How to Decide which Website Designer is Right for You

I’ve noticed more clients and prospective clients shopping their website projects lately. I’m sure this has something to do with the economy. I also suspect that the average website owner is more experienced, thus less intimidated by web-speak.

Whatever the case, it makes me wonder how such decisions are made. Being a web designer, puts me on the other side of the desk. So I find myself thinking about what factors would be key to my decision?

I guess first and foremost would be personal rapport. No matter how big or small the website project is to be, I want to work with someone I can talk to and, if necessary, criticize. I’d also need to feel that the web designer is shooting straight with me. He’s not afraid to tell me no and explain why my thought or idea is not a good one.

Next, I would look at price. This is a little more difficult because I know how crazy web pricing can be. But let’s say I did my homework and I only talked to web designers who specialized in jobs with similar scope as mine. This should eliminate some of the big price differences you can get when you approach designers who specialize in different size projects.

So what am I looking for when comparing prices? First, the scope of the project must be correctly defined and the proposals need to use a similar definition. Next, if there are substantial differences – say more than a couple of hundred dollars – ask why. Finally, look at recurring fees (i.e. hosting). This is especially important if you require something more than a static website that can be hosted anywhere.

Finally, I’m going to call references. Since I sit on the other side of the desk, I know how critical it is to know what his or her clients have to say. Ask the references about the website job. Look at the website in question. Ask – very important – how long the reference has worked with the designer. Remember, you are about to enter a long term relationship. Ask how prompt the web designer is when it comes to changes, especially after launch. Ask how the designer accepts criticism.

At this point I’m ready to make a decision. AND, negotiate price. What does that mean? Well if the guy you like is a little higher in price, show him the other quotes. Ask if he can do it for less. Believe it or not, he’ll respect you for it. If not, you might want to go with number two.

What to expect from your web designer

Over the years I’ve heard so many “shake your head” and pure horror stories regarding web development projects that I often stop listening part way through. I’ve heard it all before.

But today I heard something that made me stop and think. A prospective client was expressing frustration over something that his web designer told him. She said that it was “his job” to give her the content in the order she wanted it and when she wanted it. “She’s telling me that I have to do 40% of the project,” he said. “It seems to me that I should have known this at the start,” he concluded.

It’s important to note that he wasn’t angry with his designer. He was merely expressing frustration to a stranger whom he had called for help with writing content. What got my attention was the common refrain surrounding expectations.

What, then, should a client expect from a web designer?

Setting and managing expectations are key ingredients to any business relationship. Now I don’t know what the designer originally told her client. I’ve set forth “to do lists” for clients hundreds of times and quite often the difficulty of certain tasks don’t hit home until the job is at hand. But in my case, clients rarely get to the point of frustration because I CAN write content if they need me to – of course, change of scope change of price.

When you’re talking to most web designers, however, you’re not talking to writers who know CSS and HTML. You’re talking to graphics people, who, for the most part, don’t write. Larger firms may have staff writers or they have a relationship with a content developer like me. But smaller, local web design firms usually just shrug their shoulder and point to that to do list, the one that states that content is YOUR problem.

So when you’re search for a web design firm – I prefer web development because it’s more inclusive – make sure to spend a good bit of time talking about content. After all, I would argue that content is more like 70-80% of most web projects, not 40%.

Custom Functionality for Websites

Over the last year or so I have seen an uptick in requests for what I call custom website functionality. I don’t know if this is an indication of anything significant, but it is interesting.


Because custom functionality typically calls for programming and programming tends to be more involved and costly than standard web development. It also can be both exciting and exasperating. Exciting because it takes me back to how I first got involved in the technology field 25 years ago and exasperating because the process is hard to gauge, especially from a time standpoint.

Before going further, let me define my terms:

  • First there is the plain vanilla website that requires only HTML, CSS and maybe a formmail.
  • Second is a website thats requirements can be satisfied with an off-the-shelf content management system. In this case functionality could include anything from form building to product/catalog management to a shopping cart. The point is that all this functionality already exists in one, nice CMS package that costs a few dollars a month to access.
  • This brings us to custom programming to provide practically any function a client wishes his or her website to perform.

From a cost standpoint, the three basic categories of websites vary widely, both from each other and within each category (see our How Much Does a Website Cost blog post). But for the purposes of this piece let’s say that a plain website is the least expensive, a website using a CMS is more expensive (though only marginally) and a website that requires custom functionality is the most expensive.

So if you think you want your website to do something different here’s some advice:

  • Research each bit of functionality to make sure that there isn’t something out there already that will do what you want it to do. Say you want an updateable calendar. Find some examples. There are plenty. Then go to your web developer and ask if one can be implemented. If so, you will likely be talking about a relatively small implementation fee and maybe a slight increase in your hosting fee.
  • If you can’t find anything that meets your specific needs, see if there’s a program out there that’s close. Depending on the license, you might be able to find someone who can make it work at less cost than building new. But, like renovating an old house, you often don’t know what the final cost will be until you open up the walls. I thought I had a cheap solution recently from a foreign source that turned out to be a nightmare. Once my programmer got hold of the source code he found that it was going to take less time to write code from scratch than to try to sort through the existing program’s million lines of code.
  • Finally, if you’re convinced that what you need doesn’t exist in the way you need it or that the licensing won’t allow you to do what you want with something that exists, it’s time to talk about custom programming.

