What Do I Look For in a Website Designer?

If your thinking of having a new web site or re developing your existing site, it’s important that you select the best web design agency for you. Affordable Web Design, offers you excellent service, fantastic websites at a fraction of the cost.

Below we have listed some of the things you will need to consider when planning on have a website designed.

The price of your website may vary a great deal, you can pay a fortune for a very simple one page website, prices generally start at around $400 for a normal web site. This price will vary off course depending on the level of design and functionality that you are looking for in your site. It’s important to keep in mind the standard of work that the website agency can produce, and the amount of customer service that they provide. You will want a web design agency that provides you will after sale service and does not just take your money and run. Remember that you will get what you paid for with most agencies, but it’s best to do some research into the company before you select them. Cheap does not always mean nasty in the web design industry. Many expensive companies can provide you with poor work.

Also keep in mind that the web design company you are thinking of having your site built through can do a search engine friendly site. The term SEO (search engine optimisation) can often be over emphasised by most web design agencies. They promise to get you on the front page of Google, charge you a fortune, but then provide no service for this. Check previous work they have done in relation to this to make sure they can do what they say.

Remember that first impressions make a huge difference to how your prospective client will view your site. So ask as many questions as you need to, because if you don’t you may end up with a website that is nothing like what you want.

It is possible to find yourself an Affordable Website Design agency with minimal effort, but it’s advised that you take into consideration the points stated, and research the design company as best you can, this will save you time and money in the long run, and provide you with a fantastic web site you’ll be happy with for years to come.

Choosing a Web Designer

Here are some tips in finding the right people for the job and some considerations to be taken into account.

1. Introduction

Many businesses look for a web designer as though they were shopping for a general commodity item such as a light bulb – i.e. All websites are equal and paying the 16 year old student on a computer course to build the site will reap exactly the same dividend as paying a specialist web development agency. Other businesses often feel they have to spend thousands upon thousands of pounds on a website for it to be successful.

Let us dispel these myths

Contrary to what many believe, web design is only one component in the production of your website. Some web designers can talk day and night about how pretty your web site can be, but if it isn’t functional, user-friendly, or capable of helping you meet your online goals, then all the superficial beauty in the world isn’t going to help it serve it’s purpose. The design theme of a website is only one component of building a successful online presence.

Choosing a Web Designer is not an easy task! – Here are some tips…

There is so much more to web design than just making a few web pages look pretty if you want to succeed. You need to consider your target audience, underlying message, content, desired responses, visitor impact, online goals, how you are going to measure the success of the site and more. There is so much more to web design than just making a few web pages look pretty

2. Defining Your Requirements

If you have no idea why you want a website or what you want the website to achieve, it is as well to sit down and think it through, rather than rushing to put up a “White elephant” that doesn’t serve a purpose. Every website must serve a purpose, and that’s usually where many websites falls short. They serve no purpose because the website owner never gave much thought to it. It’s not the website’s fault. A website is inanimate. It is only what you make it. The only life a website has is the one given to it by its designer and owner. If the human element doesn’t do a good job of defining the building blocks, the website will serve no purpose and eventually die a digital death. Every website should have a distinct purpose With that in mind, we’d suggest the first stage would be to define the “Goals” of the website in relation to the requirements and aspirations of the business or organisation involved.

Defining the Goal

Every website should have a distinct goal or number of goals that are measurable. A goal can be anything from communicating with friends and associates through to making profits by selling products or services online (e commerce). Your goal in the first instance may even be to have a web presence so potential clients don’t regard your organisation as being backward! Once you have defined a goal (or number of goals), it’s equally important to define:

  • The target audience. i.e. Who you want/expect to visit your website.
  • The actions you want to result from their visit. i.e. Making an online sale, getting them to make an inquiry etc.
  • What benefits you are giving and receiving from having the website.

Defining the Key Functions (The actions)

Once the goals of the website have been established, it’s important to define the actions required by site visitors to meet the goals. An action is any traceable sequence of events carried out by the end user.

