Whether you need a new website, or changes to your existing site, these aren’t projects to be taken lightly. Web projects can be a hassle, and it’s easy to run over budget.
Like many business relationships, there is likely to be a disparity between the client’s knowledge of the subject and the provider’s. That’s obviously a good thing in one way - an expert is what you want - but then again, there is a fair chance that a provider will use that disparity against you, to either overcharge you, or underdeliver.
So, who do you trust to handle these projects for you, and how can you manage these projects in a way which minimises the risk of blowing your budget, or ending up with a bad product?
The following points, whilst not a failsafe, are important to remember:
A web designer is an expert in the look and user experience of a website. A web developer, however, is an expert in programming languages, and builds a website and it’s functionality by writing code. The chances are that you need both of these to be strengths, in which case you should go with an agency that has a team of specialists in varying roles. If you’re happy to create and deliver your own visual design, however, you could potentially work with a freelance developer and potentially save some money. For most, this would be a brave choice, but if you have your own visual designer and someone to manage the project on your side, it could be a good option.
The first thing to do is to produce a specification for your project. In it, talk about what you want your site to do - or rather, what you want the user to be able to do on the site. If you have a vision of how they do it (ie the user journey), describe it. The spec may also involve providing some background on your company’s broader aims.
If you’re not sure about something, include it. You don’t want to give someone who is trying to cost and deliver your project any nasty surprises. Assume everything is a big deal - for example, you should certainly say so if you want to sell anything directly from your site - there are a whole host of considerations that come with eCommerce which you may not be aware of.
You also need to think about the future. Consider how the website may need to change as your business grows. If you’ll be uploading a lot of content to the website, make sure you get enough disk space with the hosting included in the package. Finally, if they recommend a particular content management system (eg Wordpress, Drupal, ModX) seek assurances that the site will be easy to amend in future years.
Obviously, when you’re looking for a web designer, the quality of their previous work is paramount. In fact, one of the most important things to ask a potential provider is whether they can supply examples of work with similar goals to those described in your brief.
However, you also need to consider how they work - ask them about their process, and find out exactly when and how you get a chance to feed back during that process. Also, ask them what the situation is regarding amendments or future changes. You need to know:
If they’re happy to explain things like this, and conversations show that they are nice, reasonable people to deal with, that’s a good indicator of what their customer service is going to be like.
When you provide a spec to a web designer, listen to their responses. It’s a good sign if they:
Ideally, when a provider delivers a proposal for a full website build, they should mention the option for a support contract, with an indication of response times. Another good sign is whether they ask if your team will need any training to use the website and post content, or whether they assume that you have this knowledge. Obviously, ongoing support comes at a cost - make sure to double check that you understand any ongoing charges.
It’s vital to have a clear understanding of what is included as standard, so there are no surprises.
One example is search engine optimisation - the CMS of a website will provide opportunities to improve search engine visibility, such as tagging and meta descriptions. Particularly if your site has a lot of pages, it’s worth checking if the developer will do this optimisation for you or not. If they won’t, and it’s not something you know how to do, ask them if they will show you. If they don’t seem willing, they are probably best avoided.
Something else worth checking is what testing activity is included with the website build, and if there are any expectations that you test the site as well. There is a risk a provider will assume you’ll know what to do, or forget to mention testing. Although, more than likely, testing of some kind will be included, it may not include testing for different browsers and mobile devices.
Documentation can cover all of this off. Make sure you ask potential providers if they will supply a project plan and a contract should you decide to use them.
Web design isn’t a profession where the ones who are best at marketing and self promotion are necessarily the best at their day job. The good ones are always in demand, and so might not have much time for marketing - which, annoyingly, makes them harder to find. For that reason, it’s a good idea to try to meet these kind of experts at events, or ask a trusted local business for a referral, rather than solely relying on google searches. Nate Shivar’s Essential Guide To Choosing A Web Designer goes into more detail on this.
Last but not least, here’s a general rule of thumb for finding just about any new service provider: make sure that all of your correspondence with prospective providers is documented. There are a few good reasons for this:
So, commissioning a new website is not straightforward, and there’s a lot to keep in mind. It almost goes without saying, though, that a usable, visually appealing website is a must for any business. If you do find a web designer you trust and enjoy working with, remember to make sure that they enjoy working with you too - they’re worth holding on to.
One final point to end on - if you reach out to a few providers, and it all seems a bit too complex or expensive, there are other options - you don’t necessarily need a custom built website. Thanks to website builders such as SquareSpace, anyone can build their own website. It won’t be completely bespoke, and you need to be careful that your chosen platform caters for all the functionality you need, but it’s possible to get a good looking website live in a matter of hours for a modest monthly or annual fee, which typically includes hosting. You can also purchase basic web design from a hosting company, 1&1’s Ionos is one such example.
At Ember, we provide websites to businesses using an approach which includes an experienced project manager, a visual designer, and a copywriter, who build websites using template website builders such as SquareSpace and Wix. Whilst we don’t have web developers in-house, using this approach we are able to provide easy-to-use, visually appealing websites for a cost which is lower than a typical web agency, and without the potential hassle and risk of using a freelancer. If you’d like to talk to us about a website project, get in touch.