Phil's been passionate about technology, specifically the web, for years and has been building ugly websites since 1995. Lately you can find him doing some web development, brewing or drinking craft beer, snob style.
Twenty years ago considering a website didn’t take much thought. Standards were disparate at best, and best practices were not a huge consideration for the masses of small business owners looking to say they have a company web site. Today, however, the web is far more sophisticated and the user experience is something that you ignore at your peril. Not to mention that there are hundreds of different routes that you can take if you want to go from no web presence to something that effectively represents you, your brand and your services. But which way should you go? Which option is right for you (…and more importantly for your budget), and how should you get there?
First, a disclaimer. This post is for that entrepreneur, micro or small or medium size business owner who’s ready to take the leap but is caught up between the myriad DIY options (Webly, Webydo, Wix) and hiring a professional to create that first site. For my experienced designers and developers, read this for your entertainment only - it ain’t for you. I welcome your comments but this piece has the noobie small business owner in mind.
Regardless of whether you DIY it, or hire someone, the intent of this article is to help make you a more informed decision maker with regard to your web design or development project:
While this might seem like common sense, its one of those things that often goes overlooked by most people, even professionals. If you have a clear picture of what your finished product will look and feel like you’ll have a more precise expectation of everything from timelines to budget. Take the time to document how the final product should look and behave, upfront. Do a simple normative analysis and ask yourself, from your customer’s perspective, what should one get out of a visit to your site? What should the potential customer take away from visiting your pages? Write these things down and own them!
Know the difference! From a high level, a design project is one that produces an aesthetically pleasing site and is primarily used to promote or share information with your existing and potential customers. Think like an electronic brochure. Comparitively, a development project could be more detailed by several orders of magnitude. While the lines blur a bit, especially with the advancements in web technology, a web development project typically results in a product where users are able to interact with your site in some meaningful way, whether it be some added functionality like user authentication, commenting on a blog post, signing up for a newsletter, or some crazy custom functionality that you’re sure no other site has. Web development is a rabbit hole that will be addressed in a different article where we’ll start with an idea and walk through the steps to get an web application made. Not now, grasshopper. Be patient.
When inspiration strikes, your first instinct is not to grab your phone and ask Siri for “the nearest web designer near me”. No, you grab whatever’s close to you and start sketching something out. A napkin, envelope, end of your T-shirt…it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you do that brain dump while the vision is still fresh in your dome. Doing this not only releases the pressure, so to speak, but helps you to clarify your vision. It could also save you money downstream. In scope here are artifacts like wire frames, sketches and use cases. Believe it or not, Mr. or Mrs. professional designer - most normal folk only have a vague idea of what a wireframe is and even less of an idea of how to create one. But, Mr. or Mrs. small business owner or entrepreneur - if you take the time to sketch your vision out the low-tech way it will go a long way toward (1) helping you more clearly define what you want and, (2) help your designer/developer understand your needs a little better. So take the time and sketch out the first few screens of your project. They don't have to be perfect and you’d be surprised at how the practice sparks even more creativity. Before long you’ll have created a good amount of detail that can ultimately be used by any designer or developer to bring your vision to life. And, as a general rule, the more work you do up front, the closer you’ll be able to avoid dreaded scope creep.
Once the picture starts to become more real, feel free to contact several designers or developers, depending on your needs and the problems you’re trying to solve. This, of course, assumes that you’ll hire someone else to do the work. But even if you do it yourself, the work that you’ve produced to this point will be extremely valuable. One point here - TAKE THE TIME TO CREATE AN NDA THAT WILL PROTECT YOUR IDEA! This is primarily for a web development project and especially one that solves a specific business problem. You can usually find one online. Take it, read it, and morph it into something that works for you. Basically, the signed NDA allows you to talk freely with developers and protects your intellectual property. This has never happened to me or anyone that I know, but its too easy to create and have on file so just do the needful and get it done!
If you hire someone to craft your precious web presence, what you're really doing is entrusting them with your brand - and your brand is the one thing you need to protect with reckless abandon because its the thing that’s so hard to change once impressions have been made. You’re not buying a used car - If you’re in business you have a matter of fractions of a second to leave an impression on the future visitors. You can blow it with a production that doesn’t truly represent you and your business’ brand how you intend. So if you feel that the professional with whom you’ve entrusted your brand is basically a scum bag, has poor communication skills or will basically agree to everything you say, you need to seriously consider moving on.