Examples might include:

  • Getting in touch – either by phone, email or via an online form.
  • Disseminating Information.
  • Signing up for a newsletter.
  • Completing a questionnaire
  • Commenting on a Blog
  • Downloading or buying products
  • Using an online tool

Of course, there are other intangible benefits that your website might provide to an end user that don’t result in direct “actions”… i.e. simply providing “peace of mind” to an existing or prospective customer would be considered as such. If you haven’t already done so, then it’s also useful to check out the competition, for ideas, likes and dislikes.

Establishing Your Design & Development Preferences

Once you have formulated the goals and functional requirements for the website, it’s time to start building a picture of how you anticipate the site coming together – with regard to structure and design theme. This doesn’t need to be a definitive exercise – Your web designer should be able to add a lot of input and suggestions at a later stage, but it helps to have some ideas to feed into the requirements you approach the designer with in the first instance.

As follows are a few that we feel should be mandatory:

  • The website should adhere to recognised standards. The site should be written to conform and validate to the standards defined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – this will in turn, mean your site should be cross-browser friendly (i.e. Appear the same across various different types of web browser).
  • The website should be accessible. In web terms, this means that it conforms to the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
  • The website should be clean, crisp and fast loading.
  • The website should be easy to use and inoffensive (see below).

Our Tip: Easy to use and Inoffensive – The WOW factor

Webbies often get asked to produce a website with the “WOW factor”. The “WOW factor” is a term that means different things to different people. Often, the person or business commissioning the website have grandiose plans for extensive animation, splash screens, cartoons, garish designs… This isn’t the WOW factor – A bold garish design with “off the wall” colour schemes may seem bold and innovative to some people, but may really put off other site users – Find the happy medium.

If a person wants to buy a pair of shoes online then their mission is basically to find the desirable pair of shoes at the right price in the quickest possible time. They don’t visit an e-commerce site to watch an animation of shoes tap dancing across the screen. Leave cartoons and needless animation that add zero value to those experts in their own field. People watch the Simpsons for that type of entertainment. They likely won’t be visiting your website for (or be impressed by) to be “dazzled” by irrelevant attempts to stand out.

Our own interpretation of the “WOW factor” is a site that is very simple to use, clean, crisp, user friendly, fast loading with great content. Basically, the site that delivers it’s underlying message quickly and concisely is the most effective. Google has the WOW Factor and you don’t see slow loading animation on that website. The WOW factor should mean Winning on the Web and nothing else.

Ok, so you’ve mapped out some goals and requirements… time to start looking for the right guys to go ahead and implement the solution for you.

3. Selecting a Web Designer / Developer

Initially, the best place to begin is by putting together a shortlist of designers. You may choose to do this in any number of ways but here are some suggestions that you may wish to factor in:

  • The location of the prospective designer. This may or may not be a factor for you. Some people are happy to work remotely and others prefer some face to face interaction. If the latter is essential to you, then you will need to focus on designers in your local area.
  • The designer’s portfolio. This is usually a key factor in any shortlisting process. You may choose to favour designers who have worked specifically in the sector you are targeting, or you may simply like other unrelated websites they have developed.
  • Independent Word of mouth recommendation. You may have received glowing reports on particular designers and their after-sales service. Don’t overlook this.
  • The size of the company. Generally speaking, the size of the company provides you with little idea to the quality or work they can produce or the services they can provide. Some SMEs prefer to work on a more personal level with smaller providers or freelance designers with larger corporates preferring the opposite.
  • The cost – Most professional web designers tend to produce work on a bespoke basis, tailored uniquely for each client – and the vast majority do not publish prices. (We do). However, an initial discussion should be able to provide you with a “ball park” figure at least based on your requirements outline. Some designers are also able to provide cost-effective “out of the box” solutions at a fixed price.

Tip: Get a fixed price quote rather than an hourly rate. Let’s face it… an hourly or daily rate is meaningless as a measuring stick when your consider it may take one designer twice as long as another to complete the same job.

