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How to buy your website, part I – what do you want?

Over the coming weeks I’m going to be writing a series of posts on the best way to buy your website – from deciding what you want from it to finding and briefing developers and designers, working with the team delivering it, and how to launch. In part one, I’ll be talking about the very first step – deciding what you want.

You might already have a website, or be starting up your business and thinking that you should probably get one. You might have been running for quite some time, perfectly happy without, when suddenly a client asks where they can find you online. Whatever your situation, you’re thinking that a website is right for you.

But before you pick up the Yellow Pages or start Googling for a local developer, you should stop and have a good, long think about what exactly you’re getting yourself into. Do you need a website? What should it do? You could potentially spend thousands on a site which never brings you a single penny of income… or cut corners on a cheap brochureware site and miss out on something great.

Do you need a site?

First things first – brew yourself a nice cup of tea and make yourself comfortable.

Now, I need you to think very hard about why you need a website.

  • What does your business do? If you provide a service people don’t generally search online for – you’re a coffee shop with a lot of passing trade, for example – is it really necessary? Ask some of your current customers if a website would make any difference to them and if there’s anything in particular they’d want to see on it.
  • Who are your customers? Don’t forget there are still big groups of people who just don’t go online, or who certainly don’t for most day-to-day things. Office workers, labourers, nurses, doctors… often they’ll have internet use monitored or just never get near a computer. On the flip side of this, if your customer base is mostly teenagers and young adults, you might be able to get away with just having a presence on Facebook, which would save you an awful lot of time and money.
  • What do your competitors do? If none of them has a website – or much of one – then do you need one?
  • What’s your incidental web presence? Search for your company name. Do you appear in the results anyway, on Google Maps or on the Yell.com site? Is that enough? Retail outlets could be perfectly happy with this – after all, customers come in to buy, and all they’ll really need on the web is to find where you are and how to call you. If you’re not on Google Maps, it’s very easy to add your business.

If you’ve thought about all these things and you decide you do really need a site (service industries, freelancers, B2B providers, anyone who wants to sell online, anyone who runs regular events… this means you!) then the next thing to think about is what, exactly, you want it to do.

Flat Earth? Electronic brochure? Super dynamic content management?

The first decision to make here is whether you want what’s often referred to as a flat, or brochureware site. A “flat” site is something which is built for you and then just sits there… any changes you want made on it will need to be done by someone who knows some HTML. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of site – there are some beautiful ones out there. Being “flat” doesn’t mean dull, necessarily, and if you’re not going to be getting repeat visits – just lots of people checking a number or what you do – it might be for you.

Brochureware can sometimes be used to refer to those cheap, templated sites you can get as part of a hosting package – the sort of “get online in 5 minutes!” jobs, or something turned over very quickly at low cost (up to a couple of hundred quid). That’s not to say that they’re all rubbish, but many of them look pretty dated and very similar to other sites. Remember that your website is the first view a lot of people might get of your brand, and you don’t want to look like you made it using a bit of Word clip-art.

Should you go with a flat or brochureware site? Often, brochureware can be a false economy. After a year or so you’ll just need to start again from scratch – and very rarely have any design elements or even content to keep and build your next site on. A flat site, on the other hand, well designed and developed by a “proper” developer – individually for you and giving you control over where you host it and what you do with the code – can be a great start, because it’s easy to re-use elements of it and add extra functionality in future. I’ll talk more about picking a developer next time, but look at portfolios and avoid anything you think looks dated or anyone whose sites all look exactly the same, just with different colours and logos. It’s likely that they’re using the same template over and over and you’ll never have the control you want.

The other option – beyond flat and brochureware sites – are dynamic or “content managed” sites. This basically means you’ll have access to a web-based system which lets you change the content on your site. It could be as simple as being able to add news stories to one page using a very rigid system, or having complete control over every word on your site.

Of course, this is a bit more expensive than having a flat site. You need to weigh up cost against how often you make changes; if you’re unlikely to change a site more than once every couple of months, and those changes are likely to be small – a little text or an image here and there – then flat is fine, and you’ll save money by just asking your developer to make those changes (or learning HTML and doing it yourself). If you’ll be changing more often, then a content management system (CMS) will pay for itself in a couple of months.

The other thing to think about – now and when you get down to writing a specification (more in future on that) – is that the more functionality you have, and the more you want to be able to edit, the more complex the management system becomes. If you’re working to a very rigid template, creating just news listings, it’s a simple case of putting a headline in a box labelled “headline” and the copy in a box called “copy”. If you’re dealing with feature boxes, sliders, fancy formatting and more, you either need to pay more for a custom built CMS which links all that content together, or you’ll need to use your CMS to put a bit of HTML on the site yourself. Think carefully about what can stay the same, what can change, and what can be pre-populated and then randomised or automatically updated to keep things fresh.

Now the bells and whistles, forms, widgets, dooberies and thingies

Finally, you can make a wish-list of things your site should do. At this point, don’t think too much about what it might cost; we’ll come to prioritising in a future post, and you might be surprised at how pricey seemingly simple things may be and how affordable seemingly complex things are. Look at other sites. Do you like how they show events? Are you going to be selling products online, and what are good examples of how others are doing it? Keep a list of links to sites you really like – both design and functionality – and we’ll use this soon to write our brief.

List everything you see that you like. Don’t assume that anything is “standard” – so if you want contact forms, make a note. Think about how you want them to work for you and for the customer. Do you want contact forms to come to you by email? Do you want to store them somewhere? Do you want to send auto responses to people who fill them in? Think about good experiences you’ve had on other websites, and ask your customers. Maybe they want to see your latest menu updated regularly. Maybe they want to know who’s working on a particular day. Maybe all they want is your number. Think of ways to connect to things you’re already doing, like Twitter and Facebook, and how people are coming to you. Do they already know who you are? Do they have your business card? Are they coming for the supplemental information, or are they coming to do something?

It’s important to think as early as possible what exactly you want the site to do and how the user experience should be. It might not be possible to get all of that done for launch, either because of cost or time, but you can work towards it; the big thing to remember is that scope creep kills web builds. Scope creep is when you keep thinking of new things the site could do, and emailing your designer or developer, so they just add that extra bit in… and while they’re doing that you think of something else. Before long it’s costing twice as much and never getting completed. So make that list now, before anything else.

Next time, we’ll talk about how the web actually works, and why you need to know this. Don’t worry – it won’t get too technical.

If you’ve got any thoughts or questions on this week’s post, let me know below!

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2 comments

Ann Hawkins

May 20, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Adam, this is information that is desperately needed. I speak to so many business owners who are struggling to make sense of what is on offer, what they need and who to go to for help and so many designers/developers who are pulling their hair out trying to get a client to understand what they can do that it feels like they’re all speaking different languages and neither side understands the other.

I’m looking forward to reading future posts and sending puzzled purchasers to read them.

 

Zoe Rose

June 23, 2011 at 10:24 am

This is really great – FYI I have recommended it to a friend who is making a website for her business right now 🙂

 

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