Avoiding Scope Creep in Web Design Projects

Price & Process

When you begin a new website project, no doubt, you have big dreams and ideas for what it can be.

Part of my job as a Creative Director is to work with clients before the work begins, to make sure there is alignment between what our clients want, what they are willing to pay for, what our team can do, and what our team is willing to do.

Those four factors together will determine what is called “Scope” of the project.

What is Project Scope?

Scope is just an industry term summarizing what is relevant for the project and what limitations it will have.

For example, if we agree to build a fairly simple marketing website for a client, there are certain things that site will and will not include.

One thing it does not include is membership/subscription functionality. Why?

Because that functionality is significantly more difficult to build and maintain, and has additional cost associated with it.

So in this example, if we are a month into the website build and the client decides to add a membership component, this is defined as “scope creep” because the scope of the project has unexpectedly tried to expand.

Our contracts clearly lay out what the scope is and sets boundaries around it. We are willing to “scope out” new work for the project, but we prefer to situate that in an additional “phase” of the project.

Why Should We Try to Avoid Scope Creep?

Scope creep is like cancer (I know that’s rough, stick with me).

The example, though harsh, is appropriate due to its nature. Cancer is:

  • Unwelcome
  • Unanticipated
  • Inconvenient
  • Expands rapidly
  • Causes massive discomfort
  • and more.

All of these are true of scope creep. What it really comes down to is a mismanagement of expectations. And in business, mismanaged expectations lead to hurt, frustration, and pain.

More importantly, it has the potential to erode trust between parties.

When we go into a project, we love to feel like we’re going to knock it out of the park. That’s when we’re doing our very best work.

To get a month into the project with lots of time, energy, and money invested, only to find out that the client wants something entirely different is very disheartening.

It means they might be dissatisfied, and for any business that cares about its clients, that hurts.

Of course, the same is true from the client’s perspective!

If the client is expecting something to be delivered (or expected it without realizing they did, leading them to mention it later), they may be disappointed to hear it will extend the timeline or cost of the project.

Do you see how important it is to take care of this and guard against it from the very beginning?

Scope Creep vs. Cost Creep

There is a subtle, yet significant, difference between scope creep and cost creep.

Scope creep happens anytime the project expands beyond the original agreement. Even if that expansion is minimal.

Let’s say we did not talk about including social media profiles on the website before the project begins.

You, the client, might shoot me a random email during the build and ask, “Hey, would it be okay to place our social profiles somewhere on the site?”

Now—that is an example of scope creep since we didn’t discuss it—but to be honest, it’s so minimal that we would have no problem including that in the project.

Heck, we probably would have done it anyway.

However, let’s say you asked if we could stream all of your updates from various social media platforms and display them on your website in realtime.

This would constitute scope creep that also includes cost creep. The reason is that, in order to accomplish this, we need to do the following:

  • Research and purchase a plugin that includes the software API’s for your various social media sites
  • Install that plugin on the site and configure all the relevant settings
  • Style that plugin accordingly to look great across all browsers and device types
  • Get logged into your various social accounts
  • Test and confirm the information is displaying correctly
  • Make sure you are happy with how everything is looking and displaying
  • Make edits if desired
  • Troubleshoot any potential issues

Written out like that, it becomes obvious there are quite a few steps. And to be honest, this is a pretty light example of scope/cost creep. Something like membership functionality might have triple or quadruple those steps.

In this case, we would politely inform you that this falls outside the agreed upon scope of the project (assuming that is, of course) and offer a few options.

How We Handle Scope Creep

In our agency, scope creep is not a huge issue. This is because we work on a generous retainer basis with our clients.

That said, it can (and does) still happen, and there are a few different ways we handle it.

Add it Now

If this something either small enough or extremely important to the project, it might be worth it to go ahead and add it on now.

Depending on the nature of the project/arrangement, that may require a one-time additional fee, an add-on recurring fee, both, or neither!

Phased Approach

Many times, scope creep happens on “nice to have’s” instead of “need to have’s.”

This makes sense because items that are fundamental to the project will almost certainly be discussed before all parties sign an agreement.

And since it’d be “nice to have” the feature, but not necessary, we usually prefer to add these items into a next “phase” of the project.

That means we will plan to finished the project within the cost, timeline, and scope currently agreed upon. This keeps us on schedule and manages expectations.

Then, once we’re all good on the initial project, we’ll add a “phase 2” on and tackle the new scope.


Sometimes, clients hear from a friend, colleague, or advertisement about something they could do with their site, but are not sure of the possibilities.

They don’t know what they don’t know, and they know that, but still want to explore it.

And by the way, that’s perfectly fine and understandable. What it means, though, is the item is likely not a huge priority.

In those cases, we like to “table” that request until sometime in the future. In other words, we don’t commit to focusing on it in the near future at all.

But, assuming the site is working well and accomplishing goals in the distant future, we could revisit that item and see if it makes sense to include.

Conclusion and a Plea

I hope this article has been useful for you, whether reading as a client or another agency.

Specifically, if you are a client or potential client, I’d like to ask something of you.

Please understand that we never want to disappoint you, and to be honest, it really sucks having to go back to the client and ask for more money.

We like money. We don’t like disappointment.

If this happens, I just ask that you be patient with us as we try to figure this out. And, we will always honor our part of the bargain.

Meaning if this is something that should have been included in the scope, and we failed to include it, we will absolutely get it added on without additional fees.

In full transparency, this happened on a recent project. I mistook the nature of the product (focusing on another equally important aspect) and it looked like we were going to have to rebuild an entire e-commerce solution.

Not fun.

Fortunately, in this case, we were able to make the original solution work and move forward. But we almost didn’t.

And that oversight was on ME, and we would have made it right!

So lastly, never be afraid to ask. This is YOUR site, and we want to do all we can to make it everything you dreamed of.

Never hurts to ask. 🙂

Sep 7, 2022

About Me

Hey, I'm Steve — a Christian, entrepreneur, thinker, and creator. Thanks for stopping by!

Learn More.

Did you get value out of this post? 

If so, I would like to invite you to join my email list.

Here are three promises, if you do:

  1. I will only send you an email when I am fully convinced there is a lesson of value for you to learn.
  2. I believe in my products and services. I will occasionally let you know when something new and/or valuable is available for you.
  3. I will never give your personal information to someone else. It is safe with me.
Newsletter Subscribe