Web designers will typically showcase previous work on their own websites, but be sure to consider that they are gearing a site’s design and structure to requirements presented by another party that likely won’t match your own. It’s more important that you are confident that they can implement your solution than perhaps reading too much into other design work that you might not necessarily like.

Another consideration you may should take into account is the attitude a designer shows when you first make contact. You can often gauge whether they are genuinely interested in the project and whether they are going to be proactive – and if they can offer a high level of support. Designers not providing a landline phone number or a business address may be harder to contact when you need them the most. Trust your instincts and exercise common sense.

Tip: Don’t base everything on price and make sure you compare “like” with “like”. Also, don’t be afraid to share your budget with the designers during initial discussions and then see what they can deliver within it. Time is often wasted if you are discussing the project over days or weeks and then end up being miles apart on pricing expectations.

The more information you give furnish the designer with, relating to your goals, requirements and design preferences, the better. Also make sure that you discuss timescales and payment schedules (most designers will ask for a deposit upfront and a final balance payment when the project is completed. There may also be interim payment milestones for larger projects). Additionally, enquire about any recurring charges for support, future amends, web hosting, domains etc. Neither party will want hidden surprises.

4. Questions You will be Asked

It’s always better to be prepared when you approach web designers… they will also have their own queries to establish a the requirements, gauge the work involved and furnish you with a quote.

Typical questions you might be asked include the following:

  • What does your company do?
  • What are the Unique Selling Points that your company has to offer?
  • What is the purpose of the website?
  • How do you see the website evolving in the future?
  • Do you have any existing branding? i.e. Logo, colour schemes or other marketing materials?
  • Who are your competitors?
  • Do you require e commerce or an online payment mechanism?
  • Can you provide links to other websites that you like from a design perspective?
  • Can you provide links to other websites that you like from a functionality perspective? (i.e. How they work)
  • What is your budget? Don’t be afraid to disclose a budget figure – it can help a lot.

If you aren’t able to get an immediate quote, request that the designer gets back to you and establish a timescale for this to happen. As you can probably tell, choosing a web designer isn’t necessarily a straightforward process if you are seeking the right fit for your project. The more detailed research and preparation that you carry out, the better.

5. Going ahead

When you make a decision on proceeding with a designer, make sure to get the quote in writing and make sure the it’s clear that the copyright of the website is yours once completed. Ensure all charges (including any future and/or recurring charges) are spelled out to avoid any ambiguity and problems further down the line.

Ideally, once you wish to proceed, your web developer should create a test web address, where you can monitor ongoing development and provide feedback throughout.

Part of a wider strategy

Your website should integrate with and complement your other marketing activities. Promote your site address where you can. Consider putting it on your business cards, stationery, merchandise, delivery vans, carrier bags, customer receipts and on your shop front. Drive people to your website through online adverts, search engine marketing and active offline promotion.

Small Business – Choosing the Right Web Agency

Choosing the right web design agency can be a make or break decision for many small businesses, it can mean the difference between a website which works for them, or a website that doesn’t. Or, in more succinct terms, the difference between a website that supports the business and one that costs the business (time, money, reputation, brand).

A large part of Hot Lemon’s online business is helping our clients redevelop their websites because their current websites are, for want of a better phrase, “not fit for purpose”. These are not websites our clients have done themselves, in which case you could forgive them, but so called “professional” websites developed by “professional” web design agencies.

This has eventually prompted me to write this guide to choosing the right web design agency for your small business to help other small businesses of repeating those very same mistakes.

Who’s to blame for bad web-design?

Quite simply, the agencies developing the websites and the small businesses commissioning them. So, that would be everyone!

The agencies are to blame because they don’t engage with their clients, they cut too many corners and they try to template design and technology too much in order to meet a specific price point. The small businesses are to blame, because they are driving the market to a low price point, they don’t want to invest much in their website, and they don’t get involved in the process as much as they should.