Just remember, this process is going to take more time than you, the web developer or the programmer expect. More on the process next.

Writing for the Web

I’ve been writing professionally for 35 years – everything from ad copy to video scripts to novels (3 with 1 published). More to the point, I’ve been writing content for websites since 1997. So what makes writing for the web unique?

Let’s start with the similarities:

  • All effective writing, regardless of the medium, is storytelling.
  • A clear, concise style with an emphasis on short sentences is most effective.
  • Headlines matter.

Website Requirements:

  • Write straight forward headlines- unlike advertising copywriting, which relies on clever to “breakthrough” the clutter, there is no time for clever headlines on a website. Visitors will not take the time to figure out what point you’re making. Instead, your main headline should clearly state what the website is all about and sub-heads should introduce new thoughts or sections.
  • Layer your content – Most everyone first skims a web page. So if you all you’re presenting is a long narrative, people won’t be able to make up their minds quickly enough. And when that happens online, they go elsewhere. So use headlines, sub-heads and bullet points liberally. Bold key messages and also be generous with your use of links.
  • Plan your keywords and phrases – sounds ominous but it’s really just common sense. In school we were taught to outline our thoughts before starting our narrative. Formulating keywords is no different. Each page of your website should have a focus (preferably just one). Before you begin to write for that page, jot down the words that best describe what you’re about to write, then make sure to use those words in your narrative.
  • Tell a whole story on each page
  • – this is the toughest thing to learn about developing web content. Unlike a book or a movie or even a 60-second ad, the web is a non-linear medium. In other words, the visitor controls the visit and can visit pages in whatever sequence he or she prefers. This means each page needs it’s own beginning, middle and end.

Of course there are other differences, but if you can master these, your website will have a better chance of meeting your objectives.

Bad Economy and Internet Marketing

I’m in the website business so naturally I’m going to tell you that now is a great time to be dumping your marketing dollars online.

I can’t do it. I can’t jump up and down and say that the web is best positioned to extend or maintain your reach with a shrinking budget. In the past, sure… But I’m guessing this is more than a bad economy – by which I mean typical recession.

If you listen to any talk radio, you might come away thinking that this is just a cyclical downturn made worse by the president’s and press corps’ doom and gloom mantra. This, I believe, is a combination of wishful thinking, partisan posturing, real-world-disconnect and, unfortunately, lack of candor. A radio host might say “why, my advertising has never been better.” Now there’s proof!

So what does all this blather mean for web marketing? It means that in the short run spending more marketing dollars, no matter the medium, probably doesn’t make much financial sense. Not when buyers have deserted the marketplace. I know the old adage that “market consolidation” is a time to increase market share. I guess that might be true if you’re sitting on a pile of cash that has to be spent. But right now you have to think about preserving cash and getting the most bang for whatever bucks you can afford to spend.

I say spend your time and money on your existing customers and your existing business. I had a guy approach me recently about venturing onto the web for the first time. He’s in the virtual tire business. A client says he needs a certain kind of tire and this guy (tire guy) finds it online and takes delivery in less than 24 hours. No inventory. Virtually no overhead. One of tire guy’s ideas was to open an online store. We talked about focusing on “hard-to-find” and “special deal tires.” We also talked about just running a special request “find-it” service – no store. Finally, we discussed using a website as a communication and promotional tool to broaden his local business.

I don’t know which way he’s going to go, but the more I watch this economic drama unfold, the more I think you have to take care of your existing client base. Reach out. Become pro-active. Use the web to ease communication bottlenecks. Grow concentrically and organically (sorry I couldn’t resist).

If you don’t have a website begin modestly. Build it for your existing customers. If they like it so will new customers. If you have a website make sure it works properly and has up to date content. Make sure you clearly explain to your visitors what you do, how you do it and why they should care. Ask for feedback from your customers – not your family and friends. Always work to reduce the business friction so that you’re easier to approach and work with than they guy down the street.

What Does a Website Cost? (Part 4)

You’ve made it this far and are either interested in my advice or angry that I’m dragging this whole thing out. So I won’t keep you waiting any longer.

A website costs whatever you want to spend. Now this isn’t a cop out on my part. It’s actually an important fact. If you know what goes into building a website, you know your budget and you know what you’re looking for, you will be in complete control of the pricing process.

We’ll use my company, Just Imagine, as an example.

Customer calls on the phone and asks what I charge to build websites? I say, “that depends.” And then I launch into my standard talk about how I go about putting together a proposal. Now I’ve done this so many times that I have a pretty good idea after a 10 minute phone conversation what the quote will be. And since I’ve done this for different companies in different market segments, I’m pretty sure that most web services companies approach each project in a similar fashion.

