5 Important Criteria for Choosing Your Web Designer

By: Stéphane Bergeron

Finding a good Web design professional is not easy. It’s a very competitive arena where it an be hard to pick out the real professionals from those who jump into this complex field without mastering the craft. You have to be wary of offers that seem too good to be true… they often are! The creation of an effective Web presence requires more than just technical skills and more than the mere ability to create “pretty things”. It requires serious planning and creative and technical skills that are up to par with standards that are constantly evolving.

Whether you choose to do business with a studio or agency or with a solo professional like me, there are certain selection criteria that you should be evaluating carefully in order to take the best decision possible for your business. This article describes 5 of the ones I consider most important.

Please note that, when I say “the professional” or the “Web professional” in this article, it can be a solo professional as much as a studio or agency.

Beyond the technical expertise or creative skills the firm or person you want to hire must posses, there are other signs, behaviors or attitudes that can give you important clues about what it will be like to work with them. The first 3 criteria listed below are of this type. The last 2 are more technical. Some of them may seem self evident but you would be surprised to know how many so called professional would fail to meet them.

The Qualities You Should Be Looking For

1- Listening skills

Beyond the mastery of their craft, good listening skills are the most important ones a Web professional should have in my view. It is by asking you the right questions, and more importantly, by listening to your answers that they will be able to understand your particular circumstances and define your project’s real goals. If they try to sell you cookie cutter solutions without trying to understand your needs (which can be much more modest than you think), look elsewhere. Cookie cutter solutions can sometimes be cheaper in the short term but they rarely satisfy your unique requirements. You might have to start from scratch later. On the other hand, a pre-made solution can be much more complex than what you really need and be far more costly than a smaller custom solution uniquely crafted for your needs would be. It all depends… and a real professional should take the time and have the skills to find out what’s best for you.

2- Communication skills

Another key quality for me is good communication skills. If you contact a Web professional for the first time through an indirect mean like email or LinkedIn or something like that and not by phone, they should be able to give you an answer in a timely manner and always give you an indication of what the next steps are. On your end, you need to communicate what you want clearly in that initial contact. If it’s just an information request about their services or something of that nature, they should be able to answer within 1 working day or faster.

On the other hand, if you are requesting a quote in that first contact, the Web professional should at minimum ask to talk to you on the phone to clarify the project’s scope and requirements. Better yet, they should request a meeting in person if it is at all possible. Nothing better than a face to face meeting to size each other up and clarify a project’s details.

Preparing a realistic quote depends on the quality and completeness of information the Web professional gets from you. It cannot be done in a few minutes and generally requires a few days to be done right. It’s not just a matter of writing it. Some thought and analysis has to go into it and that takes time. After that they’ll be able to write a detailed quote (more about that in item 5).

In any case, the Web professional should clearly communicate their next steps to you and if they are waiting on any additional information or material from you in order to to move forward. If communications from them are slow or unclear at this stage, imagine what it could be like during the project! Be vigilant!

3- Transparency

This criterion is obviously harder to size up if you do not know the firm or person you are dealing with. When I say transparency, I mean honesty or openness but also the capacity to get real with you if the Web professional disagrees with some of your demands or suggestions. A professional will use their skills and experience to advise and help you… even if what they say is not what you want to hear. They’ll have a good high level vision of the project and won’t be emotionally invested. A Web site is first and foremost a tool that will be used to serve the needs of your business and your clients or site visitors. Business objectives and user needs should always prevail over mere personal preferences so keep that in mind when critiquing the professional’s work. Design is not art. It’s a process to create effective communication pieces or user experiences.

When I say transparency, I also mean honesty about the Web professional’s skills and capacity to deliver what they promise when they promise it. It is better in my opinion for a professional to turn down a project and send the client to someone who can serve them better than to miss a deadline or deliver an incomplete Web site.

On the other side, you need to evaluate your requirements and deadlines in a realistic manner. Could the project be delivered in smaller chunks and only include essential features at launch then have the rest added in phases later? If so then don’t pressurize your Web professional into delivering a “complete” but inferior solution on an unreasonable deadline. You’ll never get a second chance at a first impression…

4- Costing the project accurately

Each project and problem is different and so should the solution. You should avoid any Web professional that only quote projects by the page or have fixed price grids on their site based on number of pages only. Unless your site will contain hundreds of pages, the number of pages is a mostly irrelevant criterion for costing a Web site project. Most of the work is about planning, analysis then creative design work based on that planning and analysis. Next comes coding the initial HTML and CSS templates or integrating the design in a CMS like WordPress. Copying this base template to other pages is usually very quick work. Programming custom features, designing and building a database, all that takes time and weighs far more in the cost of a Web site project than the number of pages. This means that a 5 pages site can cost about the same as a 50 pages site as the same amount of planning, creative and basic coding work needs to be done in both cases.

On the other hand, this kind of fixed price grid can be fine if it’s used as a baseline that will give you a ball park idea of how it might cost to get your project done by this professional. All projects are different yes, but some types of projects have similar requirements and the custom work needed could be minimal. The professional should be clear that the price grid is a baseline and that any unique requirements will cost extra.

But, if a Web design services supplier only sells work by the page and that is their only criteria for costing (along with number of “graphics” per page or some other similarly silly criteria), you will probably end up with a site that has been copied dozens of times with minor variations. The supplier probably uses the same base templates on each project with the same basic layout. Even if it’s not as obvious as that, they still probably won’t take your particular needs into account if your site has few pages as they would not be able to turn a profit if they put in the time really needed to craft a personalized solution. The results will probably disappoint you and you’ll soon have to start from scratch.

5- Quality of the quote

The type of quote you will receive when you request one and the level of details in it are also good indicators of the level of professionalism of the professionalyou are negotiating with. Without going into the minutiae of the project, the quote should clearly and accurately describe the work, services and deliverables the Web professional will provide for the stated cost. This can include an approximate number of pages, the technologies used to build the site, the number of graphical comps and number of revisions they will provide, etc. The quote should also include a reasonable estimate of delivery time but keep in mind that no one can plan for every contingency…

The quote should also come with an introduction letter where the supplier restates the project’s goals and requirements as they understand them at this stage. This description should tell you if they understood the general business requirements and the project’s goals correctly.

Other criteria you should pay attention to

  1. Their own Web site: Is the supplier’s own Web site updated regularly? Does it load fast? Does it look professional?
  2. Portfolio: Look at the firm or designer’s portfolio. Visit their client’s sites. Evaluate them as in the previous point. Do their sites all look alike? This could be a sign that the designer applies the same “recipe” to each project with little to no regard to their clients’ specific needs. On the other hand, if they specialize in working for clients in a very specific niche, it would be normal that each site share some similarities.
  3. Past clients’ testimonials: Does the designer’s site display some client testimonials? Are they attributed to people with company names you can look up so you can contact them and get references?

If you follow these criteria and trust your instincts, you will surely find a Web professional that can provide the solutions you really need and who you’ll like working with. For me, the creation of an effective Web site and Internet strategy is a collaboration with my clients. Consider the person or company you’ll choose to work with as a partner and adviser and not a mere supplier of consumer goods. If they are real professionals, they will be on your side and try to advise you the best they can. Trust them. They are experts in their field and their reputation depends on the quality of their work…

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