With so many people professing to be web designers, who do you set your site on? You could be jeopardising your business and destroying your brand so make sure you know what you’re doing when choosing a web design company
Finding Web Designers
Google and online directories might be a good place to start when you’re looking for a web design company. Spend a few hours looking through their websites. You can generally judge a company’s competence by looking at their own site. Someone local might be an idea if you prefer personal contact, but I manage to work successfully with people all over the world. If you come across a website that you are really impressed with, there is often a link to the web designer’s site or you can email to find the name and contact details of the web designer.
The Web Designer’s Portfolio
Looking at a website designer’s portfolio of previous work should be your first port of call. Remember that the projects that you are looking at have been done specifically for a particular business and client and may not be relevant for your own needs. If all their work looks similar it probably means they are using a template. This might mean that they can produce something for you very cheaply but at the end of the day, it may not be particularly effective for your business and or stand out from your competitors’ websites.
You might be surprised to hear that some sites in a designer’s portfolio might actually be someone else’s work or the designer might have only played a small part in the site’s development. In fact most corporate sites are built by large teams of people and in some cases outsourced overseas.
Another factor to consider is that a lot of the content of the site is hidden within the code. Someone offering a low-cost website may well cut corners and leave out lots of code loved by search engines. A site should be ideally built from scratch with search engines as a top priority.
What is a ‘good’ website?
Does it communicate effectively to its target audience? This can only be achieved by effective research and asking the right questions. Although it’s important to make the site appealing to you the client, the end user is actually the most important. Is it search engine friendly? Internet marketing to many appears to be a bit of a black art which is constantly changing. A good designer will be able to apply basic principles and suggest ways to increase targeting by keyword research and adwords if required. Try not to be scared by the jargon and bear in mind that effective Google rankings can be achieved quite simply in many cases by building the website in a sympathetic way.
OK, we’ve got people arriving at the site. How does the site engage? How do you keep them on the site and hopefully buy your service or product? The home page has to create a strong impression. Research shows that a person spends three seconds on a web page before deciding to leave or explore. Obviously you want this page to load quickly and work on all major browsers. If you do capture your audience then you have to keep them there. To do this you have to make the site as accessible as possible. Steve Krug has written a book ‘Don’t Make Me Think’ which sums this up. The visitor should be able to find the information they want without having to think… the architecture of the site should be intuitive. If someone is buying a product for instance, it should be a smooth and trouble-free experience. To complement this accessibility, information and copy should be web-friendly, written in small chunks and understandable by its target audience. Make sure there are opportunities for the end user to interact with the site too even if this is only an email link or enquiry form.
The nuts and bolts of the site is the code. You might be overwhelmed with jargon from web design companies because of the variety of program languages and applications. At the end of the day, the site has to load quickly and work effectively on all major browsers. And of course once the site is up and running, it’s not a good idea to ignore it. This is all rather simplistic of course, there are a lot of areas I haven’t covered but it should give you some ideas what to look for.
Testimonials are always a good indication of a company’s worth. Personal recommendations are best of course. Remember, companies are not going to publish a bad reference on their website or promotional material. If in doubt a quick phone call or email can be reassuring.
Solving your problems
The questions you ask a potential web design company, the answers they give you and the questions they ask you, are very important. Do they have answers, for starters? Do they make suggestions? Are they keen to find out all about your business? They should be finding out whether you really need a website, what you want to do with it and who it’s aimed at. I provide a website questionnaire for the potential client to complete before proceeding with detailed questions.
Web design companies often have different pricing structures. I’m often asked how much a website is going to cost before I know anything about what’s required. A good idea is to look at the general design process to get an idea of how the project SHOULD be progressed. Of course, this isn’t always the case as websites are cobbled together by all sorts of people. Remember if you create an amateur web presence this will have a seriously negative effect on your brand and your product or service.
Generally though a ball-park figure can be arrived at after an adequate design brief and technical specification. Professional web design companies work on a bespoke basis and so do not publish specific prices although they will often give you a daily/hourly rate. Also bear in mind that a good web design company will advise you on domain names, hosting, search engine optimisation and content creation. Content is extremely important and the services of a web copywriter are highly recommended.
Qualifications and Skills
Website design is basically two disciplines, design and build. Compare it to a house. You have an architect and a builder. The design stage comes first, how it works, what it looks like, and how it communicates the message. The build can be complex or very simple depending on whether it has database integration, Flash animation, video, ecommerce etc.
Although website design has its own rules, restrictions and intricacies, there is a design process which applies to all design disciplines. Qualifications and experience generally means that the person has used and experimented with these disciplines and understands the communication process. I believe it is the nuances and attention to detail which make all the difference. These include usability, layout, colour and most importantly concepts and ideas. A good designer will know from the design brief what ‘builders’ will be necessary for the project.
The size of a web design company will give no indication as to the quality of work that can be produced, many freelance website designers offer far superior work. Using a larger company may mean your work is delegated to a junior designer or programmer. Working with a freelance designer has the advantage of working directly with the individual you have contacted and more often than not at a fraction of the price due to lower overheads. Freelance web designers and smaller website design companies are more likely to be able to offer a higher level of after-sales support if you have any problems or need anything updated.
The human element
Working with a small web design company or freelance designer puts you in closer contact and can be far more satisfying to work on a more personal basis. Pick someone who you feel you can work with, who is prepared to listen to you and who you feel can produce a great website within your budget and timeframe and take your business to a new level.