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What do I need to consider when budgeting for a digital build?

By Amil Vasishtha, 12 May 2022

When I started in the industry in 2014 I had no idea how much a site cost to make, let alone to maintain. In reality, having a website is crucial to any business, charity, NGO and any organisation. And the fact is, all sites and digital tools require maintenance. But how much is it going to cost?

This blog is for you if you want to find out more about how project scope affects cost.

So, how much for a digital tool?

This blog isn’t so about the cold hard cash, I’m afraid. If you’d like to find out more about the range of cost when it comes to websites specifically, you might be prefer to read this blog instead.

I’m going to break down things you need to consider when budgeting for a digital tool build, and which factors influence the cost of maintenance. The cost of any digital tool or website can only be determined when there is an understanding of the functionality that’s required / desired.  Having said that, I can throw you a bone and give you a jumping off point…at Outlandish, a WordPress CMS website with somewhat limited functionality and design will likely start at around ~£7,500 ex VAT. But, like I say, the scope of your project will ultimately determine the cost.

Here are some things to consider when commissioning the build of a digital tool or website:

  • What do you want and why?: We always start with the purpose of the project. What impact do you want it to have on the world and why? It’s so easy to sleep walk into a project without considering this. That’s why we always start projects off with a kick-off workshop and a Theory of Change at Outlandish. This workshop consists of all team members and lasts about half a day. We ask all team members, including all stakeholders and decision makers, to attend this workshop for two reasons.; to collectively agree on the goal and desired outcomes for the project, and to consolidate us as one collaborative team. This is an easy cost to overlook but it’s so important for creating focus quickly, and providing a clear strategy for the project.
  • Functionalities. It seems obvious but the number of features you require, and the complexity of these features, must be considered when budgeting for a website build. For example, things like a newsletter sign up are simple in comparison to a registration or application process.
  • Content and usability. If you have lots of content and lots of user journeys that need to be considered, you will want to factor in budget for User Experience (UX) analysis and Information Architecture (IA). These are crucial for understanding your users and building a site that’s simple for them to use.
  • Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). If your site requires e.g. Facebook or Twitter’s API to function, this brings in complexities, dependencies and the need for hundreds, or potentially thousands of functions for your site to work effectively.
  • Data. The amount and type of data you need crunched, visualised and stored will impact your wallet. It’s always good to determine who your users are and why they require data visualisations first.
  • Devices. Do you need your website or tool to work on many different devices e.g. desktops, tablets, mobiles etc ? Designs that work on a desktop don’t always scale down nicely to mobile (or vice versa), so you may need to develop multiple versions of the design for different scales/aspect ratios.
  • Browsers and browser versions. What about browsers? Does your site need to work on Chrome, Safari, and Firefox? What about Edge or Internet Explorer (IE)? And which version of these browsers does your site need to work on? Are you working at an organisation that only uses the outdated IE version 9 (please, no?!).
  • Levels of access. If your website requires different levels of access e.g. a login area for members, multiple types of access and views need to be considered for functionality and security.
  • Custom-fit. How bespoke do you need your site to be? Should it be familiar and useable in order for users to achieve their goals, or is it more important for your site to look different no matter what?
  • W3C Web Accessibility. Web accessibility is important, and can be really important depending on your target audience. The more accessible your site, the more time needed for coding and testing.
  • Data and content migration. Are you starting from scratch or do you need existing data and content migrated to your new site? If your new site is being built in WordPress, and your old site was built in Joomla or Drupal, how will the old content get moved? Either way, migrating data and content can be complex so you need to factor this into your budgets.
  • Hosting. Are you happy with your current infrastructure or do you need your site moved to a new server instance? What type of integrations does your current set up have? What plugins do you require? All of this can change and determine the cost of moving your site to a new home.
  • Payments. If you need your site to be able to handle payments via e.g. Stripe, Paypal etc, it’s good to be sure this is tested and secure.
  • Emails. Do you need your site to send out automated emails once a user has completed an action e.g. signed up to an event?

This isn’t everything you need to consider but it’s a start. If you’re about to take the leap and get a new site or tool built, it’s worth considering all aspects of your scope and which parts are must haves, nice-to-haves and must-not-haves.

What about maintenance?

Something that isn’t spoken about enough is that a project is never actually ‘finished.’ In fact, the ball has only truly started rolling once your digital tool has launched. Like houses, boilers, cars…heck, even ourselves, all digital tools require maintenance. You need to carry on investing in your project if you want to keep it relevant, secure and working properly.

Much like the previous section, the cost of maintaining your digital tool will come down to your requirements, desires and scope. Some things to consider are:

  • Complexity: How many moving parts does it have? Is it a static WordPress site (i.e. not many moving parts)? Or is it the frontend to an intricate and complex searchable database that connects thousands of items, and relies on data being pulled automatically from multiple sources (i.e. lots of moving parts)? These are two very different projects with varying costs.
  • Location: Where is your site hosted? Is Outlandish hosting it? Is the infrastructure “standard” or something more unique and nuanced?
  • Technical debt: WordPress releases updates once every 1-2 months. Some updates are minor e.g. going from version 5.7 to 5.7.1, but some are more substantial, e.g. going from version 5.7 to 5.8. If you want to be using the latest version of WordPress, you’ll need to factor in budget for checking what the update consists of and fixing any breaking changes that may come into effect once the update is complete. So it would be good to know whether you want your WordPress to be updated every month, three months, six months etc when budgeting for maintenance. The longer you leave an update, the more changes come into effect, meaning the likelihood of breaking changes increases.
  • Security: Sites require regular security updates in order to keep them impenetrable. So the question is, how secure do you need/want your site to be? Similar to the previous point, do you want your security checks every month, three months, six months?
  • External dependancies: How many third party dependencies does your site have? If it’s using Facebook’s API, and Facebook is deprecating a version of its API next year, you need to factor in budget for investigating differences, implementing any possible workarounds to breaking changes and checking that these fixes work.
  • Site traffic: How much traffic will your site get? Are there particular times of the year where traffic might shoot up? If so, you may need your server instance scaled up or down as the traffic fluctuates. The things to budget for here are the cost of the server instances and the time it takes us to create and manage these, as well as the time it takes to de-rig this infrastructure set up once the busy period has ended. And of course, if you have lots of traffic all of the time, the server you require may be large and result in higher costs.
  • Training: Will you, your colleagues and/or your staff require training in order to use your new site?

Again, this isn’t everything but it gives you a good idea of what to consider. It sounds like a lot and that’s because it is. Websites, web-tools and web-apps can be complex. Search functionality isn’t as simple as adding a button labelled “Search” – there’s much more to it. That’s not to say there isn’t code or frameworks out there that help reduce the need to write reusable code, there are and they’re a big help. But building a digital tool inevitably comes with overheads and we like to be transparent about why.

Hopefully this has helped anyone putting together a project costing, or considering how much budget to anticipate when producing a project scope or brief. If you have a budget in mind but aren’t sure if it matches your scope, you can drop us a message (hello@outlandish.com) and we’d be happy to help.