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Web Design: The Good, The Bad, & The Downright Frustrating

Nov 9th, 2011

Ok, you know you need a website. Where to begin?

Undertaking a website design project can be frustrating, but it shouldn't be. We know first-hand here at makespace! media + design lab, because approximately half of the projects we're hired for involve recreating or redesigning a website that was poorly designed in the first place. This is unfortunate on many levels, as the client has now had to pay for a website at least twice, and has lost untold business due to a bad website. Like most things in life, if it's important, the best way to begin is to hire a professional. The trick is to distinguish the true professionals from the one's just claiming to be, and to find one that offers value and an solid return on your investment. Easy, right? If you know what to look for, and what to avoid.

AVOID: Web design firms that are not local.
Why: Your website will be a direct extension of your business, so it's important that the design firm that creates it knows your business first-hand. They need to know your products and services, your long- and short-term goals, as well as be able to recommend features and content that will help you achieve those goals. If you do business locally or regionally, it's important that your web design firm be familiar with the specifics of your local market and target demographic. Also, your relationship with your web designer will ideally last the lifetime of your business, so you'll want to maintain it's a relationship built on face-to-face contact rather than just phone calls and emails. As well, you want to make sure that your design firm is accessible, accountable, and trustworthy before you give them any money. Plus, don't you want to make sure your money stays in your city or state, at the very least in the United States?

AVOID: Web designers that farm out programming to other countries.
Why: Many website design companies that do business in the US are actually owned by foreign nationals, and many are located in Mumbai, India. While you may have an American sales rep, the design work and/or programming will be done overseas because they are willing to do it for pennies on the dollar. While initially cheaper, this may end up costing you much more in the long term. Moreover, foreign designers and programmers have absolutely no idea of your local market or demographics, and are unaccountable as they are literally a world away. What happens when your site goes down suddenly or you want to make quick changes? Make sure your designer is accountable and local, not just a voice at the end of a phone line.

AVOID: One-man shops that 'do it all'.
Why: The vast majority of existing websites on the Internet right now could use some improvement, and most could use an overhaul in more than one category. This is the direct result of designers who are incompetent in one or more required fields in designing a website that has all the elements in needs to reach maximum performance. Your project, regardless of size, requires several skill sets to accomplish the needed goals. You need a Graphic Designer, a Content Manager, and a Programmer at the very least. To get a better idea, it's important to be at least a bit familiar with these different elements.

Below is a list of the necessary elements for a well-designed website:

1) Navigation: The site should be easy to navigate and the menu items should be easily accessible from every page. The viewer should always know exactly where he or she is on the site and have easy access to where he or she would like to be. A Site Map is a great idea and will be used if available. This sounds elementary, but most sites could be improved upon in this area. Remember, there is a fine line between an interactive menu and an annoying one, so functionality should be the idea.

2) Design: People are visually-oriented creatures, and utilizing great graphics is a good way to make your site more appealing. However, it's important not to go overboard with too much. Scrolling text, animation, special effects, and Flash intros should be used sparingly and only to emphasize a point for maximum effect.

3) Content: This is the backbone of your website. Not only does your content play a major role in your search engine placement, it is the reason most visitors access your site. Your text should be informative, easy to read, and concise. Well thought out content will do more than anything else to make your site engaging, effective and popular.

4) Web-Friendly: No matter how informative, beautiful, and easy to use your website is, it's useless unless it's web-friendly. It is important that your web designer know the keys to making your site work on all the major browsers, utilizing meta tags, alt tags, and the many other factors that effect your search engine placement and the visual appearance of your site.

5) Interaction: A truly effective website engages your visitors immediately and continues to hold their attention through EVERY page, as well as influences them to contact you. Again, there is a fine line between ‘interaction’ and ‘annoyance’, so the level of interaction should never outweigh the benefit.

6) Information Accessibility: Not all visitors to your site are interested in, or have the time to peruse, the entire site. They may need to access only a phone number or address, or just a certain bit of information. For this reason, it’s important to place key information in plain site, in areas that are easily accessible. We’ve all had the experience of not being able to locate some needed information in a website. The experience is frustrating at best, and a frustrated visitor won’t stay on your site very long and is unlikely to return.

7) Intuitiveness: A great website knows what your visitor is thinking and caters directly to his or her needs, and its elements are arranged in a way that makes sense.

8) Branding: Your site should be a reflection of your business. Your visitor should immediately make a visual connection between your logo, print material, and brick-and-mortar location. A website that does this not only contributes to the familiarity of your branding, but adds a level of credibility and enhanced image to your business.

9) Turnaround Time: The number one complaint of website design customers is the time it takes to get the site up and running. Unfortunately, a design firm that takes unusually long to complete your site is par for the course. The longer it takes to complete the site, the more value lost. A site that isn’t on the web isn’t a site at all!

