Launching a Web site is exciting—especially if you've decided on a custom-built site from a professional designer. You're going for the high-end solution compared with your other options, so you want to make sure you're getting your money's worth. No matter how knowledgeable you are about Web design and development, there are steps you can take to protect yourself during the transaction and help ensure your new Web site meets your high expectations.
Find a Designer with a Style that Matches Your Business Identity
Just because your friend's brother is a Web designer doesn't mean he's the man for the job. You've created an identity and color palette that represents your business and communicates your values. Look for a designer who has worked in a similar style to your business.
Creating a seamless brand identity for your business is important because the Web is a visual medium. People make quick judgments when they land on a Web site about whether they've reached a site that can fulfill their needs. If your visual cues aren't in sync with your products and services, many visitors will click away without reading a word.
A designer whose style matches your brand will naturally produce a more polished product than one stretching his or her skills to a new style for the first time. Take a look at each designer's portfolio to find the ones that best match your business as the first step in identifying a pool of qualified applicants for your job.
Find out if Each Designer has the Ability to Develop Your Site
There are two sides of a Web site: the front end design and the back end code. Most Web designers are experienced enough to do simple HTML coding for their designs. But you need to ask yourself (or the designers if you're not sure) if simple HTML is enough functionality for the Web site you want.
If you're looking to do something that needs a content management system (CMS), Flash, Java, PHP, etc., you'll need to find a Web designer who has the ability to work with that functionality, or you'll need to find another developer to complete that programming after your designer has designed the interface. This can be an added cost to your project, so you'll want to know what, if any, special expertise and additional help is needed to complete your site before you make a commitment to a Web designer.
Get Referrals or Check References
Now that you have a pool of applicants with the ability to handle your design and functionality, it's time to dig into their past. One of the best ways to make sure any independent contractor is reliable is to get a referral from a trusted source. It's even better if that person has used the designer's services and can vouch for reliability, skill level and ability to stay within budget.
Unfortunately, you're more likely to be on your own when it comes to evaluating the designer. The good news is that you have some tools at your disposal. First, ask each designer for references—and call them. Next, you can look them up on the Better Business Bureau Web site. And finally, do a regular Internet search for the designer's name or business name. There may be independent reviews posted on different Web sites. People are even more likely to write if they're unsatisfied, so there's a chance you'll uncover problems if there are any.
If all of those methods fail to turn up any information, the best you can do is conduct an interview and trust your gut.
Do Not Pay for the Whole Project Up Front
Any designer asking for payment in full before the project even starts can be crossed off your list without hesitation. Standard business practices for working with contractors of any kind are to pay a deposit to cover initial costs and give you a steak in the final outcome of the project. Often there will be a second payment when the project is 50 percent completed and final payment upon full satisfactory completion. This method of payment protects the contractor and you from total loss if one of the parties defaults on the contract.
Designers asking for full payment up front may be legitimate but unaware of standard practices. Or they may be attempting to take your money and never deliver the final product. Either way, it's not worth taking the chance.
Ask for a Quote, Not an Estimate
It's difficult for Web designers to give an exact price list because no two projects are the same. Each customer has different needs, so they rarely do the same project twice. Much like other independent contractors, they use estimates and quotes to let their customers know how much they'll pay.
An estimate is just what it sounds like—an estimate of the costs. It's a ballpark figure, so your actual costs are likely to be higher or lower than that number. An estimate gives the contractor room to adjust the price if the project becomes more complex or takes longer than expected.
A better indicator of your actual costs is a quote. Once a designer gives you a quote for a project, they're agreeing to complete the project at that price. Period. They eat the cost if something unexpected happens and the project runs over budget. To get a fair quote, all of the fixed and variable costs of the project need be mapped out before the quote is given. A quote helps you stay within budget and makes it less likely you'll run out of money in the middle of a project.
Create a Detailed Project Plan with Your Designer
When you're satisfied you've identified the best designer for your Web site it's time to get it all in writing. Sit down with your designer and create a detailed project plan that includes the scope of the project and every detail you've discussed. Put it all on a time line and set payment dates.
It's important to be very specific with your project plan. Try to uncover any assumptions you have about the final product that have not been spelled out. Every person can interpret the same information differently, so it's important for you to be very clear about what you want. Provide similar examples if necessary. You'll save time and ultimately be happier with the final product if your designer knows exactly what you want.
Whether you're launching your first Web site with a custom design or upgrading, it's worth taking the time to do your research and spell everything out before the work begins. It's a big investment in your business and likely to bring in a big return if it's done right.