Web Development

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How to buy your website, part III – picking suppliers

Wow – up to part III already! In part I we looked at how to work out what you want. In part II, we took a meander down the techy road of how the web works. Today, we’ll be looking at those talented individuals who actually make things happen, and how to pick them. It’s a long one today, but it’s one of the most important…

There can be a surprising number of different people (well, roles) between the stage you’re at now – having a fairly good idea of what your website will do – and the final, working product. What complicates things is that these different roles could all be done by one person, they could be done by one agency, or they could be sub-contracted out by the first person you hire. You might not even need all these roles in your site build! With that in mind, let’s do a big list…

  • Designers. You’ll probably need one of these. You might not think so, though. There are lots of people out there (check out Clients From Hell for examples…) who think that a little bit of art experience is all you need. “My 14-year-old cousin can do Photoshop”, they may think, “so it’s easy. He can do it”. But there’s a lot more to web design than just the visuals. Have you ever been to a site which at first glance looks amazing, but when you start trying to use it you get completely lost? Buttons aren’t where you expect them, pages don’t have any consistency, what you think is a link isn’t… and then you get bits which look like they were forgotten and tacked on at the end by the developer. Well, that’s what happens when you have someone designing for you who doesn’t have proper web design experience.
    A proper web designer knows what “user experience” is. They’ll understand the term “UI” (user interface). They’ll know what a wireframe is, and have a reasonable understanding of what is and isn’t possible within CSS, HTML and Javascript. They’ll also know about licensing restrictions for fonts, images and icons you might want to use. Finally, your front-end developer will need things in a certain format and put together by someone who knows what they’re doing.
    FUN FACT: 100% of designers polled on Twitter like dark chocolate Hob-Nobs.
  • Front-end developers. You’ll almost certainly need one of these. Remember last time we talked about HTML and CSS? Well, a front-end developer takes the designer’s work (which is usually a layered PSD file – i.e. each of the elements within it is on a different layer so they can cut them out easily) and turns it in to HTML and CSS. A good front-end developer matches the designer’s work exactly. A bad one cuts corners (or rather, doesn’t) and you get things square when they should be round, images when they should be text, and so on.
    Good front-end developers have an understanding of content management, too, and realise that certain things will and won’t be possible in the CMS and code appropriately. If you’re just having a flat site, your list of people should end here. Many designers are front-end developers and vice-versa.
    FUN FACT: When I do front-end development, I like to listen to AC/DC. Loud.
  • Back-end developers.If you’re having a dynamic site built, you’ll need at least one of these. In some cases your back-end developer will be adapting a content management system which already exists, or which they built before and use for multiple clients. In some you’ll get something custom-built. Back-end developers will favour a particular language (like PHP) and if your developer works within an agency, they may favour a language or have different developers for different things. The back-end developer takes the front-end HTML and CSS and joins it up with the content management system or other dynamic goodies… so the good ones will end up with something which, to the end user, looks exactly like the flat HTML.
    A decent back-end developer will also think about how easy the back-end is to use; it’s very easy for developers to make systems which use technical terms (like Drupal’s “nodes”) and which content editors with no technical background struggle with.
    FUN FACT: the biggest bits of back-end development usually take place outside office hours, because that’s the best time to develop undisturbed. Office hours are for fixing things.
  • Information architects/UI experts. Big sites will probably need one of these, and they’ll be involved early on. An IA is someone who organises things. Little sites might only have five pages, so you don’t have to think so much about how they’re organised. Big sites might have hundreds or thousands. How do users find what they’re after? What pages are most important for the users, and which ones do you want to push them to? How will the site grow? These are the things an IA will think about. You’d be surprised how much difference good information architecture can make. Think of any big site you use… they’ve probably used one or more IAs at some point.
    Similarly, a UI (user interface) expert looks at how users work with websites, and makes sure that design helps them do that. Where on the page should a buy button go, for example? What colours and shapes stand out best? How should a shopping cart work to make sure that as few people as possible give up buying? Even little things like the words used for navigation items can make a big difference to users and mean people stay and browse your site rather than get frustrated. For smaller sites, these things might just need a little thought. A good agency will think about these things for your back-end as well; the people working on your site content can be just as important.
    FUN FACT: Read “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug – the bible of UI and IA – to find out how important these things are, and how to apply them.
  • Copywriter/content manager. Anyone can write, right? No. Good, engaging, informative copy which works with search engines, gets your customers clicking the things you want them to, is brief and flows well is not easy to produce. Writing for the web is a specialist field; the way we read on screen is very different to the way we read print, and so the way it’s written is very different too. People don’t start at page one of a website and work through in sequence, so your writer (who may well be an information architect too) needs to know how to take advantage of this. If you’re blogging or updating your site regularly, a copywriter on a retainer can be a real boon. Web agencies rarely have copywriters; most web copywriters are freelance.
    FUN FACT: if your copywriter doesn’t own Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, they’re not a real copywriter.
  • Project manager. A big project will need a project manager to keep everything together, especially if there’s any sub-contracting going on. A big web project can rapidly get out of control without management. I’m afraid some of this might be because of you, the client; it’s very easy to think of something extra you want the site to do, and ask for it, and for this scope-creep to make the timescales and costs balloon. Good project managers save more than they cost in back-and-forth and scope creep. It’s entirely possible that your designer will act as project manager.
    FUN FACT: project managers come into their own when more than one supplier is involved, but don’t start bypassing them and talking direct to developers and designers. Things will get lost.

