If you’ve decided
that you won’t be designing your Wide Web site in-house, you’re ready
to face the challenge of finding the right development team to do
it for you. In this case, knowledge is power and the key to finding
a working relationship that’s honest, open, and comfortable.
Where To Find A Firm.
You would think that the first, and easiest, step is to check the
Yellow Pages for your locale or a business-to-business directory for
your state. Although that will give you an idea of who is in
your area, a simple ad says little about the caliber of talent paying
for the ad. A broader, and better, search would be to look on the
Search for portfolios that list the sites (and their hyperlinks) the
firm has designed. When you look at sites, scrutinize their design.
Are they variations of the same layout scheme, or is each one distinct?
Are they easy to navigate? Are they loaded with bells and whistles,
or do they have one or two well-placed objects? Does their design
style look compatible with what you want? If your organization is
fairly conservative and the Webmaster’s portfolio looks like a tribute
to Andy Warhol and the pop art movement, you may want to move on.
Bottom line: A firm’s technical capabilities will show in the sites
If all the sites look like they’ve been made with a cookie cutter,
look elsewhere or ask a lot of questions. Tell a Webmaster that you
noticed the similarities and ask for an explanation. It’s possible
that one client really liked the layout of another’s site. But it’s
highly unlikely that all 12 companies in the portfolio wanted to copy
each other. Keep in mind, however, that a Webmaster’s hands ultimately
are tied by client preferences and demands.
Kip Piper of Texas-based MTC Interactive (http://www.mtcia.com/) recommends
talking to other companies to see whom they hired. Most sites list
contact information for the company and hyperlinks to the Webmaster’s
site. There’s nothing wrong with calling a company whose site you
like and saying, “We’re planning our own site and really like yours.
Could you tell us a little about your developer?” Piper recommends
picking clients, if possible, who appear to be similar to you because
- in the same industry,
- are the same size,
- are as liberal/conservative as your company, and
- likely had to work from the same budget you will.
When you call a firm’s clients, have a list of questions
handy. Piper recommends the following questions as starting points:
- Were deadlines consistently met or broken?
- Was the firm flexible about making changes?
- Was someone accessible when you had questions?
- Did the designers suggest simpler alternatives
to overly complicated bells and whistles? (Piper says you should
always design a site to work with a standard browser, not make a
site that requires users to download plug-ins.)
- Did they ask a lot of questions to help them help
you narrow the possibilities?
Don’t be too disturbed if you find Webmaster sites
without any “portfolio” links. One firm told us it had heard of instances
where larger companies stole clients away from smaller firms based
on such portfolio information. Because of that, some firms may be
reluctant to post client information until the business relationship
is solid (and it would be too expensive for the client to change firms).
If you find a Webmaster you want more background on, ask for the URLs
of client sites so you can view their work; if a firm is good, this
shouldn’t be a difficult request to fill.
Be careful of start-ups that are part-time operations (sometimes you
can tell from the sites; sometimes you need a phone call to be sure).
Some Webmasters we talked with admitted to keeping their day jobs
until they could afford to go full time. Others looked frighteningly
like hobbyists out to make some fast cash. There’s nothing wrong with
part-time, start-up firms if they can prove
to you that your site will be done in a timely fashion and that they
have the technical expertise they need.
Finally, look at the companies a Webmaster has worked for. Unfortunately,
firms that have designed sites for large companies with a lot of cash
to burn aren’t always interested in the $3,000 project. Smaller companies
with a local or regional focus have built their reputations on small
clients and know how to make the Web work for them.
Most of the ads for Web design firms include one or more of the following
“buzzwords” that, to a novice, could be a bit confusing. Understanding
what they mean can help you discern whether the firms you talk to
really can help you.
Web site design. Piper defines this as, “We tell
you what it should flow like for the ease of use by your clients.
This is a custom-designed solution based on your business if you’re
getting it from MTC Interactive. From other companies, it may be a
‘canned’ response, or even a site they already did that’s ‘kind of
close’; let’s just change the name of the business and use it for
this guy too.” Generally, this term covers the basic graphic design
and coding required to get your site on the Web and do any custom
Web site development. Kip Piper of MTC Interactive
says that for her company, “development” means they will take the
time to help you set your objectives, determine your audience, decide
how to market your site, and do the follow-up required to keep your
site relevant—in addition to the design of the Web pages. She adds
that the phrase could mean “now that the site has been designed, we’re
going to build it,” though some companies regard it as synonymous
with “Web site design.”
Web site administration. Piper says this usually
means “we make sure the world can see your site the way it was supposed
to be seen.” In MTC Interactive’s case, upon finding a bug, the Webmasters
send a note to the client about the problem, then fix it. If it was
the firm’s fault, an apology is included; if the problem stemmed from
a client request, they’re billed for the work unless it’s minor. Site
maintenance generally is separate from development, but includes changes,
corrections, and updates.
Web site hosting. The firm can provide a home for
your site. If it doesn’t provide Web hosting, an employee there should
know someone who can and provide you with a list of people to call.
