Website designers and their clients often make for fractious and unhappy marriages. What is astonishing, given the frequent poor communications between designers and clients, is not the high rate of dissatisfaction with the experience, but that it is not even higher. A little knowledge and better preparation can go far to reducing the stress of creating a new website.
1. Designer vs developer
As a freelance writer with a primary focus on website content, I am writing this from the perspective of the client, the buyer of website design and development. I have worked with a variety of web designers, and each has been a learning experience. Let’s begin by defining terms. A web designer is what I would loosely refer to as “the front of the house”, meaning the person who is your primary contact for your website project. This person will probe your interests, goals, and ask lots of questions about any specifics you may have in mind, especially with regard to the “look” of your finished website. Your designer is essentially the sales person for the project, whether he is a sole operator or part of a team. The developer is what we will call “the back of the house.” This is a person who figures out how to construct the website so that it functions as it should. If the basic design or template that you are working with needs tweaked or customized, your developer will figure out how to do it and write the code. You may never meet your developer or even know his name. Think of your developer as the builder and your designer as the interior decorator. They may be staff employees of the same firm, or freelancers that work on a fee split of some type. It is important to understand that each of these professionals has a different focus when it comes to website creation, and there can be conflict between the two visions. The designer wants “pretty” and the developer wants efficiency and functionality. You may want both, but when compromises have to be made, you will most likely put more emphasis on one than the other. Or you may have no idea what you want, and are waiting for someone to tell you what your options are. This is usually where the problems begin.
2. Themes or templates?
Vocabulary is important when communicating about a website, and unfortunately definitions vary with the user. For some, themes and templates are interchangeable, and for others themes are bigger in scope, the whole package as it were, and templates are the discrete parts. A template can be for a single page or other part of the overall theme, and the template is a set of rules as to how a page or the website as a whole will look and behave. It is a common fallacy that creating a website is very similar to creating a document in MS Word. This is not true. With some themes and/or templates, it is difficult or impossible for example to change a font on a page without changing the font all across the website. When you change a font in one place, the theme or template will change the font everywhere, unless you know how to write code for an exception. Imagine if you capitalized one word, and your document insisted on capitalizing that same word every time and place it occurred in the document. That sort of thing can happen when building a website. With any given theme you are locked in to its set of rules, and the smallest change can be time consuming and frustrating.
3. Premium themes
WordPress offers four themes free of charge, and there are many premium themes available for an extra charge, perhaps a $100 or so, an expense usually picked up by the designer who uses these themes over and over again. New premium themes are often beta tested on first users, and if you are a subscriber to the theme service, updates (meaning corrections) are free. Well, not exactly free, since you had to pay for a subscription. When a designer sends you a theme for you to evaluate, it is hard to recognize what you are looking at, and harder still to imagine what your finished product will look like. It would be like trying to visualize the look and feel of your finished kitchen when all you can see is the bare frame of your house. Some premium themes will include what are called xml files, which fill in the content of the “frame” of the website, including pretend text and photos for you to look at, much like a new home builder will provide a furnished model home. Once you have decided you like the look and feel of a particular theme, the designer then has to reverse engineer the xml files, subtracting out the pretend display content and substituting in your own content. The xml files make selection easier for you, and more work for the designer later.
4. How long and how much?
How long does it take a web designer and/or developer to build a website, and what should it cost? The answer is a range from just a few hours to days or weeks. If you have a clear idea what you want, quickly choose a cookie-cutter common theme that your designer has worked with many times before, and you have all your content pre-written, your photos chosen and ready, and few if any changes to make along the way, your website could be done in a day, start to finish, and be very cheap, perhaps only $200-$300. On the other hand I have seen websites that cost in six figures that were full of typos, misspellings, poor sentence structure, and incoherent. Most websites are clearly not driven by an overarching strategic vision.
5. Why your choice of theme is so important
If you choose a new and untested theme, while the features may look good, your designer may run into lots of glitches making just minor adjustments, costing time and dollars. The theme provider will have support staff for the new product, but responses can range from almost immediately to several days to get answers to problems. If there are enough of such glitches, fixing them can delay the completion of your website by weeks as your designer works through them.
Worst case scenario, you may discover that the look and feel you had your heart set on cannot be achieved with this particular theme without extensive code re-writing, if at all. Then you either downgrade your expectations or start over with a new theme. Like a good surgeon, it is the designer’s job to advise you at the start of the project what the features and benefits of each theme are, and also to warn you of their limitations and disadvantages. No theme has it all. This is why it is so important that you provide as clear a description as possible of the look and functionality you desire, because some themes may not be suitable for your needs.
