The following are slides and the transcript of the presentation I gave at Wordcamp Seattle 2013. Sitting back and reviewing them again in 2021 - I still stand by all of the advice given below if it's your first time hiring a web designer.
Before I dive into the full presentation, I should mention that we are not a web design company – almost all of our clients come to us for marketing services or website management and they have preexisting websites, and that’s how we like it. So, we tend to handle a lot of handoffs from the original web designers – some are graceful and pleasant, others are trainwrecks that involve burnt bridges and many unpleasant emails and phone calls. The difference is usually a result of the website owner making a poor choice of web designer, or something circumstantial where the website owner doesn’t have proper ownership of their own website.
So, what I want to do today is give the website owners in the crowd a better idea of what a good web design partnership should look like as well as some tools to make it easier to communicate with your designer, and hopefully give the designers in the audience some new tips and tools as well.
What To Expect When You’re Expecting A Website
Now, when I first submitted my Wordcamp topic, it was basically a couple paragraph concept with a title. But, I have this ongoing problem with presentations where I’ll submit the pitch with one title, and I’ll come up with something better later when I’m actually writing the presentation. So, for this presentation, it really struck me that I should have titled it like this:
“What to expect when you’re expecting a website”
And I say that should be the title because I think the analogy between making a website and making a baby works in a lot of ways (hear me out here…):
- Some people spend years picking a partner – other people just settle with whoever responds first to their ad on Craigslist …
- Then things finally get into motion and you suddenly realize that this is not an easy process, you’ve got to put out all of this time and energy, and it’s probably going to take, like, 9 months…
- And finally you get your new digital bundle of joy and it looks great and your friends all “Like” the photos on Facebook, but then suddenly 3 years pass by and it’s making you miserable – it’s throwing PHP memory tantrums and ignoring you when you tell it to do something and honestly it’s just not as cute as it was when you first got it…
Alright, to be fair I am not a parent, so perhaps I’m making parenthood seem better than it actually is, but I think you get an idea for where the real pain points lie when it comes to building a website:
- Choosing the right designer for what you want – we’re going to cover what I think matters most when choosing the right designer, not just a designer.
- Knowing what you should expect from the designer – Designers are usually leading the process once you get started, which is a good thing, but this should give you a better idea of what to expect on their end.
- Knowing what you need to own during the process – If you take nothing else from this presentation, please please please listen to these 3 things.
- Knowing what you’ll need to provide – Good designers can make magic happen, but they’re not mind readers.
- Finally, just general communication throughout the process – I’ve got a few tools that I think will help with that.
Choosing The Right Web Designer
I believe there are 3 major factors when choosing a designer:
1 – What is the purpose of the site?
First things first – you have to know what you want and need before you can start looking for the right provider. There’s no better way to overpay for a website than to have no clue what you want, or even worse, to keep changing your mind after you get started.
- Is this going to be an 8-page “brochure site”?
- E-commerce or shopping cart of some kind?
- Login & interaction functionality needed?
- User-generated content?
- Responsive or mobile-friendly? (e-commerce? Users shopping at night? Tablets are going to be more likely than desktops…)
The reason this matters is that many small business web designers are terribly suited for producing a properly structured and functional e-commerce site. On the flipside, many designers that specialize in e-commerce or custom design don’t have the right business structure in order to be able to deliver an affordable “brochure site” with a pre-existing theme.
2 – Price vs. Speed vs. Quality
You’ll never get all 3, so pick 2 and try not to settle for 1.
3 – Design Style
This ain’t the stock market. Past performance is an indication of future results. The designer’s portfolio is the #1 way to judge what you’re going to get. Good designers can certainly design outside of their comfort zone, but you’re increasing the risk of getting a design that doesn’t match what you’re looking for. If you have a very specific one in mind that isn’t reflected by their portfolio, but you’re still interested in working with them, I highly recommend you find an example similar to what you want, and ask specifically if they can emulate that style of design before you proceed with any work.
Questions you should ask when interviewing designers:
1 – What are the stages in their process?
Everybody’s different here, but you should be looking for a process something like this:
Example Design Process:
- Getting Started, Onboarding, Questionnaire
- Initial Wireframes & Mockups
- Build Out & Final Approval
- Test, Launch, Test
- Maintenance & Updates
Example questions to ask about their process:
- How many mockups will they produce?