Nonetheless, web design and development is one area where you can literally spend thousands of dollars and never shake the hands of the team working for you. How ridiculous does that sound? This one is simply a matter of preference for me, but I'm based in a world-class city. Others may not have the luxury. I’m sure that for the sake of argument you might be able to come up with a few other areas where you would spend significant amounts of money and never physically meet the person that’s cashing your checks, but none come to mind right now. Everybody has their own philosophy, and I will admit that I’ve personally done non-local business like this before and have been quite pleased with the end product. I’ve also been burnt like forgotten toaster bread. Big time. Generally, for me, I won’t do business with anyone I can’t reach out and choke should something go wrong or if directions need to be changed on a dime. Minimally, I like to keep the lines of communication wide open. This is not a knock on foreign labor. Hell, I buy nothing but Hondas, but you should protect your brand and your ideas even more fiercely than your car keys, especially with a web development project where functionality is so important. In my opinion only, there’s almost no need for the small business owner to send your dollars elsewhere when there’s talent next door. So although you could possibly spend a little more by keeping your work domestic (U.S. based designers and developers typically charge more), it could save you time on re-designs, break-fixes, and generally going from A to Z without the other barriers that could potentially impede progress. Just consider that when something goes wrong, and it will (it always does...), how far will you have to travel to have that one meeting that will get a project back on track?
Here's a caveat to the previous point! So you’re knee deep into a project and realize that, after time, your getting emails from someone that doesn’t have a superior grasp on grammar. This is a tough one, because I’m inclined to screw up grammatically every now and then myself (Call it poetic justice), but you know you can tell when something’s amiss. I have personal anecdotes. Contact me and I'll tell you all about it! Look, I read Tim Ferris’ book too, and it sounds great until you’re the one writing checks and experiencing a drop off in customer service. Don’t be afraid to ask your designer or developer who will be doing the work, where they are based, and if any of your project will be outsourced at any time! Outsourcing is not a bad thing, but when you’ve set expectations it can definitely impact your relationship with your developer, going forward.
Do Not pay if milestones haven’t been met! This one needs little clarification, but generally, a good idea is to treat your web project like your kitchen remodel - why in the bleepidy bleep should you pay for a granite counter top installation if it hasn't been installed yet, right? You should be able to see progress from milestone to milestone and if promises have been made, these milestones will give you some leverage should a dispute occur. Hopefully your designer has predicted progress accurately. Acknowledging that nobody's perfect, but these are the hallmarks of an experienced designer, developer or project manager, and someone you want to maintain a professional relationship with in perpetuity. Others may promise the sun for the price of moonlight. For those, I say, "Buyer beware!"
At some point all of your hard work and patience will pay off, and you’ll have a finished product whether it be a simple brochure-like website or a full-on, custom web application. Regardless, before that final payment, test the site, all of the links and functionality to make absolutely sure it operates as intended. Do not leave anything untouched here. I mean, assume that your users will do the craziest, non-sensical stuff on your site. We've acknowledged that nobody's perfect and you can expect mistakes to happen. Most are even easily fixable, but its best to know before that final handshake than well after when the team has moved on to other projects. If your product is a web application this process will be more detailed and formalized. Ask your developer what type of testing they have in place. Ask for user acceptance testing. Ask if you can gather some of your friends to beat the application or site up. Hopefully you have it worked in where any changes at that point in the project won’t cost you your first born. Bottom line is its best to make changes at that time, than to publish a project you’re not completely proud of and satisfied with.
The web is a playground and it’s become a way of life both for the casual user and the hardcore business person. We’re interacting with the web in ways today that weren’t thought of by the masses even just 10 short years ago. While we’ve come to rely on the internet and web as a means to share and access information, it’s still fresh enough, with just the right amount of misunderstanding, that you, that small business owner, could be taken advantage of if you're not careful. Hopefully this article will make you slightly more informed, and therefore more powerful as you try to figure this web thing out.
Whatever you decide, I wish your project success!
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Southland's Web Demystification series is for micro, small and medium business owners that desire to make that leap to the web but might not know exactly how to do it. By inlcuding some insightful tips and tricks we hope to empower the small business owner, and with good information give them the boost of confidence they may need to go from ground to launch. To be notified when more articles are published on Southland Creative
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