HOW TO PICK A WEB DESIGNER
You Don't Have to Do It Yourself!
Written by Dave Taylor for "Computer Currents".

I'm just guessing here, but somehow it seems safe not to start this article with an essay on the World Wide Web, how it's changing the way we do business and how it represents one of the most exciting competitive advantages to small businesses today. You already know that, or you're living your life under a rock.

If you have a small business or the biz bug because of your entrepreneurial spirit, you've already done the math and realized that if you don't have a web page, you need one. If you do have a web page - and there are more than a million of them on the Web today - then you might have grown dissatisfied with your home-grown efforts and have been contemplating a more serious online presence.

Deciding that you need an online presence is one thing, however, and actually creating the site, promoting it, and maintaining it as a vibrant and meaningful facet of your overall business is an entirely different proposition. I'll be honest with you; there are a lot of pieces involved in creating an effective web site, and odds are that you don't have all the skills and necessary time yourself.

Sure, you can go buy one of the dozens of "web page builder" programs like FrontPage, PageMill, Hot Dog Pro, GoLive Studio or HomePage, but they're tools without direction, and, worse, since thousands of other people are using the same packages for their basic web sites, you run the risk of looking too much like your competitors. Further, it's still a wee bit of rocket science mixed in with some artistic magic and creative vision. Y'know, that 'vision thing' that you keep hearing about.

But that's what being on the web and having a successful site, one that meets your business objectives, is all about; the vision thing. The vision to see how you can work with your existing customers through this new medium and even pick up some new ones. The vision to create a dynamic web site that helps you grow and expand. The vision to do it right.

That's what this article is all about. How to create a cool web site with the help of a professional web site developer. How to find one, qualify them for the job, negotiate price, hew out a contract that protects you, and come up and online with the best site possible for your needs.


WHY NOT DO IT MYSELF?

Before we go further, let's clarify some of the reasons I think you might want to not consider creating a web site yourself. The greatest reason is the same one that causes you to use a mechanic to fix the pinging in your car engine, a plumber to redo the kitchen faucet and a tailor to shorten your pants: experts do a better job than amateurs. This is a universal truth that the 'do it yourself' industry would rather we ignored, and, of course, there are some pretty darn talented amateurs, but the reality of life is that people who focus on a specific area can learn more about it, gain more experience, and produce better end-results than a weekend amateur or someone who buys the Time-Life home improvement books.

Professional web page designers spend their days creating web sites, building pages, tuning graphics for fast delivery, thinking about navigation of online-information, and keeping up on the bewildering array of new products, services, and design styles that appear on the Web. Most of them spend their nights and weekends doing this too. In fact, rule of thumb #1: don't hire a web development company whose members don't have way- cool home pages. If they're not living and breathing this stuff, they're probably not the experts you seek.

Would you go to a mechanic whose own car breaks down all the time?

Just as importantly as skills, time is always a big issue too. If you're running a business, you want to focus on your business not peripheral issues like styles of buttons on the site. You don't worry about how to install carpet in your retail outlet or what weight of paper you should use for your latest marketing brochure. Smart businesses are run by people who stay focused on the critical issues for the business - products, pricing, location - and delegate other tasks to employees or contractors.

Creating a good web site involves oodles of time. From creating the content on the pages to fine-tuning the layout parameters, to tweaking the graphics to have a consistent color scheme (that works cross-platform, don't forget) to ensuring that all the links work correctly, you can spend a rather amazing amount of time on getting the page "just so." I know; I have spent hours scanning and rescanning a single picture to get exactly the size and colors desired.

Hiring a good web designer will save you lots of time because you'll be able to focus on your business and offer lots of site guidelines and requirements to the designer without having to figure out how to do them yourself.

It's also possible that you lack specific skills needed to get things working correctly. Not the skills to type some text and drag-and-drop some graphics onto a page, but the ability to create more sophisticated pieces to your site, like a counter with your favorite typeface, a guest book, or even just an email feedback form. Add some futuristic components like Java applets, a 3D VRML world or even a VBScript ticker, and you'll be looking for a course at the local university to get started.