Put it all together, pick what you need

So, you now know who might be involved in your site build… let’s find you someone to do it.

To do this, I’ve put together a flow-chart you might find handy. You can download it here. (PDF, 149kb)

But let’s summarise:

  1. In all cases, a good agency or freelancer won’t be precious about working with a designer, developer or project manager you’ve already picked, so feel free to pick and choose, although this might cost a little more. If they won’t split out the work, don’t work with them.
  2. See the note below about full-service agencies.
  3. If you want a flat site, a freelance web designer is probably your best bet.
  4. If you want a dynamic site, and it’s not very big (10-50 pages), and your budget is limited, then you’ll probably want a freelance developer who uses WordPress or other open-source content management system, and possibly a designer. Think about using a copywriter.
  5. If you want a dynamic site which is small to medium-sized (up to about 50-100 pages) or you have very particular needs – a complicated events booking system, an online store, that kind of thing – and you have a really good idea what you want it to do and some experience managing projects – then either a freelance developer who works with ASP or PHP plus a designer, or a small agency, will be best. A copywriter with IA experience will help.
  6. If you want a medium to big dynamic site (100+ pages) with particular needs, a small to medium agency might be best, or start with a project manager with good contacts. You’ll almost certainly need an information architect and maybe a copywriter.
  7. If your website is transactional (i.e. people buy through it, submit things through it, need to fill in forms) then you should seriously consider consulting a UI expert in addition to the rest of your team.
  8. If your website is your main source of income, you need a project manager, a small to medium agency, a UI expert, and a copywriter. Don’t rush things. Don’t scrimp. You wouldn’t rent the cheapest shop miles out of town and spend an hour painting it yourself if that was your only income, would you?
  9. If you’ve got 50,000+ visitors a month, you’re running multiple sites across the world, you need to link your site to internal systems, or anything like that, start with a medium-sized agency and work your way up.

So now… search away

So, the important bit… let’s find you some people you might want to work with. Next time, we’ll talk about actually picking from your shortlist, but first, let’s make a shortlist to pick from.

Step 1: ask people you know for recommendations.

Step 2: there is no step 2.

