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Scope creep and how to draw the line

25 May 2006

Scope creep is probably the worst thing a designer or developer can deal with. The unfortunate thing is that a lot of freelancers deal with it, complaining along the way. Why the complaining? Because the general majority of clients don't realize they are doing it.

In the mind of the client, once the quote or estimate has been accepted the dollar amount is set. Anything and everything they can think of after that is just a bonus for them, and some clients want or even expect a lot of bonuses.

How do you tell a client that what they're asking for isn't included in the quote? Maybe we should define what we classify as the elusive scope creep.

Definition of scope creep

The creeping of scope happens after a client has accepted a quote or estimate. Once they have given you the specs — hopefully more detailed than not — the clients mind starts brainstorming again, especially after subsequent discussions with the designer or developer.

All these fantastic new ideas the client is thinking often need to become reality for them. In a clients mind, since they've already locked in a dollar amount with a designer/developer adding these “little extras” shouldn't take much time and therefore should be included in the quote they've agreed on.

Why does scope creep?

More often than not, and without knowing it, we will plant new ideas in our clients heads. We seldom realize this is happening because we are constantly surrounded by others that understand what we are talking about.

Designers and developers are constantly brainstorming out loud and with more than one person in their field. This switch is very hard to turn off when we're talking to a client.

Stopping the creep

If there was one magical answer this topic would be sooo much easier to discuss. Since there isn't one right answer we have to tailor our approach based on the client. More experienced designers and developers have obviously dealt with this and probably have a nice little collection of responses based on how their relationship is with the client.

Here are a couple of options you may want to try. Keep in mind you should base your response on how comfortable you are with the client.

The candid approach
If you have a history with the client and they are someone that you've done a large body of work for or you know them socially the best way to tell them is straight-up. No mincing words, no questions, just point blank. Let them know they are increasing the scope of the project and you'll have to either re-quote the project or quote on the additional elements they're adding.
Not enough time
Let the client know that while the additional scope they are talking about would be fantastic for their project it would cause a time and scheduling issue. Working with the new elements would cause you to miss your deadline and/or the deadline for another projects. This approach would probably be best suited for the times where you either don't want to deal with the client on this issue or you find the client intimidating. Be sure to mention that you'll consider the additions at a later date if they're still interested though.
Ignoring the request
In this case the important thing to remember is to actually listen to the requests before following this path. If the scope creep is an avenue you'd rather not take or don't know if either of the other approaches would work, you could simply ignore the request and complete the project as outlined in the specs and quote. Should the client ask why the additional elements are not on the finished product you can direct them to the approved quote/specs/agreement and ask, politely mind you, if those items are there.

Caution: This takes a delicate approach and you should be a very good people person if you want to go this route.
Stop giving the client ideas
This may be a lot harder than you think. Getting used to simply quoting on the spec, accepting the job and doing your part is tough. As mentioned earlier, designers and developers get excited about their work and like to talk about it. While a lot of inexperienced designers/developers may take this approach the more experienced tend to go with another option.

Obviously this is not an extensive list of options but hopefully it will give you some ideas on how to deal with scope creep. Your mileage may vary with any given approach and these are merely provided as options to think about.

The best piece of advice is to ask around and ask everyone you know — heck, ask people you don't know but that you respect. People that know you can give you a better idea of what approach would be best for your personality.

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