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How to avoid dodgy web designers

How to avoid bad web designersThere’s a particularly cruel description of web designers making the rounds at the moment: ‘the used-car salesmen of the 21st century’. The implication behind it isn’t entirely accurate. The idea that most, if not all, developers are untrustworthy is unlikely to be the case.

The automotive aspect of the analogy does raise some fair parallels between car salespeople, web designers, and their customers, though. Most business owners can learn how to drive a website – how to update content and enter new products – but few have even the slightest clue when it comes to looking under the bonnet.

So, they entrust their online presence to the knowledge and expertise of someone else. For the customer, this opens up the possibility, however unlikely it might actually be, that they’re being taken for a ride.

While there are disreputable developers out there, they’re almost certainly in the minority. The key to avoiding them is to verse yourself in a few web basics, and have a clear idea of what you need them to do for your business.

Research

Before choosing a particular design firm or freelance developer, it pays to research them. Look at their past projects, ask for testimonials, and don’t settle for someone whose work doesn’t seem up to scratch.

Miles Burke, managing director of Bam Creative, and founder of the Australian Web Industry Association (AWIA), claims that it’s a good idea to look for developers that have experience relevant to your type of business.

“I’m not suggesting it needs to be in the same industry, but certainly similar sized projects to what you’re looking at,” he says.

It’s wise not to take them at face value either – once you’ve identified a few examples of the designer’s past work, spend some time testing the design and functionality to see if they hold up to your standards.

“Don’t just go to their website and look at their portfolio, but actually go to those websites, and look at them,” says Lee Haskings, managing director of Clear Pixel. “It’s very easy for people to just have a portfolio of images of designs that they’ve done, but they might not actually be websites that have gone live or anything like that.”

Haskings notes that, beyond looking at past work, it’s worthwhile actually seeking out previous clients, and asking them about the working relationship directly. If a developer is reluctant to share these details, be wary of doing business with them

Besides looking at and assessing the suitability of the work, it’s also worthwhile researching the business itself. Find out if the business is affiliated with any industry groups, and try to gain an idea of how it’s regarded within the tech community.

“Find out a bit about the history of the business,” suggests Bam Creative’s Burke. “How long it’s been running, who’s involved in the business, what memberships they have with professional organisations, because there are a few.”

Other than AWIA, Burke suggests checking whether the developer is a member of the Australian Graphic Designer’s Association, or Australian Interactive Media Association.

“Just get a sense of who the business is, and whether or not they will be around for the long haul,” he says.

Know what you want

One of the biggest causes of conflict between web designers and business owners is the language barrier that arises when it comes to talking about web design. If you don’t have at least a basic knowledge of the tools and coding languages web designers use, it’s going to be very difficult to talk about what you need out of a site.

“It helps to have an understanding, because you want to be sure that the developer’s going to know their stuff, so to speak,” says Steve Cooper, senior developer and strategist at Thinktank Social. “Read up on some basic languages like HTML, CSS, PHP and MySQL. Find out if the developer’s able to use them, and ask for past examples of ways they’ve used them.”

Other than a basic working knowledge of web languages, it’s essential you have a clear idea of what you need your site to do. Consider its basic purpose: are you creating it to get online sales, to drive phone inquiries, or just to give customers useful information? Then, consider how the site is going to achieve these goals. If you’re able to give specific instructions to your web developer, they’re less likely to deliver something that doesn’t meet your requirements.

One of the most common problems faced by businesses working with web developers is unforeseen cost arising from miscommunication. If you don’t brief your developer on everything you need out of a site, then it’s likely you’ll be hit with extra costs to bring it up to speed.

“With cost blowout, it depends on the real technical requirements of your website,” says Haskings. “If it’s not an overly technical type of website, then there shouldn’t be any reason for a blowout, but if you start to have very specific technical requirements, then you want to ensure that, even though you’ve spoken to them about the job, what you’ve spoken to them about is covered in the quote as well, so that it’s not just a single page with pricing.”

It’s also wise to establish what’s included in any up-front costs, as the creation and operation of a website involves a number of peripheral ongoing expenses.