If you do want to create a maximally sophisticated site, there are also various development tools and hardware that you'll need. Examples include a high quality color scanner (and the expertise to turn a scan into an attractive web page graphic), royalty-free photographic archive, Java development environment, and streaming audio / video server software. You'll also need to be multi-platform for your site to be its best; pages lay out on a Macintosh and Unix system differently than they do on a PC, and, worse, they look different on different PCs too. If you design your site in 'high color' on your Windows95 system and never check other hardware platforms to see how it looks, you're setting your potential customers up for an unpleasant visit.

Suffice to say, there are plenty of good reasons that you might want to hire a web design consultant, or, in the parlance of management-speak, outsource your web work.

The puzzle then becomes how much is it going to cost, how do you find the right person or group, and how do you avoid being ripped off or having an inferior site delivered by your newly-hired team? Whether you're budgeting a few hundred dollars for an afternoon of time from a designer or tens-of-thousands for a large professional site, you'll want to carefully read the rest of this article to save yourself grief and heartache later.


THINKING ABOUT YOUR SITE DESIGN

The critical first step in the process of identifying and hiring a web designer or design team is for you to have already thought about various aspects of the site you'd like to create. Keep in mind that the best and most useful web sites are information-centric, not technology or gee-whiz feature-centric. You not only want people to come to your site, you want them to come back a second time, finding the site a valuable part of their daily or weekly web travels.

As James C. Armstrong, Jr, Director of Engineering for The Internet Mall (www.internetmall.com), notes: "The most important thing I look for when outsourcing web site development is that they understand that the purpose of a web site is to present content efficiently, in an attractive manner."

Before you start looking for your designer, therefore, you'll need to identify exactly what kind of site you want to create. Here are some ingredients that you might toss into the stew:

Informational - like a really good marketing brochure, an informational web site answers all possible questions and concerns about your product or service, with testimonials from customers and feedback forms to solicit input from future customers.

Fun, interactive - static sites with valuable content are the mainstay of the Web today, but creating a more interactive site can reap significant benefits. Interactivity can be as simple as a search system so people can type in a keyword or two about the product they seek and have relevant pages on your site displayed, or as sophisticated as live database queries or even interactive games and entertainment to keep people amused.

There's an important caveat with any sort of game, however; you will not be successful if you help design a very busy site where people are coming to play your games and have fun, rather than to find out and possibly buy your products or services. You'll have all the costs - including increased server load, higher network demands - without any tangible benefits and without meeting the original business goals of your site.

Useful with up-to-date news of relevance - if you're in an industry where there's lots going on and important news each week, you might decide that having a top-of-the-news area on your site will prove invaluable to your potential customers. It can certainly demonstrate that you're plugged in to your industry. It's also a massive ongoing time sink; you can't take a month off and enjoy the delights of Tahiti without hiring someone to keep things up and running.

Keeping a site up-to-date is one of the biggest challenges and outsourcing, uh, contracting, a web designer doesn't simplify things. If you expect someone else to keep up on your industry, how are they going to have the knowledge and expertise to weed out the irrelevant from the important? If you have to do it, how are you going to find the time?

Archival: lots of older information, data, and files - another possible type of site is an archival site, where you have material of historical relevance (a copy of the 1917 tax code would be interesting, for example) and would like to include it on your site. This requires careful organization and an easy interactive search system. It would probably also require an automated indexing package too, so you could drop new files onto the server and have them instantly available to browsers.

Cyber-mirror - perhaps you already have your material (a newsletter is a good example) and you just want an online version as the heart of your web site. This is perhaps one of the easiest types of site to design because much of the content is already produced. Nonetheless, how are you going to translate the layout and artwork to a web-ready form? How are you going to get the information to the designer? How are you going to let visitors comb through the archive looking for interesting jewels of information?

Online transactions - static or interactive, web pages can only do so much before you're going to want to actually add buttons that say "give me your money" (well, maybe it'll be a bit more subtle than that!). Online sales are a reality today and there are a remarkable number of web sites that are processing thousands of dollars in transactions monthly, and even some moving much more than that each day. Implementing a secure real- time transaction system is not for the faint of heart, however. Pick the wrong solution and you could spend $5000 in a New York minute and still not have the system you desire.


WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE?

Once you've started to think about the types of information that you want on your web site, you also need to spend some time identifying the target audience for the site. An answer of "everyone" is not going to help your designer create the best possible site, so here are some choices to consider. Your best bet would be to number them 1-6 in order of most-important to least-important:

Existing customers - this can be a great way to retain brand loyalty among your current customers; help them out and give them a site that continues the good will you've already created through your professional services.

