Enhancing Web Sites
November 2004 • Vol.10 Issue 11

Third-Party Web Design
How To Know When To Trust Someone Else With Your Site

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 Web.

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 they design.

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 they’re:

  • 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 programming.

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.”

 Making Contact.

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 ball.

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 marketing vehicle.

“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 offers.”

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 firm.

 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 the norm.

Kip Piper adds that the contract also should make the following perfectly clear:

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 I Want?

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 for?

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.  

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