Choosing a Web Designer
Choosing a web designer can be a minefield, especially when there are so many unprincipled designers around. Some of our clients have been affected in one way or another by their previous experience with unprofessional web designers, and with this in mind, we have provided some information on what can go wrong and how to avoid it.
The aim of this guide is to help you to be confident in your choice of designer, and although we've attempted to keep it jargon-fee, we're aware that we haven't been entirely successful... of necessity you'll need to know a little bit about how the web works, so please bear with the more techno-babbly bits.
Your best bet for starting the process is by word-of-mouth. Ask friends who have websites if they were happy with the design process. Ask the owners of sites that you've seen and liked who created them and whether it was a good experience or not. Try and find out how much they paid for their web sites, including web-hosting fees.
Check out the web sites of potential web designers. If the site looks appealing and is easy to navigate, that's a good sign. Any experienced web designer should have a good portfolio of sites they have created for previous clients - spend some time looking through these and evaluating them. Do they load quickly? Are they well designed? Do they appear professional? Is there any particular style that you like?
Having examined the designer's portfolio it's easy enough to contact a couple of their clients for references - just go to their Contact pages! Call several site-owners and ask about their overall experience with the web designer. Were they pleased with the results? Was the site completed in a timely manner? Was the designer helpful and easy to deal with, and did they respond to queries quickly? Was the web site costly and did they get exactly what they paid for? Was there anything they didn't like about the company? Would they recommend them?
Getting definitive answers to these questions will help to ensure that you make the right choice of web designer.
Actually, it's not mini, it's major. We just didn't want to scare you off... so now we've coaxed you in, welcome, and let's dive straight into the deep end. Hold your nose...
A browser is the programme that you use to surf (or browse) the web. There was a time when Internet Explorer was the only browser, but there are now choices: Firefox, Opera, Safari being just three of many. Would it surprise you to know that fewer than 50% of computer-users now use Internet Explorer? The relevance of this will become clear later on...
Hypertext Markup Language, the language of the web, hereafter referred to as 'coding'. Right-click on this page and select 'View Source' or 'View Page Source' for a fine example of 'valid' coding. Most of it will look like gobbledygook and hieroglyphics, and if these hieroglyphics aren't just so, they're known as:-
Dirty words in a professional web-designers vocabulary. Table-based layouts are the work of a lazy (or poorly-trained) designer, who uses them as a 'grid' to lay out pictures and text. This can lead to display problems that we won't elaborate on right now (we're trying to keep this short and sweet), but for those interested a full explanation of the disadvantages of table-based web design can be seen here.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)
Making your site appear as high as possible in Search Engine (Google, Yahoo, MSN to name but a few) results.
This isn't rocket science, and certainly shouldn't cost the hundreds of pounds that are all too often tacked onto the end of a quotation, often for 'bargain offer' web sites. It's true to say that the inclusion of 'meta-tags' (code that can be seen by search engines but is invisible to the viewer) in each page to enhance search-engine 'visibility' will add to the project time, but not by that much.
The most influential factor in 'findability' is the actual content of the site - if it truly reflects its purpose then a search engine will recognise this - after all, they do a fair job in finding what you want, don't they? Search engines 'scan' sites before delivering their results; the more relevant a site's content is to the search term, the higher the chances of it appearing at the top. Strategic use of key phrases — the words that a web-user is likely to type into a search box — particularly in headings and introductory paragraphs, is an important factor here, as is plenty of content. Your web designer will be able to help you with this when preparing your 'copy', or content. However, the single most important important factor is the name of your web site, and for this reason we've devoted a separate domain names guide to this subject.
We'll assume that you have a fair idea of what to look for in a web designer, but we'd like to add one more vital ingredient to the mix. If you've browsed our site you'll have noticed that we're sticklers for valid coding, which can make or break a site. We strongly recommend that you:
TEST THE WEB DESIGNER'S OWN SITE FOR VALID CODING!
(See our "Why We're Good" page for more on this)
Then go one step further... test some of their portfolio sites - after all, what you see in a shop window isn't necessarily what you end up with!
Valid coding ensures that web sites display as intended across all browsers. To illustrate this fundamental requirement, let us tell you about Chris's web site.