Prospective customers - people who come across your site due to a magazine article or an online listing and are in the market for your particular product or service. It's marketing, but with a twist; you need to both sell your product/service and establish your own credibility. A good web site, needless to say, can help establish your credibility in the same way that a well designed brochure can exude 'professionalism' and 'trustworthiness' to a potential customer.

Customers of your competitors - let's face it, business isn't always friendly, and one way that you can grow your own is by steering people who frequent your competitor into your camp. This is a terrific goal for a web site, and thought through, you can have a site that directly compares your own service or product to your competitors in a way that's quite favorable.

Locals in your neighborhood - if you have a local biz, then you might want to create a site that focuses on the needs of your local 'hood. Information about schools, libraries, government agencies, maps, and pointers to other sites focused on the local area would be great additions to a site with these visitors as a focal point.

Kids - depending on your goals, you might identify children as an important audience for your site, or generally seek to attract families rather than just customers. This will potentially have a significant impact on your site design, but can quickly differentiate you from business-only competitors.

Professionals in a specific profession - if your customer base is built from experts in a specific field (for example, realtors or journalists) your site design should reflect the needs and interests of those professionals.

It's vitally important to identify who you want to attract to your site and what kind of information you need to include in your site design. Choose these two foundations correctly, communicate them to your designer, and you're a long way towards getting the site in your dreams.


SKETCH YOUR SITE DESIGN ON PAPER

Another task that can greatly aid your designer in creating your web site is for you to sketch on paper the kinds of things you want, with as many specifics as you can manage.

Some of the content areas to consider when sketching out a site design include the number of pages, specific types of information, and a particularly detailed specification of any interactive areas. These might include database lookup, content searching, email feedback forms, online registration for customers or products, games and amusements, file and documentation download areas and online transaction requirements.

To illustrate, let's consider the design of a web site for a swimsuit store we'll call "Linda's Bikini Shop." Linda has a small but thriving business in a touristy area of the city and has been keeping an eye on the web and thinking about jumping online for a while. She sees her main web audience as new customers and wants to offer a site that includes up-to-date local surf conditions, weather links, articles on fashion, and a family area with information on how to teach children to swim. In addition, she carries suits from 17 major manufacturers in a variety of sizes, a total of 400+ products. Ideally, she'd like to actually accept credit cards and sell products right off the web site, rather than receiving faxes or telephone calls.

Being a savvy person, she's started sketching out the specifics of her site and identified that she wants to offer content searching ("visitors should be able to look for a specific kind of swimsuit in our line, should be able to find specific articles in our article collection and should be able to request the surf report for their favorite beach"), email feedback ("visitors can send me mail about the site and about specific kinds or sizes of swimsuits they seek"), online registration ("for notification of sales") and online transactions ("so people can buy stuff off the site").

One of the best things that you can do for your web designer to ensure you're all on the same track is to spend time exploring other sites on the Web to get ideas for your own. Write down their URL and a note or two about what you did or didn't like about the specific site. The designer can then visit the same places and start to understand whether you like open designs with lots of blank areas, flashy animation, complex background graphics, lots of short pages versus a small number of long pages, etc.


PICK THE RIGHT COMPANY

Now that you've identified sites that you think are inspirational, sketched out in fair detail your goals for the site, your target audience and specifics of the interactive sections, it's time for the most important part of the process; picking the right individual or company to hire.

Your best bet for starting the process is to use word-of-mouth. Ask your friends who have web sites how they created it. Ask the owners of company sites you've seen and really liked who created them and whether it was a good experience or not. You'll also want to ask people how much they paid for their site designs.

I can guarantee that pricing is going to be all over the map, too, since there are a million-and-one variables involved. For example; is your site going to be hosted on their server or your own? Are they going to be responsible for month-to-month maintenance? Do you already have artwork they can use, or will they have to create new material? Is the text portion of the proposed site already in an electronic format that's easy to convert to HTML (like MS Word) or does it just exist on paper, requiring a typist?

The two areas that most affect pricing are the overall size of the site and the level of complexity of the interactive sections. If you have a private database and want to let visitors access it through the web, that can by itself cost you anywhere from $5000 on up for the custom programming time. It's also something that many firms will subcontract to a qualified software designer rather than try to do it themselves.


DESIGN BY COMMITTEE?

