If you've ever looked at my company's home page ... actually, don't bother. Trust me on this one. You'd figure out pretty quickly that I'm not in the Web development business. Sure, I can slap together some HTML and write a program to go behind it but that's the easy part of designing a Web site.
To remedy this obvious shortcoming ("have you seen Snyder's home page?
Looks like a tornado hit it ..."), Opus One has been searching for a designer to enhance our Web presence, and I'm going to share the lessons we're learning along the way.
Lesson one - a Web site is a team effort
Pass on anyone who says they can do the entire job alone - every Web site requires at least four team members. First, you need the overall architect and designer, the team leader. This is the person who has the grand vision for the site. He or she should be drawing big storyboards, making expansive hand motions and asking lots of questions. What's the message? How is it going to work? How is it going to fit together? What's the purpose?
Hint: save time and start answering these questions now, before you start interviewing designers.
Next, your team will need a programming member. This is the person who understands HTML and whatever programming interface (CGI, Java, APLs etc.) is going to give life to your site. The programmer is responsible for implementing the broad vision of the architect. After all, no self-respecting site has pure HTML documents anymore. Everyone is adding forms, search engines and other data-driven pages to make it all as useful as possible.
Important hint: if your potential designer isn't talking about back-end scripts, you're talking to someone who's a year behind in site design.
The third member of your team is a graphic designer. From your corporate logo to navigation buttons, custom graphics are always going to be part of the big picture. You need someone who not only has artistic talent, but who knows the tools computer-based designers now use.
Be careful here. Many graphic designers are being pulled into Web development before they acquire a real understanding of it. What works with 3,000dpi screens and high-quality printers or presses is not going to work on a 640 x 480 screen with 8-bit colour.
The fourth team member is you. A designer can lay out the storyboard, a programmer can build your HTML and a graphic designer can create eye-catching logos, but without your content and guidance, the site is just someone else's idea of your business. No-one knows your business and its needs as well as you do and that insight is crucial to guiding the team you hire.
You also have to provide the content. Remember, your site should revolve around its content, not the other way round. A Web site is a vehicle for packaging information and if you're building the site before you have all the information you're doing it backwards. The key is to plan ahead.
The design team should start by asking lots of questions and gathering content. If someone comes in the door with a one-size-fits-all site outline, remember your last experience with one-size-fits-all clothing.
Your potential designer may not come to the door with all three team members in tow. Often, small companies have a series of stringers they hire to handle the graphics and programming parts of each site. Be wary if it's the programmer or graphic artist who's knocking on your door, though. Sure, there are multi-talented people out there who can do all three jobs but they're the rare exception. You don't want to end up with a graphic artist architecting your Web site. Similarly, knowing how to program in HTML doesn't make you a site designer, just as knowing how to fix an engine doesn't mean you can design a car.
Lesson two - make sure you understand the costs and fees up front
This includes any costs of hosting your Web site. Designers should provide a quote for your whole site which is based largely on the number of hours it will take to create it.
Be cautious of anyone offering "price per page" quotes. A Web site is an integrated presentation of some aspect of your business, not a bunch of pages stuck together. Page-based pricing may be sufficient if all you want to say is, "Hey, we've got a page on the Web!" It won't work for the design of an complex, integrated site.
Be wary of a price which is too good to be true. A good Web site takes time to create and time is money. If you're paying between #20 and #40 per hour, you're offering a good wage for expert work. Prices per page will vary wildly but you can estimate that it will cost #50 to #250 for each Web page. If you have several dozen pages on which you can re-use graphics, the cost will be lower.
If every page requires meticulous design, #250 may be just a starting point. For major sites where each page is really a script generating a new page on the fly, be prepared to go even higher.
I prefer to buy services like this by the hour, which lets me know how much brain power I'm getting for my money. Obviously, you want to put "not to exceed" limits into your contract but the idea of scaling the cost of the site by the effort it took to build it makes a lot of sense to me.
Some designers will want to package the site as a fixed-priced deal.
That's OK too - if the designer can also tell you immediately approximately how many hours that price represents. If someone gives you a fixed-priced quote quickly but has to come back later to translate that into hours, you're dealing with a business which doesn't know what it's doing.
Every site requires maintenance. Information has to be updated and the site has to have a fresh face to entice users to revisit it. Make sure maintenance responsibility and costs are agreed at the beginning. Maintenance costs may even exceed the costs of the original site within the first year. Budget for it and build it into the contract.
If your designer is out of this world, he or she will be so busy they won't have any interest in going back to the unexciting work of keeping your site up to date. Protect yourself by signing a contract that guarantees you'll get a piece of their time to keep things current.
Lesson three - separate the designing and hosting fees
A Web site has to be hosted somewhere. You can put it on your company's own computers or pay an outside service to host it. Some hosting services will design your page as well but you should insist on designers or services breaking up the pricing and allocations of the two components. You may be getting a good deal but you need to know what you're paying for.
This is not to say that a designer's advice about where to place your site is inconsequential. Many designers have plenty of experience and know who offers the best services for a fair price. But some are swayed more by profit sharing and kickbacks than by what's best for them. If your designer pushes you to one company or another, ask outright whether there is a conflict of interest.
Your designer's advice may be in your best interests because of any relationship with hosting services he or she has developed. Just make sure you know why you're being steered in any particular direction. Be especially wary of folks who promise you low development costs but also lock you into using their preferred outsourcing vendor.
Lesson four - settle the intellectual property early
Who owns which aspects of your site? The HTML code itself is pretty easy but what about the graphics and the scripts? If you and your designer part company, can you hand the site over to a new designer to maintain and expand or are you locked in?
Scripts are a special problem because there are so many different kinds of Web server out there. If you're running on Windows NT this week, your script probably won't work without changing it to Unix next week. Be prepared to pay to have scripts rewritten should you have to switch servers.
Being locked in sounds bad, but it may not be. I know a designer who targets a particular market niche and has developed software which runs on her own Web sever to service that niche. She makes a nice living, in part because of the competitive edge her software gives her over others trying to break into that niche. She doesn't have to keep re-inventing the wheel, which means her clients get a better service for less money.
But if any of her clients want to jump ship, she's not about to hand her software over to anyone else. If your designer comes to you with this kind of proposal, balance the downside of being locked in with the benefits of building on someone else's investment.
Lesson five - keep your designer honest
Most designers come to your door with the latest in Pentium laptops and a slew of beautiful graphics on their hard disks. Tell them no way. Make them show you any demos using a regular phone line through your own Internet connection. If they're running a cacheing browser such as Netscape, clear the disk cache before you get started.
I have seen a lot of Web sites where it is patently obvious that the owner of business only saw the site demonstrated from the designer's hard disk - 250Kb worth of colour artwork on every page. It's beautiful, but no Internet user in their right mind is going to wait that long for each page to load, especially when the graphics are peripheral to the content of the site. When you look at the designs on your site, always balance the impatient index finger of the browser against the visual appeal of the page.
Joel Snyder is a senior partner at Opus One in Tucson, Arizona.
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