July 5, 2011

Choosing A Web Designer Without Going Broke

I’ve been working on a project: the total overhaul of my Web site. So it requires that I take advantage of lessons learned in past web site projects.

To move my business to the next level, it was time to have a professional Web developer transform my site into a sleeker, user-friendly experience for my clients. But my goal in doing so was to avoid being sucker-punched when it came to cost and my ability to control my site once the design was done.

Two years ago, I hired a Web designer in Canada to design a user-friendly site which could be updated on a daily basis. The National Collegian, an online newspaper that had the aim of culling the top news stories from the nation’s campuses, launched in 2005. It was my first “Web baby” and I spent countless hours obsessing about the look and feel that I wanted.

Having a nearly two-decades long career in journalism, I had done layout and design for community papers and was excited about taking that challenge to the Internet. I had found the Web developer through a professional organization and figured that because of that relationship, she would be the perfect person to create my vision.

I asked for a hip, sleek site that I could update easily. What I got was a clunky site that I had to twist into a pretzel in order to update. I clocked four hours one night trying to figure out the system that had been designed for me at a cost of more than $2,000.

The Web designer’s answer to my dilemma was a $200-a-month maintenance contract in which I would e-mail my changes to her and she would update the site. Less than efficient, and hardly cost-effective. After a month, I took the site down and sucked up my financial losses.

In retrospect, I believe the mistakes made were two-fold. I was not able to articulate my requirements for the project – and she knew I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, hence the ability to take advantage to some extent.

It was a hard lesson to learn, but it wound up being a godsend when time came for me to hire a new developer for my site. Sometimes you have to fail in order to learn.

A first lesson was learn what they are doing so I know what I need to have done. Not being an expert by any stretch, I decided to, at the very least, learn the basics.

My initial site was created through a Web development site that allowed me to create my own Web site using pre-fabricated templates. It gave me a “do-it-yourself” lesson in content and design, and helped me articulate what I wanted and how I wanted my store presented to the world. It wasn’t perfect, but it was my vision.

I learned about stock photos, content, HTML code and e-commerce basics. I got lessons in domain names and Web hosting. I found out that not all such “do-it-yourself” sites are created equal. I had read about a local firm, FreeWebs.com and practiced putting a site online there at no cost, but the capabilities, of course, were limited, so I moved over to Homestead.com., where I found a home for my site for nearly a year.

It was functional and eye-catching, but I wanted more. I found a designer I could work with through a referral from a friend.

The first order of business was a conversation. I explained quite explicitly what I wanted and stressed that I had to have the ability to easily update my own site. That was not negotiable. I insisted on a contract with target dates and benchmarks. The new designer was a great listener and said quickly said none of my requests were unreasonable.

And so far, it’s been a totally different experience. The site so far is on track to being what I want for my clients – a user friendly online Bay experience, and what I want for me, easily updatable. I can’t wait to unveil it later this month.

So the lessons learned? Here they are:

1) Get a referral for Web developer who had done the type of work you need done.

2) Make a list of the specific requirements for your site. Draw a sketch of each page, if you have to. Determine what items are negotiable and what are not.

3) Have a conversation with the developer about each item on the list and listen to what they can reasonably do, and not do. Get cost estimates and decide where you want the money to go – a great-looking store front, for example, or a larger database.

4) Ask for target dates and bench marks for each phase of the project. Make sure they are specific and written into the contract.

5) And ask to see the work as it progresses so that you can re-direct a vision gone astray, or scale back a project that may be overly ambitious.

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