- How many revisions do you get in each stage?
- Will they upload content or is that up to you?
2 – What Is Their Turnaround Time?
Basic sites might only take 3-4 weeks if you know what you want and can act quickly on revisions and other project milestones, but most designers try to schedule their projects out weeks to months in advance, so it’s important to ask for lead time before the project can get started, and an estimate on turnaround time once they start the project. If you have a set deadline, you’d be wise to double whatever number they give you to play it safe and account for delays.
It should go without saying that the more elaborate the website, the longer the design phase (as well as the process to upload all of the content, products, etc.).
3 – What will they require from you?
We’ll talk about this more later, but it’s really important to figure out during the interview phase, not when you’re in the middle of the web design process.
4 – Software used / CMS?
I originally gave this presentation at Wordcamp, so I didn’t have to explain why Drupal and Joomla will probably make you miserable after the site is built. But they will – they’re simply not friendly to the end user and they’ve always struggled with that element. My advice to 90% of clients I speak with that are small / medium businesses or bloggers is just use WordPress. It’s a powerful CMS that’s easy to use, with plenty of support at any price point or user level. You simply won’t get that from other website platforms.
That said, even if you’re already set on WordPress, you’ll still want to ask your designer about sub-software they use – shopping cart plugins, themes, child themes, etc. They should be able to explain why they like those plugins, and they should be asking you questions to double check that it’s the correct solution for your business or website.
What To Expect From Your Designer
Pre-hire & Onboarding Phase:
There’s a couple things you should be expecting during this phase:
- Some kind of basic free consultation prior to a quote or proposal. If they can give you a price without knowing what you want, you’re probably getting lumped in with a package solution that may not be right for your needs.
- Contract or service agreement that lines up expectation on wireframes and mockups, revisions, final delivery, payment structure and some idea of schedule. This is a tool for guiding expectations, not simply a legal issue. Use it to the benefit of both parties, and don’t be scared of it because it’s longer than 1 page. Use an attorney if needed to review, but it should be in plain English for the most part.
- Questionnaire or onboarding interview of some sort. Be skeptical of any design process that doesn’t take into account your target market and other key pieces of information.
Build Out Phase:
This varies per designer, so I’m not going to cover it closely. The key goal through this phase is maintaining good communication, which is difficult to interview for prior to working with a designer.
Device testing, browser testing, and functionality testing (eg does the contact form work?). This should be completed on a dev or test server as well as on the live server, to make certain everything looks and functions correctly. The last thing you want is to spend tons of budget on promoting your launch, only to find out the site was broken.
Proper Hand Off & Closure:
Know what maintenance is required, who’s responsible for it, and what costs will look like. Expect the designer to not simply dump off an invoice via email, but to make sure all of your needs were met and you’re comfortable with editing the site and other basic tasks. There are a number of follow up steps like making sure changed URLs are redirected properly, testing that forms are working properly, testing that WordPress SMTP is working properly, etc. Take a look at a website launch checklist like this one for more ideas.
Things You Need To Own
There are a lot of reasons for this, not simply disputes with the designer. They could move, suddenly become unresponsive, lose the login information, get hit by a bus, etc. That’s a large risk for your organization, and the goal to this section is removing those major single points of failure.
1 – Domains
Register your own. Feel free to give your designer access, but this is your account and you own the domain. Allowing your designer to register this for you in their own account will only increase the likelihood of an unpleasant situation down the road when you want to move on to another provider.
2 – Google Analytics
This account should be setup using a generic company email (eg firstname.lastname@example.org) as an admin owner. Ideally, web designers should be granted access as a user or admin from there.
Occasionally we’ve seen designers who have set up many businesses on a single Google Analytics folder, which means all of that data is permanently locked with that designer, unless they’re willing to give the client admin access to all of their other client’s data.
In plain English, that means essential conversion and traffic data for your business will need to be abandoned some day when you realize that you need to perform more advanced analytics.
3 – Hosting
Less important that you control this – you can usually restore a site or have it redesigned.
I personally believe that your website should be hosted through a 3rd party with full support when server issues occur – they typically have a deeper support staff than your average freelance web designer.