Bemusement – the internet is important

Of constant bemusement to me is the way some small businesses go about developing their online presence – their website. The internet is so persuasive now, and used by so many consumers in many different ways, that a robust, professional online presence is a necessity for any business, no matter what sector, no matter what size.

However, many small businesses still approach the development (and use) of their website in a casual manner, to them, the website is of secondary importance rather than primary. Unfortunately, with this mindset, many small businesses will never experience the benefits of what a good online presence can deliver, and why it is so important to invest time and resources into it.

The race for the bottom – the bargain basement website

This attitude by small businesses can be characterised by the increasing preponderance of web design agencies offering “all inclusive”, “professionally designed” and “tailored for you” websites all for the princely sum of £199.

Now fundamentally, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this bargain basement web-design.

However, you really do get what you pay for. Bearing in mind these agencies have overheads, and they are businesses too therefore they need to make a profit themselves, the actual development cost spent on a website like this might be as little £80 to £100. The agencies in order to meet this price point need to pare down the design process to a minimum. Hence use of templates, generic pictures, generic text.

The resultant website might look ok. But does it work for your business? Does it reflect your brand? Does it communicate what you do properly? Does it sell your business? Can you find it on Google?

An old adage: “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”

Top tips for choosing a web design agency

Hot Lemon has developed some top tips for any small business to use when choosing a web design agency, these are:

  • recommendation – use your network, if a colleague can recommend an agency you can use their experience to help you with your choice
  • talk to several agencies – don’t just go to one agency, talk to several. Do they treat you as a client or as a potential cash-flow?
  • don’t make a decision on cost alone – cost is important, it’s why we budget for things. However, the cheapest is seldom the best. Saving money in designing a web site can lose money in the longer term from lost business
  • do they use English? – English is a wonderful language, however, many people don’t use it and decide to use jargon instead. If an agency can’t be bothered to talk to you in plain English that you will understand, can you really expect them to spend the time getting to know your business
  • do they understand you? – Has the agency bothered to get to know you, get to know your business, your market? They are designing your primary communication channel, they need a good understanding of you in order to do that effectively
  • benefits not features – the web is full of features! But what real benefit are they to you? Be wary of long lists of features, this is especially the case for e-commerce sites
  • beware of the up sell – you are getting someone to design you a website, be wary of agencies trying to sell you other online services for your business, whilst often useful, they can tie your business down
  • copy-writing – is the agency going to help you write the content of your website, or just design the website. Writing effective web copy is not an easy skill
  • templates – have a look at the agency’s portfolio, do they all look the same? Are they designing to a template? Many low cost web designs are template based – it’s where they save the money – not necessarily a problem, as long as the template is good for you
  • Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) 1 – the agency should offer internal SEO as an integral part of their service – not as an add on. SEO is so important it needs to be done from the start of the design process
    • SEO 2 – get the agency to explain what their SEO services are in plain English. Get them to explain their internal and external SEO services to you and their costs. Further, ascertain whether they do this in-house or sub-contract it
  • Content Management Systems (CMS) – many agencies make CMS a key feature, but do they tell you everything about CMS and is it right for you? Key things to consider:
    • ease of use – whilst you don’t need to be able to code in order to update a website with CMS, many of them are not as intuitive to use as they should be, indeed, quite the opposite
    • proprietary or published – CMS’s can come in two forms – proprietary (i.e. written specifically for a specific website), or published (Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, Coldfusion etc.), in which case the CMS is adapted for your website. Proprietary is usually more intuitive as written specifically for you, but can tie you in. Published can be less intuitive and more templated.
    • templates – CMS websites generally follow similar template designs, especially the published varieties, your choice in layout and design may be limited
    • flexibility – because many CMS designs follow templates (with some agencies just changing the logo on the template and then selling it to you for £500) they lack flexibility, you may well be limited in what you can do within your budget
    • content – just because you can update your website, should you? Were not all copywriters, and this together with the relative inflexibility of CMS websites can lead pretty quickly to some messy websites. Further, if your being sold a website with CMS is the agency going to help you out with copy-writing and SEO? Do you know enough about SEO to write search engine friendly copy?
  • e-commerce – many small businesses are attracted to the online world because of e-commerce and the ability to compete with the big boys on equal terms. Err no. The first thing any agency should do is to administer a dose of reality to your e-commerce dreams. It’s not impossible to be successful, but it’s not as easy as you may think. Things to consider asking your agency about e-commerce are:
    • software – your agency is very likely to use commercially available e-commerce software for your website, the larger agencies may have their own software which they re-use. Find out which one their using and Google it! You might find out that your paying an agency just to change the logo
    • beware of the up sell – many e-commerce packages are hugely capable, able to list and manage thousands of products and do wondrous things – this might be over-kill if all your after is a simple e-commerce website selling a few items
    • ask for options – if you’re just going to sell a few things online, make sure your agency gives you a range of options, from the cheap to the expensive. For example, PayPal provides a free e-commerce facility that can be used with any website!
    • understand the amount of work involved – often, the easiest part of setting up an e-commerce site is the design itself, understand that inputting your product details with appropriate tags and descriptions can be very time consuming – will your agency help?
    • templates – because e-commerce websites are usually based on published software, and have very complex databases related to them, they tend to be very similar in how they look as they are generally set up using templates. This could be an issue if you want to differentiate how your e-commerce site looks compared to your competitors, ask you agency how they can differentiate your site from your competitors
  • beware of the plugins – use of specific plugins might make your website look fantastic, but understand that not all of your customers will have those plugins (for example Flash, Quicktime, Java, Real player files etc. ). Ask what happens to your sexy looking website when the visitor doesn’t have Flash installed for example (iPhone’s don’t play Flash). Also, the content of Flash files are not indexed by Google, so you need to make sure your agency is communicating the content of them in other ways for search engines
  • standards matter – ensure your agency codes their websites to international standards. Those standards are there for a purpose, to ensure that websites work regardless of browsers and operating platform. As a minimum you should insist that your website adheres to W3C standards for HTML / XHTML. There is no excuse for not designing a standards compliant website, apart from laziness!
  • testing – find out what the testing regime is at the agency. Web pages display quite differently in different browsers and operating systems, what works in one browser doesn’t necessarily work in another. Find a computer with Internet Explorer 6 on it (still the default browser on 10% of all computers) and test your website on it (IE6 is usually the worst culprit for displaying websites incorrectly)
  • relationships are key – above all else, do you feel that you can do business with the agency and build a working relationship with them. Things do wrong – fact of life – do you feel your agency is going to be there to help and support you when it does?

I think that’s pretty exhaustive list of tips and things to consider when choosing a web design agency for your small business.

Things to consider

Whilst the above is pretty comprehensive in terms of assessing web design agencies, it’s not all one way traffic. Small businesses equally need to consider several points as well before beginning the web development process. For example:

  • your website is likely to be the primary communication tool of your business – your shop front to the world. Therefore dedicate appropriate time and resources to getting it right
  • understand that you get what you pay for. You will not get someone understanding your needs and the needs of your business and then design an effective website for £250!
  • if you do not understand the internet, find someone who does. Find out why SEO is important, and what drives good SEO (chances are, the £250 option will become less attractive on doing this) – as a wee plug, Hot Lemon is quite happy to chat
  • do not trust anyone who can’t explain things to you in plain English
  • don’t get too drawn into CMS and fully featured e-commerce sites, understand that your good at your business, not necessarily at copy-writing, graphic design or web design
  • whilst most websites have similar structures (it’s intuitive!), don’t be satisfied with a template design. Your customers will recognise that you can’t be bothered with your own website – so why should they?
  • your website is a critical tool for your business, don’t treat it as an add on, treat it as an integral part, and commit the time and resources appropriate to it.