So You Want a Website... Diving into the Internet Ocean Without Getting Drowned
by B.J. Michaels
Do you know anyone who's forked over a couple of thousand dollars for a website, only to be disappointed by the results? It doesn't have to happen. Web design is a relatively new field, but there are still ways to distinguish the good designers from the duds. Whether your company's just venturing onto the Internet, or you want to update your existing site, this article gives you some proactive tips to help you choose a competent designer and get the site you want.
What Will It Cost?
The first question many businesses ask is, "What will a website cost?" The answer is: it depends. Flee without delay from anyone who quotes a "standard" price for a website without first asking you a lot of questions, including these:
All these things influence the cost of the site. Two identical web sites could carry quite different price tags if, in one case, the web designer had to create the text, logo, and graphics from scratch, while in the other case, ready-to-use materials were supplied. Few good web designers will quote you a price without first figuring out how much work they'll really have to do.
- do you want a company logo and/or color scheme designed for you, or do you have these already?
- how much information do you want on the site? Is it already in written form? Will the designer need to interview you at length, or write/rewrite large amounts of information?
- what sort of graphics/pictures will you want on the site? Do you have paper copies, digital copies (computer files), or negatives that can be scanned-or will the designer need to supply the graphics (or perhaps include a photo shoot in the cost)?
- do you want animated (moving) things onscreen, or fancy rollover effects (things that change when you run the mouse over them)?
- will you want users to be able to fill out forms and/or query your site for specific information (quotes on a specific stock, for example)?
Why Have a Website at All?
Before you talk to a web designer, you should know why you want a website. What is the site supposed to accomplish? Some possible goals are:
A site may accomplish several of these goals simultaneously, plus others not listed. Keep in mind, though, that the more you want the site to do, the larger and more complex it will be, and the more it will cost. Look over your list of goals and decide which ones are the most important to you. Be able to communicate this to the designers you're interviewing.
- attract business
- be an information resource (by offering the text of published papers, links to authorities in your field, and so on)
- cross-promote other services or businesses
- position you as an expert in your field (by profiling you and/or the other members of your business, publishing your articles or papers, etc.)
- keep site users abreast of new developments in your business or your field
Also decide what kind of "image" you want your website to project. Conservative? Hip and contemporary? Innovative? Artistic? Will there be a degree of humor? Your choices will depend on who you decide your primary audience is and what will most appeal to them.
A good designer will ask you about the above issues. DO NOT leave these decisions up to the designer unless you're prepared to be disappointed. If you can't yet articulate what you want, pull out your collection of business cards and start visiting the company websites. After a few hours of analyzing what you like and dislike about other sites, you'll be able to communicate what you want.
Bookmark any sites that especially appeal to you so you can show them to your designer. Also note any features that make you impatient (like prolonged site introductions that you can't skip). Features that annoy you will annoy others if they are used on your site.
Mention the things you don't like to your designer before the work is started. After all, the purpose of your website is not to display your designer's programming abilities-it is to deliver your message as effectively as possible.
Again: flee without delay from anyone who quotes a "standard" price for a website without first carefully determining your needs. This kind of "canned" package is unlikely to meet your needs or present your information in its best light.
Is Your Web Designer an Angel…or a Shark?
There are a lot of web designers out there. Here are a few tips to help you assess the abilities of a designer before you plunk down the cash.
- Ask for the addresses of some sites the designer has built. Visit these sites. Don't just look at them, actually use them. Are the navigation systems clear? Is it easy to locate information? Is the information well-organized and well-presented?
Remember that in the final analysis, it doesn't matter how pretty the site is if the information is jumbled or unclear. Cool web effects and graphics are the icing on the cake; the information is the cake. Above all, look for a designer who handles information well.
- For each of the sample sites, look at how the pages are designed. Specifically, does the part of each page that you can see without scrolling give you a full idea of what's on the page?
It should. This does not mean that web pages can't be longer than one screen length. Of course they can. It does mean that the part of the page you can see without scrolling should give you a very clear idea of what that page is all about.
This kind of information layout is called a reverse pyramid. In the reverse pyramid, an overview comes first, so the user can decide if it's worth scrolling down to see the detail that follows. The reverse pyramid is the most effective format for posting information on the web. Good designers understand it and use it. And they make especially sure that the top part of the Home Page gives a full and complete idea of what the whole site is about, even if users elect not to scroll down to the material farther down that page.
By the way: if you see a home page with a big logo at the top, surrounded by white space and positioned so that you have to scroll down to see any or most of the actual written information, it's a tip-off that you're dealing with a designer who has more experience with 8 ½ by 11 printed pages than with the short, wide rectangle of a computer screen.
- Look at how the page content is presented. Today's search engines also decide what's important on a web page by analyzing the contents of the first few paragraphs on that page. For this reason, make sure the sample pages you're viewing are designed so that the first few paragraphs include the company name and any keywords necessary to describe the featured products or services. (Another good reason to use the Reverse Pyramid information structure is that it tends to ensure that all this important information appears near the top of the page.)
- It is reasonable to be asked for a 50% deposit. In return, get a completion date for the site-and get it in writing, with the added stipulation that if you don't have the site by that date (you can give a week's grace if you want to, to cover the "my dog ate the computer" excuse), you will get a full refund of your deposit. If a designer won't give you this consideration, consider looking elsewhere. You don't need to be kept waiting by someone who has made unrealistic promises.
- Ask if you can see the site "look" as it is developed, and give feedback. Is this a reasonable request? Yes. Here's why: a good designer will build your site this way:
- analyze your information and organize it.
- plan a site navigation scheme that properly presents the information.
- design a graphical container that best presents the information and the navigation tools.
- put the content into the container
You can see that somewhere near the end of step 3, there will be pages that have little or no information in them, but will show the overall "look and feel" of the site. A quick peek at these empty pages will help reassure you that the designer is developing a site look you can live with.
The easiest way for your designer to make these intermediate pages available to you is for the designer to post the files on the Internet in a special directory of the design company's site, then supply you with the page names.
For example, for Ralph's Barber Shop, I might post a sample page called Ralph.htm on my website, then tell Ralph to point his browser to www.bennaco.com/ralph to see the page. Because my regular website has no links to the page and my regular visitors are unaware that the page even exists, it's essentially invisible to them, while still being available to Ralph.
Beware of any designer that doesn't want you to view the developing pages. True, some designers might feel that showing you the intermediate steps hampers their creative muse, but… tough. It's your website. If you've specified a classic look, and the creative muse has delivered a stunning vision in lime-green neon, you have every right to see that vision, and pull the plug on it, before the content goes in. Too many businesses have been surprised by sites they hate, then had to shell out extra cash to redesign them.
A little preparation goes a long way toward ensuring that your company gets the website it wants and deserves. The guidelines above will help you to select a web designer who can do the job you want. Remember: it's a buyer's market, but you get what you pay for. Hold out for the terms you want, but be prepared to pay for quality.
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B.J. Michaels is the owner of Bennaco: The Technical Writers, an Edmonton, Canada writing firm that helps businesses to communicate with their customers.