That said, many web designers use reseller hosting accounts as a passive income stream. These reseller accounts are essentially white labeled through larger providers such as GoDaddy and other basic hosting providers. In many situations, it’s not much more than normal hosting and some designers will perform basic support for free. The downside is that when your site goes down in mid-August and your designer is off-the-grid camping, you’re SOL.
Nevertheless, you should have access to this account, even if you never log into it.
Things You Will Need to Provide
Answers & Feedback
Most web design agencies I’ve spoken with have a very clear idea of how quickly they can build a website with a given set of criteria. Aside from their schedule, the biggest wildcard is the site owner and turnaround time for feedbacks. We’re all busy, but your ability to get feedback and revisions back quickly is going to be a big factor in how long the design process takes.
Examples & Ideas
Let’s face it, you might not know what you want, but that doesn’t mean you won’t know it when you see it. This is kind of the design extension to knowing what the purpose of your site is going to be. Unless it’s a new business and you’re going to be working on a branding package with the web designer, you probably have existing branding concepts you want to retain and other aspects you don’t care about. Knowing what must stay and what you can live without and conveying those priorities to the designer is very helpful. If you’re not sure what you want, you usually don’t need to look far for inspiration. There are some tools later in this post that can help you with the inspiration and example-finding process.
Most of the time, you provide it. Those paragraphs won’t write themselves. You can do it yourself, or you can hire a copywriter, but most web designers don’t write content (and most of them shouldn’t, aside from short form copy that shows up in the website). Factor this into your budget, because it may be hundreds or thousands of dollars for all of your products or services if done by a copywriter, and will certainly take many hours of your time if you’re doing it yourself.
For some websites this will be a pretty basic requirement. For an e-commerce website or a small business website with an extensive portfolio or heavy use of imagery it could mean hundreds or thousands of high-quality images that you’ll need to provide.
Tools for Communication
Here’s a list of tools to help you break down communication barriers with your web designer…
Tools for Mockups:
A popular tool for building wireframes, and relatively easy for a non-designer to explain visual concepts related to size and layout. Cost for the web app is pretty reasonable – $12 per month, or $5 for a Google drive plugin.
However, there’s an even better version in my opinion, and it’s free:
Powerpoint is a great tool for expressing visual designs as a non-designer. Here’s an idea of the process:
- Learn how to screenshot your web designer’s site mockups: Use Ctrl + Alt + Prt Screen to screenshot on Windows, and Ctrl + Shift + 4 on Mac.
- Paste into Powerpoint and markup to your delight. Use Ctrl + V to paste on Windows, and Open Apple + V on Mac.
- Create new slides for new comments: No need to cram a ton of feedback into just one screenshot.
- Email to designer: Wayyyyy easier than trying to tell a designer over the phone to “just make this box bigger and put it further to the left” because you can show them exactly what you want.
Tools for Color:
ColourLovers.com is a great website to explore different palettes and patterns, and you can search by keywords like “hot pink” or “sky blue”. Use this to give your designer an idea of color style and tone, and they can usually take that and run with it.
Kuler.Adobe.Com & ColorSchemeDesigner.com
Adobe Kuler is a great tool that will generate a color scheme based off of one initial color that you’re working with. ColorSchemeDesigner.com looks like a knockoff of Kuler, with one cool twist: it adds 2 light and 2 dark gradients to the primary color scheme, making it far easier to produce gradients and light/dark variations.
Tools for Fonts:
Kind of like color, fonts are a difficult thing to describe and articulate without a proper understanding of things like slabs, serifs, etc. Using tools like Google Fonts is a great way to explore free fonts that can be used for print or web. An even better way to do this however is to search for something like “great google font combinations” and you’ll get great lists of designer-approved font combinations that will work well for your website.
Tools for Inspiration:
Dribbble is a great community of designer portfolios, and if you’re looking for a trendy or hip site design that really sticks out from the crowd this is a great place to start.
CSS Galleries are a great way to find inspiration – just Google and you’ll find some great ones.
Google searches, eg “great examples of shopping carts” or “great examples of rates tables”
More lists curated by designers – these are great ways to find inspiration and give your designers examples of what it is that you’re looking for.