For 13 years, I ran my own business building websites.
I'm not a brilliant website designer by any standards; I didn't go to University and I've never had a degree in Computer Science, Graphic Design or Programming.
However, my website design venture did well. In 13 years, I created two website design agencies (the first one didn't survive my first fumbling attempts at running a business but the second is still operating profitably).
During those 13 years, I worked on more than 100 website projects for businesses ranging from startups and one-man-bands to large businesses and universities.
The reason my business did well is that the majority of websites I built for my clients turned out to be successful. In other words, they did whatever it was they were supposed to do; raise money, generate enquiries, sell stuff to people online and so on.
In short, they worked.
This wasn't just a happy coincidence. I learned very early on in my venture that there are two things that always make the difference between a successful website and one that was doomed to failure (or, at the very least, mediocrity).
The first is that, for a website to be a success, the design and build must be preceded by a thorough, exhaustive period of planning.
“Strategic planning will help you uncover your available options, set priorities for them, and define the methods to achieve them.”
You see, 80% of what has to happen to ensure your website is a success, has to happen long before you speak to a web designer.
It should happen long before a single line of code is written. It should happen before you start looking at design concepts or mockups. And it should definitely happen before anyone decides what programming language or platform your website will live on.
By contrast, unsuccessful websites are never properly planned. And unplanned websites are never successful. Sites that are thrown together with the fervent hope (and unrealistic expectation) that once built, the sales or enquiries or subscribers or donations would just magically come flooding in just do not work.
Why? Because successful websites don't happen by accident.
The right person for the job
The second difference was that, whenever any work is done on a successful website, it is done by someone skilled at doing that job.
So, designs are created by a qualified designer, code is produced by an experienced programmer, copy is written by a skilled copywriter and SEO campaigns are executed by a seasoned SEO practitioner.
Because a successful website cannot be built by one person.
No one person has all the skills that are required to make a website successful. (Contrary to popular belief, even Facebook required the skills of another programmer, a marketer and a graphic artist to join forces with Mark Zuckerberg before it could successfully expand beyond the walls of Harvard University.
The skilled people required for any successful website are:
- Designer - creates the visual look and feel of the website and the various elements that make up the pages.
- Developer - writes the code that makes the website work. Although very few websites these days are completely coded by hand, developers still have a role to play as most systems, platforms or frameworks require some coding customization to achieve the desired results.
- Content Creator - writes the copy that appears on the pages of your website. This is the very least that they should do. They should actually do a lot more such as play a key role in creating content strategy and defining content standards. Sadly, they often don't.
- Project Manager - responsible for overseeing and coordinating all activity and, in short, making sure that the website gets built; on time, as agreed and, ideally, within budget.
These are the 'baseline' skills, common to every website project. Depending on how competitive your industry is, how discerning your clients are and what you want your website to actually do (functionality), you may also need:
- Usability / User Experience expert - understands how your clients and prospects think; how they search for solutions to their problems, how they will find your site, how they will use it, what will put them off and what will encourage them to sign up, buy, enquire, join or follow. Responsible for designing page layouts and the navigation from page to page of your site to make it as easy as possible for people to sign up, buy, enquire or whatever it is you want them to do.
- Sales copywriter - writes the words for the sales pages of your website in a way that is compelling and persuasive without being pushy or salesy.
- Digital marketer - understands how to market your products and services online. This should really be split into several different roles; SEO, content marketing, email, online advertising, link-building, social media and so on. Each requires specialist knowledge.
- Website tester - responsible for testing every aspect of your website. This is about more than checking spelling and making sure that every page loads. Different browsers will display your website differently. Sometimes the differences are subtle; a font may be slightly larger or smaller. Sometimes the differences are profound; older browsers may not be able to show the beautiful animations that work so well on your phone or your smart new Mac.
This list is not exhaustive. There are many more skills required, depending on the complexity of your website.
The point is that the likelihood of one person having all the skills - and the time - to create a successful website single-handedly is low.
Only the largest agencies employ people in every one of the roles I've outlined above. But there is one crucial role that would still be missing: the role that relates to the first thing that makes the difference between a successful website and an unsuccessful one... planning!
If you don't plan your website, who will?
Agencies don't employ people to help you plan and strategise your website, or your entire web presence, in the context of your organisational goals and objectives. They do not have people on their staff who will come into your business and spend time with you and your team to understand:
- you, your clients and your marketplace,
- your products and services and
- your organisational goals and objectives and the role your website needs to play
That's not to say that agencies don't help their clients plan their websites. Nearly every agency does some form of planning as the first step in their process.