Seriously. Use your networks. Use the people you look up to. Remember those sites you looked at that you loved back in part I? Ask those people who did their sites. Ask the people you follow on Twitter. If you belong to networking groups, ask there. Ask your chambers of commerce. Ask your Business Link advisor. Ask me. Give a rough idea what you’re looking for – “I want a 10 page dynamic site, and I already have a designer. Any good developers out there?” – that kind of thing. Look carefully at the people who are recommended to you, not the ones who reccomend themselves (although don’t write them off).

Start by looking for a designer or project manager, because they’ll be the first person you’ll work with. A project manager can help you write briefs and pick more suppliers, while designers will have good networks of developers they like working with. It’s also easier to look at a designer’s work and see off the bat if they’re good at what they do, while looking at a developer’s site might fry your brain a little bit. Remember what I said last time about not writing people off if they look too expensive? If they’ve got big clients that doesn’t mean they cost the earth. Big clients have clout and buy using their own reputation, so they don’t pay as well as you might think – a big client is no indicator of the amount someone will cost.

Look locally to start with, because it’s really important to get to meet your team so you can talk in person about what you want. When you meet in person, you also get to see what they’re really like. Follow your gut a bit, like you would in any working relationship.

Look at portfolios. How recent is the last bit of work? Check it in different browsers, like Firefox, and on an iPhone or iPad if you can. Find out who did the design, who did the code, and if there’s a content management system.

Don’t just rely on Googling, unless you’re after an SEO agency. High rankings in Google merely tell you who’s good at getting high rankings in Google, which might indicate a bit of credibility, but don’t always guarantee good quality work. Use Google in conjunction with other things.

From all that, put together a list of five or six possibilities. Next time, we’ll talk about how to narrow that list down, and stealing some techniques from the public sector to do so.

Full service agencies… a controversial little warning

You might have someone doing your press and PR, your brochures and newsletters, and they might offer you a website too. You might find an agency who claim to be full-service. Alternatively, of course, they could mainly be web and dabble in the other things… or they could use an associate model or sub-contract all their web development work, in which case I don’t really count them as full-service agencies. You can ignore this warning for these people.

Think very, very carefully about working with them. Look very, very carefully at their portfolio. Ask their clients about working with them. Be wary. If their portfolio is full of pretty sites built in Flash, don’t touch them.

Full-service agencies are good at lots of things, but it’s rare for web development to be one of them. In most cases, they’ll have one or two developers who are mostly designers, who also work in print, who are rushed of their feet doing all sorts. They’ll not have the time to keep up-to-date with the latest techniques (any decent developer spends 10% of his time playing with things and learning). They’ll mostly work in brochureware. They may have a CMS they built themselves 5 years ago.

If you’re not careful, you’ll be locked in to using this supplier forever, as they won’t give you any control over the code and who sees it. They’ll veto anyone else working on the web with you. They’ll be very expensive for web stuff.

By all means – because if they do your other design they’ll have an excellent grasp of your brand – get them to do your web design and copywriting, but think very very carefully about bringing in a developer yourself.

And now a note on design competitions

You may have seen sites like 99 Designs, where you can offer a small amount of money and let designers fight it out to provide you with a design. You might think they’re a good idea. But they’re not, for a lot of different reasons. Firstly, you’ll not be getting anything particularly good, or original. It’ll be something a designer’s got laying around, either something they’ve used before but with different colours or something rejected by someone else. It may have licensed images or fonts used in it (like this logo example or these examples). The decent designers won’t touch this kind of work because they’ve been messed around too much by people not willing to pay the right amount for decent work.

Second, you’ll not get the standard of service you’d get from a good designer you’re paying the right amount. You’ll never meet them, you’ll not get the follow up. Suddenly need a different format version of an element on the page for print? You’ll never get that from your 99 Designs “designer”.

Good design is something people study hard to learn, practice for years, and invest huge amounts of effort into (as this designer attests). It’s worth paying for, and – as with everything in this world – you do get what you pay for.

With thanks to @stevedesigner on Twitter

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