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Tailoring project management to the needs of e-commerce projects

The increasing digitisation of commerce brings with it new business models and technologies as well as shorter market life cycles. As a result, companies consider faster time to market a key priority in e-commerce projects. Agile project management methods and tools are often the key to success. However, in e-commerce projects, there are also sequential waterfall phases where requirements are highly predictive. In certain cases, agile alone may not be sufficient. At IBM iX we use a combination of different approaches tailored to the specific project environment and open up opportunities to find our best way of working. This blended, methodology agnostic approach gives us the best of both worlds. How does that look in practice?

When project managers plan a project, their overall aim and motivation should be to increase business value in the best possible way considering the project’s environment. It should not matter which project management approach is chosen if business value is eventually created successfully by delivering a customer-centric product.

To generate value as quickly as possible from a new online shop, the approach of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is often chosen. This concept ensures that a valuable product can be produced and introduced to the market quickly. The focus lies on rolling out the small valuable units in the shortest possible time. Moreover, the release date of a new online shop is not flexible but rather predetermined. That leaves project teams with the limited option of negotiating a realistic scope for that MVP considering the time available. Project managers should avoid strictly following one method or approach to ensure that both value and release date meet stakeholder requirements. Agile for the sake of agile is certainly not the right path to follow.

How to choose between agile and traditional

Roughly speaking, agile approaches are appropriate in complex environments with many unknowns, whereas a traditional waterfall approach works best in predictable environments. In e-commerce, we face both. That’s why agile alone can be impractical for e-commerce projects, especially when several teams and parties are working on the same product. That’s where an individual, tailored project management approach comes into play. It’s the project manager’s responsibility to identify the processes needed in each of the elements.

Following the agile approach

E-commerce projects are unique in every aspect and require adaptation to unpredictable challenges. Many product requirements are elaborated during implementation. The complex environments in which e-commerce projects are usually happening have a great impact on the project, thus requiring a more adaptive approach. That’s why agile frameworks and practices such as Scrum and creating a product backlog and lean practices are often used in software projects. They deliver value quickly while remaining relevant in complex markets and rapidly changing times.


Adaptive elements

For instance, developing the user interface of an online shop is one of the most complex and important elements, since the consumer-facing frontend influences the final purchasing decision. To a great extent it determines the economic success or failure. For a user-friendly and promising frontend, it is crucial to allow great involvement and satisfaction of business stakeholders from the very beginning. Working in short iterations with frequent feedback loops, welcoming flexibility, and accepting late changes can lead to competitive advantage through increased customer value. Design requirements are frequently expanded during the delivery of the product to ensure customer-oriented design and happy users.

It is also appropriate to follow an iterative approach when creating content such as detailed product descriptions, product images, tutorials, and blog articles. As the product (the online shop) grows and evolves over time, the way users respond to it changes. That’s where iteration comes in, which is the process of making continuous improvements to optimise the user experience and conversion rates. Teams can make modifications based on real-time feedback from testing, user research, and trends observed using analytics tools.


Following the waterfall approach

A traditional waterfall approach, on the other hand, emphasises prediction, specification of requirements, and detailed planning at the beginning of the project. This is suitable for those elements in a project that are predictable and not meant to be changed. Execution after planning is the basic idea and is required for certain elements in e-commerce. Elements such as core assortment, product prices, currencies, and payment methods are often predictable and should be planned in sequences. Frequent changes can cause issues since there are dependencies on other parts of an organisation. For instance, a go-live date is determined months in advance because the faster time to market is a key requirement. If a company promotes this date with printed marketing material or campaigns, it’s obviously better to keep the date and avoid frequent changes. Traditional project management methods and tools can aid in hitting these long-term targets with precision. Using a Gantt chart is often helpful. As the project progresses, some deadlines and milestones may need to be adapted, but it’s better to have a clear yet flexible plan to focus on the successful roll-out of an MVP.


Predictive elements – examples

For example, it takes more than just software development to integrate an external payment service provider. Meeting legal requirements, lots of paperwork, and successful testing (including the finance and tax department) are obviously basic prerequisites before a go-live. Steps are performed one after the other, which usually takes a lot of time. Feedback loops are not common as everything is clearly defined and planned accordingly.

Another example is end-to-end testing. In e-commerce projects, it is crucial to test the order-to-cash process from top to bottom before the roll-out. Moreover, processes such as returns procedures must be tested end-to-end. Most of the processes consist of several steps such as checkout, order confirmation page, shipping confirmation e-mail, and different sub-processes.

From a user perspective, the overall process follows a clearly structured sequence. A typical user journey starts with finding a product that is in stock at a certain price and ends with the physical delivery of the purchased product. To ensure the process runs smoothly for the end customer, each step of the process has certain prerequisites. A very simple example: if the purchased product is not in stock in the warehouse, the whole process cannot be completed. Therefore, before the process gets tested end-to-end, every single step in the process must be planned and finished in a certain sequential order.

Flexibility is key

Every e-commerce project is unique. For this reason, a tailored approach that combines agile methods and traditional project management approaches is the key to success. Where it makes sense, more effort is put into planning to accurately meet predictable elements and fixed milestones such as the go-live date. On the other hand, there are highly complex areas such as user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design. For these adaptive elements, it makes more sense to use iterative loops to ensure that the product actually meets the needs of the customer and delivers real business value in a short time. Flexibility in the management of e-commerce projects is therefore vital.

Author Patrick Kirchenkamp

Senior Product Owner, part of IBM iX

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