For a small fee, good firms will help you with this arrangement.
Kip Piper says Web site development is to Web hosting/server administration
what graphic design is to a printing company. Just as it is your responsibility
to find a printer for your brochures, with or without recommendations
from the graphic designer, it is your obligation to find a Web host.
You should, however, reasonably expect that both parties can at least
communicate with each other. Because Web server administration is
so technical, Piper says, it’s not uncommon to find extremely competent
developers who can’t administer a server. By the same token, though,
just because someone can administer a server doesn’t automatically
make him or her a good developer.
If a firm says it will do all of the above for you, does that automatically
mean you should hire it? Piper agrees that you want to hear a firm
that says either, “Yes, I can do that, but you might want to . . .
,” or, “That’s a bad idea, but you might want to . . . .”
“The Holy Grail answer, believe it or not, is, ‘I myself cannot do
that, nor can my staff, but I know someone who can so we can get it
done,” Piper says. “What you are looking for is the ‘best’ solution,
which is going to be the newest stable solution . . . and being proficient
in ‘everything’ would mean that your guy doesn’t have time to do the
site since he’s too busy studying.”
Once you’ve made a list of the Webmasters you like, it’s time to actually
talk to them. What should you be listening for?
“Your Web site will change the way you do business,” says MTC’s Kip
Piper. “You will have more inquiries with potential customers, more
direct interaction. A designer should be able to help you accommodate
this growth. Look for someone who shows a desire to stay with you
for the long haul and is willing to do everything reasonably possible
to make your site work.”
How do you know if someone is in it for the long haul? Is he asking
questions about how you’ll be updating the site once it’s done? Does
she make comments like, “Since that idea is a little more than we
mutually want to take on now, can we file it away as something to
do later?” If it sounds like the firm will disappear when the site
is “done,” look elsewhere.
Piper says that a good firm “will ask you what you want before they
ask you what you want to spend. Money drives any business, but there
are enough of us out here that care about our customers to make it
[secondary]. If the site we build for you makes you money, you’ll
want us to add to it. Look for someone who is willing to sit down
with you and work out what you want, not what they think you want.”
Communication, she says, is the key. “If you tell your potential developer,
‘Build me a site that makes twice as many sales as we currently make,’
and they say, ‘No problem,’ you need to make sure you still have your
wallet and run, not walk, for the door.” On the other hand, if they
ask about current sales volume, demographics of your audience, and
your current advertising methods, you have a developer who’s on the
Piper says good Webmasters understand that it’s difficult to get newcomers
to understand the technical capabilities of the Web. These firms are
willing to work on your level, using layman’s terms and real-world
examples to explain how things work, what will benefit your site,
and what won’t work and why. They also understand that the Web site
is an extension of an image you’ve already built and is not the core
“A Web site is a significant marketing tool that should be no less
important than your brochures and annual reports,” Kip Piper says.
“Your Web site is a reflection of your company. A high-end, rich-looking
site will make you look professional and well-managed—even if it isn’t
loaded down with all the bells and whistles that current technology
Oddly enough, you want a firm that can say no. Developers can make
thousands of dollars for custom programming, but a good firm will
say, “Yes, we can do that but you really don’t want to do that on
your site and here’s why.” The average Web site visitor wants to get
in quickly, get the information, and leave satisfied. Users don’t
want slow-loading graphics, video clips that require special plug-ins,
or search functions that can be more effectively accomplished with
simple links. Webmasters who can educate you on these points are worth
the $100-an-hour fee.
Piper agrees, saying, “Your Webmaster is the one who decides how to
sell you on the ’Net, or delivers what you say to deliver. If the
person is a yes-man, you might want to look elsewhere; 99% of the
time, the client does not have as much Web experience as the Webmaster,
so all your ideas being ‘right’ is a good sign the person isn’t too
interested in your success.”
Bottom line, Kip Piper says, is trust. If a client doesn’t feel comfortable
with the firm and doesn’t trust it enough not to second-guess decisions,
the development process will never work. If you always have a nagging
doubt about a firm’s straightforwardness, then you need to find another
The Battle Over Software.
In questioning a Webmaster’s technical prowess, you’re likely to run
into what Kip Piper says is one of the most hotly contested issues
in Web design: HTML editors vs. HTML generators.
HTML generators, such as Adobe PageMill or Claris HomePage,
let you design a Web page using What You See Is What You Get
(WYSIWYG) technology before the program generates
the coding. There’s nothing wrong with this, except when you look
at the underlying code, you’ll find a lot of additional package-specific
coding. The extra coding sometimes can make for a less-stable page
than one that’s been coded with an HTML editor such as Dreamweaver
or the Cold-Fusion suite. Piper refers to these programs
as “what you see is what you deserve,” stating that while competent
Webmasters will have a wide array of tools at their disposal, coding
pages by hand still is a real possibility.
Kip Piper is quick to say that there is nothing wrong with
HTML generators, but she emphasizes that industry standards are the
HTML editing packages. If a Webmaster gives a laundry list of software
on his or her vitae, look for references to “HTML editors” or the
names of editing packages. If someone says he or she uses true HTML
editors, preferring to pass on HTML generators, you have a keeper.