6. Will your theme be mobile friendly?
As if this isn’t complicated enough, over half of all website visitors now access websites with smart phones or tablets instead of PCs or laptops. It is essential to mobile-test a theme to see how it will collapse for the much smaller screens. If the theme is not mobile friendly, parts of the text or photos will run off the page. There are still many themes that require considerable customized code writing to make the end product mobile friendly, and your designer or developer may not have the skill set to make that happen, and in some cases they have been known to simply walk away from a job without finishing it in frustration.
7. What purpose will your new website serve?
Creating a successful website will require making many, many micro decisions. To maximize your satisfaction and minimize your frustrations and cost, it is very important to decide at the very beginning what you are trying to accomplish with your website. What is the purpose; what is it supposed to do for you; and how will you measure its performance? Many marketing decisions have to be confronted including who are your intended visitors, and what actions do you want them to take during their visit? Very few designers ever ask about the role the intended website will play in a client’s overall marketing strategy. Many of their clients have no idea that they even need such a strategy. Higher level clients will seek out higher level web designers.
8. How to prepare
If you want to save money, prepare an outline of your entire website in advance, including both words and visuals. Do some homework online about WordPress websites, and make a list of questions to discuss with your website designer, or ask your designer if he or his company provides a list of such questions for their clients. Give your designer a list of websites that you admire, and explain what features you like or dislike about each of them. Ask your designer what themes he is most familiar with, and discuss the features and limitations of each. Your designer may enthusiastically promote one theme or another, but his recommendations should address your goals. Ask your designer what each theme cannot do. The question you don’t ask may become the source of your frustrations later. Be sure to include questions about how mobile friendly any given theme is, and use an online tester to see for yourself. Ask your designer what his policy is about changes made during production. What are his expectations? How many changes before your designer starts to get irritated or impatient with you or starts making oblique references to price changes? What kind of changes? Some changes take seconds to make, and others are time consuming. You may not know the difference. Ask your designer about such things in advance. You want to feel confident that your designer does not inflate or exaggerate difficulties in order to pad his fees.
9. Evaluate your designer before signing on
What to look for during the negotiation stage: Does your designer sound or feel like a patient person? Does he interrupt frequently when you are trying to explain what you want? Is he an excellent, attentive, and active listener? Does your designer seem genuinely interested in you and your profession and your success, or does his mind seem to default to the clock? In matters of taste and style, does your designer defer to your preferences or will he arbitrarily impose his own on you and your website? Many designers are truly artists, and you want to listen carefully to their input, because they may surprise and delight you. But it is your website, and you want the finished product to satisfy your vision. Do you get a sense that your designer understands the fundamentals of marketing, and that you are not just looking for pretty, but a website that puts money in your pocket? (Many designers have no real concept of measurable website performance.) Does your designer ask you intelligent questions about your purpose for the website?
10. The Price
What will determine the price of your website? A big factor will be your level of personal organization and preparation. Do you have the content ready and waiting, or will you rely on your designer for the ideas and script and visuals? If you are relying on your designer for the writing, ask to see samples of his own writing, or samples of the writing of those to whom he outsources his writing. Who does your designer outsource to and is English their mother tongue? (When you hire your designer, you are also hiring his writers.) The writing of the content of the website is the single most important element of effective SEO, not to mention developing loyal followers and subscribers and customers. What is your designer’s business philosophy, what are current market conditions for web designers, how intense is the competition, what is your designer’s chosen niche, what is his name recognition, and how much will he have to depend on your cooperation? Sometimes it will depend on nothing more than what does he think it will be like to collaborate with you? And finally, it may depend on his evaluation of what the market will bear. Everything costs more if you live on Rodeo Drive.
Ask for references that you can contact. Ask those references about the designer’s history of price changes on their project, and look at their websites. They may tell you what they paid for their product. What is the right price for your website? Whatever your designer agrees to do it for and you are willing to pay.
I have worked with my web designer Glen Woodfin for almost ten years. I have learned a great deal with him and through him. He works with heart, and gives his all to make every website the best that it can be, both artistically and functionally. He understands marketing and is a born promoter; Glen can be inspiring when you find yourself stuck on a detail. He is not ego driven and his prices are fair. I confess to having tried others and coming back to him. You can reach him at Acapulcowebdesign.com.
By John Bechtel, website content writer and strategist, ghostwriter, b2b copywriter, food and travel writer