\ Becoming Clueful: What You Should Know <b>Before</b> You Redo Your Web Site
Business Issues: Page (3) of 5 - 07/27/06

Becoming Clueful: What You Should Know Before You Redo Your Web Site

Five tips on what businesses should expect from their web designers and developers


A Web Site Has Several Pieces. Don't Cut Corners.
There are phases in the development of any web site, no matter its size, and you shouldn't skimp on any of them.

Explains Margie Matteson at Marisa Design, "Following the information gathering, where client input is critical, there is the design phase, followed by the development phase, with client approvals at every milestone. At some point, content must be written, either by the client or by a copy writer, and incorporated into the site. For complex sites with extra features, a specialized developer might be needed. Other sites will need the services of a search engine specialist or an internet marketing specialist." Sometimes you can get the skills at the level you need from a single provider, but experts in various areas can work together. Matteson is a  member of the Women Designers Group; she says, "I network with over 200 other women who have widely ranging levels of expertise in these areas and more."

You should understand the distinction between the various pieces of a site. You don't have to be an expert on each of these, but it will help your blood pressure (not to mention the ability to get the site of your dreams) if you recognize the difference between the site content (that is, the words and images), the management of that content (the tools that manage how information is updated and added), the site infrastructure (which encompasses everything from the hardware and operating system of your server to the quality of its connection to the Internet) -- and so on.


Understanding the basic distinctions can help you get the right sort of help, later on. "Customers don't discern between the roles an ISP/webhost, designer, and webmaster provide," complains Karl Moeller, a network consultant in Tucson. "They glaze over when I try to explain, and subsequently inevitably confuse the respective duties... holding the webhost responsible for making changes to the site... grousing at the designer when the site is unavailable, etc."

Each of those components has its own requirements and limitations, some of which you won't necessarily be aware of -- but the web designer should. One example is accessibility: making the site readable by any user. Kyle Lamson, an Accessible Web Designer in Michigan, says, "Not everyone uses [Microsoft Internet Explorer], is 20 [years old] and has 20/20 vision. Visitors may be color blind, blind, dyslexic, epileptic, have cognitive problems, poor reading skills, poor concetration. They may use IE, Firefox, Opera, Kongueror, Safari... screen readers, text browsers, cell phones, webTV, PDAs or even portable game pads and, in the not so far future, their refrigerator to order food online. Accessibility should be a must." Some of these requirements and limitations are in the hands of the web developer; there's no certification for acceptability in standards, for example, so don't go demanding it.

Don't try to undercut the value of each part of the design process. "For some reason, many people have a hard time seeing the value of well-written content -- unless they come from a marketing background -- and it's often a hard sell," says Nancy Riccio, director of Plateau MediaWorks in Flagstaff, Arizona. "Unfortunately, even many high-end sites lose credibility because they're full of heinous grammatical errors and ineffective copy."

While a designer and copywriter may help you develop the site's content, ultimately your company is responsible for developing it. "I've had clients who assumed that creating their logo would be included with the web-dev part of the project," one person complains. "Web development is just that... unless specifically stated, it does not include a logo. Plus, if you expect me to find pictures, expect me to charge you for them, since I will likely be charged for them as well."

Defining who will create or supply which piece of content for the site is an important part of your negotiation process. Often, it's your company providing the words and images (who else has your logos? your approved marketing copy?), but clients sometimes expect the Web designer or developer to magically develop content for them, says one, "even though I tell them the next milestone in the project is for them to give me the text and images for the pages. I tell clients they know their company or organization, while I have only just met them, and have many other companies I deal with.  So they must write and get photos (or pay me to take or buy them) and be involved in that process to make their web site their own."

As the client, don't let yourself get sidetracked by the tools. Let the professional use what he or she feels is appropriate. As Lamson points out, "Owning a copy of Dreamweaver and letting it write the code does not make a person a Web Designer. Dreamweaver does not guarantee a good site; it is just a tool and is as lousy as the person using it."

Dave Hecker is the Managing Director of Sagewing Corporation, a web development firm in Santa Monica, CA. He adds, "Clients think that their $250k investment in development tools will make things easier, but really it just makes their team work better. There isn't anything that can make software development easy, and for $250k what you really get is a way to avoid painful iterations, quality problems, or missed objectives."

Balance Glitz and Guts
One common issue -- particularly when it's the marketing department commisioning the Web site -- is the desire to design a site for visual appeal rather than usability.

Debbie Campbell, owner of Parallax Web Design LLC in Colorado, says, "Web sites don't need to be over-the-top to get results. Some clients will ask for lots of animation and cool graphics. They want a splash page built in Flash, and Javascript rollover images for menu items. They don't understand that (a) these things can turn off visitors who don't have a fast Internet connection or up-to-date browsers or extensions; (b) these things eat up bandwidth; (c) these things make a web site much less visible to search engines. In short, they rarely help, and often hurt, the majority of business web sites."

Successful sites balance the flashy stuff with useful, accessible content, optimized for the expected audience. Bill Austin, Chief Technology Officer at the Arizona High Tech Talent Partnership, explains at some length:

At the extreme ends of the web design continuum there are two kinds of web sites. Neither of them "work" in the way most companies want their web sites to work.
 
On one end is the highly graphical, flashy, content poor web site with dancing babies and moving pictures and unbelievable poor navigational design. On the other extreme is the site with no graphics, 50 words of black text per page on a white background, loads of content, and text link navigation.
 
The graphical site will sell products all day long -- if anyone gets to it. But no one will ever visit that site unless you send them there, one at a time, using other promotional mechanisms (such as TV, radio, print, direct mail, pens, cups, hats, blimps, billboards).
 
On the other hand, the simple text site will get hundreds, thousands, or millions of visitors who arrive there after searching for your product or service. Unfortunately, none of them will buy anything, contact you, or provide their contact information.
 
You have to shoot for a mix between the site which sells but gets no visitors, and the site which gets lots of visitors and does not compel action.
 
In general, though, you should not assume that your site will (or should) be heavy on graphical elements. As Lamson points out, Flash can easily make your site useless to large numbers of possible customers. "Use it smartly," he advises. "The 'look' is not as important on the web as in print. The web is about logic and structure. The structure should be defined by the content, not the look.... The 'look' is important but only to support the content... not to control the content."
Related Keywords:web design, application development, graphics, flash, usability, web development, outsourcing, content management, Internet, business process, workflow

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