How to choose a web designer
With so many web designers in Bristol and the South West, how can you identify who can cut it... and who can't? And most importantly, how do you work out who's right for you?
Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the value of a website is in its effectiveness. Ultimately it's not about how perfect it looks or how well it presents information: it’s about whether it makes a difference to your bottom line. Does it increase sales and/or reduce expenditure?
The following is an informal, and hopefully informative, guide by Paul Masri, World Without Walls MD.
Buy before you try?
It would appear then that the true value of your website will only show up after it's been launched. So how do you assess a web design agency before you part with your cash?
At the most basic level you want to be sure that the web designer you choose is capable, reliable and will be there to support you after your website goes live.
Taking that last point first, shortly after setting up in business I was staggered to discover that around one third of the web designers listed in Yellow Pages were no longer trading – that's less than a year after the ads were placed. Several years on and we still get approached by business owners who have lost their web support for the same reason.
So how do you make sure you're dealing with a good web design company? In an economy where global brands and household names can disappear overnight, nothing is certain of course. But I'd suggest that track record is still a good starting point. And this is something you can check out even before you speak to a web designer.
Create a shortlist
If at all possible, go by recommendation. If you're not already taking advantage of business networking events for your own benefit, attend an event just to find out the reputation of potential suppliers for all sorts of services.
Alternatively, ask your business contacts who they have used and whether they would recommend them. Failing that, there's always Yell.com and Google to get you a list of names; but this way, there's more work involved in sifting through these sorts of lists.
Check their track record online
Admitedly, it's easier to recommend that you look online for evidence of a company's track record than it is to do it. A number of web agencies appear larger and more established than they actually are. Random associates may suddenly become ‘part of the team'; and if one of them once worked at a large agency involved in a campaign for a big brand, suddenly that brand name is ‘one of our clients'.
We think that if a web design company specialises in small businesses then that is something to be proud of. If you run a small business, surely that makes them more attractive to you. After all, could you afford the fees that the big brand names pay?
Fortunately you can often see through much of this by checking out their online portfolio. This will show you their breadth of work, give a good indication of their end product and may also indicate the period over which the portfolio was created (although timescales are harder to establish given that websites can be updated at any time).
Do they have genuine testimonials? The first clue is whether each one is credited with an author. We have seen examples where the author of a quote is the managing director of the agency itself; so it's worth checking out the validity, say by ‘googling' the author and their website/company. Although they won't want to be inundated with queries, you may find that if someone is happy to put their name to a testimonial they'll also be happy to give you a verbal reference.
The initial consultation
Now you've decided who to talk to, give them a call and arrange an initial consultation. Almost all web design agencies will provide an hour's initial consultation free of charge and without obligation.
They will take a brief and aim to produce a quote that matches your brief. This is standard and what you should expect. But it's also the way to get a website that doesn't necessarily benefit your business beyond giving you a web presence. So what should you look out for?
At the most basic level, do they have time for you?
Do they listen to you or are they more keen to do the talking? Are they trying to understand your needs or trying to impress with their skills? Do you feel stupid because you don't understand their jargon? If so, the problem lies with them. It's possible they're trying to bamboozle you. More likely, it's simply that they don't know how to communicate in plain English. Either way, what does this say about their ability to communicate your products and services to your audience over the web?
When they propose solutions, do they tell you why they're recommending that approach. Every choice (and there are many, many choices on the web) has its pros and cons. Often, if a web designer has limited knowledge they will recommend what they know best, whether or not it's what's best for you. Ideally, you want to work with someone who offers a number of solutions and can choose between them, or otherwise has a very good reason why they're backing their preferred solution.
Crucially, do you get the sense that they are able to see your business from your perspective and understand what's most important to you? Are they focused on the outcomes and on delivering a return on your investment? Do they have an understanding of how business works or just how to create websites? Are they thinking in terms of serving you by serving your target audience?
Are they flexible?
For things like Content Management (i.e. your ability to edit your website once it's live), mailing lists and eCommerce, there are many off-the-shelf solutions that can be customised to fit specific needs. Each web design company will have their preferred packages, and may even have developed some of them in-house. What's important is that they can produce what you need.
If your needs are typical, these packages can mean a proven solution at relatively low cost. If you have more specialised requirements, expect to pay more for it, as it is less likely to fit a standard model. An off-the-shelf package could end up cramping your ability to do business online.
For example, if you're selling products that need to be despatched from your warehouse the same day, it's crucial that your website has a way of handling stock levels and that this integrates with your back-office systems, so that you can actually deliver on time and don't end up with a massive admin workload. Or maybe you have multiple discounting structures and need a website that mimics your existing way of working. It's unusual (but essential) to find a web designer who understands these issues and can propose meaningful solutions.
The benefit of process
There's flexible, and then there's simply unstructured. You want to be sure of getting your website delivered in a reasonable timescale and one that matches your requirements. If you're hearing “Yes, that's fine” to everything you say, and they're always bending over backwards, it shows they're keen; but are they capable and are they being realistic? Sometimes it's better to be told “Yes, you can have that, but it's going to have this impact” because it demonstrates expertise and shows that they have their feet on the ground.
One sign of a well-structured business is a set of clear processes. Inexperienced designers tend to think that every job is different and take a ‘fly by the seat of their pants' approach. The reality is that there are common elements and stages to every project: design, sitemap, content, hosting, etc. If there is a clear process to take you from requirements capture through to successful launch and beyond, that's a good sign.
It's a human thing
Like any relationship, ticking the boxes is important; but ultimately, it comes down to chemistry. Having established that a web design company has the expertise to deliver and a track record of reliability, how do you feel about working with them? Do you have the beginnings of a rapport? Does communicating feel easy? Do they inspire confidence in you? Do you have shared values?
These are important factors because, in all likelihood, you will be working with them for several weeks and hopefully laying the foundation for extended support over many years. You need to be able to relax while they do their work, and have confidence that they'll keep you informed of progress. If there are things you don't like about a particular design, if your requirements change during the project or if some external factors get in the way, you need to be sure that they're on your side and that communications remain amicable.