Building a website is a lot like buying a car—it involves research, communication, and negotiation. Get it right, and you’ll likely be happy with your investment for the next few years. Get it wrong, and you could end up sinking a lot of money into a project that keeps breaking down.
That being said, there are some things that you, as a business owner, can do to ensure the success of your web design project. What are the right questions to ask? What information do you need to provide? Here are a few ideas that can keep both you and your development team on track:
Identify What You’re Looking For
Lest you are tempted to skip this step, one word of advice for you: don’t. Setting goals at the beginning of the project before any designs are drawn up or other work is completed can help you and your agency communicate expectations for the project and can help you gauge success at the end. Use this time to get the kinks worked out—explain what you want and let them show you what they have in mind. Come to a consensus on anything you don’t agree on before moving forward.
Here are a few things to keep in mind during this step:
What do you want to achieve? Think specific and measurable:
- Increased traffic
- Decreased bounce rate
- Increased time on site
- Improved search engine rankings
- More visitors to social channels
- More leads and conversions
- Who’s your audience? Are they primarily mobile or desktop users?
What do you want them to accomplish with your site?
- Make a purchase
- Get more information about your business
- Connect with your brand (via social, etc.)
- Leave a review
- Call your store or agency
Is this a site redesign or a completely new site?
- What do you like about your current site?
- What’s not working so well?
- Why do you feel a change is necessary?
- What are your expectations in terms of aesthetics?
Do you have any specific brand guidelines that you’d like your agency to follow?
What word or phrase best describes how you’d like your customers to see your business?
What does your logo look like, and are you happy with it?
Budget and Schedule
The next consideration is how much you can afford to spend and when you expect to have the project completed. Obviously, the more “bells and whistles” you want to include on your website, the more you’ll have to spend. You’ll also need to budget more if you plan on asking your development agency to create a custom ecommerce purchasing system vs. creating a purely informational website. On the other hand, if you don’t have a lot to spend, you may be able to save some money by asking the agency you’re working with to customize a template for you rather than building a completely new website from the framework up.
Additionally, you should also consider what will happen if the project is delayed or goes over budget. Keep in mind that the more changes you make to your original agreement with the development agency after work has started, the longer it will take to complete the project and the more money it will cost you. That being said, if you see your agency going down a road that you didn’t agree on, don’t be afraid to ask for changes.
Something else you’ll want to budget for is long-term maintenance. Find out what it will cost to make future (small or large) changes to the website. Find out how far in advance you will need to give notice to your agency for them to make changes.
Content is an important early consideration. You need to work with your agency to carefully map out your site’s pages and architecture. You should also give some thought to what you want to put on every page. You should try for a mix of text, images, and interactive elements that will draw users into the site and, ultimately, lead to conversions. Even if you think your current content is working pretty well, it’s valuable to take a look at how you can refine and revise what you have.
A good place to start is by analyzing your current website. Here are some questions to ask:
- Are your customers finding what they are looking for on your pages right now?
- Are there any pages that you need to add? Do you need to combine any?
- Which pages lead to the highest conversions?
- Which pages are failing in their purposes (high bounce rate, etc.)?
- Are there any pages that are hard to find or are hidden? You can measure this by taking a look at terms that visitors are typing into your website’s search box or evaluating any pages that seem unusually low on number of visitors.
With the answers to these questions, you’ll likely have at least some idea of where to start with content creation and how much you need.
The next thing you need to determine is who’s going to create it. Your agency may be able to provide you with content services for an additional fee or at least recommend a good content provider. Take a look at some examples where they’ve created content or other elements on websites in similar industries to see if that’s something that will work for you. If not, you can find your own content provider or write it yourself.
Look and Feel
This is the part that most people think of when they think of web development—that is, how is the website going to look? What colors and visual elements will it include? Will it include “cool” effects?
