6 Key Considerations when Successfully Commissioning a Website

Editors Note: This post is from a talk I gave at MyConnectIn networking event on 29th April 2013.

I've been working on websites on and off for the last 17 years. I've worked with a huge range of clients and been commissioned to provide web design services in good ways -but also in shockingly bad ways.

These 6 key considerations are gleaned from that experience to help you when you come to commission a website, redesign your site, look to develop an app or other design project.

1) Do you know what you want?

Why do you want a website? In the old days -the early days of the web, many of my clients wanted websites simply because their competitors recently had one developed. Some of them had little concern as to what went on it so they often passed on their latest brochure and said -'turn that into a website'. This has been termed brochureware and thankfully is now mostly dead.

There are many good reasons you may want a website:

  • You may be going through a brand change and need your website to reflect this.
  • You may be using the website to kickstart a brand change
  • You may need to make your site mobile compatible as you've just realised that a sizeable proportion of your visitors view your site on a smartphone.
  • You may feel you want a redesign as your site is a few years old

I've seen companies spend a lot on a complete re-design of their website when really the basis of what they had was good, they just needed some tweaks to make it more effective.

It’s like knocking down a building and rebuilding from scratch rather than knocking down one room and repurposing it whilst giving everywhere else a new lick of paint.

Let’s be honest. Sometimes you don't know what you want. You know a website -or an effective website, will help your business, provide an additional sales channel, provide a base for customer support, help to establish your brand etc, but you don't know the specifics of what you want to achieve -and you certainly don't have enough information to brief a supplier to provide an estimate.

If you're a business that has to provide three options for your tender process this sometimes can be a big waste of time IF the person managing the process doesn't understand much about commissioning websites.

Picture the scenario -and this is from real experiences that I've dealt with.

Robert in Organisation A wants to commission a website. His boss has told him, this is the budget. He then writes up a brief, as best he can, for what he thinks they are after. Robert calls his contacts and is given one web developer recommendation and then searches on the web for two other suppliers. He sends them the brief and chats it through with them individually.

Now those suppliers have vastly differing experiences. One is an SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) company, one is a freelance web designer and one is an IT company -but all three create websites.

Now Robert doesn't understand what SEO is but he's been given the contact from a colleague. The freelance web designer came up quite high on Google and is local, and the IT company also came up high on a Google search but also Robert has since heard that they work with another local firm he knows managing their computer network and their website.

Now its not that any of those suppliers cannot do a great job, but what Robert doesn't know is that each of them has a vastly different understanding of what an effective website is. The brief which Robert struggled to write -and he admits he doesn't completely know what he's doing, is going to be interpreted so differently its not a level playing field. Thus for all intents and purposes Roberts not-so-well crafted brief is a little bit pointless. If his only choice is based on the budget given to him by his boss, its rare that he will get an effective solution.

So what’s the way around this?

The gap in the middle is the brief. Understanding how to write a good design brief can be the difference in spending wisely and being dissatisfied with the end result. An ineffective website.

I've been working with some clients recently to fill in the gap in the middle. I'll give you one example.

My client was developing an app. They had a prototype developed so had already commissioned an app developer. But they hadn't done much thinking around their brand and the final design of the project. 

  • What were they going to call it?
  • What would the logo look like?
  • What personality and values did they have and want to portray?

They couldn't really commission the designer without answering these questions. Their designer -whom they wanted to use and was technically good, simply wasn't asking the right questions.

So the brief to that designer had to be solid. I worked with them providing 1/2 day’s consultancy helping them generate answers those questions. They came out having a much clearer idea of:

  • Who their target audience was
  • Several ways of how to communicate with that audience
  • What their values were as a brand
  • How they wanted to be perceived
  • What their tone of voice was and more

They then took that information and now had the confidence to write up a more effective brief to pass on to their designer.

So it’s vitally important to know what you want. Spending a little money at the beginning can make all the difference in commissioning effective projects giving you the confidence to know what you want.

2) Who is it really for?

This is the age of User Experience. Rather than building a website for yourself with information YOU want to pass on to potential visitors, you need to think about:

  • Who are these potential visitors?
  • What do THEY want to see?
  • What is going to be useful to them?
  • How can you help them?
  • Why would they want to come back to your site?

Make sure you're building a site for the users not for yourself.

An example of this in regard to feedback. I've had several clients of whom when I present my designs to them which are based on as much research of the target audience as their budget allows, they may say "Looks great, but I don't like that blue".

What's wrong with that feedback? -Why is that not useful feedback to a designer? The answer: because personal preference is irrelevant if the person is not in the target audience. It doesn’t matter if you are more inclined towards green than blue if you are not the target audience.

You need to know who the website is for.

I was working with a client recently. In the initial meeting with them I asked that question -who is the website for, and the client said, 'if my brother and my mother are happy with the site then you've done a good job'. That was an interesting way to put it but it perfectly summed up who his target audience was -as he obviously went on to tell me a little bit about them. I knew to whom I was designing for.