Putting The Money
On The Table.
Most Webmasters are reluctant to post rates on their sites, and for
good reason. Web site development is dependent on each site and no
one can be sure of how much time (or money) will be required until
firms and clients are through the initial consultations. Some Webmasters
publish package prices, which can give you an estimate, but this pricing
should be flexible after a proper assessment of your needs.
Be wary of companies that have long lists of rates for HTML programming,
custom coding, updates, adding files that you provide, and assorted
other tasks. Nickle and diming work isn’t the best way to build a
relationship, especially when you’re being charged $5 to fix one typo
on a page because the firm has a flat rate for page updates/edits.
Piper says the going rate for reputable firms is $80 to $120 per hour.
A hypothetical, simple seven-page site with hyperlinks between pages,
two Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG)
graphics on each page, and an E-mail inquiry form with 13 fields—similar
to what companies would start out with until a Webmaster educated
them on what else could be done— should generally cost about $2,000.
Surprisingly, prices don’t vary widely between regions of the country.
Piper says that everything should be agreed to in a written contract
that includes target dates, what the client will provide and when,
turnaround time for each phase, and so forth. If the firm has a stock
contract that they refuse to change, regardless of the demands of
your particular project, it might be best to look elsewhere.
Be realistic in your demands. Developers cannot be expected to have
someone on their team for every task that can crop up. Many times,
there are highly specialized tasks that occur infrequently, making
it implausible to hire someone full-time. Good developers, though,
will have access to programmers who can do the work. Extra work, including
copywriting, is your responsibility. Occasionally you’ll find a Webmaster
who knows a freelance copywriter or demo designer, but this isn’t
Kip Piper adds that the contract also should make the following perfectly
You own your Web site and the content and files on it; the Web site
developer owns the process. This means developers own the rights to
the programming they created to accomplish something for your site.
For a fee, the developer can teach you the process if he or she wants
to. Otherwise, you should have everything you gave the developer to
design the site.
When registering your domain name, the paperwork should name you as
the registrant and the billing contact (the forms
use those terms explicitly). Do not let someone else pay for your
domain name. Just as you wouldn’t sign over ownership of your house,
neither should you with your Web site.
How Do I Say What
For novices, it’s difficult to say what they want from their site.
But there are ways to get your point across.
“If you don’t know what you want, tell us where you want to be and
we’ll suggest how to get there,” Piper says. “Point at other sites.
Draw pictures. If you have an idea, we want to hear it. If you think
your idea is too complicated, tell us anyway because it may be a lot
easier and more economical than you think.”
Piper says that developers welcome pictures. These can be screen shots,
doodles, or color sketches. When pointing to another site (remember
to give the full URL), be sure to say whether you like the whole page’s
design, the buttons that were used for hyperlinks, or just the color
scheme. Additionally, don’t be afraid to modify. Developers can do
a lot with comments such as, “I like this whole page, except on our
site we’d like the company logo to be here and the search field to
look like this.”
Piper also suggests sharing copies of your company’s brochures, annual
reports, flyers, advertisements, newsletters, and any other publications
that contribute to its image. This shows the developer design possibilities
and educates him or her about your product(s). An understanding of
what you’re selling also will help the developer, so you might include
a demonstration of one or more of your products.
With a little planning and a lot of thought, you can make outsourcing
Web design not only a smooth process, but also an enjoyable one.
by Whitney Potsus
|How Can I Help My Developer?
While a good Webmaster will know what questions to ask, you
can streamline the process by anticipating the more commonly
asked questions. MTC Interactive’s Kip Piper offers the following
tips, which can be a starting point for more specific discussions
and accurate estimates. You can bring this information with
you, or send it to the developer in advance.
1. What are the demographics of your customers?
2. Do you have any survey data that indicates their PC comfort
level, including the browsers they use, how often they use
their computer for home/business, and what they use the Web
3. Do you have access to the files with company logos and
other stock graphics? What format are they in and are they
IBM- or Macintosh-compatible? What program authored the graphics?
4. Are there any legal issues surrounding slogans, icons,
or borrowed materials?
5. Is the Web site continuing the corporate image, or is it
launching a new one?
6. Where will the copy be coming from? Will it be new or a
reworked version of existing materials?
7. How do you want the site to flow? Draft an outline of the
pages you want. What will be on the home page? Other main
pages? Subpages? For example, you might have an introduction
page for your Human Resources department, from which you can
link to pages for employment opportunities, internships, special
programs for the disabled, and online applications.
8. Will there be E-mail response/inquiry forms or order forms?
9. Will there be a database? How large is it? Will you be
using the whole database or just part of it, and who will
extrapolate the data if you answer yes to the latter? Will
the online database use the same structure as the existing
one, and who will change it if the answer is no? What program
was the database created in? How will updates be handled?
Piper says the more information you can provide to the developer,
the better. This way, he/she can focus on the things that
you really can’t (or don’t want to) do.