“Find out what you’re getting for the initial cost,” says Danni Sweeting, owner of The Web Room. “Is hosting included? Who buys the domain name? Are there any hidden extras that you have to pay for, like plugins? Is the copywriting extra? Is design extra? There are so many different components to putting your website together, it’s good to know what you’re actually paying for.

“There’s sometimes been situations with my clients where they’ve been quoted $2,000 by a previous designer, but when it comes to actually putting the site together, and they ask for one little thing extra, they’re told that will be $300,” she continues. “Design and development can sometimes get a little bit out of control. A person needs to be aware of any hidden costs.”

Clear Pixel’s Haskings suggests that this is why it’s wise to itemise the crucial functional aspects of your site when it comes to discussing cost with a web designer.

“The way that we’ve always worked with clients is to set milestones with a project, and to actually set payment terms based on those milestones,” says Haskings. “There would be an initial deposit, so to speak, and then there can be two or three others as the site progresses. As we progress, we ensure that we’re showing the client how it’s progressed.”

It’s also worth asking whether or not the developer manages the coding and design inhouse, or whether these processes are outsourced to third parties. If they’re offering what seems like a particularly good deal, this might be why.

“We believe it’s best the work is done inhouse, rather than outsourced, just due to the poor quality code we’ve seen in the past,” says Haskings. “By outsourced, I mean being looked after by another third party in Australia, or by developers outside of Australia. Also, the big issue that we’ve found in the past is that sometimes places doing that type of thing are generally fairly slow to respond with changes or requests because they don’t have the staff on-hand to be able to do that.”

Having done your own research and planning, and discussed how to proceed with the developer, it’s essential to document the agreement accurately, to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

“Get everything in written form,” says Burke. “Make sure that you have a clear brief to begin with, to give the suppliers, and shop around, as well. Price isn’t what you should be looking at. It should be understanding and expectations.”

Moving on

When in discussions with a web developer, it’s important to establish how easy it will be to move on to a new design company in future, if necessary.

“The first thing they need to think about is the intellectual property, which is the files that constitute the site,” says The Web Room’s Sweeting. “You need to know who actually owns that work, because if you want to move in three years time, and get a new developer involved to redesign their website, you mightn’t be able to get the files, and have to start from scratch.”

As Clear Pixels’ Haskings points out, it’s wise to check how the site is likely to be hosted, as this is one of the best indicators of whether it will be easy to shift in future.

“One key thing is to check if you’re able to host the website through somewhere other than the web developer,” he says. “That is, to me, one of the easiest questions to ask that could save a lot of money in the long run.”

He explains that it’s best to avoid web development firms that operate using a proprietary, inhouse content management system (CMS) that can only be hosted by them. While the CMS might give you the site you need, if the firm is the only one that can host and support it, then your ownership over your own site is compromised.

“Ask them if the website has to be hosted with them. If they’re using a centralised system, that’s when they’d have to come clean and say so,” suggests Haskings. “That should set alarm bells ringing, because that means instantly you’ll be locked in with them as a provider.”

Bigger picture

As with any type of employee, you want to find a designer that looks beyond the immediate work at hand to see the benefit of it to the business.

“One thing I’m always big on is thinking ahead,” says Thinktank Social’s Cooper. “Something that’s going to suit the client now may time may not suit the direction that they need to go in six months time.”

It’s also wise to find a designer who understands the role a website has to play in the broader marketing strategy of your particular business. They may be capable of building an impressive site, but are they going to create something that complements the rest of the brand?

“Choose a web designer who’s not just good with web design visually and coding, but also who’s thinking of your business in terms of its complete online or digital strategy,” says Haskings. “The website is all too often a central marketing tool, and you want to make sure the people you are working with you have got marketing front of mind, because that’s going to make the biggest difference in its execution.”

If a web developer makes the effort to learn about the plans for your site and its place in your broader marketing strategy, but also goes a step further by actually making constructive suggestions that you hadn’t considered, take that as a good sign.

“You can get any number of developers that will build things as per specifications on this page, but you want someone who’s going to sit there and go ‘Yeah, we can do that, but this is what’s going to happen if you do these two things. Gaps will appear here, bugs will appear here,’” says Thinktank Social’s Cooper. “You really need someone who’s going to think outside the lines.”

Image credit: Thinkstock

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