So you need a website, or want to redesign your current site. It's time to hire a Web designer. But there are so many designers and design firms out there, how do you choose the right one?
Technically, Web designers do just that--design websites. Many people use the term generically, however, to mean a person, or a firm, who handles the information design, graphic design, and programming for a website. They may even contribute to the marketing. In our case, we'll be using the term Web designer to mean someone who can do all of the above, since having a robust Web presence means more than just a pretty front door.
Know what you need
Before you even begin talking to Web designers, you need to do your homework. Whether you currently have a website or are launching a new one, it's important to determine exactly what you want the website to do. Among the questions you need to ask yourself:
Who is your audience and what action do you want them to take? Sign up for your newsletter? Click on ads? Shop in your store?
Is one site enough, or do you need more than one (for example, an informational site feeding into a store)?
What size of website do you need?
What is your budget, and how flexible is it?
The size and type of website you need will depend on the answers to these questions. For instance, if you run, a small local business, such as a dry cleaning business, a simple website that lists contact information, hours, services, and directions might suffice. You may not even need to hire a designer. Many Web hosting firms offer free site-building software that is easy enough to use to create a simple website.
If you need a complex site with thousands of pages, or with sophisticated e-commerce capabilities, you'll want to consider a large, full-service Web design firm, which generally employs (or has standing contracts with) several Web designers, programmers, search engine experts, and so on.
The average small business website falls somewhere between the two and can probably be handled by a small Web design shop. One- or two-person shops generally charge less than larger firms; however, they also generally take longer to finish the project.
Look for recommendations
Once you have sorted out what you need your website to do, and have a sense as to what type of firm or individual you need to target, you'll want to begin your search. Here are a few ways you can begin your search.
Ask other small business owners for recommendations,
Find websites in your industry that you like and noting the design credit at the bottom of the page. Follow the link to the designer's site and view his, her or the firm's portfolio to see if the style and experience illustrated on the website meshes with your own website vision.
When searching remember that geography doesn't count much in Web design. V3 Graphics is a Chicago area designer that provides Web development and consulting to the SMB market has clients in places as diverse as London, Arizona, and Massachusetts. With e-mail and fast broadband file transfer, it makes little difference if the designer is around the corner or around the world. Of course, you might feel more comfortable with a local Web designer, but it should be the quality of the Web designer and not the location that is the deciding factor.
Consider the long-term
Getting the site up is easy compared with maintaining, updating, and marketing it. One of the biggest mistakes many small businesses make is to view their websites as onetime projects isolated from the rest of their marketing efforts, says Virginia Van Vynckt of V3 Graphics. "They get really fixated on colors, what they want the site to look like, then they put it up and basically forget about it. Competition on the Web is ruthless; you need to constantly fine-tune your marketing and keep your site updated."
Considering your website an ongoing project will influence the type of Web design firm you choose. Ask for a detailed proposal from the Web designer that spells out short-term and long-term requirements your website will have. Among the items the proposal needs to spell out:
Who is responsible for what (For example, are you supplying all the images or will the designer supply some?)
What, precisely, is covered by the estimate (number of Web pages, migration of copy from current site if you have an existing one, and so on)
When and how payment is expected,
Where the site is to be hosted
Number of design changes included
Deadlines for various tasks within the project
What happens if either party doesn't live up to the agreement?
Once you've lined up a few prospects, are armed with questions, and a clear understanding go what your project requires, you're ready to get estimates. Many Web designers don't charge for the initial consultation and proposal; others do. Be sure to ask. And get at least two, and preferably three or four, estimates before you choose. Thorough shopping in this case will uncover a Web designer that can meet your business's needs and help you establish a website that pays off.
Alan Canton is the president of Adams-Blake Company, Inc. of Fair Oaks, CA. Adams-Blake Company provides the JAYA123 (www.jaya123.com) Web-based "back-office" application for small and mid-size businesses.