While this is certainly an important step, I hope that you are able to see that it’s just one of many pieces of a successful website. With that in mind, I would encourage you to trust the design professionals handling your website. Don’t get hung up on little things like specific fonts or background shades.
If you’ve been working with your agency and communicating with them to this point in the process, they should be well aware of the goals you have for the site and the brand image you want to convey. Certainly, you can and should make your opinions known, but know that they, just like you, want to make your site easy to use and attractive to your visitors.
Here are a few guidelines for easing the design process:
- Be prepared to give examples (both within your industry and without) of websites that you like the look of. Be as specific as possible—is there a layout you prefer? A color that catches your eye? An image that conveys what you want to say?
- Are there any “must haves” for your site?
- Are there any “don’ts”?
- Once you’ve discussed design and you’re all on the same page, ask to see a few design prototypes. Discuss elements you like and dislike and request changes as necessary.
Usability and Conversion Optimization
Often the difference between a site that performs well and one that doesn’t comes down to these two elements—usability and conversion optimization. If you have the budget, you should consider doing some user testing to discover problems and potential solutions in your design. Even if you don’t have that type of budget, you should still use sound user-centered principles in your design and in your content.
Something else to consider is the difference in designing for mobile vs. designing for desktop or laptop computers. Ideally, you want both types of visitors to have a good experience, but tell your agency if you have special considerations for one type of user over the other. A website for a pizza restaurant, for example, should likely have the phone number front-and-center and clickable on a mobile website, where the desktop website may offer the menu as the first thing users see.
In all cases, keep your users in mind. Ask yourself: what will they be trying to do in each use case, and how can I make that task easy for them?
Your agency will likely have a good understanding of UX principles, so you don’t have to become an expert, but you should keep them in mind when making decisions about navigation and calls-to-action.
It’s okay if you don’t yet know what kind of technical specifications you’ll need for your website, but you should be open with your agency about what you have in mind for the site from the beginning so they can get an accurate idea of what your site needs. Things you should disclose include any extra security requirements or other regulations for your industry and any applications that you need developed that deal with users’ private information (credit card processing, registration, etc.). If you’re developing an e-commerce website, you should also make it clear where and how product and inventory is stored and updated.
You should also consider some practical matters like whether you have your own domain name and where you’re hosting your website. If you need help with these areas, your agency can likely at least provide recommendations.
Thinking for the Long Haul
The initial development of your website is just the beginning. You need to think long-term—you’ll likely want to make changes and updates to your site to reflect specials, updated pricing and products, and business growth. You should also give some thought to web promotion and marketing once the site is launched.
- Do you have the skills necessary to make changes yourself? If not, can the agency handle basic maintenance for a monthly fee?
- What if something goes wrong or was not properly implemented? Will there be a charge to make corrections?
- What if you want to make more substantial edits (such as additional pages or a change in architecture) down the line? How will your agency work with you then?
- Solid on-page SEO strategies are harder to fix “after the fact,” so make sure you’re working with a web development agency that’s well-versed in current SEO and internet marketing good practices.
- Who will take care of your web presence once your site is launched?
- How do you plan on getting visitors to your new site?
- Who’s going to be monitoring your site’s visitor data? Is it living up to its goals? If not, what changes can you make?
Choosing the Right Agency
Finally, it’s important to work with the right agency. There are a lot of elements that go into website development, and you should work with an agency that has a deep understanding of all of them. Review your goals in each of these areas and find a team that is dedicated to your business and meeting your expectations.
Here are a few questions to ask:
- What kind of experience do they have in creating similar sites? What’s their track record of success?
- How fast can they have your site done, and how much will it cost?
- How involved do you want to be in the process?
- Can they provide simple mockups or ideas before you sign a contract?
If You Build It (Right), They Will Come
I hope this article has given you some good ideas for how to communicate with your development agency. If you give careful consideration to each of these areas, you should come away with a site that works for your business.
Let me know about your successes or failures—what’s worked for you in the past? How have you defined your expectations?