Chris came to us for a redesign of his existing 5-year old site, unaware that its dated appearance was the least of his problems... Having only ever used Internet Explorer, Chris didn't know that the all-important 'navigation menu' — the strip down the left hand side of his Home page that contained links to the rest of his site — had slipped off the page in Firefox (which was, in fact, rendering the flawed code exactly as it had been written.) Internet Explorer is more 'forgiving' regards coding errors, making educated guesses at what the designer intended and often getting it right, which is why Chris was unaware of the issue.
The point of this story is that Chris didn't realise that more than 50% of visitors to his site would likely have turned away in a few moments, unable to get any further than the Home page. Not only was Chris losing potential customers, but shoddy workmanship created a bad impression of his company.
If it's too good to be true then it likely isn't true. The adage "You get what you pay for" holds particularly true for web design.
We've all seen cheap website offers — a 6-page website for the price of an old banger. Chances are that's what you'll get - something that sputters and stalls and simply isn't fit for its purpose. We could wax unlyrical about the poor standard of workmanship and after-service that we've seen with such offers and tell you some horror stories about sites that have been started and never finished, but instead we'll pose this question: Would you trust a Jack-of-all trades with no fixed abode to decorate your house?
If you consider what you would be likely to pay a professional car mechanic, decorator, PC repairman, hairdresser or any qualified professional, expect similar for a web designer. A custom-designed web site can take anything from several days to two weeks to complete depending on the scale and complexity of the project, and it stands to reason that an experienced web designer will charge a fair and reasonable price for their time and skills.
This the aim of this section is to suggest questions that you may not have thought of, but we think are prudent to ask. We think you already know the first one...
- Can you guarantee that all the pages on my site will conform to W3C specifications?
If you've read the 'technobabble' section above, you'll know why this question is so important...
- Will it be tested in all the popular browsers and on different-sized screens to ensure that it displays well?
- Do you use tables to lay out your sites?
Unfortunately quite a few Web designers use invisible tables to hold the page layout together. For the client, this is something that is hard to detect, since it's not evident when looking at the design itself. But it is something that needs to be checked — a site that uses tables won't be accessible (a legal requirement in some countries), will perform less well in search engines and will take significantly longer to load. Tables should only be used where tabular data (such as a list of products) is being displayed.
- Can you register a domain name on my behalf, and provide web hosting — if so, what are the costs?
- Do you hand code your web sites?
This is important. It shows a level of expertise that you cannot get with designers that use software to develop the site.
- Talk me through the design process...
Know what to expect from the point of commission.
- What kind of after-development support is provided?
It's all very well having a website designed at a good price but if the after-sales support is priced extortionately then you haven't got a good deal. Find out how much changes will cost, and if possible try to negotiate one month's free support after your website has been completed as there are always unexpected changes that are required.
- What about updates?
Depending on the likely frequency of updates, you may be offered a Content Management System so that you can manage your website yourself, but this can be costly - anything from £200 to £500 a year. An hourly rate for updates is a common solution proposed by design companies. Ask if you will be charged a minimum amount of time per update such as a full hour of service even if the task takes less time.
- Is web design your main business?
It's surprising how many print designers offer web design services these days, as do many graphic designers and even computer programmers. It's usually best to go with a company that specialises in web design rather than a ‘Jack of all trades’ that has recently branched out. The skills required for each discipline are really very different.
- Do you refuse to wear Crocs?
How can we put this? It's doubtful that someone who would create a clean, elegant site would be caught dead wearing shoes that look like chew toys. Yes, they are practical and comfortable, and you won't slip off a boat if you're wearing them; but you need someone who's a stylist as well as a geek — someone who is up on colour palettes, branding, typography, and page design that doesn't obscure message or content. (Side note: If they subscribe to Grafik Magazine, that's a good sign.)
Lastly, it's important to establish a good rapport with your web designer. You'll not only be working closely with them for the duration of your project, but will be collaborating with them for site maintenance for some years to come. If you're instinct tells you that you're not going to get along, then look further afield.
Finally, Mark Twain wasn't a technophile, but when he said, "I did not have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead" he was summing up what a great web guru knows: Less is more. Your web designer should live (or at least work) by this maxim.