Another factor that influences the bids my company makes is the level of bureaucracy in the company. I have worked on site designs for firms that require each and every nuance of the design approved by five people and two committees. That will eat up a ton of time, and I have learned to increase my bid commensurately because I've learned the job will drag on and take longer than the same site design would for a small firm.

The range of prices, as I said, can vary widely. You should expect no less than $75 per page for a simple static site with no interactivity up to $500- $1000 per page for a full design firm able to create custom interactive sections, implement search engines, add new artwork, etc.

My baseline rate for designing sites is approximately $300-$500 per page, including any scanning, logo and artwork creation, simple CGI work, typing of material as needed, and working with in-house marketing and design teams.

Since you're armed with a good site design document, you can add some timelines to it and turn it into a 'request for proposals'. A timeline might look something like: 1 May: sign contract to start project. 15 May: first prototype of home page is online for examination. 31 May: all static pages are online, domain name is registered and active. 15 June: interactive areas are functional. 20 June: site goes live, everything approved and complete.

You will obviously need to pad the dates in your timeline to give designers a chance to offer you a meaningful response - assume at least five working days as a minimum.


MISSED DEADLINES?

I also recommend that you have a deadline for the site going up and live with a payment penalty for missing that deadline, and a not-to-exceed cap on the price of the design in the contract. Otherwise you might find that a designer who was very positive about their ability to turn things around quickly is bogged down and late, or that because the complexity of what you seek is greater than they realized, they suddenly want to charge you extra money for something you already specified clearly in your RFP.

Most web design firms and individuals like to get paid in pieces too. Often it's 50% on signing, 50% when the site is live, or split into even thirds, with the first upon signing, the second when the first major milestone is achieved and the third payment when the site is done. You can negotiate that too, but if you're leery about paying a lot up front before the site is started, you probably should listen to your inner voice and find a different designer. This is where professionalism counts for more than saving a few bucks on a cheaper bid.

To ascertain this, insist on references from any designer or design firm, both in terms of Web sites they've created and the people at those companies who contracted out the site design work. Check the sites and call the people. If you don't hear wonderful things about timeliness and responsiveness to requested changes, and don't see a site that's terrific, then you've got a designer you shouldn't work with.

Another thing; check out the site from the web designer or design firm. If that's not an amazing, way cool, visually attractive site, you have to wonder about their skills ad ability to deliver the quality of product you seek. Now it's true that 'the cobbler's kids never have shoes' and that a busy firm will be too consumed by work to tweak their own site, but then again, if they're too busy, maybe you'll be a low priority job too?

Freelance web designer Bob Rankin states it this way; "pick someone who has actually designed a web site, and look at the designer's own site for typos and good design." He continues with "I got a call recently from a realtor who said the company that did her site went out of business. Turns it was a kid who got tired of it."

The range of services and capabilities of web site designers can range all over the map too. Some are inexpensive HTML coders who can take a memo written in MS Word and turn it into a clean web page at very little cost. At the other end are design firms with years of programming expertise, the ability to develop Java and ActiveX controls as needed, 3D experience with VRML, and professional artists on call. What skills you need will be dependent on how complex and sophisticated the site you seek.

One word of caution; don't be anxious if you find out that the designer works out of her (or his) home office; some of the very best sites on the net were created by designers with just this kind of setup. The so-called virtual office is a reality with Internet business; one firm I know has about a dozen team members who each live in different states!


PRICING REDUX

Let's come back to price again, since that's an important part of picking the right firm. There's no hard-and-fast rule for how to price out a site implementation, but it's guaranteed that the more interactivity you have the higher your site cost will be. Linda has a thriving swimwear shop but she might be quite surprised to find quotes for $15,000 or more based on her site design and specifications. Interactivity costs money.

In his unpublished book "Teach Yourself Marketing on the Internet", web consultant Rick Tracewell advises that you split your list between necessities and niceties, where the former are "things your site must have" and the latter "things you'd like your site to have."

Most site design bids are by project, but you might receive some that are hourly or per-page. I am leery of hourly charges because you have no way of gauging how quickly they work; you'd definitely want to combine that with a not-to-exceed price. Per-page has the same problem, since it suggests that the designer isn't thinking through that some pages will take considerably longer than others. A database lookup or search system might take dozens of hours to implement correctly, yet it only has two pages involved; the input and output pages. My recommendation is a per-project price with everything spelled out in detail.