3) Where will you website be viewed?

Long gone are the days when we knew pretty accurately they type of computer, the size of monitor and even the web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome etc) that the users would be viewing your site on.

Now we have desktops, laptops, tablets, mobile devices and large screen Internet connected TV's, all fully capable of showing a website.

This is important not only that your designer is fully up to speed on this area (known as responsive design -as the design responds and changes to fit any device screen size), but also for understanding the way content -both text and images are affected by this.

In a recent talk, Dave Birss - Author of “A user guide to the creative mind” and former creative director at some of the top creative agencies, challenged us to look at ‘moments’. These are the specific times when a user would be visiting your website. What are they doing? Where are they? What situation are they in? Knowing answers to these questions can help your site to be designed to engage much more with users.

For example, a common thought for mobile phone usage was that the user would be out and about surfing on the 3G cellular network whilst viewing sites. The statistics however show most mobile site viewing is carried out in the home with Wi-Fi. Often sitting on the sofa. This is a different kind of moment. Some people are known to surf whilst sitting on the toilet! Its abhorrent to me, but each to their own!

Knowing where and what your visitors are doing when they are likely to visit your website will give a different perspective of user needs.


4) How much is your budget? Think now. Think on going.

Have you heard of a mexican standoff? Its when you have two opponents pointing guns at each other and who's going to flinch first. Who will pull the trigger? So you have this merry dance until something is done.

That’s what it can be like with this question of what's your budget. The client doesn't want to say how much they've got in case the supplier would have charged much less. Where as the designer needs to know the budget or at least a ballpark otherwise how are they going to know how much time to allocate to the project and thus how much to charge?

I rarely work with clients without having an indication of budget these days. Its a waste of time for all concerned.

One example -of many I could give of this is several years ago I was contacted by a dentist to quote for their new site. Now dentists site can be quite clinical (-pun intended). Very cold and lacking some personality. This dentist had some very good ideas that would make his site the opposite of this so it was just the kind of project I wanted to take on.

In those days, I didn’t push the client on budget. So we had a quick phone call and then set up a meeting. We went through various ideas and a few days later I sent off my proposal. I followed it up with a phone call, but no response. I emailed a week later and followed up with another call and still didn’t hear anything. It was months later that I eventually did hear from him –I think he answered my call, and told me it was significantly higher than he was expecting. It actually put him off having a site developed which was a shame as the ideas were great.

If I know what ballpark the client is in when it comes to budget, it makes things so much easier. So always have a budget in mind. Any web designer worth their salt will be happy to give guide costs of previous projects they have worked on so you get an idea before you follow up with an initial meeting.

Additionally as we’re talking about budget, never ask ‘How much does a website cost?’. Its another one of those pointless questions. Why? Well, imagine going to a garage and asking how much a car costs. You’ll probably get some strange looks. Possibly the first question you get back as an answer is ‘What’s your budget?’ Without that the garage owner has no idea whether you want a Fiat Punto or a C-Class Mercedes. They come in at very different price brackets!


5) How will you generate content?

Another key consideration is the quality of content. Please don’t make the mistake I often see people make -especially in small businesses. That of writing content yourself. Now some clients are experienced in this and can do a great job. Most unfortunately aren't.

Knowing your subject is not the same as being able to write about it. A good copywriter will be able to take bullet points off you or interview you and write up that content in a manner fitting for your target audience and your brand personality.

If you want to come across as bright, fun and lively you don’t want content that is dour, drab and dull.

There needs to be consistency with your brand for it to be able to connect and continuously engage with your visitors. Make sure you don’t think of writing content yourself as a cost saving method as you may well be loosing visitors due to its poor quality.


6) Who's monitoring progress and performance?

With every site I build I integrate the free Google Analytics tools. This means that you can get a monthly report back covering key metrics of your site performance.

This covers everything from how many visitors you have each month, length of time each user spent on your site, where they are located, how many ‘bounced’ (went to your site and jumped off straight away), what search terms the visitor typed in to Google to get to your site –and many, many more statistics than you possibly know what to do with.

Now whilst this is great, it can be baffling to most people. For all my clients that I work with on a monthly basis, I provide a very short –i.e. a few paragraphs that go alongside the fuller Google analytics report, that highlights key stats that matter to YOUR website at the current time, and a series of recommendations to improve the site over the next month.

I find this helps my clients much more than a lot of confusing statistics.

Summary

So in summary, if you are looking to commission a website in the near future, whether a new site or a redesign of your existing site, make sure you know what you want and have an effective brief to communicate it. Make sure you know who its for and you know the context of where it will be used. That you know your budget having done your research. Make sure you know who's responsible for generating content –that you get a good copywriter. And finally make sure you keep monitoring how your site is performing.

I hope this helps you in making sure your next website is effective in fulfilling whatever your specific goals are for it.

Over to you…

Have you commissioned a website recently? How was the process for you? Let me know in the comments or by emailing me at richard (at) rmlalchan.co.uk.