10) Search Engine Optimization (SEO): Your website needs to contain content that not only makes sense to your visitors, but contains key words that are highly relevant to potential searches on search engines like Google and Yahoo. Furthermore, there is a long list of constantly changing rules that need to be regulartly observed in order to rank high on these search engines. For this reason it's important that your web design firm is well-versed in SEO, as many of these optomizations must be done as the website is being created, not after it's completed. It's your money, so make sure the website is designed right the first time.

AVOID: Doing it yourself.
Why? Because you are a specialist in a different field and with different skill sets. As stated above, it takes several people to design a site that has all the elements for success, each of which needs years of training and experience. You are in business because you do what you do better than 99% of the population and you know that you can accomplish your job more efficiently and more professionally than someone not in your field. So it goes with web design. It's also important to remember that a great graphic artist is indeed an artist, and an art talent, while it can be refined, cannot be taught. Even most self-described "Web Designers” should be in another field. If you want a website done right, leave it to the experts.

AVOID: Design firms that only offer web design.
WHY? Odds are you'll need more design work at some point in your professional career. You'll need business cards, stationery, advertisements, brochures, etc., and it's important to be able to get these things from one source if at all possible. Not only is it convenient and efficient, it allows for consistency, a very important element in branding. What often happens after a business gets a new and spectacular website, it injects a refreshing surge into the business image, and the owner(s) often take their business image to the next level, so it's important to retain a design firm that can handle your needs as you grow.

AVOID: Templates and Instant Websites.
Why? A template is a prefabricated website design "frame” into which your own content is placed. Because a template is a one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter solution, odds are your business' needs won't be adequately addressed. Your business is unique, and therefore needs a website that is created specifically to deliver the results you need. Plus, how many other businesses have the same template? This is the online equivalent of walking into a party where someone is wearing the exact same outfit as you. Again, most web designers don't fully satisfy a business' needs with a custom design, so using a templated website will prove even worse.

AVOID: Amateurs, your cousin, students and IT guys.
Why? The same reason you don't hire your neighbor, a medical student, or veterinarian to operate on you. Unfortunately in this business, we don't have a Bar exam to pass before we're considered "Web Designers” and we don't get a cute little 'WD' next to our name. Basically, any hack with a computer and a design program can pass themselves off as web designers, and the Internet is full of their [un]handy work. Also, many people lump all computer related professions into one, and therefore assume that the guys that installed their network can also design a good website. The trick to avoiding those self-described web designers is simple: Look at their portfolio. Are the sites contemporary without being trendy? Do they look like every other website of their kind? Are they easy to navigate? Are they attractive? And the ultimate test: Are they still online? Don't be afraid to ask for references. Remember that most web designers are right-brained, and therefore probably not the most responsible people in the world. Did they complete their projects quickly and efficiently, or did it take a year of pulling teeth? Finally, look at the price. If it seems too cheap, there's a reason. If you are trading your website design for a gift certificate to Applebee's, how good is it going to be? In web design, like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Usually...

AVOID: Big, high profile firms.
Why? They command big, high profile rates. And the people getting the bulk of those rates are sitting in a boardroom, not in front of a computer screen designing your site. The person actually designing your site is making $12.00 an hour churning out your site and 20 others. We call then Code Monkeys. You'll never actually talk to this person, as he gets his or her orders from their Project Manager. Our bet: Neither of their hearts is in their work, because if they were, they would quit and start their own company, just like you did. At the end of the day, you paid not only for your website, you also paid for their billboard.

AVOID: Designers that work from their mom's basement.
WHY: Because you want to know that you're going to get something for your deposit and where to find them if they don't return your call. You also want the very best website design for your money. Like any other specialty, if they offer value, professional results, and are experts at what they do, they'll be successful enough to invest back into their business. Look for web design firms that are members of associations like local Chambers of Commerce, professional guilds, and the Better Business Bureau. If they have a studio or office that is open to customers, you know they'll be accessible when you need them.

AVOID: Web designers whose own sites are lacking.
Why: You can expect yours won't be much better. That would be like taking marriage counseling from Liz Taylor.

Ok, now that you are frozen with fear and have given up on getting a website...

What Should You Look For?

Well, if you've gotten this far, stay here!

makespace! media + design lab is a locally-owned and operated design firm that is small enough to care, but large enough to handle all of your creative design needs, from web to print and more. We have a staff of cross-trained, professional, and creative web designers, graphic designers, programmers and project managers. Our studio office is located at 1236 South Shelby Street, where our customers can stop by and participate in their projects. We're accessible, accountable, and we'll answer your phone call or email promptly. We're members of Greater Louisville Inc. and the Better Business Bureau. We're experienced, professional and friendly. We offer value and results that speak for themselves.

Call us today or click here to schedule a free consultation for your next project.

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