LEGAL AND CONTRACT ISSUES

You don't need to hire a lawyer, but you might consider it. If your job is going to be more than a thousand dollars, making sure that the contract protects you, spells out intellectual property ownership, and details the milestones and penalties for non-delivery, can prove an excellent investment.

The most important issues surround the ownership of materials. For example, your designer needs to state that all artwork is royalty and license free (you can't just steal photos off other sites and use them), and you need to agree who owns any custom code or graphics produced. If they create a slick new logo for you, is it your property at the end of the contract for you to use as desired, or theirs? Who owns the Java and CGI programs?

In my experience as a consultant and freelance worker, I have long since learned the value of detailing exact working arrangements in writing, even if it's a friend or associate with whom you're working. Getting it all down on paper will save tremendous confusion and problems down the road.

Another important aspect of your contract is milestones: you will want to detail specific goals along the development route so that you can ensure that not only are things moving along time-wise, but that the quality of the end product will meet your expectations. Invariably, what you have in your head for your site is different to what your designer thinks and there'll be a period of tweaking the basic look and feel.


THROW THE SWITCH!

You have a great site design, you've found a web site designer you both like and respect, and you have been working together as a team to create a fabulous addition to the Web, a site that will be a credit to your company and bring you new customers and more sales.

Throw the switch and let everyone know about it!


Dave Taylor runs interface design firm Intuitive Systems (www.intuitive.com) and has produced over 30 different web sites for clients. He's also the author of the best-selling "Creating Cool HTML 3.2 Web Pages" for IDG Books. You can reach him at taylor@intuitive.com.


SIDEBAR 1:
KEEPING THE COST DOWN

You've found a designer you like, her bid was within your ballpark and the references check out. Her home page is an amazing combination of content (she even has an article on how to avoid being ripped off by a web designer!) and design and you're ready to roll.

Here are a few ideas to help keep your costs down:

  1. Negotiate a reduction in fee in return for letting your design 'brand' your site with their logo at the bottom of each page. Many designers correctly view their logo on well-designed sites as an important avenue for attaining new business.
  2. Do as much as you can in-house. If you have printed material, you might hire a local kid to type it all into the computer because delivering material on-disk will ease the designers' job and save you money.
  3. If you already have artwork you like, give it to your designer. Saving them the time to search for the exact palm tree or hubcap you envision can translate into a lowered price.
  4. Give your designer full run of your computer systems. If she is supposed to write a database interface system or translate a large body of documents, let her have access to the original material and any documentation you might have on the programs.
  5. Make yourself available. The one thing that most slows down a designer or any other outsourced professional is waiting for feedback. If they put up a test page, visit it ASAP and give your feedback ASAP so they can continue to progress.

SIDEBAR #2
OWN YOUR DOMAIN!

Here's something to keep an eye out for; if you want your designer to register a custom domain name for your company (Linda might have asked for swimwear.com, which is taken, or bikini-shop.com, for example, rather than having her URL be something like "www.best.com/~linda") make sure that you specify in your contract that you are listed as the administrative contact for the domain record. Otherwise, your consultant owns the domain and if you switched to someone else down the road, you might have to buy your domain from them, an awkward situation.

Note that most designers prefer not to host the pages on their server, but help you find a third-party Internet Service Provider where your pages can live. Even then, however, they'll likely register your domain for you.


SIDEBAR #3
Ira Victor's Rules for Hiring a Consultant

  1. The consultant can write a good proposal. Most of the Internet consists of the written word. If he or she can't write a proposal that easily and quickly addresses your needs, they will have trouble helping you do the same with your web-site.
  2. The consultant has a track record in getting a good ROI (return on investment) on other company's Internet projects.
  3. That the consultant is good with follow-up. Bad follow-up equals bad execution.
  4. Check references; there are many companies trying to make a fast buck on the net. Find a company that has a reputation for good customer service and that has gone the extra mile to please many other customers.

Ira is President of the award-winning web design firm 452 Degrees (www.degrees.com), developer of the Macy's and 24-hour Nautilus sites, among many others.

Copyright Notice

This article was originally written for Computer Currents and copyright is jointly owned by Intuitive Systems and Computer Currents. In all cases, republication of this work is prohibited without explicit permission of the author. Thanks!

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