaluate solution providers?

I’ve sat in meetings where people have been unable to decide who offers the best fit solution because they’re not sure what they’re comparing.

Before you go to market, create a scoring matrix. This maps each element of the ITT into a spreadsheet with a maximum score. The maximum score for each element is weighted depending on priority level.  See the image to the left for an example.

Compare apples with apples. By using a uniform scoring matrix, you can evaluate individual project elements as well as overall suitability. Believe me it really does make decision making a lot quicker.

So what do you think?

I know this does not cover every element of a project scoping methodology but it should help you plan your approach and think about what you need to do. My advice is get the un-sexy planning stuff right before you get excited about bringing in people to pitch their wares.