But agency planning is about the layout, structure, content and composition of the websites they build. When planning, their objective is to reach an agreement with you (usually in writing!) on exactly what they have to deliver to get paid.
After all, they are in business to produce websites. That's the job you hire them to do. The problem is that their needs may conflict with yours.
Let me illustrate: We were approached by the University of Nottingham to quote for the design and creation of a website for an EU-funded programme. We were pitched against another, larger agency but we still won the job.
Our competitor always built websites with WordPress. WordPress is a great, successful and versatile platform.
But, on this occasion, WordPress couldn't do everything that the University needed.
The website's central purpose was to accept applications from potential PhD candidates who were applying for the programme. This was a complex process that required functionality that wasn't readily available in WordPress.
But, because WordPress was what they knew and what they did, that is what our competitor needed to offer as their solution. Even though it wasn't actually what the University needed.
Our competitor's proposal was to customise WordPress to provide the required functionality. But this meant that cost of their solution would exceed the University's budget.
So, either the university couldn't have the functionality they needed or some other aspect of the website would have to be forsaken. Or they would need more budget.
We took a different approach: we evaluated several platforms (including WordPress) and discovered that a competing platform already had the type of functionality that the University needed.
We realised that, if we used the competing platform, we could deliver the entire site within the allocated budget.
We won the job and the University were thrilled with the result.
“When the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”
Our competitor's needs conflicted with those of the University. Because of a limited budget, the University needed a platform that would do what they wanted out of the box. But our competitor needed that platform to be WordPress, whether it was the most suitable platform or not.
Had we also been a bigger agency who had committed ourselves to a particular approach and set of skills, we may well have needed to offer the platform to which we had committed our skills, resources and staff.
Our competitor was - and still is - a great company. WordPress was and is a great platform. But because they were committed to a particular platform. They were committed to particular approaches.
It's the same with every aspect of web agency services:
- Designers prefer certain styles, certain aesthetics, certain layouts. Great design is subjective and all designers have their own style and approach.
- Developers have their preferred methodologies, tools, procedures and programming languages; usually, languages in which they're faster, more capable and better able to code.
- Content creators have their own natural style of writing and presenting information.
And those styles and approaches will always colour and inform the lenses through which the agency looks at everything that they do for you.
This is why agencies won't help you plan your web presence and digital marketing strategy.
Think about it: why would an agency help you plan your website if one possible outcome is that you decide you don't need or want their core services?
If you decide that you want your website on a platform that they don't work with?
Or a style of design that they're not familiar with, in a programming language they can't code in or with a copy style that's alien to their copywriters?
If you did hire an agency to help you plan your entire strategy, their advice and recommendations, even with the best of intentions, will always be informed by their skillset, by the platforms and languages that they use and by the approach to copywriting and design that they are most familiar with.
And if those things are not the best fit for meeting your needs, then you are not going to get the best possible website, at the lowest possible price, within the timescales you need it, with the robustness and support you require.
How do you find the best approach
The problem is, how do you know what is the best approach for your website and therefore by extension, your organisation?
You had probably already heard of WordPress before reading this article but did you know that there are more than 1,300 similar website platforms available? Some of them are better than WordPress for certain types of website and certain types of organisation.
Do you know which one would be the most suitable for your site?
Or, you may already know that all websites need to be "hosted". But do you know the differences between a dedicated server and shared hosting? Do you know the difference between Windows hosting and Linux hosting? Do you know which is best for your website? Do you know the advantages and implications of hosting your website in Europe, the USA or the cloud, as opposed to hosting in the UK?
Do you know if you need an SSL certificate? And if you do, do you know if you need a DV, an OV or an EV certificate?
Should your email be hosted on a separate server or the same server as your website? Do you know how to make sure your site is secure from hackers?
Do you know what sort of page and menu layout will work best for your visitors? Or what colours, fonts and images to use? Or which pages should be listed in the main menu and how the site navigation should be organised?
These are just some of the factors that need to be planned and thought through. Because these factors will affect how successful your website will be: how well it will rank in Google, how easily people can use it, whether they like it or not and, ultimately, whether they will buy, enquire, become or remain a customer.
The challenge is that most of these are probably outside your sphere of experience and knowledge but, as discussed above, hiring an agency to make those decisions for you is not the best solution: if that agency only has a hammer then they are going to treat your website as a nail.
“If you don't have a plan, you become part of somebody else's plan.”
What's the solution?
As more and more of our daily lives and the way we do business moves online, your web presence becomes an increasingly important asset for your organisation.