The differences are the starting price point and hourly rate.

I tend to use $1,000 as a starting point for most projects. This represents, to me, a small, static website. A larger firm may have a starting point a little to a lot higher. This reflects the cost of turning on the lights and showing up for work. The bigger the firm, the greater the cost.

The hourly rate is also typically based on the size of the firm. Again, wages, benefits, etc. all go into determining what a company needs to charge for it’s labor. Our rate is $60 an hour. A larger firm may rate based on task – data entry, design, programming, etc. I think our rate is about in the middle of what firms charge for web services in the southeast US.

So what does it cost to build a website?

If you’ve found a firm or group of firms that say their budget sweet-spot is in line with what you’re thinking of spending, then final price will come down to how much you can help the developer/designer and how much the developer/designer wants your help. The more perceived help you can be to the developer, the less time he or she will have in the project, the lower the quote.

Let’s go back to a small website project. I’m thinking $1,000 minimum when I pick up the phone to answer your call. That works out to be about 16 or 17 hours of labor. Typically half of that is going to be in designing the site (colors, navigation, home page layout, etc.). If you know exactly what you want the site to look like and you know what pages will be required (and the type of content on those pages), then you can convince me that I’m going to spend less time than usual building the site. In other words, I might give you a final quote of $800 instead of $1,000.

If, on the other hand, you tell me that I’m the professional and I should tell you what the site should look like, I double my design time. Why? Because I’m going to sit in front of blank screen, come up with an idea, flesh it out and then show it to you, at which point, you may say you hate it. Then I’m back to square 1.

The same holds true for content and functionality. If you know exactly what you want the site to say and do, I’ll be much more likely to keep the quote down. Someone who is vague makes me pad everything because I’ll anticipate “scope creep” – even when the scope is spelled out in a proposal, I’m just too nice a guy to always say “no.”

To summarize

  • Think your project through from objective through content and longer term service needs (changes, marketing, etc.)
  • Call around to web services companies in your area (better to shop local, unless this if your third or fourth generation website) and ask them what size projects they feel most comfortable with. Also review their websites for philosophy, staff size, expertise and portfolio. Ask for references.
  • Call references and ask them about the process: how easy or painful it was, how timely were the responses, how close was the firm to delivering on time and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, how responsive has the firm been to problems/changes with the site AFTER being paid in full.
  • Get two or 3 quotes, but only after having detailed conversations with the principles. Make sure they are aware that you know what you want and that you are willing to play an active role in order to keep the cost down.
  • Compare quotes to make sure apples are apples. Ask questions.
  • Choose the firm that gives you best combination of warm feelings and low cost.

Then you will know what a website, at least your website, costs.

What Does a Website Cost? (part 3)

Back about 7 years ago, while running a fairly large web services firm (27 people), we were asked to quote a web project for a local utility company. The parameters of the job were straight forward, as I recall. The project called or a new website that would provide utility customers with information from all departments. Department heads were to be trained so each could manage content for that department. This required a fairly robust content management sytem, which we had already developed. The site had to interface with the utilities accounting system so bills could be checked and payment made. And there were probably a few bells and whistles that I no longer remember.

If memory serves, we bid around $10,000 for the job (it would cost much less today). Three other companies also bid. One was around $15,000, another in the low $20’s and the last bid over $150,000. After demonstrating that we could do the work, we got the job and proceeded to make money, do a redesign for more money, etc. The client was happy and so were we.

The moral of the story, from the client’s perspective, is be careful who you ask to bid. In this case, the high bidder was a Midwestern IT consulting company that did work for large firms. Their proposal called for moving a team of 3 to Charleston for 90 days to “really” learn the client’s needs. Everyone else was just going to build a website. But the client did such a double-take on the range of bids that they began to question whether or not the little guys could do the job.

So before you send out your RFP or just start calling around, first ask the prospective vendors what their “market sweet spot” is. NOTE: it’s best to ask BEFORE you tell them what kind of firm or type of project you have in mind.

If you’re on a tight budget I would avoid vendors who talk excessively about your “brand.” Whether they know what they’re talking about or not, “brand” costs money and, in my opinion, rarely results in a return on investment. Let the big web services firms and their clients discuss the ins and outs of web branding. You focus on building a website that will accomplish your objectives and stay within your budget (development and marketing).

Also avoid designers who talk too much about their experience with Flash technology. While some Flash is fine, often designers want to build the whole website in Flash. This will help neither your budget nor your prospects for good search engine rankings.

If you’ve got $5000 to spend this year on a website, you want to hear someone talk about building practical websites for $2000 or less. It’s also nice to hear a vendor ask about the site’s objectives and tell you to make sure you set aside money for marketing. The last thing you need is to build a $5000 website and then have to wait until next year to market it.

So what does a website cost? I’ll finally tell you in Part 4.