This means that, when facing a website redesign, it is essential that you have someone in place who is responsible for overseeing the entire project. This is the person with whom the buck stops.
It doesn't matter whether they are an internal member of staff or an independent consultant external to your business. What's important is:
- that this person has the breadth and depth of knowledge to be able to oversee and manage the entire project without being bamboozled or getting confused about the myriad of decisions that need to be made and
- their sole interest is in ensuring that you are getting the best possible solution for your website project
I call this person a Digital Strategist. Your Digital Strategist should be involved from before day one of the project. I am often now the first person that my clients consult about website redesigns but also about SEO, Adwords or any other form of digital marketing as well as virtually every other aspect of their web presence.
I coach, guide and counsel clients to create the right strategy not just for website redesign projects but also for digital marketing and ongoing website development, management and growth.
I put together briefs and proposals designed to attract the very best designers, developers, content creators and agencies but also at the best prices.
This is easier than it may sound because, perhaps counter-intuitively, the best web talent love to work with clients who know what they want. Clients with detailed plans, viable strategies and precise briefs in place.
Why? Because clients who don't know what they want are expensive and difficult to work with. They change their minds frequently and often don't want to pay extra for changes.
Conversely, clients who have a plan and are following it are a delight to work with. All they have to do is deliver exactly what is specified to get paid.
If required, I also help find, interview, select and manage all the suppliers and contractors needed to make the project a success, working with the budgets set by my clients.
In short, I often manage entire website redesign projects from start to completion and I ensure that my clients get the website they want on time, in budget and as needed.
A website project schedule that works
A typical project schedule looks like this:
Analyse Needs: Identify why the site redesign is needed and the purpose. Determine how the site will support your organisational goals. Planning at this level helps to define the scope of the project.
Key elements during this phase include:
- target audience,
- online identity and
- customer journey
Collect Requirements: Based on the goals, gather, analyse, document and evaluate the site requirements. Identify the features and functionality needed so the site will meet its purpose. Planning upfront allows for different management, development and implementation strategies to be considered before resources are expended.
The key element of this phase is to take the time to discover the possibilities and challenges of the project and to get all of the client stakeholders to agree and align on how the website can be leveraged as a real business asset. This saves time: crucial conversations build a knowledge base and efficiencies for design and development resources.
Set Content Strategy: Too many website design projects focus disproportionately on visual design and functionality over content. Yet websites are primarily a vehicle for delivering content to your desired audience. Thinking about content at the earliest opportunity steers the project to appropriate design decisions which will deliver a better website.
Request Quotes, Interview, Evaluate and Select Vendors: Great clients get great vendors. Create:
- Specifications Document
- Request For Proposal
Submit these documents to multiple vendors, evaluate all responses, select vendors to interview, negotiate on pricing, terms and deliverables. Select winning vendor(s).
Site Design: Based on the requirements, design the interfaces, workflow, interaction, information architecture and various features that need to be developed. Identify how the requirements will be delivered to the user. Planning the design before development starts give the development team the opportunity to choose the appropriate tools, platform, code to make the design possible.
Key elements covered during this phase include:
- user testing,
- CRO implementation and
- responsive design
Site Development: Work with the developers to evaluate technologies needed to support the requirements and design. Decide where requirements and design can and should be changed to accommodate project management constraints. Test results to ensure they meet requirements and design expectations.
Site Launch: Participate in or coordinate the transition from development to launch. Organise resources from the requirements, design and development phases to ensure the site is populated with the appropriate content. Manage the changes that the site will introduce to the organisation including any training required. Provide support where needed as the team prepares to launch the site. Prepare and launch marketing campaigns.
Site Maintenance and Marketing: After any website is launched, it needs to be maintained. Depending on the site's purpose, plans need to be developed and executed so that services are provided, content is maintained and updated, the technology is maintained and performance is managed.
For efficiency, many of these phases run concurrently. The most important point to note is all that has to happen before speaking to potential website design agencies: analysing exactly what you need, collecting all the site requirements and setting the content strategy.
Each of these steps takes careful planning and can take considerable time but the payoff is worth it.
For example, collecting the site requirements should involve all relevant stakeholders in the organisation. Far too many website projects have been derailed because of last minute changes or requirements from a C-Level Executive who was not involved in the planning process.
Similarly, planning the content strategy early on in the process ensures that:
- late content won't delay the website launch,
- the site won't be over-designed and be unsustainable virtually immediately after launch and
- carefully designed templates fail to provide the flexibility for future content
Put the work in upfront, plan effectively, get all your ducks in a row and, above all, make sure that your website designer is the last person you speak to about your new website. Literally.